The scene in which the plot of this little historical novel is laid is Shushan (Susa),
the period represented is that of Xerxes i (485-465 BC).
During a great feast given by Xerxes
the royal command went forth that the queen Vashti should appear before the king
in order that he might show
"the peoples and the princes her beauty,
for she was fair to look on."
But Vashti refused to come;
whereupon the king was filled with wrath, and took counsel among his wise men,
"What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law,
because she hath not done the bidding of the king ...?"
On the advice of Memucan, one of the seven princes of Persia and Media, "which
saw the king's face", it was decreed that Vashti should no more enter
into the royal presence (i.1-22).
After four years the king determined to take to himself another queen,
and the royal ministers sought out the fairest maid that could be found (ii.1-4).
[SUSA - About 200 miles east of Babylon.
Xenophon, Cyropaedia VIII.vi.22, says:
"But Cyrus himself always lived at the centre of his dominions,
seven months in Babylon during the winter season, where the land is warm and sunny,
three months at Susa in the spring,
and during the height of summer at Ecbatana,
so that for him it was spring-time all the year."
The precedent set by Cyrus was apparently followed by his successors.]
Now there was a certain Jew living in Shushan named Mordecai, of the house
he had brought up a young kinswoman whose name was "Hadassah, that is Esther", who was very beautiful.
This maiden, in company with many another, was brought to the palace.
In due time her turn came to appear in the royal presence,
but when the king saw her he loved her above all the maidens,
and set the royal crown upon her head,
and made her queen in place of Vashti.
But Mordecai "sat in the king's gate" (ii.5-20).
Now it fell on a day, as Mordecai sat in the king's gate, that he learned
of an attempt to be made on the king's life;
this he reported to Esther, who informed the king.
Thereupon the conspirators were taken, and hanged.
The matter was written in the book of the chronicles in the king's presence (ii.21-23)
Another character is now brought upon the scene in the person of Haman, an
Agagite, i.e. an Amalekite (i Sam.xv.20).
For some reason, which is not indicated, the king promoted Haman "above all the princes that were with him";
and by the royal command he was honoured by "all the king's servants that were in the king's gate."
All, therefore, bowed down before Haman;
but there was one exception;
Mordecai, as a faithful Jew, refused.
This greatly angered Haman.
And, to avenge himself, he determined to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom.
"in the first month, which is the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur,
that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, which is the month Adar".
Thus, when the propitious day came Haman approached the king, and made his
accusation against the Jews, i.e. that they had laws of their own different
from all others, and that they did not observe the king's laws.
His request that all the Jews should be destroyed was granted, and a decree was put forth accordingly (iii.1-15).
When this came to Mordecai's ears he grieved very deeply;
Esther heard of his grief, and sought to know the cause;
then Mordecai sent messengers, beseeching her to intercede for her people before the king (iv.1-17).
So Esther invited the king and Haman to a banquet;
and at the banquet the king bade Esther make her request;
but in reply she begged the king to come to another banquet on the morrow, accompanied by Haman.
And Haman boasted to his wife, Zeresh, of the honour done him by the queen, and of his wealth and high estate.
"all this availeth me nothing,
so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate";
for it rankled in the heart of Haman that Mordecai refused to bow down before
But his wife counselled him to have a gallows made, fifty cubits high, on which to hang Mordecai.
Haman thought well of this advice, and acted accordingly (v.1-14)
Now it happened in that same night that sleep fled from the king.
So he caused the book of the records of the kingdom to be read to him.
And when it was brought to his memory how that Mordecai had denounced the two conspirators and saved the king's life, he asked what reward Mordecai had received.
And when it was told the king that nothing had been done for him, the king called for Haman and commanded him to honour Mordecai in royal fashion (vi.1-14)
On the next day, during Esther's second banquet, the king again invited her
to make her request;
then she prayed the king that she and all her people against whom Haman was plotting might be spared.
The king, understanding the cause of Haman's design, was filled with wrath, and commanded him to be hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai;
and Haman was hanged forthwith;
then was the king's wrath pacified (vii.1-10).
Thereupon Mordecai was greatly honoured and rewarded;
and, at Esther's request, the king's decree against the Jews was reversed,
and permission was given to them to punish their enemies.
"the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword,
and with slaughter and destruction,
and did what they would unto them that hated them."
At Esther's further request the ten sons of Haman were hanged,
and another massacre of the enemies of the Jews took place in Shushan;
moreover, the Jews that were in the king's provinces
"slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand."
This was done
"on the thirteenth day of the month Adar (approximately March);
and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested and made it a day of feasting and gladness".
And it is added:
"Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the unwalled towns,
make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting,
and a good day, and of sending portions one to another"
Here it would seem - and this is the opinion of some scholars - the book ended
But in what follows (xi.20-32) it is added that the Jews were commanded to keep the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month Adar yearly, i.e. the fourteenth day in the villages and the fifteenth in Shushan;
these were days "whereon they had rest from their enemies."
This, it is said, the Jews undertook to do,
"had devised against the Jews to destroy them,
and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to consume them. . . .
Wherefore they called these days Purim, after the Pur."
In the last chapter of the book, consisting of only three verses (x.1-3),
the attempt is made to give it the appearance of historical authority.
In phraseology imitated from that of i ii Kings it is said:
"And all the acts of his power ...
and the full account of the greatness of Mordecai,
whereunto the king advanced him,
are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?"
That this is not to be taken seriously becomes apparent as soon as the unhistorical character of the book is realized.
[For a good presentation of the subject, see Paton, A
Critical and exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther, pp.64-76
That there was originally a non-Jewish element in the story of Esther is shown
by the use of the word Pur,
which is translated into Hebrew by Goral, "lot" (iii.7),
and the word itself is Hebraized by adding the plural termination -im to it.
This became henceforth the name of a Jewish feast,
which has been celebrated annually ever since - Purim.
Much turns, therefore, on the word Pur.
And Zimmern seemed to have pointed to the home and original meaning of the
story in contending that Pur was equivalent to the Babylonian word Puhru, "assembly
(of the gods)", which, according to Babylonian mythology, was held at
the beginning of each year in the month Nisan (approximately April), and at
which lots were cast for the coming year.
[ZATW xi, pp.157-160 (1891).]
To this, however, Gunkel raises formidable objections;
Puhru means, truly enough, "assembly" - it also means "feast" -
but, as we have just seen, according to Esther iii.7 Pur means "lot".
In addition, the Babylonian New Year festival was observed at the beginning of Nisan, whereas the Jewish feast of Purim was held on the 14th and 15th days of Adar (ix.18), i.e. in the preceding month.
[Schopfung und Chaos in Urzait ind Endzeit, p.310 (1895);
see also Hochfeld ZATW x, pp.282 ff. (1902),
who shows that etymologically Puhru and Pur are not connected.]
What Pur really means has not yet been established.
More promising, therefore, is Jensen's theory as to the origin of the book.
He has shown that the name Haman is equivalent to Humba or Humban (= Humman), the chief of the Elamite gods, and that Vashti, or Washti, is the name of an Elamite goddess.
Zeresh, Haman's wife, he equates with the goddess Kirisha;
Mordecai with Marduk;
and Esther with Ishtar.
[It is also interesting to note that the relationship between Mordecai and Esther (cousins, according to ii.7) is the same as that between Marduk and Ishtar, according to one Babylonian tradition (Gunkel, Schopfung und Chaos, p.313.)]
Esther's other name, Hadassah, i.e. " the myrtle " ("wreathed")
is probably derived, according to Jensen, from the Babylonian hadashtu, "bride".
He, therefore, holds that a Babylonian myth lies behind the Esther story, and that the myth itself is the echo of an historical episode, namely, the liberation of Babylonia from the yoke of the Elamites, which happened about 2300BC.
[Zeitschrift fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes vi.47 ff., 209 ff.]
The myth will have come, through a Persian medium, inasmuch as there are a number of Persian traits in the story as we now have it. [See especially Siegfreid, Ezra, Nehemia und Esther, pp.137 ff. (1901).]
Jastrow agrees with Jensen, and holds that the Babylonian myth was
"transformed in such a manner by the Jewish author of the book of Esther as to make it the basis of an elaborate festal legend to justify the adoption of a 'foreign' festival into the Jewish calendar", adding that "the one link missing in the chain of evidence connecting Purim with the period of merry-making in honour of Marduk and Ishtar is evidence of a celebration in Babylonia or Persia in the middle of Adar - just before the New Year's season proper two weeks later."
[In Hastings' Enc. of Rel., and Ethics, x.505b, 506a. The Babylonian New Year festival was called the Sacraea, the Roman equivalent of which was the Saturnalia.]
Thus, the book of Esther affords an illustration of external influence on the Jews, inasmuch as they adapted a heathen festival to their own use. [See the interesting article of Krappe, "Solomon and Ashmondai," in The American Journal of Philology, liv. 3, pp.269 ff. (1933).]
In some measure we have a parallel to this in the festival of Hanukkah (see
i Macc.iv.52-59), which, as Rankin has shown, contains traces of elements from
the Dionysian and Apollo cults, which were taken over by the Jews and Judaized. [The
origins of the Festival of Hannukah, passim (1930).]
That our book must be later than the time of Ben-Sira (circa 200 BC.) is evident
from the fact that in the Hymn in Praise of the Fathers (Ecclus.xliv-xlix.)
no reference is made to it.
Some mention of Esther and Mordecai would assuredly have found a place there had the book been extant in his day.
It is in ii Macc.xv.36 (37) that the book is first mentioned (i.e. circa 50 BC. possibly a little earlier);
it is there said:
"And they all ordained with a common decree in no wise to let this day pass undistinguished, but to mark with honour the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (it is called Adar in the Syrian tongue), the day before the day of Mordecai"
(Πρὸ μιᾶς ἡμέρας τῆς Μαρδοχαικῆς ἡμέρας).
The reference here is to the day on which the Jews gained a striking victory
over the Syrian general Nikanor (161 BC.), so that the "day of Mordecai" was
the 14th of Adar.
In the parallel passage in the older book i Maccabees (circa 100 BC.) it is said that "Nikanor's day" was to be celebrated annually on the 13th Adar (vii.49), but there is no mention of "Mordecai's day".
Thus the feast of Purim had obtained an assured position in the calendar before the middle of the first century BC, and the book of Esther must be dated about a century earlier.
It is important to note that there is evidence of the existence of a Greek
version before the end of the second century BC.
As Swete points out:
"The footnote to the Greek Esther, which states that that book was brought to Egypt in the fourth year of 'Ptolemy and Cleopatra' ... may have been written with the purpose of giving Palestinian sanction to the Greek version of that book.
But it vouches for the fact that the version was in circulation before the end of the second century BC."
[Op. cit., p.25; see also Schurer, Geschichte des juduschen Volkes, iii.p.450 (1909).]
The Ptolemy mentioned must be the eighth of the name, "Lathyrus" (116-108/7BC);
he reigned with his mother Cleopatra.
[She drove him out of Egypt in 108-7BC, but he returned in 88BC and reigned for another eight years.]
On internal evidence we may suggest that the book assumed its present form in the earlier, stages of the Maccabaean revolt. Gunkel believes that it goes back to the early Greek period, and that it originated in the eastern Dispersion like the book of Tobit. [In Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (RGG), s.v. "Esther."]
He may be right as far as the earliest form of the story is concerned, but
as we now have it the book breathes a spirit of ruthless vindictiveness which
reflects the age of Antiochus Epiphanes better than any other in known Jewish
Owing doubtless to its very secular character there were strong protests against
Esther being included in the Canon;
it was only after prolonged controversy that this was ultimately acquiesced in.
It took its place, probably, because it gave an explanation of and formed the literary basis for the popular feast of Purim.
Even so, its position was not finally secured until about AD 120.
[Jewish tradition identified Ahaseurus with Artaxerxes
i, and so the book could be regarded as belonging to the "prophetic
period," see above, p.3. See further, Buhl, op. cit., pp.28 ff.,
Ryle, op. cit., pp.192 ff.]
Of the Hebrew text little need be said;
it has come down to us in as pure a form as any book of the Old Testament;
so that for the study of Esther the Septuagint is of but small importance.
From some other points of view, however, the Septuagint offers matter of considerable interest.
First, there is the fact that there are two recensions of the Greek text.
Most of the manuscripts contain the ordinary Septuagint text,
but a certain number have the Lucianic recension of this;
it is shorter than the Septuagint text itself, and conforms more to the Hebrew text.
Secondly, both forms of the Greek text have considerable additions:
"Of 270 verses, 107 are wanting in the present Hebrew text, and probably at no time formed a part of the Hebrew book.
The Greek additions are distributed through the book in contexts as long as average chapters."
[Swete, op.cit., p.257.]
These additions are
six in number. (Apart from the note at the conclusion of the book, see
With one exception they cannot be said to be of much importance.
The third (i.8-xiv.19 in the Apocrypha, "Additions to the Book of Esther") is, however, of interest;
it consists of prayers offered by Mordecai, Israel, and Esther, for deliverance from the danger overhanging them.
These prayers breathe a deep spirit of devotion and loyalty to God.
The object of the additions was to supply a religious note that is otherwise entirely lacking in the book.