Oxford Dictionary of the Bible
by W.R.F. Browning (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996)
Esther, book of - The seventeenth book of the OT in the traditional English order. Harem politics, antisemitism, and an audacious Jewish heroine combine to make this story from the later Persion period (early 4th cent. BCE) full of suspense as it unfolds. The beautiful Esther pleads successfully with King Ahasuerus, her husband, for her people and her adoptive father Mordecai against the wrath of Haman, who had suffered a supposed slight. The tables were neatly turned and it was Haman who was hanged (Esther 7:10).
There is no mention of God in this tale -- which is generally thought to be a legend designed to validate the feast of Purim in March. But in the LXX [Septuagint] there are additions to the book of Esther which give it and the festival associated with it a religious tone previously lacking. The reversal of fortunes which Esther secured, attributed to her beauty and her daring in the book, are described, in the Additions, to her piety. These Additions, written by several hands between the 2nd cent. BCE and the 1st cent. CE, are to be found in the Apocrypha in Protestant Bibles, but Roman Catholics have inserted them in the appropriate places within the text. To make it clear that those sections are not part of the Hebrew text, the Catholic NJB prints them in italics.
Young People's Bible Dictionary
by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)
Ester, The Book of. O.T. book. The name is taken from the main character of the book. The story was written probably in the third century B.C. to explain the origin of the feast of Purim. The setting of the story is the court of the Persian king in the fifth century. Esther, a Jewish woman, becomes queen and saves the Jews from being persecuted.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
Esther, the name both of the biblical book and of its heroine; it is derived from the Persian stara (‘star’) and has a prototype in the name of the Babylonian deity Ishtar. The book serves as a festal legend for Purim, the celebration of the deliverance of Jews of the eastern Diaspora from persecution. Some scholars suggest that the link between the story of Esther and Mordecai and Purim is secondary, the story serving to legitimize a popular festival that originated in Persian New Year celebrations. The book probably dates from the later Persian period (400-322 b.c.).
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
The Book of Esther
While sometimes criticized as harsh and vengeful, the story is nevertheless artfully told and rarely fails to delight, as the following outline suggests.
I. Introduction to the Persian court and king (chap. 1)
C. Vashti’s disobedience and banishment (1:12-22)
II. Esther becomes Ahasuerus’ queen (chap. 2)
D. Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king (2:19-23)
III. Elevation of Haman and his plans to destroy the Jews (chaps. 3-4)
C. Mordecai enlists the aid of Esther (4:1-17)
IV. Haman’s plot thwarted (5:1-8:2)
3. Mordecai assumes Haman’s office and estate (8:1-2)
V. The pogrom prevented (8:3-10:3)
In the story suspense is built and held, a series of delightful coincidences and juxtapositions climax a fateful night as the king cannot sleep, Mordecai’s past service is recalled, and the failure to reward him noted. Haman, coming to the court for permission to hang Mordecai, is asked to advise on how the king might reward ‘the man whom the king delights to honor.’ Haman fatally misreads the situation, and the tables turn on him.
The book is best described as a novella. Some suggest it is a ‘historical novella,’ but while a historical core is possible, the events cannot be verified, and the central figures of Esther, Mordecai, Haman, and Vashti have left no historical trace elsewhere. The novella is designed to entertain and show how humans act under certain circumstances. It is striking that God is not mentioned in Esther. The story unfolds on the human level and deals with typical human deeds. Yet it seems probable that an allusion to a divine design is found in Esther 4:14. Any theological tones in the story are muted, however, and do not transform it into a vehicle for an overt religious message.
Esther (whose Jewish name is Hadassah) first appears as a quite passive heroine, acted upon rather than actor and under the guidance of Mordecai. Yet once she resolves to appear unsummoned before the king (Esther 4:15-18), she becomes the primary instigator of action that leads to Haman’s fall and the Jews’ deliverance.
In time, additions were made to the book of Esther, which are found in the Apocrypha (Rest of Esther). They serve to enhance the drama of the story (Esther’s appearance unbidden before the king provokes first rage and then, as she swoons, compassion), to bring the book into line with forms of Jewish piety (Esther and Mordecai pray for divine aid and lament that they must violate certain practices involving diet and intercourse with pagans), to further villainize Haman (‘copies’ of the edicts are provided), and to underscore divine knowledge and control of events (Mordecai has a dream at the outset that predicts the course of events and realizes in the end that all happened as predicted).
The book’s place in the Jewish and Christian canons was challenged by some, even as late as Luther; others have been lavish in their praise of the book. Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish scholar, placed it just after the Torah in importance.
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer