This book is named after its principal character, Esther, the beautiful Jewish maiden whose vicissitudes at the court of Persia were instrumental in saving her people from extermination. In the Hebrew Bible the book is included in the third division, the Writings of Hagiographa, and is one of the “five scrolls” which are read at the Jewish festivals. The famous medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (1135–1204), asserted that when all the rest of the Old Testament canon would have passed away in the days of the coming of the Messiah, Esther and the Law would still remain.
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
Because Queen Vashti had refused Ahasuerus’ summons to display her beauty before “the peoples and the princes,” she was dethroned (1:1–22) and eventually displaced by Esther (2:1–18). In the meantime Esther’s cousin Mordecai discovered a conspiracy against the king, which event was recorded in the royal chronicles (2:19–23). Mordecai refused to bow down before Haman, and in his rage this pompous vizier decided to have all the Jews in Persia executed (3:1–15). Mordecai then persuaded Esther to intervene on behalf of the Jews and said: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14). Esther accepted the challenge: “If I perish, I perish” (4:16), and invited the king and Haman to a banquet (5:1–8). Mordecai still refused to rise or tremble before Haman, which caused Haman to plot Mordecai’s death on the gallows (5:9–14). During a sleepless night the king’s attention was drawn to the unrewarded service which Mordecai had rendered him (6:1–5), and Haman was unexpectedly forced to honor Mordecai (6:6–14). The denouement of the plot is reached when Esther disclosed Haman’s device to the king, with the result that Haman was hanged and Mordecai honored (7:1–8:2). Esther besought the king to avert the evil design of Haman, and by a second degree the Jews were permitted to defend themselves (8:3–17). This they did, and to commemorate their deliverance, the feast of Purim was instituted on the authority of letters sent out by Mordecai and Esther as an annual two-day festival (9:1–10:3).
The position of this book in criticism today concerns two main problems in regard to its historicity and significance, and a few lesser problems in connection with its authorship, date, unity, purpose, and the origin of the festival of Purim.
Opinion among critical scholars today can be boiled down to the following statements: The local color and the “historic setting” of the narrative cannot be denied, but this “does not necessarily prove that the incidents related actually occurred” (Pfeiffer). It becomes a question of weighing the balance, and in this connection a few things must be clearly understood: firstly, the historic data are insufficient to warrant dogmatic conclusions either way; secondly, the onus to prove the validity of the conclusion rests with them who questioned the explicit purport of the book; and, thirdly, the attitude towards the Bible as Word of God will inevitably have a bearing upon the conclusions to which we may arrive.
Critical scholars are agreed that the book of Esther purports to be the recital of actual events. They cannot deny the “fairly accurate knowledge which the author possessed about Persian royal palaces, and about Persian manners and customs.” In his book Le Musée du Louvre et la Bible, the well-known André Parrot attests that the excavations at Susa, in spite of the unscientific methods applied by the expedition of Morgan, confirms the description given in this book! In weighing these data conservative scholars are inclined to second the opinion of Wick Broomall that the book of Esther “is history—plain and simple; names, places, dates, and customs are all related on the historical level. Unless we begin with this premise, the story will have little meaning for us” (The Biblical Expositor, p. 396). Critical scholars, on the other hand, refer to these data as “the only support” for the conservative point of view, not because they deem them unconvincing in themselves but on account of the paramount weight they attach to the other scale of the balance, consisting in “chronological inaccuracies, exaggerations, strange coincidences, inconsistencies, and other fanciful details.”
A scrutinized study of the principal objections to the historicity of the book prove them to be inconclusive. For instance, all the characters in the hook, with the exception of Xerxes, are being regarded as “purely imaginary” because profane history does not refer to any one of them. Now it is most interesting to know that the Historiae of Herodotus terminates in 478 B.C., the year of Esther’s coronation, and that most of the historical records of that period were lost. This argumentum e silentio, therefore, does not carry much weight. More convincing is the argument that according to Herodotus, the wife of Xerxes was Amestris. But can it be dogmatically confirmed that Xerxes did not have a queen of the second order, such as was the case with Cambyses and pseudo-Smerdis? The onus to prove this in the face of the scanty historical data rests with the critical scholars.
Many of the objections to the historicity of the book are not more than hypothetical, because we have very little data in connection with the Eastern Diaspora between the fourth and the second century B.C. We must allow the probability of new light being used on some or most of the alleged inconsistencies in the book. When Pfeiffer asserts: “It is idle to speculate on the possibility that some incidents may be based on fact, for such guesses lack all confirmation” (Introduction, p. 740), his supposition is clearly that we do know all or most of the facts. This, however, is not true. We, on our side, assert that the critical scholars are overloading the weight of their objections, and that this is why they can come to the conclusion that our book “is fiction and not history.” We would like to contradict the statement that “all recent defenses of the historicity of the book of Esther remain unconvincing, because they fail to do justice to the real nature of the book” (Pfeiffer); indeed, the book is what it purports to be—a recital of actual facts.
In their appraisal of the book, critical scholars distinguish between its aesthetical and religious significance. From a literary point of view most scholars are agreed that the book “deserves to be reckoned among the masterpieces of literature” (B. W. Anderson, The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3, p. 831). The book’s religious significance, however, is categorically denied. Pfeiffer puts it this way: “Since religion is deliberately excluded from the book of Esther any verdict based on religious values is manifestly out of place, whether it be favorable or unfavorable” (op. cit., p. 747). The inclusion of this book in the canon of the Old Testament can only be explained, according to Eissfeldt, on the assumption of the inextricable connection between the Jewish religion and nation. This, he says, we can understand. But as Christians we will have to subscribe to the word of Luther: “I am so hostile to the book [II Maccabees] and to Esther that I wish they did not exist at all; for they Judaize too much and have much heathen perverseness.”
We cannot, however, approve of this extreme judgment. It is perfectly true that the name of God is never mentioner, that there are no references to any supplications on the part of the people in their time of terrible distress, that the writer seems almost afraid of using even the formal and conventional religious terminology; that the moral conduct of Mordecai and even of Esther was not always unimpeachable, as, for instance, the time when Esther did not correct the erroneous inference of the king in connection with Haman’s intention (7:8). Nevertheless, these considerations are not sufficient reason for doubting the canonicity of the book. We do agree that it is not easy to account for the omission of the name of God, but we want to stress the point that this does not imply that the book is irreligious. Anderson rightly observes that the Jews have always found in the story the expression of real religious sentiment, even though it is couched in nonreligious language and deals with natural rather than supernatural circumstances (op. cit., p. 830). The people who were endangered by the plot of Haman, and were saved through the intermediation of Mordecai and Esther, were God’s people, and their history, even in the Eastern Diaspora, was inextricably connected with the history of redemption. Seen from this point of view, the book of Esther serves the purpose of showing how divine Providence overrules all things on behalf of His people. In the context of the Bible’s message, the book of Esther certainly has religious significance in that it describes an episode in the titanic struggle between the Serpent and the Woman’s Seed (Gen. 3:15).
The “immoral” conduct of Mordecai and Esther is nowhere in the book approved and must be assessed in the light of the normative content of the Bible as a whole.
AUTHORSHIP AND DATE
We do not know who the author was. According to Baba Bathra 15a, “the men of the Great Synagogue wrote—the roll of Esther.” Josephus (Antiquities 11:6:1) considered Mordecai to be the author, and in favor of this 9:20 has been adduced where it says that Mordecai “recorded these things.” There is, however, a clear distinction between the book of Esther and the “writings” of Mordecai. Doubtless, in composing our book, the unknown author made use of Mordecai’s records and other written documents (2:23; 10:2).
The events related in this book took place during the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus who is today normally identified with Xerxes I (485–465 B.C.).
The date of composition, however, cannot be easily and precisely ascertained. According to 10:2, the book was written after the death of Ahasuerus. In fact, when it was composed the official state history of Xerxes had been written. According to 9:19 the festival of Purim had already been instituted. There are, however, strong reasons for assigning the date of composition to a period not very long after the events it records. The layout of the royal palace must have been known to the author; and yet the palace was destroyed by fire within 30 years of the death of Xerxes. This, in connection with other considerations, seems to point to a date within a century of the story. Critical scholars, of course, do not agree with this, for in their opinion, the compilation of Esther must be placed as late as possible in the Greek period, some bringing the date as far forward as the middle of the first century B.C.
UNITY AND PURPOSE
Several scholars regard the closing passage, especially 9:20–32, as a gloss on the ground of linguistic and stylistic differences, which allegedly are peculiar to this section, and some supposed inconsistencies and contradictions. The objections which are raised against the integrity of this pericope are, however, indecisive. Careful literary analysis reveals that the author’s characteristic style is found throughout the book, and we cannot detect, for instance, any change in the prescriptions regarding the celebration of Purim, and the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the other supposed inconsistencies. We agree with Edward Young that there seem to be no objective grounds for rejecting 9:20–32 or 10:1–3 (Introduction, p. 350).
Concerning the purpose of the book, we shall have to distinguish between the first and the ultimate purpose. I think we may agree with Anderson in asserting that the book’s first purpose is to explain and justify and regulate the celebration of a festival for which there is no basis in the Law by appealing to “history” to furnish the reason for its origin and institution (op. cit., p. 824). The ultimate purpose is to show how divine Providence protected the covenant people, even in a distant country, and thus upheld the validity of God’s promise that the Messiah would be born from the seed of Abraham.
FESTIVAL OF PURIM
The origin of the feast of Purim, as set forth in this book, is thought to be improbable, since the word pur is presumably not used in this sense in Persian. Indeed, the word is manifestly a non-Hebrew word as the Hebrew translation is expressly given (3:7). Scholars are mostly agreed that it is derived from the Accadian word puru (lot). On this presumption the theory is based that the festival of Purim must also be of foreign origin, and that it was appropriated by the Jews of the Eastern Dispersion. Scholars have variously attempted to explain it as a Babylonian New Year feast or a Persian celebration in honor of the dead. Eissfeldt, however, rightly observes that these, and other, theories are presumptious. Although we may admit that in their celebration the Jews did follow some of the Persian customs, there is no reason for denying the accuracy of 9:22 as a historically correct explanation of the origin of this feast.
The standard commentaries of Keil and Delitzsch and Lange are still worthwhile. A short but informative (conservative) exposition is found in the New Bible Commentary (IVCF, London, 1954), by A. Macdonald. The discerning reader may consult the elaborate and able introduction and commentary by Bernhard W. Anderson and Arthur C. Lichtenberger in The Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon, 1954). We can approve of much that is being said by Anderson in his article, “The Place of the Book of Esther in the Christian Bible” (Journal of Religion, Vol. XXX, 1950, pp. 32–43.) Works on introduction and critical questions are covered in Edward J. Young’s An Introduction to the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1949). For devotional purposes we can recommend the chapter on Esther by the late G. Campbell Morgan in Living Messages, and the contribution by Wick Broomall in The Biblical Expositor (Holman, 1960).
P. A. VERHOEF
Professor of Old Testament
Dutch Reformed Theological Seminary
Stellenbosch, South Africa
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