The Book of Esther (Hebrew: , Megillat Esther), also known in Hebrew as "the Scroll" (Megillah), is a book in the third section (Ketuvim, ? "Writings") of the Jewish Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). It is one of the five Scrolls (Megillot) in the Hebrew Bible and later became part of the Christian Greek Old Testament.
The book relates the story of a Hebrew woman in Persia, born as Hadassah but known as Esther, who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts a genocide of her people. The story forms the core of the Jewish festival of Purim, during which it is read aloud twice: once in the evening and again the following morning. The books of Esther and Song of Songs are the only books in the Hebrew Bible that do not mention God.
The biblical Book of Esther is set in the Persian capital of Susa (Shushan) in the third year of the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus. The name Ahasuerus is equivalent to Xerxes (both deriving from the Persian Khshay?rsha), and Ahasuerus is usually identified in modern sources as Xerxes I, who ruled between 486 and 465 BCE, as it is to this monarch that the events described in Esther are thought to fit the most closely.
Assuming that Ahasuerus is indeed Xerxes I, the events described in Esther began around the years 483-82 BCE, and concluded in March 473 BCE.
Classical sources such as Josephus, the Jewish commentary Esther Rabbah and the Christian theologian Bar-Hebraeus, as well as the Greek Septuagint translation of Esther, instead identify Ahasuerus as either Artaxerxes I (reigned 465 to 424 BCE) or Artaxerxes II (reigned 404 to 358 BCE).
On his accession, however, Artaxerxes II lost Egypt to pharaoh Amyrtaeus, after which it was no longer part of the Persian empire. In his Historia Scholastica Petrus Comestor identified Ahasuerus (Esther 1:1) as Artaxerxes III (358-338 BCE) who reconquered Egypt.
The plot is structured around banquets (mishteh), a word that occurs twenty times in Esther and only 24 times in the rest of the Hebrew bible. This is appropriate given that Esther describes the origin of a Jewish feast, the feast of Purim, but Purim itself is not the subject and no individual feast in the book is commemorated by Purim. The book's theme, rather, is the reversal of destiny through a sudden and unexpected turn of events: the Jews seem destined to be destroyed, but instead are saved. In literary criticism such a reversal is termed "peripety", and while on one level its use in Esther is simply a literary or aesthetic device, on another it is structural to the author's theme, suggesting that the power of God is at work behind human events.
King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, holds a lavish 180-day banquet, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards a seven-day banquet for all inhabitants of the capital city, Shushan (Esther 1:1-9). On the seventh day of the latter banquet, Ahasuerus orders the queen, Vashti, to display her beauty before the guests by coming before them wearing her crown (1:10-11). She refuses, infuriating Ahasuerus, who on the advice of his counselors removes her from her position as an example to other women who might be emboldened to disobey their husbands (1:12-19). A decree follows that "every man should bear rule in his own house" (1:20-22).
Ahasuerus then makes arrangements to choose a new queen from a selection of beautiful young women from throughout the empire (2:1-4). Among these women is a Jewish orphan named Esther, who was raised by her cousin or uncle, Mordecai (2:5-7). She finds favour in the King's eyes, and is crowned his new queen, but does not reveal her Jewish heritage (2:8-20). Shortly afterwards, Mordecai discovers a plot by two courtiers, Bigthan and Teresh, to assassinate Ahasuerus. The conspirators are apprehended and hanged, and Mordecai's service to the King is recorded (2:21-23).
Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his viceroy (3:1). Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman's disfavour, as he refuses to bow down to him (3:2-5). Haman discovers that Mordecai refuses to bow on account of his Jewishness, and in revenge plots to kill not just Mordecai, but all the Jews in the empire (3:6). He obtains Ahasuerus' permission to execute this plan, against payment of ten thousand talents of silver, and casts lots ("purim") to choose the date on which to do this – the thirteenth of the month of Adar (3:7-12). A royal decree is issued throughout the kingdom to slay all Jews on that date. (3:13-15).
When Mordecai discovers the plan, he goes into mourning and implores Esther to intercede with the King (4:1-5). But she is afraid to present herself to the King unsummoned, an offense punishable by death (4:6-12). Instead, she directs Mordecai to have all Jews fast for three days for her, and vows to fast as well (4:15-16.). On the third day she goes to Ahasuerus, who stretches out his sceptre to her to indicate that she is not to be punished (5:1-2). She invites him to a feast in the company of Haman (5:3-5). During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening (5:6-8). Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordecai and, at his wife's suggestion, has a gallows built to hang him (5:9-14).
That night, Ahasuerus cannot sleep, and orders the court records be read to him (6:1). He is reminded that Mordecai interceded in the previous plot against his life, and discovers that Mordecai never received any recognition (6:2-3). Just then, Haman appears to request the King's permission to hang Mordecai, but before he can make this request, Ahasuerus asks Haman what should be done for the man that the King wishes to honour (6:4-6). Assuming that the King is referring to Haman himself, Haman suggests that the man be dressed in the King's royal robes, and crown and led around on the King's royal horse, while a herald calls: "See how the King honours a man he wishes to reward!" (6:7-9). To his surprise and horror, the King instructs Haman to do so to Mordecai (6:10-11).
Immediately after, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther's second banquet. The King promises to grant her any request, and she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, including herself (7:1-6). Overcome by rage, Ahasuerus leaves the room; meanwhile Haman stays behind and begs Esther for his life, falling upon her in desperation (7:7). The King returns in at this very moment and thinks Haman is assaulting the queen; this makes him angrier and he orders Haman hanged on the very gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai (7:8-10).
Unable to annul a formal royal decree, the King instead adds to it, permitting the Jews to join together and destroy any and all of those seeking to kill them (8:1-14). On 13 Adar, Haman's ten sons and 500 other men are killed in Shushan (9:1-12). Upon hearing of this Esther requests it be repeated the next day, whereupon 300 more men are killed (9:13-15). Over 75,000 people are slaughtered by the Jews, who are careful to take no plunder (9:16-17). Mordecai and Esther send letters throughout the provinces instituting an annual commemoration of the Jewish people's redemption, in a holiday called Purim (lots) (9:20-28). Ahasuerus remains very powerful and continues his reign, with Mordecai assuming a prominent position in his court (10:1-3).
The Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) became the last of the 24 books of the Tanakh to be canonized by the Sages of the Great Assembly. According to the Talmud, it was a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text by Mordecai. It is usually dated to the 4th century BCE. Shemaryahu Talmon, however, suggests that "the traditional setting of the book in the days of Xerxes I cannot be wide off the mark."
The Greek book of Esther, included in the Septuagint, is a retelling of the events of the Hebrew Book of Esther rather than a translation and records additional traditions which do not appear in the traditional Hebrew version, in particular the identification of Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes and details of various letters. It is dated around the late 2nd to early 1st century BCE. The Coptic and Ethiopic versions of Esther are translations of the Greek rather than the Hebrew Esther.
A Latin version of Esther was produced by Jerome for the Vulgate. It translates the Hebrew Esther but interpolates translations of the Greek Esther where the latter provides additional material. Predating the Vulgate, however, the Vetus Latina ("Old Latin") was apparently translated from a different Greek version not included in the Septuagint.
Several Aramaic targums of Esther were produced in the Middle Ages, of which three survive - the Targum Rishon ("First Targum" or 1TgEsth) and Targum Sheni ("Second Targum" or 2TgEsth) dated c. 500-1000 CE, which include additional legends relating to Purim, and the Targum Shelishi ("Third Targum" or 3TgEsth), which Berliner and Goshen-Gottstein argued was the ur-Targum from which the others had been expanded, but which others consider only a late recension of the same. 3TgEsth is the most manuscript-stable of the three, and by far the most literal.
The apparent historical difficulties, the internal inconsistencies, the pronounced symmetry of themes and events, the plenitude of quoted dialogue, and the gross exaggeration in the reporting of numbers (involving time, money, and people) all point to Esther as a work of fiction, its vivid characters (except for Xerxes) being the product of the author's creative imagination. There is no reference to known historical events in the story; a general consensus, though this consensus has been challenged, has maintained that the narrative of Esther was invented in order to provide an aetiology for Purim, and the name Ahasuerus is usually understood to refer to a fictionalized Xerxes I, who ruled the Achaemenid Empire between 486 and 465 BCE.
As noted by biblical scholar Michael D. Coogan, the book contains specific details regarding certain subject matter (for example, Persian rule) which are historically inaccurate. For example, Coogan discusses an apparent inaccuracy regarding the age of Esther's cousin (or, according to others, uncle) Mordecai. In Esther 2:5-6, either Mordecai or his great-grandfather Kish is identified as having been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 597 BCE: "Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jeconiah king of Judah". If this refers to Mordecai, he would have had to live over a century to have witnessed the events described in the Book of Esther. However, the verse may be read as referring not to Mordecai's exile to Babylon, but to his great-grandfather Kish's exile.
In her article "The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling", biblical scholar Adele Berlin discusses the reasoning behind scholarly concern about the historicity of Esther. Much of this debate relates to the importance of distinguishing history and fiction within biblical texts, as Berlin argues, in order to gain a more accurate understanding of the history of the Israelite people. Berlin quotes a series of scholars who suggest that the author of Esther did not mean for the book to be considered as a historical writing, but intentionally wrote it to be a historical novella. The genre of novellas under which Esther falls was common during both the Persian and Hellenistic periods to which scholars have dated the book of Esther.
There are certain elements of the book of Esther that are historically accurate. The story told in the book of Esther takes place during the rule of Ahasuerus, who amongst others has been identified as the 5th-century Persian king Xerxes I (reigned 486-465 BCE). The author also displays an accurate knowledge of Persian customs and palaces. However, according to Coogan, considerable historical inaccuracies remain throughout the text, supporting the view that the book of Esther is to be read as a historical novella which tells a story describing historical events but is not necessarily historical fact. Edwin M. Yamauchi has questioned the reliability of other historical sources, such as Herodotus, to which Esther has been compared. Yamauchi wrote, "[Herodotus] was, however, the victim of unreliable informants and was not infallible." The reason for questioning the historical accuracy of such ancient writers as Herodotus is that he is one of the primary sources of knowledge for this time period, and it has been frequently assumed that his account may be more accurate than Esther's account.
Those arguing in favour of a historical reading of Esther most commonly identify Ahasuerus with Xerxes I (ruled 486-465 BCE), although in the past it was often assumed that he was Artaxerxes II (ruled 405-359 BCE). The Hebrew Ahasuerus (?a?a?w?r) is most likely derived from Persian X?ay?r?a, the origin of the Greek Xerxes. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Xerxes sought his harem after being defeated in the Greco-Persian Wars. He makes no reference to individual members of the harem except for a domineering Queen consort named Amestris, whose father, Otanes, was one of Xerxes's generals. (In contrast, the Greek historian Ctesias refers to a similar father-in-law/general figure named Onaphas.) Amestris has often been identified with Vashti, but this identification is problematic, as Amestris remained a powerful figure well into the reign of her son, Artaxerxes I, whereas Vashti is portrayed as dismissed in the early part of Xerxes's reign. Alternative attempts have been made to identify her with Esther, although Esther is an orphan whose father was a Jew named Abihail.
As for the identity of Mordecai, the similar names Marduka and Marduku have been found as the name of officials in the Persian court in over thirty texts from the period of Xerxes I and his father Darius I, and may refer to up to four individuals, one of whom might be the model for the biblical Mordecai.
The "Old Greek" Septuagint version of Esther translates the name Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes, a Greek name derived from the Persian Artax?a?ra. Josephus too relates that this was the name by which he was known to the Greeks, and the Midrashic text Esther Rabba also makes the identification. Bar-Hebraeus identified Ahasuerus explicitly as Artaxerxes II; however, the names are not necessarily equivalent: Hebrew has a form of the name Artaxerxes distinct from Ahasuerus, and a direct Greek rendering of Ahasuerus is used by both Josephus and the Septuagint for occurrences of the name outside the Book of Esther. Instead, the Hebrew name Ahasuerus accords with an inscription of the time that notes that Artaxerxes II was named also Ar?u, understood as a shortening of Aiyar?u the Babylonian rendering of the Persian X?ay?r?a (Xerxes), through which the Hebrew ?a?a?w?r (Ahasuerus) is derived. Ctesias related that Artaxerxes II was also called Arsicas which is understood as a similar shortening with the Persian suffix -ke that is applied to shortened names. Deinon related that Artaxerxes II was also called Oarses which is also understood to be derived from X?ay?r?a.
Another view attempts to identify him instead with Artaxerxes I (ruled 465-424 BCE), whose Babylonian concubine, Kosmartydene, was the mother of his son Darius II (ruled 424-405 BCE). Jewish tradition relates that Esther was the mother of a King Darius and so some try to identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes I and Esther with Kosmartydene.
Based on the view that the Ahasuerus of the Book of Tobit is identical with that of the Book of Esther, some have also identified him as Nebuchadnezzar's ally Cyaxares (ruled 625-585 BCE). In certain manuscripts of Tobit, the former is called Achiachar, which, like the Greek Cyaxares, is thought to be derived from Persian Huwax?a?ra. Depending on the interpretation of Esther 2:5-6, Mordecai or his great-grandfather Kish was carried away from Jerusalem with Jeconiah by Nebuchadnezzar, in 597 BCE. The view that it was Mordecai would be consistent with the identification of Ahasuerus with Cyaxares. Identifications with other Persian monarchs have also been suggested.
Jacob Hoschander has argued that the name of Haman and that of his father Hamedatha are mentioned by Strabo as Omanus and Anadatus, worshipped with Anahita in the city of Zela. Hoschander suggests that Haman may, if the connection is correct, be a priestly title and not a proper name. Strabo's names are unattested in Persian texts as gods; however the Talmud and Josephus interpret the description of courtiers bowing to Haman in Esther 3:2 as worship. (Other scholars assume "Omanus" refers to Vohu Mana.)
In the Book of Esther, the Tetragrammaton does not appear, but some argue it is present, in hidden form, in four complex acrostics in Hebrew: the initial or last letters of four consecutive words, either forwards or backwards comprise YHWH. These letters were distinguished in at least three ancient Hebrew manuscripts in red.[note 1]
Christine Hayes contrasts the Book of Esther with apocalyptic writings, the Book of Daniel in particular: both Esther and Daniel depict an existential threat to the Jewish people, but while Daniel commands the Jews to wait faithfully for God to resolve the crisis, in Esther the crisis is resolved entirely through human action and national solidarity. God, in fact, is not mentioned, Esther is portrayed as assimilated to Persian culture, and Jewish identity in the book is an ethnic category rather than a religious one.
This contrasts with traditional Jewish commentaries, such as the commentary of the Vilna Gaon, which states "But in every verse it discusses the great miracle. However, this miracle was in a hidden form, occurring through apparently natural processes, not like the Exodus from Egypt, which openly revealed the might of God." This follows the approach of the Talmud, which states that "(The Book of) Esther is referenced in the Torah in the verse 'And I shall surely hide (in Hebrew, 'haster astir,' related to 'Esther') My Face from them on that day.
Although marriages between Jews and Gentiles are not permitted in orthodox Judaism, even in case of Pikuach nefesh, Esther is not regarded as a sinner, because she remained passive, and risked her life to save that of the entire Jewish people.
An additional six chapters appear interspersed in Esther in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible. This was noted by Jerome in compiling the Latin Vulgate. Additionally, the Greek text contains many small changes in the meaning of the main text. Jerome recognized the former as additions not present in the Hebrew Text and placed them at the end of his Latin translation. This placement and numbering system is used in Catholic Bible translations based primarily on the Vulgate, such as the Douay-Rheims Bible and the Knox Bible. In contrast, the 1979 revision of the Vulgate, the Nova Vulgata, incorporates the additions to Esther directly into the narrative itself, as do most modern Catholic English translations based on the original Hebrew and Greek (e.g., Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, New American Bible, New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition). The numbering system for the additions differs with each translation. The Nova Vulgata accounts for the additional verses by numbering them as extensions of the verses immediately following or preceding them (e.g., Esther 11:2-12 in the old Vulgate becomes Esther 1:1a-1k in the Nova Vulgata), while the NAB and its successor, the NABRE, assign letters of the alphabet as chapter headings for the additions (e.g., Esther 11:2-12:6 in the Vulgate becomes Esther A:1-17). The RSVCE and the NRSVCE place the additional material into the narrative, but retain the chapter and verse numbering of the old Vulgate.
These additions include:
By the time the Greek version of Esther was written, the foreign power visible on the horizon as a future threat to Judah was the kingdom of Macedonia under Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persian empire about 150 years after the time of the story of Esther; the Septuagint version noticeably calls Haman a "Bougaion" (Ancient Greek: ), possibly in the Homeric sense of "bully" or "braggart," whereas the Hebrew text describes him as an Agagite.
The canonicity of these Greek additions has been a subject of scholarly disagreement practically since their first appearance in the Septuagint – Martin Luther, being perhaps the most vocal Reformation-era critic of the work, considered even the original Hebrew version to be of very doubtful value. Luther's complaints against the book carried past the point of scholarly critique and may reflect Luther's antisemitism.
The Council of Trent, the summation of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, reconfirmed the entire book, both Hebrew text and Greek additions, as canonical. The Book of Esther is used twice in commonly used sections of the Catholic Lectionary. In both cases, the text used is not only taken from a Greek addition, the readings also are the prayer of Mordecai, and nothing of Esther's own words is ever used. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint version of Esther, as it does for all of the Old Testament.
In contrast, the additions are included in the Biblical apocrypha, usually printed in a separate section (if at all) in Protestant bibles. The additions, called "The rest of the Book of Esther", are specifically listed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article VI, of the Church of England as non-canonical.
The story is fictitious and written to provide an account of the origin of the feast of Purim; the book contains no references to the known historical events of the reign of Xerxes.