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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Esther

by Charles John Ellicott





I. Contents.—The Book of Esther opens with the account of the feast given by King Ahasuerus at the end of the 180 days during which he had entertained the lords and princes of the kingdom at his palace in the city of Shushan. On the seventh day of the feast, the king, excited with wine, sends for his queen Vashti “to show the people and the princes her beauty;” with which unseemly request Vashti naturally refuses to comply. The enraged king takes counsel with his “wise men,” and by a decree deposes Vashti from her place both as queen and wife, ordering that “all wives should give to their husbands honour,” and that “every man should bear rule in his own house.”

After this a number of maidens were selected, that from them Ahasuerus might choose the one who pleased him best. His choice fell upon Esther, a Jewish orphan girl, who had been brought up by her cousin Mordecai, at whose command she did not at first disclose her nationality to the king. About this time Mordecai was the means of frustrating an attempt made on the life of Ahasuerus; the plotters were hanged, but the discoverer of the plot was for the time forgotten.
A certain Haman now occupied the chief place in the king’s favour, and Mordecai incurred his bitter enmity by his refusal to pay him the reverence yielded by others. Not content with the personal hatred, he sought the downfall of the whole Jewish race, and obtained from the king a decree, by virtue of which all the Jews throughout the empire were to be massacred. The terror such an edict would produce among the Jews can well be imagined, and the news at length reaches Esther in the palace, and she is bidden by her kinsman to use her influence with the king to obtain a reversal of the decree. To her objection that to venture uncalled into the king’s presence is punishable with death, it is answered that, if her race are to perish, she must not think to purchase safety by a cowardly silence; “but,” adds Mordecai, unwilling that his adopted child should lose so great an opportunity, “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” The queen at last determines to make the effort, bidding her countrymen to join her in observing a three days’ fast. The fast over, Esther, clad in her royal robes, but standing in the court as a suppliant, appeared before the king, who held out to her the golden sceptre in token that she had “obtained favour in his sight.” She is bidden to proffer her request, but evidently temporising she merely asks that the king and Haman should come that day to the banquet which she had prepared. The repetition of the king’s promise only leads to a fresh invitation to a second banquet on the following day, while Haman returns home proud at the honour done him, but with fresh exasperation against Mordecai, who remained sitting as he passed.
At home Haman discloses his grievance to his wife and his friends, and by their advice it is decided that a gallows of exceptional height should be made, and that on the morrow the king’s leave should be got to hang Mordecai—far too unimportant a matter to be worth gainsaying. That very night God’s providence interposes to save His people in an unlooked-for way. The king, unable to sleep, commands the book of the Chronicles of the kingdom to be read to him, and thus hears of the unrewarded service which Mordecai had done him, by the discovery of the plot. Thus in the morning he suddenly greets his minister with the question, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?” The favourite, unable to see the possibility of any one being intended save himself, suggests the bestowal of the most extravagant honours. How the answer he received must have seemed the precursor of the end, when he hears that it is for Mordecai that he has planned this triumph, and is bidden, as himself the chief noble in the realm, to see that the whole is carried into execution! The pageant is soon over; Mordecai returns to his station by the king’s gate, and Haman to his home, to find how truly the dismal comments of his wife and friends echoed his own sad forebodings. The morrow comes and the second banquet; and Esther now feels that the need for temporising has passed, and prays for the life of herself and her people, and directly charges Haman with his nefarious scheme. Ahasuerus orders at once Haman’s execution, which is done without delay, his property being given to the queen, and by her to Mordecai. But though the author of the decree had fallen, the decree itself still held good. It had been written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s seal, and no man might reverse it. In this dilemma, largely due to his own folly, the king issues another mandate empowering the Jews to stand on their defence, sparing no pains to spread this throughout the whole empire, thereby showing clearly how completely a change had taken place in the royal favour. The day of slaughter came, and not only did the Jews show themselves able to defend themselves, but they took a terrible vengeance on their enemies; five hundred men were slain by them in Shushan alone, including the ten sons of Haman. At Esther’s further request, the king extended the time of massacre in that city over the next day also; and in the provinces 75,000 of the Jews’ enemies perished. The two days following the great day of slaughter were made feast days for ever after, under the name of Purim. The book ends with “the declaration of the greatness of Mordecai,” who has now risen to be “next unto the king, and great among the Jews.”
II. Date of the Events recorded.—This simply resolves itself into the question, who is Ahasuerus? and there can be little doubt that we must identify him with the king known to the Greeks as Xerxes, and that for the following reasons :—

(1) The name Xerxes is a Greek reproduction of the Persian name Khshayarsha (meaning, according to Canon Rawlinson, “the ruling eye”), and when Ahasuerus is transliterated more strictly according to the Hebrew spelling Äkhashverosh, it will be seen that the essential elements of the word are almost exactly reproduced, the letter aleph being prefixed to facilitate the difficult pronunciation.

(2) The character of Ahasuerus as shown in this book presents a striking parallel with that of Xerxes. Ahasuerus is an ordinary specimen of an Eastern despot, who knows no law save the gratification of his own passions, and of the passing caprice of the moment. He sends for his queen in defiance of decency and courtesy, to grace a revel, and deposes her for a refusal simply indicative of self-respect; he is willing to order the destruction of a whole people throughout his empire, at the request of the favourite of the time; when the tide of favour turns, the favourite is not only disgraced, but he and all his family are ruthlessly destroyed, and Mordecai rises from a humble position to be the new vizier. Thus, though God shapes all this for good, the instrument is distinctly evil. How similar is the picture shown in the undying story of Herodotus, of the king who, reckless of the overthrow of his father’s armies at Marathon ten short years before, will make a fresh attempt to crush the nation on whose success the freedom of the world was to hinge; who comes with a host so vast that, in the poet’s hyperbole, they drink the rivers dry (Juv. x. 177); who has a throne erected to view the slaughter of Leonidas and his three hundred; who gazes from mount Ægaleos at the vast fleet in the bay of Salamis, soon to be routed and broken by Themistocles! The king, who a few weeks before has the Hellespont scourged because it presumes to be stormy and break his bridges, now flees away in panic, leaving his fleet to its fate. (See Herod. vii. 35; Æsch. Pers. 467, seq.; Juv. x. 174-187.)

(3) The extent of his empire. He rules “from India even unto Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1). India was not included in the empire of the early Persian kings, and therefore, though Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, is called Ahasuerus in Ezra 4:6, he is excluded by the above consideration.

If then as we can hardly doubt, Ahasuerus and Xerxes are the same, we can at once fix the date of the events recorded in the Book of Esther. Ahasuerus makes the great feast in the third year of his reign (Esther 1:3), Esther is taken into the royal palace in the seventh year (Esther 2:16), they cast lots before Haman in the twelfth year (Esther 3:7), and in the thirteenth year the plan of destruction is broached. Now the reign of Xerxes lasted from 485-464 B.C., therefore the events recorded in Esther range from 483-470 B.C.

III. Author, and Date of Composition.—A number of guesses, for they cannot be called anything more, have been put forward as to the author of this book, and of the best of these we can only say that it is possible. Some, as Clement of Alexandria, and Aben Ezra (Comm. in Esther, Int.), have assigned it to Mordecai; others, as Augustine (de Civ. Dei. 1. 18:100:36), with much less show of probability, refer it to Ezra; the Talmud (Tal. Babl., Baba Batlira, f. 15a) gives the “men of the great synagogue;” and yet other theories are current.

In all this uncertainty we may as well at once confess our inability to settle who the author was, though we may perhaps obtain a fair notion of the conditions under which he wrote. It may probably be fairly inferred from such passages as Esther 9:32; Esther 10:2, &c, that the writer had access to the documents to which he refers, so that the book must have been written in Persia. This is further confirmed by traits that suggest that the writer is speaking as an eye-witness (see, for example, Esther 1:6; Esther 8:10; Esther 8:14-15, &c). Possibly too, even if Mordecai were not the author, matter directly derived from him may be seen in Esther 2:5; Esther 2:10, &c.

Again, it must be noticed that the name of God in every form is entirely absent from the book, that there is no allusion whatever to the Jewish nation as one exiled from the land of their fathers, to that land itself, or to the newly rebuilt Temple, or, in fact, to any Jewish institution whatsoever. Whether this reserve is to be explained by the writer’s long residence in Persia having blunted the edge of his national feelings, or whether he may have thought it safer to keep his feelings and opinions in the background, it is impossible to say: very possibly both causes may have acted.
As regards the date, some of the foregoing considerations, if allowed, would weigh strongly in favour of a comparatively early date, inasmuch as they would make the writer more or less contemporaneous with the events he records—a view which the graphic style strongly supports. But it is obvious, from the way in which the book opens, that Ahasuerus or Xerxes was no longer king. Combining these two considerations, we I should prefer to fix the composition of the book not long after the death of Xerxes (464 B.C. ), say 450 B.C., a time when Athens was at the height of its power and fame, and Rome was merely a second-rate Italian commonwealth.
The above view, or something like it, is held by most sober critics, a common form of the view being to assign the book to the reign of the successor of Xerxes, Artaxerxes Longimanus (464-425 B.C.), and it may be noted that there can be little doubt that the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles are to be assigned to that reign, and that the style of those books closely resembles that of Esther. Some have advocated a distinctly late date for Esther, assigning it to the period of the Greek régime, but the arguments brought forward seem to us of little weight.

IV. Canonicity, and Place in Canon.—In the Hebrew Bible, Esther stands as the last of the five Megilloth, or rolls, the others being Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes, and it is read through in the synagogues at the Feast of Purim. Among the Jews there can be no doubt that its canonicity was universally acknowledged, for in the earliest statement we have as to the contents of the Jewish Canon (Josephus, contr. Apion. i. 8), Esther is distinctly included by the mention of Artaxerxes. Here and there in early Christian lists of the books of the Old Testament Canon in its Palestinian form, as opposed to the longer Canon of the Alexandrian Jews, the Book of Esther is not mentioned. This is the case, for example, in the list given by Melito, Bishop of Sardis in the second century (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. iv. 26). Dr. Westcott (Smith’s Bible Dict., art. “Canon”) suggests that this may be due to Esther having been viewed as a part of Ezra representing a general collection of post-captivity records. Whatever may be the true explanation, at any rate Esther is an integral part of the pure Hebrew Canon, and as such is mentioned by the Talmud; it was included, though with considerable addition, to which we refer below, in the Græco-Alexandrian Canon, and was received, while the Greek accretions were rejected, by Jerome into his Latin translation.

The position of Esther in the Hebrew Bible is an artificial one, clearly due to Liturgical reasons, the Meqilloth being read, each at one of the Feasts. In the LXX. and Vulgate, as well as in the English Bible, Esther comes at the end of the historical books: In the two former, Tobit and Judith intervene between Nehemiah and Esther; in the latter, those two books are relegated to the Apocrypha.

V. Apocryphal Additions to Esther.—In the text of Esther, as given by the LXX., we find large interpolations interspersed throughout the book. The chief of them are :—

(1) Mordecai’s lineage, dream, and reward, forming a prelude to the whole book (Esther 11:2- 12:6, English Version).

(2) A copy of the king’s letters to destroy the Jews, inserted in Esther 3:0 (Esther 13:1-7, English Version).

(3) Prayers of Mordecai and Esther, in Esther 4:0 (Esther 13:8- 14:19, English Version).

(4) Amplification of Esther’s visit to the king, in Esther 5:0 (Esther 15, English Version).

(5) Edict of revocation, in Esther 8:0 (Esther 16, English Version).

(6) An exposition of Mordecai’s dream; after which comes a statement, evidently intended to imply that the whole book was translated from the Hebrew (Esther 10:4-13, 11:1, English Version).
Thus in the LXX. the book with its additions makes a continuous narrative. But when Jerome set forth his new Latin Version based on the Hebrew, he naturally rejected those portions not found in the Hebrew, placing them at the end of the book, noting the cause of the rejection and the place of the insertion.
In the English Bible, however, while the position of the extracts is as it is in the Latin Vulgate, Jerome’s notes are omitted, making the whole almost unintelligible. It is curious to note that Esther 11:2 of the English Version forms the first verse in the Greek of Esther, and Esther 11:1 the last verse.

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