Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Esther

by Various Authors




The story of Esther actually exists in two forms, the one preserved in the Hebrew Bible and translated in the Revised Standard Version, and the one in the Greek translation which is the basis for the so-called Additions to the Book of Esther in the Apocrypha.

The Hebrew version is the shorter. It tells the story of the rise of a Hebrew maiden to the position of queen of Persia. By Esther’s influence a plot against the Jews is turned against their enemies. The victory of the Jews is celebrated in a day, or two days, of general rejoicing. The story is told as the interplay of political, sociological, and personal factors, with no overt reference to God and no direct suggestion that the religious factors of faith, prayer, and the like played any significant part in the movement of events.

The Greek version is not only longer, it is clearly religiously oriented. The whole story is given a supernatural setting in a. dream which forecasts the struggle and victory, and throughout there are interposed references to God and to his working and to prayer and obedience to God on the part of the human participants.


The original setting and origin of the Book of Esther are difficult to determine. The main clues are to be found in (1) the dating of the book in the time of Xerxes (485-465 B.C.), along with several obviously informed references to the practices of the Persian court and the use of Persian names; and (2) the concern of the book for the proper observance of the Jewish Feast of Purim.

The Persian setting, for all its atmosphere of contemporaneity, involves a great difficulty. Although the name "Mordecai" has been substantiated from extra-biblical records, history does not record the name of Xerxes’ queen as Esther, nor does it give reason to suspect any such tremendous struggle between the Jewish people and their Persian neighbors as the book indicates. It seems best, then, to assume that Esther was written well after the time of Xerxes, but still within the Persian period.

Even the casual reader will be impressed by the way the book comes to its climax by insisting on the importance of the Feast of Purim and with prescriptions for its proper observance. This feast has no other substantiation in the Old Testament, being unknown in the Books of the Law, and there being no evidence for its observance before the time of the Exile. Many interpreters believe, therefore, that the feast did not have its origin in Palestine, but in the lands of the dispersion. It is quite possible that it was originally a pagan festival of some kind, which was taken over into Judaism because of the Jews’ cultural contacts with the life of their neighbors. It would not be the first nor the last time that such a practice was followed.

We can go a step further and suggest that the book was written to supply for this feast a kind of orthodox Jewish background. The author may well have found ideally suited to his purpose a tradition concerning his heroine and her courageous fidelity to Judaism in the difficult and compromising situation of the Persian court. As was undoubtedly the case with the Book of Job, an ancient story based on a core of authentic fact thus became in the end the vehicle to serve a new purpose.

The Message

The Book of Esther bears close resemblance to one of the books of the Apocrypha, Judith, the story of a Jewish heroine who by her beauty and resourcefulness was enabled to save the Jewish people from the threat of extermination by a foreign oppressor. Although Judith is so religious that Esther appears quite secular in comparison, the two heroines are basically alike in their roles as genuine saviors of their people. Less direct but nonetheless real resemblance exists between Esther and some of the heroes and heroines of Israel’s history as recorded in the canonical books. Esther is a spiritual relative of Joseph and Moses, and especially of Deborah and the other judges. A person who is familiar with the stories of these earlier heroes of faith needs no reminder that Esther is a symbol of God’s continuing action to raise up deliverers for his people.

Similarly, although the specific references to God’s working are missing in this book, when it is read in the total context of the Old Testament revelation, as it is meant to be read, there is no doubt that it is God’s hand that determines the course of affairs. The carefully sustained mood of suspense, the exact working out of events in accord with notions of justice, and the use of seeming coincidences which turn out not to be coincidences at all — these all heighten the sense of the unseen but real Power who determines the entire course of events.

The book is also the expression of a deep conviction that, by God’s will, moral principles work themselves out in the world, and particularly in the relationships among people. Evildoers are not merely punished, their punishment is somehow the reverse working of their own evil plans, and stands a witness to their frustrated designs like Haman’s gallows, fifty cubits high.

If the Book of Esther seems to dwell unpleasantly on the negative application of this principle and to delight in the misfortunes of the enemies of God’s people, we may understand it as a natural reaction of a people who had known little else but unreasoning hostility from their neighbors. We are not, however, to assume that the book allows us the luxury of desiring the destruction of our own real or fancied enemies. Against its mood there stands for the Christian the clear word of the Lord Jesus Christ.


The Elevation of Esther (Esther 1:1 to Esther 2:23)

The Plot of Haman (Esther 3:1 to Esther 6:13)

The Triumph of the Jews (Esther 6:14 to Esther 9:19)

The Feast of Purim (Esther 9:20 to Esther 10:3)