Esther – a story of bravery, palace intrigue, and, of course, the origins of Purim – has always held a special place in the hearts of the Jewish people. That might be because Purim is one of the few occasions for revelry in the Jewish calendar year – a day of carnivals, feasting and festive commotion. After all, on Purim we celebrate the story of Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai, who thwarted a nefarious plot by Haman – advisor to the Persian King Ahasuerus – to annihilate the Israelites.
Yet Esther is often given short shrift, especially by those outside the Jewish community. Why? Some common objections, both to the story of Esther itself and to the writing of it, have been leveled against the book since ancient times. Fortunately, there are good reasons not only to trust the book of Esther, but to find in it guiding principles and lessons for our own lives.
Can the book of Esther be trusted?
Esther has not always held a secure place in the “canon,” the set of books that make up the Hebrew Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, one of the oldest fragmentary sets of biblical manuscripts, do not include Esther, though they contain sections from all other books of the Hebrew Bible. Later sources attested to Esther’s canonicity, but people still doubted.
Why does the book of Esther never mention “God” by name?
Critics of all stripes, whether Jewish or Gentile, whether ancient rabbis or modern scholars, have asked this question throughout history. But the question rests on a flawed assumption: that the words used to describe texts must originate in them. Why doesn’t the U.S. Constitution contain the word “democracy”? The concept is implied rather than stated outright, but that doesn’t mean that the American government isn’t democratic.
Scholars have long set Esther apart from the rest of Hebrew Scripture because of its “notoriously unreligious appearance.”1 Esther concerns human affairs; it does not mention Jews outside Shusha; it does not comment on Jewish history as a whole; and – the biggest sticking point for scholars – it does not mention God by name. One scholar calls the God of Esther an “unspecified and remote deity devoid of any individual character.” 2 But Esther does not stand alone in this regard. The Song of Solomon is an ecstatic poem of love, while Proverbs offers practical advice, much of it seemingly secular. Since these books don’t mention God, say the scholars, they must be suspect.
But we see everywhere in Esther evidence of a sovereign God at work behind the scenes. On the surface, the characters in the book of Esther act on their own initiative, being “saved not by divine intervention, but through their own efforts.”3 The book’s villains, too, seem to be in control: Ahasuerus gets rid of his first wife out of jealous rage; similarly, Haman determines to destroy the Jewish people out of spite. But God is working through even these petty and vengeful characters to advance the cause of His chosen people.
In Esther we see God’s presence if we’re willing to entertain the possibility in faith. Why does Esther, a Jewish girl and the cousin of Mordecai, find favor with King Ahasuerus? Why does Ahasuerus have trouble sleeping one night, and why, on this sleepless night, does he reach for the chronicles, discovering in them that the Jewish advisor Mordecai saved his life? Why, indeed, should these “coincidences” have taken place in the nick of time, thus sparing God’s people from Haman’s wrath?
Okay, God’s in there. But is the story true?
One critic says, “modern biblical scholarship has severely doubted the accuracy of the account given in the Esther story.”4 Another calls the “historical authenticity of Mordecai and Esther... entirely doubtful.”5 To back up this criticism, scholars point to inconsistencies between the book of Esther and “extrabiblical sources whose basic accuracy in the matter is not suspect.”6 The main “extrabiblical source” these critics cite is the Greek historian Herodotus, who for a long time was regarded as a reliable authority on Persian and Greek events. However, many scholars have begun to question his reliability and to reaffirm Esther’s authenticity. One states that Herodotus, “often disowns responsibility for the truth or accuracy of a statement.”7 Encyclopaedia Judaica says, “The dates given by the Book of Esther thus dovetail neatly with the known dates and events of [Ahasuerus’] reign; it is improbable this is just a coincidence.” 8
The Bible scholar Edwin Yamauchi goes a step further: “In view of Esther's setting in Susa [Shushan], its Persian background, its Aramaisms [turns of phrase that are Aramaic, the language Jews adopted in Persia], and its lack of reference to Palestine, there is widespread agreement that Esther was composed in the eastern Diaspora, quite probably at Susa [Shushan] itself.”9
Okay, so the story is historically sound... but it just sounds improbable.
No one can deny that Esther is entertaining. At times it resembles a soap opera or reality show, with its fast pace, dramatic confrontations and frequent twists. Bible scholar Christine Hayes calls Esther a “short novella,” a “work of heroic fiction,” a “comedy of errors” and a “melodramatic story.” 10 Another, Adele Berlin, writes: “The story itself is implausible as history.... It is better viewed as imaginative storytelling.” She goes so far as to lampoon Esther’s “barely convincing” plot and the absence of “full-fledged characters,” who instead are “flat” and “comic.”11
The trouble with these criticisms? They treat the book of Esther like a novel. And despite appearances, Esther is not a soap opera or fairytale. History rarely follows the conventions and logic of fictional narratives. Surely the possibility of genocide always seems implausible, whether in the pages of a novel or a history book. But the fact remains that the Jewish people have many times suffered attempts at annihilation.
Even if the story of Esther is authentic and plausible, what relevance does it have to our lives?
A man offers 10,000 pieces of silver to a king in exchange for people. A nation in wartime offers to exchange a million people for 10,000 trucks. Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? Yet both these stories – the first of the advisor Haman, who sought to destroy the Jews under Ahasuerus, the second of the Nazis, who needed reinforcements for the war on the Eastern Front – are true. Sadly, the practice of putting a price on the head of our people is all too familiar. The most improbable schemes and devices have been used to try to exterminate us, oftentimes proving doubly effective because they seem so “unbelievable.”
The Book of Esther shows us what the author of Ecclesiastes says, "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). However, as deep as anti-Semitic sentiment might be, God’s love for His people is stronger. He delivered His people out of the hand of Haman, and He will preserve us in perpetuity.
That’s why the heart of Purim is “remembering the miracle.” Some older translations of the Talmud have it as “publishing the miracle.” In other words, we are obligated to retell the miracle of our survival to people everywhere.
Purim, which tells of Haman’s plot to wipe out the Jewish people and interrupt God’s plan for history, reminds us that it wasn’t just God moving behind the scenes in the Megillah.12 Haman’s hatred of our people, like the hatred of Pharaoh, Antiochus Epiphanes, and Hitler, went well beyond the bounds of resentment or ill will. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament speak of an angelic being who has been in rebellion against God since before the world began. Satan, who many would like to label as fictitious, has always targeted the Jewish people for destruction because we are God’s “treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:2) and the people through whom the Messiah would come. It is Satan, which means “adversary” in Hebrew, who has energized the Hamans, Hitlers, and Husseins of the world to try and destroy us.
By remembering the true miracle of Purim, whether by reciting the Megillah, watching Purim spiels (Purim plays), or booing the name of Haman in synagogue, we, in a sense, combat the spirit of hatred against the Jews. We remind ourselves and the world that “he who touches you [the Jewish people] touches the apple of His [God’s] eye” (Zechariah 2:8).
Another Jewish hero...
Esther offers a model of love and sacrifice. In the book's most famous lines, Mordecai persuades Esther to go to the king unbidden – a capital offense – and intercede on her people’s behalf:
Then Mordecai told them [the messengers] to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:12-16)
Esther broke the law because, without her intervention, the king would have allowed the Jewish people to perish at Haman’s hands. Esther is one of many in a long line of Jewish heroes who have stood up for our people in the face of opposition and evil. Some, like Samson and King David, were heroes in battle. Others, like Esther, did their job a bit more quietly.
Our Jewish people have traditionally expected our greatest hero, the Messiah, to arrive on the scene as a conquering hero. And, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, he will. But those same Scriptures tell us that the Messiah also comes as a despised figure who suffers and dies to atone for our sins. The prophet Isaiah described him this way: “He was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:3-4).
How could both these descriptions of the Messiah be true? Consider the possibility that he already came – almost under the radar – like Esther, but that he will come again as a mighty triumphant warrior, like King David.
God is never mentioned in Esther, yet His fingerprints are all over the pages of this beloved book. In the same way, did we fail to recognize God among us when Yeshua (Jesus) walked the earth some 2,000 years ago? Did he, like Esther, come “for such a time as this?”
1. Ch. C. Torrey, “The Older Book of Esther,” Harvard Theological Review 37 (1944), 1-40.
2. Solomon Talmon, “‘Wisdom’ in the Book of Esther,” Vetus Testamentum 13:4 (Oct. 1963), 430.
3. Christine Hayes, Introduction to the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 364.
4. Talmon, op. cit., 419.
5. Hayyim Schauss, “Purim,” in The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance (New York: Schocken, 1996), 238.
6. C. A. Moore, Esther (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), xlv–xlvi.
7. David Grene, trans., “Introduction,” in Herodotus: The History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 6.
8. Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. “Book of Esther,” 158-159.
9. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), 226.
10. Hayes, op. cit., 364-365.
11. Adele Berlin, The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), xv–xvi, xxii.
12. A megillah is one of the five scrolls of the Bible (Ruth, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther). However, most often the term refers to the scroll of Esther, which is read in its entirety at Purim.