The story of Esther reads as a playful story about a serious situation—a Jewish group living as a vulnerable minority in a dangerous context. The narrative’s colorful portrayals of the characters and events long captured the imagination of the church from its earliest days, including early Christian art.
Two of the characters in the narrative decide, act, and respond blind to the effect and consequences of their actions to anyone, including the characters themselves. The Persian king can’t figure out what to do, so he asks advisors. The advice, which he takes, causes problems for everyone including the king himself. Haman, a royal courtier, is controlled by the desire to be second in command in the empire. This obsession becomes catastrophic for Haman.
The narrative is filled with feasts and banquets, some involving just two or three people, others involving hundreds, perhaps thousands (1:3). It also features reckless behavior and unexpected reversals in fortune. In the Jewish calendar, Esther is read at the Jewish festival of Purim, a festival with a carnival-like atmosphere of noise makers and costumes, along with food and drink. We don’t expect (and sometimes don’t appreciate) this obvious use of humor in biblical stories. Nevertheless we recognize the value of laughter in our own emotional health and the health of interpersonal relationships.
However, in the midst of all this extravagance and playfulness lies the vulnerable life of a Jewish minority in ancient Persia. Minority groups down through the centuries have lived with similar vulnerability and so it is today. The contentious, often oppressive, relationships between majority and minority groups that make up our congregations and communities continue to generate bitterness and rage. Too often those as well as other conflicts lead to violence that seeks to solve the problem by destroying the other.
The powerful role of honor and shame in this story and our communities may be less visible than violence, but no less important. Fortunately the destructive effect of shaming on children (and adults) has become more visible, but we struggle to know how to deal with it.
This delightful narrative is written in the context of a serious situation for the Jewish people. In the last half of the eighth century BCE the Assyrian Empire began a successful military expansion westward from central Mesopotamia to Syria and Palestine. Eventually the Assyrians reached Israel and, under Sargon II, conquered the capital city of Samaria in 721–720. Sargon reorganized the region as an Assyrian province. As a part of that organization many of the Israelites were displaced and moved elsewhere in Assyria, and other population groups moved into Israel’s cities, villages, and countryside. This began what has come to be called the dispersion of the Jews, the “Diaspora.”
The conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians a little more than a century later makes the Diaspora a reality not only for the people of northern Palestine but for the south as well. With the attack on Jerusalem in 597 BCE and again in 586, the population was scattered from Egypt to Asia Minor, east to Babylon, and perhaps beyond. This dispersion left the Israelites without a political or religious center and resulted eventually in a transformation of their identity as Jewish people of the “book.”
The narrative of Esther is set in the era after Persia ended the Babylonian control. The Persian Empire developed through the military conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 540 BCE. The Persian emperor commonly associated with the time of Esther, Xerxes, ruled for forty years (486–465 BCE). Two hundred years after Cyrus established the Persian Empire, the Macedonian Greek, Alexander the Great, ended Persian control over the region with the conquest of Babylon and the Persian capital of Susa in 330 BCE. While set in the Persian Diaspora, we don’t know when the story of Esther began to take shape, perhaps in oral form, and when it became a literary narrative. Scholars date the book of Esther from the 400s all the way to the 200s BCE.
Jewish Orphan Woman
Living as a minority in the midst of a powerful empire often results in significant and dangerous vulnerability. While vulnerability affected the Jewish community as a whole, this narrative portrays Esther as vulnerable in three ways. In a culture in which family provided protection and identity, Esther was an orphan. In a culture defined and controlled by men, Esther was a woman. In the powerful Persian Empire, Esther was a Jewish exile. The story of how this Jewish orphan woman became the decisive royal figure in all the realm has thrilled and perplexed readers for as long as the narrative has been retold or read.
The comic character of the king and Haman reminds us of the importance and role of humor even in very difficult circumstances. The comedic elements don’t belittle the seriousness of the situation, but can relax the tension long enough to allow psychological and even spiritual rest for the individual and the community.
The narrative of Esther has aroused as much controversy as any biblical book. Interpreters have questioned almost everything about the book, including the moral character of its main figure, the absence of any theology, and the appropriateness of its values. Notable rabbis challenged its canonicity into the third century (and possibly the fourth) after Christ, and among Christian leaders in the early era it was also doubted.
The absence of any direct mention of God has troubled readers. In biblical narratives like Joseph (Gen 37–50) and Ruth, God appears as a quiet, background presence, even if not actively intervening in the course of events. This contrasts notably with biblical narratives such as Exodus and Joshua. However, unlike any other biblical story, the Hebrew narrative of Esther lacks any explicit mention of God at all. To be sure, not all versions of Esther lack mention of God. For example, the narrative of Esther preserved in an ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) not only names God, but portrays a very active divine role, in addition to several significant additions to the story.
Robert Alter is among those who conclude that the playful entertainment character of Esther along with its function in the festival of Purim explains the lack of reference to God, Torah, or the Land of Israel (Alter, xvi). Other scholars insist that the narrative does in fact reflect the hidden presence of God. They point to Esther 4:14, Mordecai’s only direct speech to Esther: “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another quarter . . . .” (NRSV passim). They suggest that “another quarter” constitutes an indirect reference to God. They point to the use of passive verbs that indicate the involvement of God elsewhere (e.g., Neh 5:13; Matt 5:4). Others have focused on Esther’s call for a fast (4:16). In some biblical texts a fast implies a prayer of confession and/or intercession whether or not God is explicitly mentioned (e.g., 2 Chron 20:3-4). Be that as it may, the absence of the divine name from the narrative of Esther makes the book unique in the Bible (although the Song of Songs may also lack the divine name, with a single debated occurrence at 8:6).
Many readers object to the story on ethical grounds, pointing specifically to the glorification of violence: “So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them” (9:5). The so-called conquest narratives in the Old Testament (Joshua and Judges) and the apocalyptic narratives in the New Testament (Revelation) portray violence exercised either by God or at God’s command. However, in Esther not only does the story use violence as acceptable defense in conflict, it seems to glorify the slaughter. Other scholars answer that the story reflects “cartoon” violence rather than a serious glorification of violence.
Finally, while some readers lift up Esther as a model and hero for women, others believe Vashti provides a more exemplary model. Vashti refused to cooperate with the king’s command that she appear at the banquet to show off her beauty. By contrast Esther accommodated herself to the royal ethos, using her beauty and shrewdness to win the security she sought for her people.
Origin, Form, and Features of the Narrative
Esther is first and foremost a story about the Jews living in the Diaspora. Not surprising, Esther shares literary and narrative characteristics with other literature from and about the Diaspora. For example, chapters 1–6 in Daniel narrate the story of a royal courtier, Daniel, who gained stature in a Diaspora court.
These and other Jewish accounts from that era tell stories of Jewish men or women whose actions preserve the Jewish identity and secure its future in a situation of minority vulnerability. Like other such narratives, the purpose is not to narrate historical events, but to tell stories of Jewish powerlessness, danger, and deliverance. The narratives intend to generate hope in the midst of difficult circumstances.
While sharing the narrative features common to Hebrew short story, the novella of Esther is both longer and more complex than most biblical short stories, e.g., Ruth and Jonah. The length itself affects the narrative features. Esther contains more characters involved in a wide variety of situations.
Not only is Esther longer than many other such diaspora narratives, it differs in another important way. Speech is central to biblical Hebrew narratives. Description is usually sparse. We hear characters speak and develop our perceptions of them from their words. In Esther, however, as Adele Berlin points out, we find the narrator telling more of the story than is typical. For example, we don’t hear Mordecai tell Esther to hide her Jewish identity. We don’t hear Mordecai tell the servants he is a Jew. We don’t hear the king tell everyone to bow down to Haman (3:2). We don’t hear Esther tell Hathach to go to Mordecai to find out what is happening (4:5) or Mordecai talking to Hathach (4:7). All of those important moments are given to us by the narrator (Berlin, xxv).
In summary, Esther is a spirited story about a serious situation. Her character is depicted living as a vulnerable person in a context where power rests in the hands of leaders who are dangerous and unpredictable. How can one survive as well as maintain one’s personal integrity and community identity in such a context?
Summary and Comments
The Hebrew name for the Persian king, Ahasuerus, does not appear in the list of Persian kings outside of the Bible. Traditionally Ahasuerus has been identified with the Persian king whom the Greeks called Xerxes I (486–465 BCE). Some Greek manuscripts of Esther name the Persian king as Artaxerxes, the successor to Xerxes. As we read, we need to consider that the narrator is telling us a story about perils and possibilities of Jewish life in the Persian Empire, not writing history as we now define it.
Royal Banquets, 1:3-9
The narrative’s series of banquets begins with the king giving a banquet for “all his officials and ministers” (1:3). The description of this banquet portrays a party that exceeds all imaginable criteria for extravagance. The feast lasts six months during which the king explicitly displays the wealth of the empire. The extravagance of the royal banquet sets the tone for this royal administration throughout the narrative. The account emphasizes the quantity of wine available to the guests as noted in 1:8: “the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.”
In spite of the opening words (“When these days were completed,” 1:5), the second banquet (1:5) seems to blend into the one hundred and eighty day party. The first banquet was for the “officials and ministers” (1:3); the second involved “all the people present in the citadel of Susa” (1:5). The Persian capital, Susa (šušan in Hebrew), was divided into two parts: the citadel, a fortified city, including the palace, the royal gardens, and related buildings, and the unfortified city where the common people lived.
Whether or not it was customary for women and men to attend the same banquet, in this narrative the Queen, Vashti, held her own banquet for the women.
The Vashti Problem, 1:10-22
When the banquet was at its “high” point, the king ordered the eunuchs to bring Vashti so that she could “show . . . her beauty” as he had shown off his wealth (1:11). Vashti refused the king’s command.
Most contemporary readers sympathize with Vashti. She is seen as one who refused to compromise her integrity. Adele Berlin notes that Vashti did what she should have done. She acted to preserve her own dignity in a situation where men had lost theirs. To obey the command would be to bring shame on both the office she held and Vashti herself. However, in the past, some Christian and Jewish readers belittled Vashti as corrupt and vile, with her disobedience symbolic of those who disobey God.
Unfortunately Vashti’s refusal of the king’s command was to hurt all the women in the realm. The king took actions which will typify his behavior in this story. He consulted his advisors. Seldom will Ahasuerus make his own decisions. Instead he will ask others what he should do and implement their advice. At this narrative moment, the king turned to sages learned in the laws for advice. Memucan, speaking for the “sages,” insisted that when word got out concerning disobedience by the queen, it would encourage similar behavior by the other women in the realm. In fact, according to the sages, Vashti’s disobedience threatened the social fabric of the entire empire. On their advice, the king deposed Vashti and declared by law that “every man should be master in his own house” (1:22).
The social chaos feared by the royal advisors and the king seems oddly familiar. They concluded that the social fabric of the Persian Empire was fragile enough that one misstep by the queen would cause irreparable damage.
At times of national military emergency in our day, some officials worry that any dissent will undermine the social solidarity that they deem the situation requires. They have sought new or interpreted existing laws so as to control and/or punish the actions of dissenting citizens. One suspects that a Persian law requiring allegiance to the husband as master of the house would have been no more successful than contemporary attempts to coerce conscience. Nevertheless the perceived threat of social chaos can tempt a government to try to compel social conformity.
Process for Selecting a New Queen, 2:1-4
Eventually King Ahasuerus became aware of what he had lost when he deposed the Queen: he remembered Vashti (2:1). The use of the word “remember” (zakar) usually signals a positive emotion, such as affection or compassion, that leads to action. In the midst of the flood, God “remembered Noah and the animals” (Gen. 8:1) and the flood waters recede.
As is often the case with this king, he adopts an action plan proposed by his staff. The young men who serve him propose bringing “all the beautiful young virgins” to the palace harem (lit. “house of women”; 2:3). Although many translations indicate that the women brought to the kings were to be “virgins” (so NRSV), the Hebrew word (betulah) indicates their young age more than their sexual experience. The young women were placed under the direction of Hegai, the king’s eunuch. Hegai’s task was to further enhance their beauty, preparing them to meet the king.
Introduction of Mordecai and Esther, 2:5-7
The narrative abruptly turns from the plan to choose a new Queen to the introduction of Mordecai and Esther (2:5). The text introduces Mordecai as a Jewish exile whose ancestors belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe of King Saul. In 597 BCE, the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and dispersed much of Jerusalem’s population to various parts of the empire. The narrative places Mordecai in the citadel or fortified section of Susa (the winter capital of the Empire). Mordecai’s presence in the citadel indicates that he functioned as an official in the royal court.
Esther (Hebrew name Hadassah) was also a Jewish exile, but unfortunately she had lost her parents (2:7). Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, was caring for her as a “daughter” (2:7, 15). Scholars differ on whether the text indicates a formal adoption or an act of compassion for an orphaned cousin. Be that as it may, in the narrative, Mordecai functions as Esther’s father.
The Selection of a Queen, 2:8-20
Esther meets the qualifications as a candidate for queen: young and beautiful (2:7). Therefore Esther was taken into the citadel and placed, along with many other young women, in the care of Hegai, the royal servant in charge of these women (2:8). Among the women there, for reasons the story does not explain, Esther became a favorite of Hegai. He provided Esther with the best attendants and the best accommodations. Consequently, Esther moved rapidly to join the elite group of women being prepared for an “interview” with the king.
Meanwhile, Mordecai paced back and forth outside the “court of the harem,” anxious to learn how Esther was doing (2:11). Mordecai had given her one instruction: Esther was not to reveal her Jewish identity (2:10). We are not told that Jewish ethnicity would disqualify her or even hinder Esther’s selection. Nevertheless, it is seldom an advantage for a minority to reveal their ethnicity. In this story, concealing this information from the king heightens the drama at a decisive moment when Esther’s identity is revealed (8:5-6).
The candidates in the harem were carefully transformed into women fit to be queen. Esther was as compliant as the other women, perhaps more so. When it came her turn to go to the palace, she asked for nothing except what Hegai recommended (2:15). The narrative allows us to read Esther’s compliance in several ways. Her compliance here stands in direct contrast to Vashti’s disobedience and also to the moment in chapter 4 when Esther herself will take charge of the action (4:16).
The time came for Esther’s interview with the King. The narrative does not take us into the royal chamber with Esther to see what happened. We are simply told the result in a two-fold statement: “The king loved Esther more than all the other women; she had won his love and favor more than all the others” (2:17 CEB). Many readers assume this meeting involved sexual activity. Perhaps. The language used in the narrative can be read that way, but we do not see the proceedings. We are not told what went on. We are told that Esther now wore the royal crown previously worn by Vashti.
The Esther story features many feasts/banquets. So we should not be surprised when the king declares a public holiday and “Esther’s banquet” (2:18). The holiday included the royal distribution of gifts throughout the empire. The enthronement drama ends with a statement that, following Mordecai’s instruction, Esther continued to remain silent regarding her ethnic and religious identity (2:20).
Mordecai Acts in Behalf of the King 2:21-23
This three-verse narration seems to have little relationship to the flow of the larger narrative. However, it establishes Mordecai’s allegiance to the king. Two of the royal guards, Bithan and Teresh, became angry with the king and so planned an assassination. Learning of the plot, Mordecai told Queen Esther. The Queen relayed the information to the king along with the name of the informant, Mordecai. An investigation found the conspiracy to be true, and the guards were executed. A note of Mordecai’s assistance was entered into the royal chronicle. No further action was taken by the king.
Brief as it is, this note in the royal journal will play a decisive role in the conflict that develops between the royal courtiers, Mordecai and Haman.
Conflict in the Royal Court, 3:1–4:17
Mordecai and Haman
In this episode we follow the conflict between the primary antagonists, Mordecai and Haman. The conflict in chapter 1 arose in the royal family itself: Queen Vashti refused to obey an order of the king. The clash in this episode occurs between two royal courtiers, originating with the King’s unexplained decision to elevate Haman to a preeminent position in the court. For his part, Mordecai refused to acknowledge Haman’s preeminence. This enraged Haman.
As was the case with Queen Vashti, the subordinate person (Mordecai) refused to obey the order of the superior (Haman). Vashti’s refusal resulted in a royal fiat directed against all the women in the realm. In response to Mordecai’s disobedience, Haman began a plot to exterminate “all the Jews, the people of Mordecai” (3:6).
A brief note about Haman’s ethnicity. His designation as an Agagite (3:1) connects this narrative with the longstanding enmity between Israel and the Amalekites. At Moses’ command, Joshua fought off Amalek’s attack on the Israelites during their journey from Egypt to Canaan (Exod 17). The name of Agag appears in 1 Samuel 15 as the Amalekite king. Having defeated the Amalekites, Saul initially spared Agag but later Samuel executed him, leaving Agag’s mother childless and thus, one would assume, Agag without descendants (1 Sam. 15:33). However, this narrative assumes that Agag did have descendants. Apparently the point of the Esther narrative is not to deal with that issue, but to assert that the enmity between these two courtiers was deeply embedded in both of them.
As the conflict between these two royal figures escalates, Esther emerges as the key figure in the drama. As first introduced (2:8-22), Esther appeared as a character type more than a developed person. Esther obediently did as she was told both by her adoptive father, Mordecai, and by the palace officials into whose care she was placed. Indeed, Esther functioned exactly as she was described: “the girl was fair and beautiful” (2:7). However, in this episode Esther shows herself to be more than just a submissive woman. The unit concludes with the statement: “Mordecai . . . did everything as Esther had ordered him” (4:17). Esther is now in charge.
If Esther has developed a more complex character, the same is not true for King Ahasuerus and Haman. In response to Mordecai’s defiance, Haman presented his extermination petition to the king. Michael Fox notes that Haman’s speech moves seductively from a simple observation to a self-serving lie (Fox, 47-48). Haman began with an accurate observation: “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom” (3:8a). Then Haman’s statements become progressively less accurate and more dangerous: “their laws are different from those of every other people” (3:8b). To be sure the Jews have some practices and religious laws different from other people, but Haman’s overstatement makes them sound dangerously disloyal. Haman then reinforced with a lie the subversive character of this unidentified people: “they do not keep the king’s laws” (3:8c). From this Haman drew his conclusion: “It is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them” (3:8 AT). Like the royal advisors concerning Vashti, Haman has successfully turned a dispute between two courtiers into a national emergency.
Did King Ahasuerus know that the Jews were the people Haman described as seditious? Haman did not identify the group to the king. Not even the Greek version of the story, which supplies a text of the royal edict, indicates the name of the “treasonous” people. The Jews were not identified except in Haman’s annihilation decree (3:13). There is no indication that the King chose to check out the allegations made by his courtier. Instead, Ahasuerus took his advisor’s counsel and authorized Haman to write and issue an edict. Haman did as permitted: “giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children” (3:13).
The narrative focus switches from Haman to Mordecai (4:1). Learning what Haman had done, Mordecai responded to the news with a ritual of mourning, sackcloth and ashes. This ritual constituted an appropriate response not only to the death of a loved one, but to any news of tragedy or impending tragedy (Gen 37:34; 1 Kings 20:31-32). Given the narrative context, Mordecai’s action seems to have more in common with a ritual of tragedy than with a religious ritual of confession and petition. However, some see Mordecai’s action as a part of a hidden religious dimension in the story.
Hearing of Mordecai’s grief ritual through the palace grapevine, Esther responded immediately. She sent Mordecai proper clothing, so that he might get rid of the sackcloth. Mordecai refused her offer. Through the servant Hathach, Mordecai sent Esther a copy of Haman’s “law.” In addition, he instructed Esther to go to the King to get help. Esther sent back a message that she couldn’t do that. If she went to the king without the king’s invitation, she could die.
In answer, Mordecai declared that Esther risked death regardless of what she would decide in reaction to this royal edict (4:13). If Esther decided to remain passive, help “will rise for the Jews from another quarter” and Esther and her “father’s” family would die (4:14). Very quickly, however, Mordecai switched his tone from threat to encouragement: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:14).
Interpreters have long discussed whether Mordecai’s speech implies divine intervention and/or assistance should Esther refuse to act (4:13-14). Many have taken the phrase “from another quarter” as a veiled reference to God. Other readers suggest that the phrase “Who knows?” may be a reference to God. The Greek version tells the story with God very actively present, but the Hebrew text allows readers room to wonder.
Esther Takes the Initiative
At this point, the complexity of Esther’s character really emerges. She moves from passive obedience to directing the course of events. Esther begins by directing Mordecai to call the community together to fast. Esther declares that she will go to the king: “if I perish, I perish” (4:16). Now it is Esther in charge and Mordecai obedient (4:17).
Carol Meyers points out that the social position of women in ancient Israel was similar to that of most other women in the ancient Near East. The records and narratives feature men in the public realm: religious, political, economic, and social. Women were in charge of the “home.” Calling the women’s domain “private” or “domestic” does not imply that women were less influential than men, especially in the agrarian village of ancient Israel. The sharp line between the two realms is no longer an accurate portrayal of the ancient village life. The two realms were interdependent as well as distinct. In this narrative, Esther, as a woman functioning in the royal court, found herself very vulnerable (Meyers, 113-16).
Esther in Charge: The First Banquet, 5:1-14
Esther now quietly guides the course of events. Haman and King Ahasuerus don’t know that the “cooperative” queen is about to subvert Haman’s decree, but they will find out.
Another, less visible, woman will also play a key role in the narrative. Zeresh, the wife of Haman, enters the story (5:10). Initially she instructs her husband on the next steps he should take concerning Mordecai (5:14), advice he eagerly embraces. Later she will inform him that his cause is lost (6:13). While it was the men who initiated the conflict, to a considerable extent, the women will control its resolution.
Rather than directly requesting an audience with the king, Esther places herself where Ahasuerus can see her (5:2). The king extends an invitation to Esther, not only inviting her into his presence, but offering, right away, to grant her whatever she wants! (5:3). Esther’s response seems as surprising as the King’s offer. She asks for a banquet, a banquet for three: the king, the queen, and Haman. The king grants Esther’s request (5:5). As she did with Mordecai earlier (4:17), Esther now sets the agenda for the King.
This royal banquet for three has an ominous feel about it. The reader knows that Esther has invited the enemy to dinner. This banquet calls to mind the ancient tradition of the dangerous banquet: a banquet in which hospitality hides the danger that attends the meal.
The king interrupted the banquet by reiterating his offer to Esther: “What is your petition? It shall be granted you” (5:6). Apparently the king shared the readers’ sense that there is more to come. In response, Esther requested yet another banquet! Esther said that at the second banquet, she would reveal her request (5:7-8).
Haman: Joy to Rage
Haman leaves the banquet happy, but immediately comes upon Mordecai, who completely ignores Haman. Levenson notes that with this behavior Mordecai has escalated their “war” of mutual humiliation. Whereas before he refused to bow before Haman (3:2), now Mordecai does not even acknowledge Haman’s presence (Levenson, 66-69).
Haman mirrors the procedure of his king. Like Ahasuerus, Haman turns to others for counsel. Zeresh, Haman’s wife, recommends that Haman build a stake and convince the king to execute this adversary (5:14). Levenson notes that this stake is frequently considered a gallows (so NRSV) because a stake of fifty-cubits (seventy-five to eighty feet) high would be impractical. He proposes that rather than trying to explain what would be practical, we recognize this as another example of the bizarre picture painted by the narrative (Levenson, 93).
Coincidence, Confusion, Reversal, 6:1-13
This episode acts as a narrative interlude between Esther’s two banquets. The episode opens with King Ahasuerus unable to sleep. The king decides to pass the sleepless hours listening to a reading of the royal annals. An entry in the royal chronicle records a conspiracy to assassinate the king that was thwarted by information provided by Mordecai (2:21-23).
The king asked his advisors what was done to honor Mordecai. They answered: “Nothing” (6:3). Ahasuerus continued: “Who is in the court?” At that moment, Haman had come to the court to speak to the king about executing Mordecai.
Without providing a reason for his inquiry, the king asked Haman: “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” (6:6). Haman, assuming he was the honoree, laid out a grand ceremony (6:7-9). Ahasuerus directed Haman to do exactly as he had identified—but not to honor Haman, to honor Mordecai! More humiliation: first Mordecai ignored Haman, now Haman must lead a parade honoring his enemy!
Haman hurries home in shame (6:12). This time Zeresh tells her husband that he will lose his “shame and honor war” against the Jew, Mordecai (6:13).
While the literary device of irony pervades the entire narrative of Esther, in this chapter irony becomes even more obvious. Haman’s catastrophe provides a classic example of irony: the result of Haman’s action is exactly the opposite of his intention.
Esther in Charge: The Second Banquet, 6:14–7:10
Haman is brought quickly (6:14) and “the king and Haman went in to feast” together (7:1; cf. 5:5). Because Haman has been snatched from a family discussion that announced his doom, this banquet has an increased air of danger.
The king opened the dinner conversation with the same offer to Esther at 7:2 as he had issued twice before (5:3 and 6). This offer, “Even to the half of my kingdom,” further exhibits the comic extravagance that characterizes the narrative (cf. Mark 6:23). This time Esther’s response to the king’s offer takes a new turn. She began politely, appealing to the king’s interest in and desire for Esther herself: “If I have won your favor” (7:3). On the basis of the king’s bond with her, the queen requested the preservation of her own life “and the lives of my people.” Esther explained her people’s plight to Ahasuerus using language taken from the decree of destruction: “destroyed,” “killed,” and “annihilated” (7:4; cf. 3:13).
The king responds to Esther’s petition as one ignorant of the whole situation: “who . . . and where” is this person? Esther’s response drops all the polite deference: “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Immediately terror struck Haman (7:6). Haman had used the king to gain the advantage; Mordecai countered with the queen. Mordecai will win.
The king rose and left the room (7:7). Returning he discovered Haman on the couch with the queen! The narrator tells us that Haman was pleading with the queen to spare his life. However, the king misread the situation, concluding that Haman was sexually assaulting Queen Esther. Esther’s silence allows the king’s perception to stand.
Again, Ahasuerus asks for advice. Harbona, another of the royal servants, informed the king that Haman had constructed a “stake” for the execution of Mordecai. The king then ordered Haman executed on the stake the condemned man had constructed for his enemy (7:9).
While the conflict between the two royal courtiers is over, the problem of Haman’s “irrevocable” edict of annihilation remains unfinished.
Edict Reversed, 8:1-17
This concluding chapter narrates the reversal of the fortunes of Mordecai and Haman. Most urgently, the decree authorizing the extermination of the Jews must be reversed. However other elements of the royal world are reversed as well. Queen Esther controls the “property” of Haman. Mordecai assumes Haman’s official position (8:1-2).
True to form, Ahasuerus, rather than taking the initiative related to the edict, authorizes Esther to “write as you please with regard to the Jews” (8:8). This second decree did not nullify the first. In this narrative, royal tradition prevented that (8:8). The edict that Mordecai dictates includes but goes beyond self-defense: if any people or province attacks them, they may “destroy, . . . kill, and . . . annihilate” its armed force, together with women and children, and plunder their possessions (8:11).
David Clines proposes a different translation: “the king allowed the Jews . . . to destroy, to kill and to annihilate any armed force . . . that might attack them, their children and women” (Clines, 317). That is, the attack on women and children is ascribed to those who would harm the Jews rather than stating that the Jews would attack the women and children of their enemies. While this translation might sit better with many readers, it doesn’t help those troubled by authorities who quickly choose annihilation as the best way to deal with an opponent/enemy.
Following the original edict mandating the annihilation of the Jews, the residents of the capital had been “thrown into confusion” (3:15) and Mordecai had torn his clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes (4:1). After the second edict, the response was the reverse. Mordecai left wearing royal robes and the “city of Susa shouted and rejoiced” (8:15).
Power in the political realm can shift quickly, as happens in this narrative. Such sudden shifts may occur whether the officials have obtained their position by election, inheritance, appointment, or violence. The tenuous character of political power often generates in the office holder an effort to consolidate and maintain one’s position. Some efforts may be “Haman-like” in their attempt to destroy opposition. At the very least, the endeavor to “stay in office” can turn the attention of an official away from his or her responsibilities, instead directing energy toward the elimination of anyone who might pose a threat.
Establishment of Purim, 9:1-32
While the festival of Purim likely constitutes the intended focal point of this scene, the eyes of many readers fix on the jarring violence that precedes the authorization of that holiday.
From the existence of the Greek narrative of Esther we know that the story was told and retold differently in various Jewish communities. In the form we have in the Hebrew text of the Bible, the narrative reports the killing of thousands of their “enemies,” including the sons of Haman. Indeed, Esther requested that Ahasuerus complete the humiliation of the “house of Haman” by impaling the bodies of Haman’s sons (9:13).
Adele Berlin and Robert Alter, among others, urge readers to see the violence as a part of the exaggerated carnival-like flavor that characterizes the story. The “cartoon violence” exaggerates an event or situation providing a “safe” way to express anger and outrage. That may be possible, but this conclusion to the “reversal” disturbs those who grieve over the degree to which our culture supports violence or the threat of violence as the primary way to settle conflict.
The establishment of the festival of Purim concludes the chapter. Though at one time the story may have been told and perhaps written without reference to Purim, quite likely the association with Purim played a key role in its inclusion in the canon. While this story celebrates the deliverance of the Jews in the Diaspora, Purim itself includes two elements: (1) days of joyful feasts, and (2) an occasion for sending gifts to one another and to the poor (9:22).
Epilogue: Ahasuerus and Mordecai, 10:1-3
The epilog returns us to the opening scene. There we saw King Ahasuerus acting in all his royal authority to throw an extravagant banquet (1:1-9). In the epilog Mordecai stands beside Ahasuerus, as the second in rank (10:3). The community, which had come so close to extermination, now had Mordecai standing next to the king. Many readers have noticed that one person is missing in the concluding scene: Esther, the one most responsible for the deliverance.
Robert Alter notes that unexpectedly for a book included in the canon, Esther seems to have been told largely for entertainment (Alter, xiv). Many of the characters and events in the story are funny, even outrageous. He observes that the book does not pretend to correspond to actual people, as the early listeners would certainly have known. In the midst of humor, the book speaks to and about the difficulty and vulnerability of life as a minority: managing life when the values, rules, and power are controlled by another, dominant group.
We often have trouble enjoying the element of humor in the Bible, whether it be in Esther, Jonah, or Jesus (“it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” Matt 19:24). Of course, humor can and has been used to stereotype and belittle other people or groups. But humor can relax painful or serious situations, e.g., a family, during and after a memorial service, remembering the foibles as well as the gifts of their loved one. Besides providing an interlude of relaxation, humor can be, as it is in this story, an “agent of hope” to those living in oppression, danger, or despair. As the Greek narrative of Esther makes clear, God works to deliver the oppressed, even if that activity remains invisible to many.
Shame and Honor
Timothy Laniak discusses the importance of honor and shame in the story of Esther. Vashti, Mordecai, and Haman explicitly act out of their desire for honor and their avoidance of shame. The king has a position of honor but most often acts honorably only if he receives trustworthy advice. Esther seems less driven by honor and less worried about shame, but living as an unwelcome exile on foreign soil carries a measure of shame in and of itself. Nevertheless, by the end of the narrative, honor has replaced any degree of public shame for Esther, and for Mordecai as well.
Our culture doesn’t pay as much attention to the power and problem of shame as was true in the culture of the ancient Near East. Developed in part from long held interpretations of the Pauline literature, we tend to talk more about guilt and innocence, sin and righteousness. Nevertheless we recognize the power of shame. Tragically shame has been used by parents against children, men against women, Euro-Americans against other minority groups, and “normal” people against those physically and mentally less able. Pacifist groups have been belittled as unpatriotic and cowardly.
In this story the figure of Haman demonstrates the problematic, sometimes self-defeating character of the pursuit of honor. Believers Church groups, even with our emphasis on service, have not been immune from the drive for honor. In congregational settings, international ministries, and elsewhere we have sometimes acted out of the expectation that through righteous, faithful work we will receive honor from God and perhaps people.
Active Opponent or Cooperative Subversive
Scholars point to the role of active opposition and subversive cooperation (or submission) in Esther. Vashti and Mordecai take the path of directly refusing what they consider inappropriate demands by the powerful: Ahasuerus and Haman. For her part, Esther chose subversive cooperation. Both paths have their possibilities and problems. In this story Esther made subversive cooperation work to rescue her people. Vashti’s refusal negatively affected all the women of the realm, and Mordecai’s refusal threatened to destroy himself and his people.
Those in the Believers Church tradition have struggled with how to appropriately and effectively live out the commitment to nonviolence. Some people have chosen to actively and publicly oppose anything related to the use of violence, particularly the military. That has worked well, but the danger can be the same as in this story. The “backlash” may be so intense as to hurt more than help. Subversive cooperation can and has worked well, but that too has its danger. It may never be subversive. It may just be submissive cooperation.
Christian tradition has tended to set aside the book of Esther except for Mordecai’s statement in 4:14: ”who knows but that you have come . . . for such a time as this?” (NIV). Jewish tradition has picked up the playfulness of the narrative in the celebration of Purim. Both traditions lift up an important aspect of the story. However, Esther invites us to notice other issues. Perhaps the most critical for our time: how can majority and minority groups move together beyond condescension and distrust toward a relationship of mutual respect and appreciation?
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
- Alter, Robert. Strong as Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel. New York: Norton, 2015.
- Bechtel, Carol. Esther. Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2002.
- Berlin, Adele. Esther. JPS Bible Commentary. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publications Society, 2001.
- Clines, David J. A. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. New Century Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.
- Fox, Michael V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
- Laniak, Timothy S. Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther. SBL Dissertation Series 165. Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1998.
- Levenson, Jon D. Esther: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
- Meyers, Carol. “‘Women of the Neighborhood’ (Ruth 4.17): Informal Female Networks in Ancient Israel.” In Ruth and Esther. Ed. Athalya Brenner, 110-27. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 1999.
- Roop, Eugene F. Ruth, Jonah, Esther. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2002.
Invitation to Comment
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|—Eugene F. Roop|