God, without infringing human freedom to choose, can bring about a reversal of seemingly impossible situations.
Jo Ann Davidson
The biblical Book of Esther has drawn continuing interest throughout the centuries. And it remains central to Jewish festival liturgy today. Many Christian theologians also appreciate its historical progress into the canon—a sign of its centrality and importance in salvation history.
The narrative suggests the writer was intending to record actual history. There are no fictional indicators in the text. The writer included dates and times, lists of names, plus knowledge about the Persian Empire and language. The story also displays literary skills, obvious whether the text is read superficially or with more scrutiny. What is more, aesthetic qualities need not sideline the truth of a historical record. They can bear the weight of historical truth, and in fact, even highlight it.
First, a brief historical survey:
● Cyrus the Great (545–530 B.C.) was especially responsible for extending the borders of the empire. Although his military advances were quite conclusive, even ruthless, he treated people within his empire with respect, seeing himself as their liberator rather than a tyrant.
● Cambyses II (530–522 B.C.) followed; he spent much of his time expanding the empire into Egypt.
● Darius (522–486 B.C.) consolidated the empire’s power despite internal power struggles. He was also responsible for the palace complex at Susa (the ancient capital of Elam, modern-day Iran).
● Xerxes (Ahasuerus, 486–465 B.C.), in whose reign Esther lived, had lost battles with the Greeks in a time when Greek culture flourished in Athens through Socrates, Pericles, and Pythagorus.
Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote about Persian history during this period in his Histories of the Persian Wars (499–449 B.C.). He described Xerxes as tall and handsome—also an ambitious ruler and warrior. About a third of his materials dealt with Xerxes’ reign. Esther lived during this time—along with a group of Jews who earlier had been allowed to return to Jerusalem yet remained in the Persian Empire. Their situation wasn’t necessarily tranquil. Some Jews had risen to prominence, such as Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Mordecai, though any subversive actions by ethnic minorities were treated ruthlessly. Mordecai and Esther, the two main Jewish characters in the biblical Book of Esther, thus lived in a foreign land under the rule of King Ahasuerus.
The Book of Esther makes no explicit mention of religion, worship, or God, though it does deal implicitly with a major Old Testament theme of divine deliverance, which at that time the Jews hadn’t deserved. The time period of the narrative dates it as one of the last historical books of the Old Testament. Salvation history from Genesis 12 to the later years of the Persian Empire, includes during the latter part of that history a record of a queen who demonstrated her willingness to give up her life for her people—a life in some way prophetic of that of Jesus Himself. She can be seen as a type of Jesus the Deliverer who brings about a reversal for those condemned to death, willing to expose her ethnic identity to save her people. These various details undergird the narrative’s theological meaning.
Interestingly, though God is not explicitly mentioned, notably the number seven, a biblical number for completeness and perfection, is recurrent in the narrative:
● Ahasuerus holds a second banquet that lasts seven days for the people of Susa, both “great and small” (1:5, NRSV).
● On the seventh day, the king commands seven eunuchs (vs. 10), and takes counsel from his seven nobles (vs. 14);
● Esther was assigned seven maids (2:9), who were taken to Xerxes in the seventh year of his reign (vs. 16).
And then, on “the third day” in chapter five (vs. 1, NRSV), the narrative account pivots for Esther.
Chapter 1: The Setting
The Book of Esther opens with an impressive description of the enormous range of the king’s realm with a long, strong list of nouns, indicating he is no mere local tribe chief. He ruled 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia; commanded various ranks of “officials,” “princes,” “military leaders,” and “nobles” (vss. 1–3, NIV); and the description of his almost measureless wealth, a resplendent “glory of his majesty” (vs. 4, NIV), includes lists of precious fabrics and exotic stones (vs. 6).
His enormous resources allowed him to host a 180-day “festival” to show off to “all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present” (vs. 3, NIV). Seven more days of feasting followed “for all the people from the least to the greatest, who were in the citadel of Susa” (vs. 5, NIV). These two banquets are just the beginning of several other banquets to follow in the Book of Esther.
During the feasting, Queen Vashti refused the king’s command to appear at the feast before a vast drunken royal audience—the narrator having noted that drinks had been well supplied: “Wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink in his own way, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished” (vss. 7, 8, NIV).
The narrator notes that Vashti’s refusal infuriated the king: “Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger” (vs. 12, NIV). As he is prone to do all through the narrative, he sought counsel about what to do: “He spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king—Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom. ‘According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?’ he asked. ‘She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her’” (vss. 13–15, NIV).
The king’s counselors interpreted Vashti’s refusal as a deliberate act of rebellion, which they determined would cause an ominous situation for all husbands in the entire realm: “Then Memucan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, ‘Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, “King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.” This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord. Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest’” (vss. 16–20, NIV).
This counsel “pleased the king” (vs. 21, NRSV), who ordered it to be proclaimed “to each province according to its script and to every people according to their language” (vs. 22, NASB)—as would be done later with another urgent imperial announcement.
Chapter 2: The Search for Vashti’s Replacement
When the king’s anger subsided, perhaps after he became sober again, he realized “what had been decreed against her” (2:1, NASB). His counselors were again ready to help: “‘Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king. And let the king appoint overseers in all the provinces of his kingdom that they may gather every beautiful young virgin to Susa the capital, to the harem, into the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the women; and let their cosmetics be given them. Then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti.’ And the matter pleased the king, and he did accordingly” (vss. 2–4, NASB).
At this point in the narrative, Esther and her foster parent are introduced. Mordecai, of the tribe of Benjamin and the family of Saul (Kish), had adopted Esther (his uncle’s daughter) because her parents had died. Meanwhile, the king’s officials promptly carried out the royal decree: “So it was, when the king’s command and decree were heard, and when many young women were gathered at Shushan the citadel, under the custody of Hegai, that Esther also was taken to the king’s palace, into the care of Hegai the custodian of the women” (vs. 8, NKJV).1
That “Esther . . . was taken” indicates the involuntary nature of her situation—which explains what Mordecai did: “[E]very day Mordecai paced in front of the court of the women’s quarters, to learn of Esther’s welfare and what was happening to her” (vs. 11). Her foster parent also urged her not to reveal her ethnic identity (vs. 10)—suggesting that Persian sentiments toward the Jews were not altogether positive.
Now sequestered in the king’s palace, Esther won the favor of the keeper of the women, Hegai, who generously provided her with extra beauty preparations and seven maidservants. After a year of preparation, it was time for Esther to be taken to the king. She had “obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her” (vs. 15)—soon including the king himself, for he “loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti” (vs. 17).
Another banquet is arranged—this time to celebrate Esther. “Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king” (vs. 18). And a sinister situation involving Mordecai now occurs—which subsequently proves critical for both him and Esther: “In those days, while Mordecai sat within the king’s gate, two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, doorkeepers, became furious and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. So the matter became known to Mordecai, who told Queen Esther, and Esther informed the king in Mordecai’s name. And when an inquiry was made into the matter, it was confirmed, and both were hanged on a gallows; and it was written in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king” (vss. 21–23).
That Mordecai “sat within the king’s gate” means that he was in an important position—for king’s gates at that time were major centers of commerce and legal procedures. Mordecai saving the king’s life was recorded in (literally) “the book of the chronicles.” This also will subsequently prove significant.
Chapter 3: The Edict of Genocide Issued
The narrator now mentions Haman’s rise to power: “After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were within the king’s gate bowed and paid homage to Haman, for so the king had commanded concerning him. But Mordecai would not bow or pay homage” (3:1, 2).
Haman’s advancement in the Persian court is a source of pride for him but tarnished because Mordecai will not bow down to him. Mordecai was urged by some of the king’s servants to comply with the royal directive, but he explained that he was a Jew—the first reference to his ethnicity in the narrative.
When Haman learned this, his hatred knew no bounds and he determined “to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus—the people of Mordecai” (vs. 6), persuading the monarch that the security of the kingdom was threatened by them: “‘a certain people [are] scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain’” (vs. 8).
Haman also had a ready solution for the situation: “‘If it pleases the king, let a decree be written that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver [about 375 tons!] into the hands of those who do the work, to bring it into the king’s treasuries’” (vs. 9).
Such an enormous amount of silver suggests the frightful extent of Haman’s hatred. The king immediately provides official approval by giving his signet ring to Haman: “the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews” (vs. 10). Haman’s genealogy is repeated and contributes to understanding the narrative. Ahasuerus assures Haman, “‘The money and the people are given to you, to do with them as seems good to you’” (vs. 11).
The day on which the genocidal royal order is issued (vs. 12) is significant, for it is also the day before Passover (Ex. 12:6; Lev. 23:5)—the festival that celebrates the ancient salvation of the Jews over their Egyptian oppressors. Perhaps Haman knew of this ancient history and determined to reverse that victory.
However, their calculation would prove to be a drastic mistake because of a coming dramatic reversal when another providential redemption would be linked with the date of Passover—again occurring precisely when genocide had been expected—as will be seen in chapter 9.
The language of this royal edict against the Jews (3:22) is similar to that of the first one demoting Vashti. The stipulations of that edict might have been difficult to follow up and enforce throughout Persia’s vast empire. However, the second one is frighteningly familiar to readers in a post-Holocaust era, for it demands a full-scale genocide—the annihilation of an entire ethnic group wherever they were throughout the entire empire. And it is terrifying for the Persian Jews: “the letters were sent by couriers into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their possessions. A copy of the document was to be issued as law in every province, being published for all people, that they should be ready for that day” (vss. 13, 14).
Ahasuerus fully accepts his prime minister’s call for the destruction of all Jews in his empire—without pity or compassion. The king apparently doesn’t even question Haman about who the doomed people are—which does not portray the king in a positive manner. The characterization of Haman is no better—for the evil decree is drawn up “according to all that Haman commanded—to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province, to the officials of all people, to every province according to its script, and to every people in their language” (vs. 12).
The wording of the verse conveys a sense of intense action, consisting of four short clauses, and, atypically for biblical Hebrew, each begins with a noun followed by a verb in the perfect: “The couriers went out, hastened by the king’s command; and the decree was proclaimed in Shushan the citadel. So the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Shushan was perplexed” (vs. 15). The city of Susa was “thrown into confusion” (vs. 15, NRSV)—with the Jews forced to contemplate what must have seemed an inevitable fate.
The king and Haman calmly sat down for drinks, contrasting with the “confusion” that was going on outside the fortified compound. The drinking contributed again to pitiless behavior—also highlighting their obvious crassness. It recalls Joseph’s brothers earlier sitting down to eat a meal just after throwing Joseph into a pit from which they never expected him to emerge alive (Gen. 37:25).
The enemies of the Jews did not necessarily include all the provincial officers, satraps, or other royal officials. More likely the enmity came from within a certain group of the imperial officers (9:1–4). The narrator does not present the people of Persia as generally anti-Jewish. Nor were the Jews a negative populace as Haman sought to imply. But Mordecai’s earlier comments do suggest that there was hatred and animosity harbored by some of the citizens, including Haman.
Chapter 4: Intercession With the King
Chapter 4 shifts away from the lethal actions at court to Mordecai’s desperate reaction of mourning, tearing his clothes, donning sackcloth, putting on ashes, and wailing publicly (4:1). The Jews throughout the empire did the same (vs. 3).
Mordecai, in the very center of the deadly plotting, knew of and reacted to the deadly situation. The queen apparently wasn’t aware of the edict at first. By law, she couldn’t go in to the king without invitation, and thus she was not privy to what had happened. But her staff reported to her what Mordecai was doing (vs. 5). Esther dispatched the royal eunuch Hathach to deliver garments for Mordecai to replace the sackcloth he was wearing in the city square and find out what had happened: “Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries to destroy the Jews” (vs. 7).
He also gave the eunuch a copy of the written decree commanding the destruction of the Jews to show to Esther, so that she might “go in to the king to make supplication to him and plead before him for her people” (vs. 8). Esther responded by describing the dangerous situation this would cause: “‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live. Yet I myself have not been called to go in to the king these thirty days’” (4:11).
Esther’s foster parent answers by spelling out the desperate circumstances the Jews face: “‘Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’” (vss. 13, 14).
Mordecai’s reply implies his faith in God: “‘deliverance will come’”—not “might come” or “could come” but “‘will come.’” His “‘who knows’” also indicates a guarded hope that God may again deliver His people from expected destruction as He had done in the past (such as in the Exodus, 2 Samuel 12:22; Joel 2:12–17).
Moreover, the mention of “‘another place’” from which “‘relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews’” hints that Mordecai also perceived that Esther’s astonishing rise to queenship might have been part of the providential plan for Jewish salvation. Her response to Mordecai reveals her courageous character: “‘Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!’” (vs. 16).
Esther does not rely upon her charm and beauty, which had originally attracted the king. Her concluding words, “‘if I perish, I perish,’” reveals her resignation to dying whether from Haman’s decree or from the king's edict if he does not hold out his scepter to her.
Esther now becomes the pivotal person in the emergency threatening her people. It couldn’t have been unknown to her that the former queen had been banished because she didn’t appear before the king when summoned. Yet Esther decides to chance appearing before him without being summoned.
Note the contrast: After issuing the deadly decree the king sits down to drink—and Esther fasts. Haman believes he controls the destiny of the Jews, while Esther is willing to face death, ready to die for her people if necessary.
Chapter 4 begins with Mordecai mourning (vss. 1, 2). He then is joined by the whole Jewish community in analogous ritual activity (vs. 3), the chapter concluding with Esther resolving to risk her life.
Esther earlier had listened to Mordecai’s counsel (2:10, 20). Now he follows her instructions, relaying them to the Jewish community: “Mordecai went his way and did according to all that Esther commanded him” (vs. 17). Esther was now faced with the peril of winning the king’s sometimes erratic favor.
Chapter 5: Esther Approaches the King
This chapter opens conveying the magnitude of the situation Esther faces by using the root of the word for king several times, along with the mention of “the third day”: “Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, across from the king’s house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house” (5:1, italics supplied).
The timing of this occasion is significant: (1) The action of Esther occurs on “the third day”—often a decisive moment in biblical history; (2) Esther’s intercession also occurs immediately following the issuance of the genocidal decree on the 13th of the first month (2:12), meaning she approached Ahasurerus during Passover (Lev. 23:5, 6)—a most auspicious date for the Jews. Also note the parallel of Esther 5:2 with Exodus 12:36, which reports that then the Lord put the Jewish people in favor with the Egyptians—in this case, with the Persians.
Notably, Esther approaches the king in her royal robe—which could spotlight her status. She rightly fears that the king’s reaction to her uninvited appearance could be lethal (4:11). However, she wins his grace (5:2), just as she had won him over in the earlier search for a new queen (2:17). Indeed, favor for her was widespread then and included that of the harem-keeper Hegai (2:9).
It might appear that in approaching the king unbidden, Esther was defying court protocol (4:11) and thereby repeating Vashti’s disobedience (1:12)—and confirming Haman’s charge that the Jews were insubordinate (3:8). However, the description of her entrance and where she stood (5:1, 2) makes clear that Esther only humbly approached the king’s presence in the courtyard and awaited his invitation—hoping he would invite her to approach the throne.
With the king’s acceptance, Esther sets up the next series of events by inviting the king and Haman to a banquet she would prepare for them that day.
Later, at that meal, Esther responds to the king’s second request about what she wants, by inviting the king and Haman to another banquet (5:7). This need not indicate that Esther lost her nerve when she finally was in a position to point the finger at Haman. Rather, her strategy builds up suspense, for Esther told the king that next day, at the second banquet, “‘I will do as the king has said’” (vs. 8). Instead of accusing Haman at her first opportunity, her two invitations to two separate banquets heightens the intrigue. Or, perhaps she hopes that Haman will reverse his course. By seeming to honor Haman, she hides the real situation—for he returns home full of elation because of his invitations to dine twice with the royal couple.
However, on his way home, Haman’s pleasure is dramatically dampened at the sight of Mordecai: “Haman went out that day joyful and with a glad heart; but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, and that he did not stand or tremble before him, he was filled with indignation against Mordecai. Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and called for his friends and his wife Zeresh. Then Haman told them of his great riches, the multitude of his children, everything in which the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and servants of the king. Moreover Haman said, ‘Besides, Queen Esther invited no one but me to come in with the king to the banquet that she prepared; and tomorrow I am again invited by her, along with the king’” (5:9–12).
All of Haman’s joy turns bitter, even becomes rage, because of one solitary person. He simply cannot be happy, nor suppress his anger, when Mordecai refuses to pay him homage (vs. 9). In only two verses (11, 12), the narrator presents a troubled and turbulent man.
His joy and merriment at the invitation for the second banquet will prove to be short-lived. The expression merry already occurred once before—describing the king’s mood as he issues the fateful order to bring Vashti to the banquet (1:10, 11). The use of this rare expression in these two contexts suggests the Haman and the king have similar characters—and that Haman’s merriment will be of short duration.
In light of what will happen, there is also irony in Haman’s boasting to his friends and his wife about his great success, lofty status, and “the multitude of his children” (5:11). After he expresses his frustration about Mordecai at home, his wife tells him what to do. This is ironic in light of one of the king’s wise men earlier solemnly and irrevocably decreeing that each man shall be “master in his own house” (1:22).
Though a conflict has arisen between two men, Mordecai and Haman, it is now two women, Esther and Zeresh, who determine what happens. The narrator does not mention Esther’s purpose in requesting a second banquet. But the reader will soon realize that God used it—along with a situation set up for Mordecai’s loyal service to the king—to be brought to the monarch’s attention.
Chapter 6: Narrative Turning Point
Chapter four marks a pivot in the narrative for Esther. Chapter 6 is the turning point of the entire narrative—containing a series of coincidences that may cause discerning readers to wonder: What is going on? Who is behind all this?
The chapter begins with the king’s mysterious inability to sleep (6:1). Earlier, Babylonian kings who could not sleep were about to be surprised by God (Dan. 2:1; 6:18). This king’s insomnia is again one of the providential elements in this narrative, all of which contribute to the theology of the Book of Esther:
● That Ahasuerus could not sleep one night would be unimportant except for the coincidence that his calling for the records to be read to him happens to open to the report of Mordecai’s overlooked act of saving his life.
● That the king asked for advice as to how to repay his loyal courtier (6:3) would hardly be worth mentioning, except that Haman—in another strategically coincidental turn—happens to be entering at just that moment (vs. 4). The timing is astonishing and sets up the drama of verses 10 and 11—the climactic turning point of the entire narrative.
When the king learns that Mordecai’s loyalty has gone unrewarded, he asks, “‘What honor or dignity has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?’” (vs. 3). When asking Haman the question, he not only leaves out Mordecai’s name but also any mention of promotion, only asking: “‘What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?’’’ (vs. 6, NKJV). Had he mentioned a promotion, it might reasonably be inferred that he was not speaking of Haman because he had already been promoted above all other officials in the empire (3:1; 5:11). However, Haman apparently cannot imagine that the king could wish to honor anyone more than he.
The extravagant suggestion that Haman unwittingly gives is to be granted to someone he hates. Ironic timing again: Haman arrives at court early to get rid of Mordecai (vs. 4)—resulting in his having to honor Mordecai (vs. 11).
The syntax of Haman’s answer to the king’s question (vs. 7) recalls the syntax of Esther’s answer in 5:7. The similarity with the exchange in the previous chapter invites a contrast between Esther’s circumspection and Haman’s exhibitionism. She uses the conventional expression of deference (“‘If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it pleases the king’” (5:8). Haman follows with obvious ambitious narcissism (“‘Let a royal robe be brought . . .’” 6:8).
The regal garb that Haman calls for has several biblical parallels, including Pharaoh’s investiture and honoring of Joseph (Gen. 41:37–43), and Belshazzar’s offer to Daniel in Babylon. The contrast between these three situations is striking, however:
1. Joseph is rewarded for devising a plan to save the kingdom during the coming seven lean years when he counsels Pharaoh to appoint “‘a discerning and wise man’” (Gen. 41:33), and Pharaoh is convinced that this should be Joseph. Haman has done nothing to merit such a reward, but he doesn’t seem to realize this. Instead, he is focused on his mission to be rid of Mordecai, “‘the man whom the king desires to honor’”—the one who had saved the king’s life.
Joseph had suggested a wise plan to protect the nation and was thereby promoted into high office and honored. Haman suggests a parade to benefit himself—and instead has to hail his archenemy, the king’s true benefactor.
Note also that Pharaoh personally invested Joseph with the insignia of his office and assigned him “the chariot of his second-in-command” for the honor (Gen. 41:43, NRSV). Haman, in contrast, specifies a personal investiture and requires that he ride on “‘a horse on which the king [himself] has ridden’” (Esther 6:8).
2. Daniel also refused honor, instead pointing to the true God—and Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, personally honored Daniel and his God (Daniel 2). Later, after Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall for him, “Belshazzar gave the command, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a chain of gold around his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:29).
As things turn out for Haman, by seeking honors, he is humbled (6:10, 11). It is Mordecai who will reflect Joseph’s role of second-in-command and be attired in majestic garb (Esther 8:15; 10:3; Gen. 41:45).
After parading Mordecai through town, Haman hurries home in disgrace, “mourning and with his head covered” (Esther 6:12). This becomes the first of the reversals of the decreed genocide Haman has ordered. The developing ominous situation becomes more definitive in the words of Zeresh and Haman’s friends: “When Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him, his wise men and his wife Zeresh said to him, ‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish descent, you will not prevail against him but will surely fall before him’” (vs. 13).
The narrative doesn’t describe when or how Haman’s wife and his advisers learned of Mordecai’s Jewish heritage, or how they thought Haman would fall before him. Perhaps they knew about Daniel’s earlier deliverance from Darius’ lions’ den. Nevertheless, they rightly interpreted the situation as an omen of things to come.
While Haman’s wife’s analysis seems to be going on, the king’s eunuchs hurry him off to the climactic banquet with the king and queen (vs. 14)—the reader again recalling that important things in this narrative happen during banquets!
At the time of Haman’s first banquet invitation, Zeresh and his friends advised Haman to build gallows on which to hang Mordecai—and then to “‘go merrily’” to Esther’s banquet (5:14). Journeying to the second banquet, however, Haman actually begins his journey to his own destruction. Perhaps the word descent also plays a role here, for it is Abraham’s “descent” (in the sense of progeny) to whom the Lord gave a promise of becoming the source of worldwide blessing (Gen. 12:3; 13:14–16).
Chapter 7: The Climactic Banquet
As in the case of the first banquet, the king gets down to business, asking for the third time, “‘What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled’” (7:2, ESV). There are variations in the phrasing of the king’s three questions to Esther:
● The first (5:3), when Esther was allowed to approach the throne without prior invitation, is the shortest. The title “Queen Esther,” appears there and with the third request (but not in verse 6). This may be reflecting the king’s favor in these suspenseful situations.
● Notice, also, the gender of the verb in “It shall be granted.” It is masculine in the first two occurrences (5:3, 6), but feminine in the climactic third time (7:2). This might be signaling that this time Queen Esther will be making a request for something vastly more important than just another banquet. The feminine form of the verb also anticipates the feminine predicate of her reply in the next verse (vs. 3) indicated by the key word, “‘my life’” (translated from a feminine noun). This time, Esther asks not for a banquet (a masculine noun), but for her very survival.
Esther’s third plea is masterful. Note that she addresses the king not in the expected third-person form but in the bolder and more personal form of direct address (“‘If I have won your favor, O King . . .’” (vs. 3, NRSV), for she now will plead for her own life.
The order of her words, “‘I and my people’” (vs. 4, NRSV) also appeals to the king’s affection for her. She also appeals to the king’s pride. Surely, he is too important to bother with a mere sale of innocent people into slavery. It is their destruction, slaughter, and annihilation that has brought her to petition on their behalf. “It is not the implied suggestion that he would be willing to bring dishonor for money which would challenge his honor. . . . But it is because her honor is respectfully placed in his hands that he must maintain it. Certainly it would be a disgraceful thing for him if she were sold off into slavery.”2
Esther’s choice of words (7:4) is framed in the language of the king’s original genocidal edict—“‘to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate’” (3:13). Esther also repeats what she learned from Mordecai in 4:7—“the sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries to destroy the Jews.” Then Esther bravely links the fate of her people to her own life.
The king immediately asks: “‘Who is he, and where is he, who would dare presume in his heart to do such a thing?’” (7:5). His question about who would do this suggests that Esther’s plaintive words indicate that it is some individual—who turns out to be “‘an adversary and enemy,’” Haman (vs. 6)—elsewhere described as “the enemy of the Jews” (3:10; 8:1; 9:10). Esther’s plea hints that as queen, she would not bring the king’s prime minster down merely to cancel a sale of her people into slavery, but annihilation is a far more deadly situation.
The unusual phrasing of the king’s actual words reveals the intensity of his surprise. If it is assumed that 7:4 is Esther’s first disclosure of her Jewishness, then one can imagine why the king is struggling for words. However, Esther’s plea here does not specify who her endangered people are—just as Haman’s proposal of genocide in 3:8 did not specify the identity of the “‘certain people’” (NKJV) whom the king should annihilate.
Esther’s accusation causes Haman to be “terrified before the king and queen” (7:6), for both of them are now against him. He has been found to be the enemy of both of them, not only “the enemy of the Jews,” as stated above, but rather an enemy in general. Now it is not the Persian government against the Jews, but the Persian king and his Jewish queen against Haman.
The king stomps out in a huff. His “rage” (7:7, NIV) has been described twice before—both times in connection with Vashti’s insubordination (1:12; 2:1). Haman has the same trait, being described twice as filled with “rage”—both times because of Mordecai (3:5; 5:9). When Esther reveals the name of her people’s deadly enemy (7:6), it is now Haman who is the target of the third mention of the king’s wrath. The king, having stomped out (in the previous verse) returns and misperceives Haman’s intention of falling onto Esther’s couch (7:8) mistaking it for sexual assault.
Some wonder about Esther’s refusal to respond positively to Haman’s abject supplications (7:7): “The simple truth is that at this point Haman was not defeated: he was a falling, not a fallen enemy. He had lost a crucial battle, but he had not necessarily lost the war. Were Haman to survive this round, he might recover and score a knockout in the next. So long as an enemy as powerful and shrewd as Haman lived, he was a threat to Esther, Mordecai, and the Jewish community. To say here that Esther was merciless and unfeeling is to misinterpret the entire situation. Thus, while her heart might have prompted her to be merciful, logic and prudence restrained her.”3
Or it might be, that given Haman’s Amalekite connection (in the biblical record), a true change of heart on his part would likely be out of the question—and Esther would be irresponsible if she did not deal with him this way.
Haman, for his part, perhaps thinks that since the only thing anyone has on him so far is his plan for genocide, there might still be hope for pardon. However, this expectation is dashed when the king imagines that he has caught Haman attempting something that in his moral evaluation is even worse—intrigue against his queen. When the king interprets Haman’s actions in this way, Haman’s end draws near: “The king said, ‘Will he also assault the queen while I am in the house?’ As the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face” (vs. 8).
Haman’s act of falling seals his fate. The wording is full of meaning in this narrative:
● Mordecai’s refusal to fall prostrate before the new prime minister was behind Haman’s anti-Jewish plan (3:1–6) and now has forced Haman to fall prostrate before a Jew;
● The first move in his plan to annihilate Mordecai and the Jews was Haman’s arranging the lot to be cast before him (vs. 7);
● When, in a foreshadowing of his final demise, Haman is forced to run before Mordecai, hailing him as “‘the man whom the king delights to honor’” (6:11), his advisers and his wife tell him that “‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish descent, you will not prevail against him but will surely fall before him’” (6:13).
The king, now in an even greater rage because of his perception that Haman has attempted to sexually assault the queen, once again listens to one of his eunuchs, Harbona—who proposes the conspicuous irony of hanging Haman on the gallows he has erected for Mordecai, the king’s savior (7:9).
This monarch again readily heeds the advice of his courtiers—as he earlier accepted their counsel to banish Vashti. He now executes his prime minister, even though what Haman arranged also implicates the king.
With Haman’s hanging, the king’s rage once again abates (vs. 10)—just as his rage against Vashti abated after he issued his royal decree against her. This situation leads into the major inversions in the next chapter, including Mordecai succeeding Haman as Esther had succeeded Vashti (8:15–17). The king who deposed his first wife for her “disobedience” now repeatedly defers to Vashti’s replacement—again offering her up to half of the empire (5:6; 7:2; 9:12).
Chapter 8: Continuing Reversals
Chapter 8 continues the major reversals that have been taking place—and will continue through chapter 9 as well.
Verses 1–8: “On that day . . .” The dramatic actions reported in chapters 6 and 7 find their climax on the same day—when the king awards Haman’s estate to Queen Esther, following the Persian practice of state confiscation of a convicted criminal’s property.4 He also reverses Haman’s offer to the king of an immense amount of silver for annihilating the Jews. The king now takes Haman’s wealth and gives it to the savior of the Jews.
“On that same day” also dramatically reverses Haman’s original plan to kill and spoil the Jews “in one day” (3:13). Decrees of Persian kings could not be reversed; thus, the date for the killing of the Jews would have to remain. Nevertheless, the second decree made it possible for the Jews to defend themselves.
The king’s transfer of his signet ring from Haman to Mordecai (8:2) also reverses the king’s similar ring gesture in 3:10, which signified his acceptance of Haman’s plan to rid the kingdom of Jews. However, the seriousness of the deadly situation continues: “Now Esther spoke again to the king, fell down at his feet, and implored him with tears to counteract the evil of Haman the Agagite, and the scheme which he had devised against the Jews” (8:3).
The similar wording of Esther 8:4 suggests that Esther once again risked her life by coming before the king. It was necessary because the dramatic reversals of verses 1 and 2 had not yet halted the deadly situation for her people. She again fell before the king to beg that he “‘revoke the letters devised by Haman . . . to annihilate the Jews” (vs. 5), just as he had “taken away” the signet ring from Haman and given it to Mordecai (8:2).
The king had granted Esther things for which she hadn’t asked—Haman’s estate and Mordecai’s promotion. However, he had failed to deal with what she wanted most, the deliverance of her people from their death sentence (7:3, 4). The king has not yet demonstrated any sensitivity to that deadly situation. He deals with Haman’s property while ultimate matters of life and death hung in the balance. Esther’s life and that of all her people remain in imminent peril because of Haman’s deadly decree.
Esther earnestly urges the king to withdraw the edict that Haman wrote (8:5). The wording of verse 5 is very similar to 7:3, except here Esther pleads only for her people and not for herself as well. The wording of 8:5a exhibits a highly rhythmic and parallel alternation of statements of the king’s interest with Esther’s personal attractiveness to him:
A “‘If it please the king
B and I have found favor in his sight,
A’ and if the thing seems right before the king,
B’ and I am pleasing in his eyes’” (ESV).
This time Esther carefully omits all reference to the king’s role in issuing the lethal edict. She only mentions “‘the letters devised by Haman, . . . which he wrote’” (vs. 5).
Undergirding her earnest request that the genocidal edict be withdrawn is the suffering that her people’s destruction will cause her. The Jewish people may mean nothing to the king—even though one of them, Mordecai, saved his life. However, her people mean everything to her. Since their destruction would cause her anguish, couldn’t the king prevent it?
The king, in an official tone (vs. 7), reviews what he has already done—but only those actions involving Haman, and, like Esther, omitting all reference to his own role authorizing the plot against the Jews.
The king, however, tells Esther that even he cannot withdraw the first decree (in vs. 5). He can award her half the empire (5:3, 6; 7:2). Yet, though sovereign over a vast empire, he cannot revoke his own decree because of the Persian government’s binding laws over which he presides. What he can do, however, is to proclaim a countervailing decree. He tells Esther, “‘as you see fit’” (8:8—as earlier in 3:11, NASB)—indicating again that as king, he delegates matters of life and death.
Verses 9–12: These verses are a reversal of 3:12 to 15, the genocidal edict that Haman issued on the authority of the king. ”So the king’s scribes were called at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and it was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one hundred and 27 provinces in all, to every province in its own script, to every people in their own language, and to the Jews in their own script and language” (vs. 9).
The new decree uses similar terminology to that in 3:12 to 15 but inverts the wording regarding those who are affected, allowing the complete reversal of Haman’s decree in an official tone. The repetition of the phrase “to the Jews” in 8:9 emphasizes the new protection granted the Persian Jews. Mordecai, moreover, as the leader of the Jews (10:3), is also able to address his people directly and “in their own script and language.”
In Haman’s original edict, there was no mention of “royal horses bred from swift steeds” (8:10). Because this decree is to be sent out more speedily than the original decree of destruction, special horses are needed to spread the urgent countervailing edict. The words, “the right to assemble” (vs. 11, NIV), grants the Jews permission to gather into protective self-defense units on or before the day of the death decree, able to slay anyone who attacks them.
The wording of killing of women and children, which may be distressing to some readers, only duplicates the wording of Haman’s first decree. The Jews are also allowed to take booty (vs. 11)—again mirroring the substance of the first edict (3:13). On the actual day, however, the Jews notably decline to take spoil (9:6–10, 15, 16).
Mordecai is now also robed in honor, instead of wearing sackcloth and ashes (4:1): “So Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, with a great crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad” (8:15, NKJV).
The wording of the narrative suggests that the Persians in Susa had been distressed at the thought of the death of the Jews who had been living peacefully in their midst: “In every province and city, wherever the king’s command and decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a holiday. Then many of the people of the land became Jews, because fear of the Jews fell upon them” (vs. 17, NKJV).
Chapter 9: Victory and Purim
This chapter can be divided in to two broad sections: (1) verses 1 to 19 tell of the victory of the Jews in the Persian empire over their mortal enemies; (2) verses 20 to 32 describe how these miraculous circumstances gave birth to a continuing and normative Jewish practice, the festival of Purim.
The statement announcing the great motif of reversal opens the chapter: “Now in the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar, on the 13th day, the time came for the king’s command and his decree to be executed. On the day that the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, the opposite occurred, in that the Jews themselves overpowered those who hated them” (9:1, italics supplied).
The reversal came about because the Jews who were to be killed were now allowed to defend themselves against their enemies. That there were such enemies, at least in some circles, was earlier implied in Mordecai’s instructions to Esther that she keep her ethnicity secret (2:10, 20).
Note that the Jews did not act on the royal authorization “to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the forces of any people or province that would assault them” (8:11). A different verb is used here that is sometimes rendered “overpower,” but within parameters of rule and authority. This indicates that an important aspect of the battles of Adar 13 and 14 was not slaughter but the reversal of Haman’s deadly decree.
The murderous Persians didn’t include the entire population, but those who had expected to overpower the Jews on the day designated for genocide (9:1). Andre LaCocque suggested a comparison to the possibly hopeless Persian situation: “the Jewish victory in Susa is equivalent to a successful insurrection in the World War II-era Warsaw ghetto with the result of 75,000 SS troops being slaughtered.”5
The Jews understood the king’s new edict as an authorization not just to resist their enemies but also to act pre-emptively. Here in chapter nine, “the Jews gathered together in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could withstand them, because fear of them fell upon all people” (9:2).
The wording of 9:2 exhibits similarities with 2:21 (“sought to lay hands on”). The wording of Mordecai’s ascent in Persia is very close to that in Exodus 11:3, recounting Moses’ heightened status at the last of the plagues in Egypt. Esther 9:4 consists of three brief clauses: it begins and ends with the same word (translated “prominent” and “powerful” by NIV), which further connects the first and third clauses; the first and last clauses both begin with for—this word also evoking comparison of Mordecai’s ascent with Haman’s—whom the king “promoted” in 3:1.
Finally, the term man applied to Mordecai at this time compares with his introduction in 2:5, in which he was described as “a Jewish man.” This draws attention to the contrast between his status as a mere exile in Persia and his elevation to great power.
Mordecai earlier had acted to save the king’s life—and the king now acts to save the lives of Mordecai’s people. With Haman’s earlier accusation against the Jews about their different laws, he had thought to demonstrate Jewish disloyalty to the king and Persian laws: “Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain’” (3:8).
Haman is now proved wrong.
The Esther 9:7 to 9 list of the names of all Haman’s sons is another such as are found in the earlier lists of the names of the king’s advisers and of his attending eunuchs (1:10, 14). These are all indicators of the narrator intending to record actual history—similar to what is found in other biblical books such as Ezra and Nehemiah.
Ahasuerus’ reaction to the massacre outside the fortified compound again reveals his callousness: “The king said to Queen Esther, ‘The Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the citadel, and the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It shall be granted to you. Or what is your further request? It shall be done’” (9:12).
The king “seems impressed, perhaps bemused, by the death toll more than by the Jews’ deliverance.”6 His third question to Esther repeats the gist of 5:3 and 6 and 7:2.
The mention of “days” and “month” in verse 22 reflects Haman’s original casting of lots concerning “the day and the month” (3:7). The conversion of grief into joy, and of mourning into a holiday is another echo of prophetic predictions of salvation (Isa. 61:3; Jer. 31:13). What the Jews are to celebrate is not the victory itself; were this the case, Purim would fall on the 13th and 14th. Rather, they are to celebrate the “relief [they obtained] from their enemies” (9:22, NIV). The verb that designates this “relief” recalls Haman’s words to the king in the verse that follows his casting of lots to determine the date of the annihilation of the Jews: “‘It is not fitting for the king to let them remain’” (3:8).
The Jews now are at long last able to be left alone, having survived Haman’s evil plot. The mention of “gifts to the poor” (9:22) is not found in the parallel account of observances (vss. 17–19), but does conform to a long-standing Jewish tradition of including the less fortunate and the vulnerable in celebrations (Deut. 16:11).
Chapter 9, verse 23, indicates Jewish acceptance of the obligation to continue to observe Purim, which became official with Mordecai’s encyclicals (vs. 20). This popular ratification of an official proclamation stands in marked contrast to the imperiousness to which the Persian regime issued its edicts, suggesting that the solidarity of the Jews with Mordecai surpasses that of the Persians with Ahasuerus.
In the events that led to the institution of Purim, the delivered Jews saw the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy of deliverance. The parallel with the Pentateuchal Exodus narrative is striking: Dramatic events of the Exodus deliverance and Passover culminate in a solemn affirmation by the redeemed to accept new celebrations (the annual observance of Purim).
A summary of the essential point of the whole story of the book is found in chapter nine: “So the Jews accepted the custom which they had begun, as Mordecai had written to them, because Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to annihilate them, and had cast Pur (that is, the lot), to consume them and destroy them; but when Esther came before the king, he commanded by letter that this wicked plot which Haman had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. So they called these days Purim, after the name Pur. Therefore, because of all the words of this letter, what they had seen concerning this matter, and what had happened to them” (9:23–26).
The earliest reference to Adar 14 outside the Esther narrative calls it the “Day of Mordecai,” not “Purim” (2 Macc. 15:36). Converts to Judaism throughout the ages have observed Purim, even though they had no Jewish biological ancestors at the time of the Persian deliverance that the holiday commemorates.
Emphasis on Persian irreversibility is conveyed by a term translated as “without fail” (9:27). These words are found both at the narrative’s beginning (in connection with the promulgation of the king’s first decree banishing Vashti [1:19], translated there “that cannot be revoked” [NLT]—and also toward the end [8:8]). The irrevocability of the laws of the Persians and the Medes, which had so endangered Jewish survival, are now invoked for the opposite purpose: to ensure the survival of Purim and the perpetual memory of the dangers that the Jews of Mordecai and Esther’s day overcame. Now it is “nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants” (9:28, NRSV), even after the grandeur of the Persian court has long vanished.
Furthermore, whereas Mordecai and Esther drew up the authorization of Jewish military action in the king’s name (8:8), the authorization of Purim itself came only in their own names and may therefore have seemed to lack the authority requisite to establish the new holiday as an irrevocable institution.
Esther 9:28 is noteworthy not only for its legal style, but also for its twofold invocation of memory, once at the beginning of the verse and once at the end. Nor should it be overlooked that the Hebrew root from which the words remembered and memory here are derived can have a connotation of ritual observance (Ex. 13:3; 20:8; Deut. 5:12). Moreover, the notion that the Persian emperor would authorize rules internal to the Jewish community finds a good parallel in Artaxerxes’ commissioning of Ezra to order the affairs of Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of Ezra’s God (Ezra 7:14, 25, 26).
The mention of “words of goodwill and assurance” in 9:30 (NIV), have been shown to be an echo of the clause “love truth and peace” in Zechariah 8:19 (NIV), with the inversion of terms characteristic of intra-biblical citations. The context in Zechariah is the transformation of days of fasting and mourning into joyful holidays. This is, of course, very much the point of Purim. And the language of other verses in Esther (8:16) bear striking similarity to the prophecy of redemption in Zechariah 8:19.
Chapter 10: Final Verses
Verse 2, “are they not written” (KJV), uses the identical form and language that the narrators of the books of Kings and Chronicles employed to conclude the accounts of the kings of Judah and Israel (1 Kings 14:29; 2 Kings 15:23; 16:14; 2 Chron. 25:25)—again suggesting the historical nature of the record.
“And King Ahasuerus imposed tribute on the land and on the islands of the sea. Now all the acts of his power and his might, and the account of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia? For Mordecai the Jew was second to King Ahasuerus, and was great among the Jews and well received by the multitude of his brethren, seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his countrymen” (10:1–3).
Things have now regained equilibrium. Although the king presumably had not gained the 10,000 talents of silver promised by Haman in return for the pogrom, Mordecai convinced the king that peaceful taxation rather than plundering was the best way to fill the royal coffers.7 In another reversal, the story of the money that was paid to destroy the Jews for Mordecai’s refusal to bow has become part of the king’s honoring of Mordecai. Esther 10:2 and 3 elaborates on the theme of Mordecai’s greatness found in 9:1 to 4. The reference to the king’s promotion of the Jew is the same term used in connection with that of Haman (10:2; 3:1; 5:11).
The report of the king’s augmented revenue for Mordecai after his promotion is further indication of the wisdom of the deed, and both men are credited. This parallels the earlier report of the benefit to Pharaoh of Joseph’s administration as prime minister of Egypt (Gen. 47:13–26).
The only other appearance of the word translated as “story” in Esther, or in the whole Hebrew Bible, is in 4:7, where Mordecai indirectly tells Esther the story of the money that Haman had offered to deposit in the royal treasury in exchange for the destruction of the Jews. The record of this new situation in the royal annals of Media and Persia is important for two reasons:
● By referring to the official annals of the empire, 10:2 vouches for the authenticity of the whole preceding narrative and further guarantees the normativity of the new holiday, Purim.
● The act of writing provides the new situation with a measure of permanence parallel to the permanence of Purim that comes from Mordecai and Esther’s recording the events and the new norms (9:20–22, 29).
Should a new king arise, as happened earlier in the Joseph narrative, who is unfamiliar with the history of Jewish service to the throne (Ex. 1:8), that king could be reminded, as was Ahasuerus (6:2), through a permanent record in the written chronicles. The power of written record will continue to protect the Jews against future enemies.
The narrative closes where it opened, with a report of the authority and might of the king (1:1–9; 19:1, 2)—except that the conclusion includes a new element, the greatness of Mordecai the Jew: “the most powerful official in the empire” (3:1, NLT). This is the direct opposite of the man he replaced, Haman, “the enemy of the Jews” (vs. 10, NLT). Mordecai’s genuine appreciation of “the multitude of his brethren” (10:3) contrasts with Haman’s boast about “his many sons” (5:11, NIV). His sons all perished in the anti-Semitic conspiracy of their father—whereas the Jews continue to live and to thrive under the effective guidance of their leader, Mordecai.
This whole narrative would have been unnecessary had the Israelites trusted God and gone back to Israel when Cyrus released them—even though their exile had been deserved and long predicted by Jeremiah. What a picture of an ever-faithful God. He obviously remained with His people even though they refused to accept the miraculous opportunity given by Cyrus to return to their homeland.
Similar divine faithfulness and mercy was demonstrated when God sent Ezekiel to the Hebrews while captive in Babylon. The Israelites had long been warned of such captivity if they didn’t turn from the evils they were practicing—which God described as worse than those of the Canaanites before them. Yet, once in their deserved captivity, God sent Ezekiel to counsel and encourage them.
In the background of the Book of Esther, one can also hear overtones of the struggle in the Book of Exodus between the God of Israel and Pharaoh—who also first oppresses the Israelites and defies their God (Ex. 1:8–22; 5:2)—but finds himself under God’s sovereignty.
Mordecai was an exile from Judah who remained faithful to God in defiance of the king’s command and at the risk of life itself. He saved the lives of his people—and became both second to the king and the beloved advocate of the Jews (Esther 2:5, 6; 3:1–6; 10:3).
Esther was not only an exile, but also an orphan and a person who had to disguise her ethnicity. Yet because of behind-the-scenes divine oversight, her great personal courage, and obedience to her foster father, she too rose to royal heights and bravely brought about the deliverance of her threatened people.
The many details in the Esther narrative hint that the power that can bring about such major reversals is the God of Israel—another time when God’s chosen people were cast into desperate straits and then divinely rescued.
Such transformations from refugee to prime minister and from orphan to queen also hark back to the prophetic visions of restoration after exile (Isaiah 54). The lives of Mordecai and Esther also call to mind other Israelite/Jewish exiles who served in foreign courts: Joseph, Moses, and Daniel, whom God used to bring about astonishing changes in the fate of the nations they served, can be seen as part of the fulfilling of the promise to Abraham that his seed would bring blessing to the whole world.
It is impossible to miss the similarities of Esther’s situation with that of Joseph, Moses, and Daniel:
● Joseph’s life in a diaspora setting points to a possibility of a steadfast life outside Palestine.
● Esther married a pagan Gentile. So did Joseph in Egypt. (Moses also married a non-Israelite.)
● In another obvious parallel to the Joseph narrative of Genesis 37 to 50, God never appears or speaks aloud to the hero and yet fills him with divine grace that repeatedly wins him favor—and eventually enables him to understand the challenges he had endured as part of a providential plan to keep the Israelite nation alive despite famine (Gen. 39:2–5; 45:5; 50:20); the only direct address of God in Genesis 37 to 50 is to Jacob in Beersheba on his way to Egypt (46:2–4).
● As in the case of the Exodus narrative, many Egyptians joined with the Hebrews. Esther 8:17 shows that Persian Gentiles also converted to the religion of the ancient Jews as we saw: “In every province and city, wherever the king’s command and decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a holiday. Then many of the people of the land became Jews, because fear of the Jews fell upon them” (Esther 8:17; see also Genesis 39:5, 9, 21, 23; 40:8; 41:16, 25, 28, 32, 38, 39).
Another lesson that can be learned from Esther and Joseph is that God’s people need to be aware of the resentment that their differentness and their loyalty to God can provoke, requiring constant vigilance, political wisdom, and extraordinary courage. Furthermore, if faithful to God, those who are kind to them will be blessed, also fulfilling Genesis 12:3. Moses, during the plagues, was highly regarded by the Egyptians; King Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the true God; Joseph, Moses, Daniel, and Esther were channels God used to bring the promised Abrahamic blessings in Genesis 12:3f to the land of their captivity.
Though many rulers often dominate and exploit people, Esther used her privilege to align with her despised people who were being oppressed by the powerful. Esther embodies leadership that defends the vulnerable, and becomes their deliverer. Unlike Haman, who was determined to destroy life, Esther was ready to give her life to save others. While Haman thought he could control the destiny of his enemies, Esther sought to become a deliverer, ready to die if necessary.
Esther’s self-sacrifice, humility, and holy wisdom make her one of the great leaders in Scripture. Because of her humility, courage, and trust in a providential possibility of salvation for her people, God used her to rescue His people—people who had not accepted His first offer of salvation when Cyrus earlier allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Esther made intercession for her people and made possible the reversion of a death sentence.
No, God is not explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, but He graciously delivered His people who had chosen to remain in exile. And because “this story is in the canon of the Jews and subsequently the Christians, it is proper to believe that unseen power as God.”8 Through the person, work, and courage of Esther, the reader is given further understanding of the nature of divine kingship fulfilled in Jesus. And this is often how biblical theology is found—hidden in plain sight!
What we see in Esther’s life is found supremely in Jesus Christ—who delivers His children from their worst enemies, sin and death. Because of Jesus, believers can enter a certain rest, just as the Jews entered shalom and rest from their enemies because of Esther—the queen foreshadowing our deliverance from sin’s death sentence in Christ.
“Esther is the type of Jesus. She depicts the deliverer who brings about the reversal of circumstances for those on the underside, who brings them justice and equity, and who elevates them over those who would bring them nothing but dishonour. I am convinced that Esther represents a female Christ figure. This has huge implications, not only for any debate about female priesthood, but far more importantly for the role, place, value, equality and status of women in God’s universal, restored kingdom.”9
Michael Beckett is correct when he writes that the Book of Esther “deserves at least as much Christological interpretation as any other book of Scripture. Indeed, I believe that it possibly deserves more attention precisely because it is the ‘last’ historical book. It lays a foundation for our understanding of the work and presence of God in this world that needs to be held alongside the rest of the sacred history and provides a significant window into the mind and heart of Jesus. Jesus takes up all the themes and types of the sacred history. . . . Ultimately the Cross, at the heart of the at-one-ment, was totally unexpected, unacceptable and unattractive, and still is—precisely because Jesus allowed it to happen and refused to come down, and only thus demonstrated his authority and the promised deliverance.”10
The Esther narrative also illustrates the contrast between good and evil, between righteous and corrupt leadership. Haman and Xerxes provide a stark contrast to the noble and holy leadership of Queen Esther. She risks everything to confront Persia’s deadly laws, which call for genocide.
Yet, because no name of God appears in the surviving Hebrew form of the Book of Esther, many scholars have pronounced the book to be irredeemably secular. Others wonder about an absence of religious rites in the book. Yet the text speaks of crying, sackcloth and ashes, and fasting (Esther 4:1–3, 16). That God is not named doesn’t mean that He is uninvolved. Indeed, He surely is responsible for the extraordinary pattern of apparent coincidences that characterize the narrative and make possible the deliverance of the Jews from seemingly certain extermination:
● the unexpected vacancy of the queenship at the Persian court;
● the surprise accession of a Jewish woman to be queen in Persia;
● Mordecai’s discovery of the eunuchs’ conspiracy;
● Esther’s favorable reception by the king, even though her actions were against the law;
● the king’s insomnia causing the reading of political records with the timing of Haman’s off-hour arrival in the king’s chambers;
● Haman’s misinterpreted plea for mercy from Esther; and
● the elaborate literary symmetrical pattern in which all these aspects have been recorded.11
It also needs to be understood that biblical narrators often signal theology through implicit means. It is not unreasonable to assume that the narrator saw the “coincidences” in Esther as so miraculous that the divine didn’t need to be shouted out—or even mentioned. Moreover, the willingness of Esther and Mordecai “to face history with an openness to the possibility of providence—even when history seems to weigh against its likelihood, as it did in the dark days after the issuance of Haman’s decree—this is a stance of profound faith.”12
A secular analysis of the crisis might conclude that Mordecai’s conviction that “‘relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews’” seems simple-minded. And how did he know that Esther and her father’s family—even himself—would perish if that didn’t happen?
If Mordecai is alluding only to “Jewry’s inner strength and potential for self-help,”13 Esther must be misinterpreting him, for she first signals her acceptance of the assignment by calling for a citywide fast among the Jews of Susa (4:16)—a totally senseless gesture if there is no higher power that can be appealed to.
Since theology deals with the character of ultimate reality and its manifestation in human history, then Mordecai, Haman’s advisers, and Zeresh all contribute to the theology of the Book of Esther: that a hidden power can arrange events in such a way that even against the most daunting odds, God’s people are protected and delivered. Divine hiddenness is an essential aspect of the book’s theology. The author of the Book of Esther surely believed that God was behind human history.
Though the Book of Esther, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are not explicitly cited in the New Testament, careful scrutiny of the Esther narrative has led many to see the possibility of Esther representing a type of Christ. Even so, some still argue that the biblical Book of Esther is an anomaly because it doesn’t include even one of the many names of God found in the Old Testament—even when describing what appear to be religious rituals. Furthermore, given the chronology of the narrative, the absence of any explicit mention of Passover is also seen as an anomaly to some.
Note, however, that if the three-day fast of chapter four (vs. 16) follows immediately upon the issuance of the genocidal edict on the 13th day of the 1st month (3:12), there is the oddness of the Jews’ fasting on Passover, which begins in the evening of the 14th day (Lev. 23:5).
Another allusion to a higher power which arranged events to the benefit of the Jews occurs in chapter six—a crucial verse: “[Haman’s] advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, ‘Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin’” (Esther 6:13, NIV).
Haman’s advisers and his wife counseled the prime minister to impale his nemesis.
The event of publicly acclaiming Mordecai is deeply traumatic to Haman because of his ego, but this need not imply the triumph of the Jews in his personal downfall. After all, his advisers and Zeresh are almost certainly ignorant of Esther’s Jewishness and thus have no more reason than he to suspect that his second banquet with the king and queen will eventuate in his death sentence.
The tone of Esther 6:13 is as confident and definitive as Mordecai’s prediction of deliverance and retribution in 4:14—and just as inappropriate to the situation at hand. Unless, of course, the situation at hand is part of a larger pattern than can work only to the benefit of the Jews. The prediction that Haman’s advisers and his wife make in 6:13 is best seen as an interpretation of the preceding parade of Mordecai as an omen, an event that discloses a larger and inevitable pattern. “There is a logic in history beyond natural causality, and this allows the wise (as Haman’s friends are called) to discern the direction history is moving in.”14
Not only the wise, however, discern the “logic in history beyond natural causality.” By the end of the book, “many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (8:17, ESV).
The grace that made its first appearance when Esther won the favor of Hegai the harem-keeper (2:9, 15) now has been extended to Mordecai and, finally, to all the Jews as well. In these cases, the logic in history beyond natural causality manifests itself not only in the larger pattern in which the individual event is embedded, but also in the event itself. For surely this degree of fear of the minority by the majority is so inexplicable by natural causality that the term miracle should apply.
The Book of Esther contains an impressive narrative of a miraculous deliverance of the Hebrew people—a narrative of divine grace! Esther was not only an exile, but also an orphan and a person who had to hide her ethnicity. Yet through subtle divine oversight, through her obedience to her foster parent and great personal courage, she rose to royal heights and worked for the deliverance of her threatened people. A woman leader, representing a hated minority, Esther responded to God’s call, risking her life to stand against an evil abuse of power. In the Persian patriarchal culture, God chose a woman as a deliverer. The life of Esther can help us, often more subtly than we might yet recognize, to acknowledge the power and grace of the God of Israel. What a narrative of the gospel!
Esther’s humility, self-sacrifice, and holy wisdom make her one of the great leaders in Scripture. What we see in her is found supremely in Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we too can enter a complete rest, just as the Jews entered shalom and rest from their enemies because of Esther, all of which foreshadowed the deliverance found in Christ. Moreover, receiving salvation always has lasting effects that are wide-ranging beyond those experiencing the act.
This narrative grows increasingly relevant in an increasingly secular age. It encourages us to view our own lives, with their unexplainable twists and turns, as representative of God’s hidden intervening and saving actions. For God is all-powerful and can accomplish His purposes while giving humans free will. Through mysterious, invisible, unexplainable activity He can thwart even the best-laid plans of His enemies—as evident with how He worked with the unchangeable Persian laws. God, without infringing human freedom to choose, can bring about a reversal of seemingly impossible situations. He created this world and still commits Himself to caring for it—accomplishing His purposes by working in it.
“In a world where there is structural injustice within the rule of law and a desperate fatalism about the likely outcome, . . . it is truly remarkable that such a [divine] purpose is accomplished without recourse to direct intervention. This truly is at-one-ment.”15
“And we can learn to live by faith with certain hope that despite appearances, our deliverance, already guaranteed by Jesus, will happen! True, God isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Esther narrative. However, the narrative ‘veils’ God’s presence rather than excluding it, inviting the reader to look beyond the veil to the greater reality that can be uncovered through diligent searching.”16
Through one Man (Prophet, Priest, and King) and through a woman, Esther, God’s sovereign purposes have been made manifest. Jesus, like Esther, was willing to put Himself at the mercy of His enemies and risk His life for His people, fully committed to the deliverance of His people, entering into the sinful, deadly history of humanity to bring salvation. He still accomplishes His purposes invisibly, overseeing human history by “showing that he not only permits any and all human activity—including malice aforethought—but oversees history so that accident, coincidence, chance, luck and fate all combine to secure that purpose.”17 Only an almighty, infinite God could achieve this.
The Jewish feast of Purim celebrates the change, fate, and luck of the drawing of the lot and the death sentence connected with it ultimately used by God for their deliverance—despite the intention of Haman, the rule of Persian law and the hopelessness of their situation: “They celebrate the reality that God chooses these very means in order to accomplish their deliverance. . . . He has [also] delivered us without our assistance and indeed often in the face of our resistance. He is the one who has not only been our mediator but the very means of the mediation; the one who did not merely risk his life, but laid it down that we all might live.”18
The mediation of Esther for her people is rightly seen as a type of Christ. Jesus’ own hermeneutic, which He recapped two times on Resurrection Sunday, invites this: In talking to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “He said . . . , ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25, 27). Later, back in Jerusalem with the disciples, “He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (vss. 44, 45).
The narrative of Esther deserves a Christological interpretation as much as any other book of the Old Testament. And may our study also result in the “burning heart” experience that the Emmaus disciples described: “They said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32).
Cynical commentators critique the likelihood of a captive girl becoming a queen in the land of her captivity and becoming the savior of her people through submission to the law that demanded the annihilation of her people. But in this very unlikeliness is also seen in the Old Testament lives of Moses, Joseph, and Daniel—and now through Esther—all of which can ground our faith in the Great Deliverance of Jesus. For Esther dared to approach the king at great personal risk (Esther 4:11) on behalf of her people, gaining deliverance for them when they were under a death decree. Michael Beckett rightly suggests that “here is a remarkable pre-fashioning of the story of the mediation of Jesus.”19
Old Testament Bible writers, under inspiration, present many types: high priest, king, sacrifice, prophet, servant, judge, word—all fulfilled in Jesus. The cumulative nature of the Old Testament helps illuminate the fullness of Christ. The Old Testament is not a systematic theology tome or philosophical discussion. Most of the evidence is recorded in the form of complex but coherent narratives. Jesus continued expressing theology this way with His storytelling/parables. A hymn writer understood: “Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth, Who as on wings of an eagle, uplifeth, sustainth.”20 Surely these words poetically summarize the Book of Esther.
Jo Ann Davidson, PhD, is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES