People

Esther by Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

In the biblical book that bears her name, Esther is a beautiful young Jewish woman who lives with her cousin and foster parent, Mordecai, in the Persian royal citadel of Susa. We are first introduced to her as she is taken into the palace by the Persian king Ahasuerus to become his new wife (Esth 2:5-18). The narrative takes a turn when Mordecai inflames the wrath of the king’s highest courtier, Haman (Esth 3:1-6), who retaliates by manipulating the ever-pliant King Ahasuerus to issue a lethal edict that will not only destroy Mordecai but exterminate all the Jews (Esth 3:7-15). At the risk of her own life, Esther bravely intervenes on behalf of her people to save them from death (Esth 5:1-8, Esth 7:1-2) and is thus remembered as a heroine in the Jewish festival of Purim.

Who was Esther?

The question of who Esther was is more complex than it first appears.

Did Esther exist? Mainstream biblical scholars do not regard Esther as an historical figure, because of a number of historical improbabilities in her book and the lack of external evidence corroborating her existence. Rather, scholars judge her book to be a Jewish novel in miniature about the dangers of life in the Diaspora, which would serve to establish Purim.

If, then, Esther is a literary (rather than a historical) character, what kind of literary character is she? She has been called a pawn, a murderer, and a heroine.

The debate about Esther’s character arises, in part, because at Mordecai’s behest she keeps her Jewish identity secret while in the palace (Esth 2:10, Esth 2:20). Some interpreters doubted that she kept Jewish dietary regulations and found the notion that she married the Gentile king abhorrent; they feared that Esther had assimilated to the ways of the Gentile palace. At stake is the basic question whether Esther provided a suitable model for Jews who lived in a foreign land as they negotiated the challenges of living as a minority within a dominant majority.

Other interpreters, in contrast, felt certain that Esther was a fitting model and should be remembered as a heroine. They suggested that she was secretly devout and lived with the terrible tension of double consciousness. They pointed to her bravery when Mordecai asks her to intervene with King Ahasuerus to counter the lethal edict; Mordecai wonders if it is perhaps for just such an occasion—the chance to save her people—that Esther rose to her current position in the foreign court (Esth 4:13-14). Resigned to her fate, if not newly emboldened, Esther risks her life to go before the king (Esth 4:1-5:4). Over the course of two carefully orchestrated banquets (Esth 5:5-8, Esth 7:1-10), she manages to win over King Ahasuerus, undo Haman, and intervene on behalf of her people. Thus Esther stands, for many, as a fitting example of savvy and courage in the face of the dangers of diasporic living.

Where is God in the book of Esther?

The careful reader of Esther’s book is in for a surprise: God does not appear anywhere in the book. This is another reason that early interpreters found Esther and her book troubling. Unlike the stories of Abraham and Moses, God does not show up to guide Esther through her tribulations in a foreign land. And unlike Joseph, who perceives God’s guiding hand in the events of his life, Esther does not appeal to or even refer to God once. Other interpreters countered that when Mordecai intimates that perhaps Esther has risen to her station within the palace in order to be in the right place at the right time, he may be referring (obliquely) to divine providence; if so, the theology is one more of coincidence than of direct intervention, of a god who works behind the scenes, but also through human initiative, on behalf of the people of Israel. This is an even more subtle picture of the coupling of divine orchestration and human agency than we find in other Jewish Diaspora stories, like those of Joseph and Daniel.

In part because of questions about Esther’s character and God’s place in the book, the book of Esther had ambiguous canonical status for centuries. For a long while, an alternate edition of her story in Greek held sway with certain Jews in the Greek-speaking Diaspora; this version not only makes repeated mention of God but also includes six longer passages not found in the Hebrew version. The Roman Catholic canon preserves the Greek Esther among its deuterocanonical works as “Additions to Esther.”

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor, "Esther", n.p. [cited 18 Dec 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/esther

Contributors

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor
Associate Professor, University of Virginia

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.

Esther, the Jewish heroine of the biblical book that bears her name, bravely intervenes on behalf of her people to save them from destruction.

Did you know…?

  • Esther is one of the few women in the Bible to have a book named after her.
  • Esther has two names; her Hebrew name is Hadassah, which means “myrtle” (Esth 2:7).
  • Few scholars believe that the book is historical and prefer to see it as historical fiction, a narrative about Jewish existence in the Persian Diaspora.
  • God is not mentioned in the Hebrew book of Esther.
  • The Greek (Septuagint) version of the book of Esther is quite different from the Hebrew version, but both versions enjoyed authority in the ancient world.
  • The Roman Catholic canon preserves six major passages that are in the Greek Esther (but that are not found in the Hebrew Esther) in the deuterocanonical works.
  • The book of Esther has not been found among the manuscripts of Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls), which may suggest that for the Qumran community the book did not hold the status of Scripture.
  • Interpreters from the rabbis of antiquity to Martin Luther and beyond struggled with the book’s status as Scripture.
  • The book of Esther is listed among the historical books in the Christian canon.
  • The book of Esther both explains the origins of and is read on the Jewish festival of Purim (and is thus included in the Five Scrolls, or Megillot, in the Jewish canon).

A fortress that protected its surrounding town.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A Jewish holiday celebrating the saving of the Jews of Persia from annihilation, as recounted in the biblical book of Esther.

Esth 2:5-18

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Esth 3:1-6

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Esth 3:7-15

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Esth 5:1-8

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Esth 7:1-2

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Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Esth 2:10

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Esth 2:20

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Esth 4:13-14

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Esth 4:1-5:4

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Esth 5:5-8

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Esth 7:1-10

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An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

Literally, "second canon"; refers to texts accepted by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as sacred scripture, but not included in the Hebrew Bible. Not to be confused with Apocrypha, which include noncanonical works.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The world's largest Christian church organization administered by hierarchy made up of a single pope and a network of cardinals, bishops, priests, and renunciates (such as nuns and monks).

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A designation for the five shortest books of the Hagiographa (Heb. Ketuvim): Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.

Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and sometimes also includes Ezra-Neh and Chronicles.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

German cleric usually considered to have formally launched the Protestant Reformation with his list of 95 "theses" itemizing grievances against the Roman Catholic Church, especially its sale of indulgences claimed to absolve individuals' sins.

The Hebrew term for the "Five Scrolls," the biblical books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes (Qohelet), Lamentations, and Esther, a collection of short books that are grouped together in Jewish Bibles. The books were often copied together onto a single scroll (Hebrew, megillah; plural, megillot).

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

The collection of Scriptures accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, which includes the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the New Testament, and the Apocrypha (which are not held as authoritative by other Christian groups, such as Protestants).

Esth 2:7

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