Introduction
The Book of Esther is a delightful and entertaining story full of intrigue and reversals of fortune. It tells of a beautiful young Jewish woman who becomes Queen of Persia in the time of King Ahasuerus (perhaps Xerxes I, 486–465 b.c.). Using her position as Queen and her own cleverness—and with extraordinary courage—Esther is able to foil a vicious plot aimed at killing all Jews in the empire. The story unfolds in the style of an ancient historical novel. The very first verse of the book reminds the reader that the all-powerful Persian Empire at this time stretched from India to Ethiopia and included 127 provinces. Of the five central characters, the reigning Queen, Vashti, is quickly banished for refusing to obey the king's order. This opens a door for Esther, a Jewish orphan, when the king proposes to choose a new queen from among the realm's most beautiful women. Her cousin Mordecai, in whose care she had been left, made sure that she was seen by the king. For all his power, Ahasuerus appears hapless and is ever outthought by Mordecai and Esther. The villain in the story is Haman, the king's top official, and an anti-Semite who was secretly plotting to exterminate Jews. At a banquet she has prepared for the king and Haman, Esther reveals Haman's plot to kill her people, and the king puts an end to the plot—and to Haman. A great feast is then held to celebrate this deliverance, and this is the origin of the Jewish festival Purim, which takes its name from the Hebrew word for “lots” (9.24). The Book of Esther continues to be read by Jews in its entirety during the Purim festival. In the Hebrew Bible it is one of the five books in the Megilloth, meaning “scrolls,” which are read at one of the major Jewish festivals.
Scholars have noted a number of historical inconsistencies in this book, but also acknowledge that it reflects Persian life and customs in the fifth century b.c. rather accurately. The book also provides a genuine sense of what Jewish life was like for those who stayed on after the exile in foreign lands. It shows how they endeavored to maintain their identity, faith, and customs while becoming more and more integrated into Persian life. The rabbis debated long over the religious value of this book when they were making final decisions in the mid-second century a.d. over which books were to be included in the third and final section of the Hebrew Bible (the Writings). The fact that God is never mentioned in Esther was a major obstacle to its inclusion as canonical. Yet Esther is the only source for the origin of the Feast of Purim, and that likely won it a place in the canon. The narrative at least implies the guiding presence of God, at work through the wise thinking and actions of faithful Jews. But this lack is the chief reason why the Greek Version of Esther in the Apocrypha has six additional interspersed chapters—to make very explicit what God was doing all throughout the story's events (see pp. 0000–0000).
Outline
Queen Vashti Disobeys the Persian King (1.1-22)
Esther Becomes the New Queen (2.1-18)
Mordecai Saves the King's Life (2.19-23)
Haman's Plot Puts All Jews in Danger (3.1—4.17)
Esther Uses Her Influence with the King (5.1—7.10)
The Jews Defeat Their Enemies (8.1—9.19)
The Feast of Purim Is Instituted (9.20—10.3)
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