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Eight Questions Most Frequently Asked About the Book of Esther

05 Jul

By Carey A. Moore

Few books of the Hebrew Bible have generated more controversy among both Jews and Christians than the Book of Esther. It has been praised and damned, loved and rejected, all by good, God-fearing people. As the result of my studies of this controversial book over the years,1 I would like to discuss eight frequently asked questions about it.

1. Is the story true? Did it really happen?

Somehow the story seems improbable, more like fiction—a novella—than a historical account. On the other hand, there’s nothing impossible about it. Unlike many biblical books, there is nothing miraculous or supernatural in it.

The story is set in the time of the great Persian king Xerxes (Ahasuerus, in Hebrew),* who reigned between 486 and 465 B.C. It takes place in the Persian capital of Susa.

The story, in the Hebrew at least, is well told. Its plot is relatively simple, and its denouement sudden. The storyteller places his emphasis more on action and dramatic effect than on the development of his characters.

Apart from a few improbable details or embellishments,* the story seems believable enough. It is a story of court intrigue and ethnic prejudices.

Moreover, the storyteller knew a lot about the time, place and setting for his tale. The rousing drinking parties with magnificent goblets (1:5–8), the seven princely advisers to the king (1:14), very efficient postal system (3:13; 8:10)—these and other “details of fact” have been attested Persia at this time by a number of ancient classical writers. And the narrator of the tale is obviously familiar with Persian terms; he uses a number of them, like the Persian words for nobles, kiosk, law, decree, satrapies, etc.2

The characterization of Xerxes, the only indisputably historical figure in the story, seems reasonably compatible with what is known about him from non-biblical sources.3

While archaeological excavations at Susa itself have not confirmed the various architectural features alluded to in Esther,4 discoveries elsewhere, especially in the palace of Darius and Xerxes at Persepolis, have provided us a very clear idea of the lavish Achaemenid royal buildings, their monumental ornamentation and their amazingly varied building materials.5

But in spite of all the literary and archaeological evidence that illuminates the Esther story, most modern scholars do not believe the tale reflects actual history. One reason for this is that some of the details in the story contradict extra-biblical sources whose basic accuracy is not suspect. For example, according to Herodotus, the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian,9 Amestris, not Esther, was queen to Xerxes between the seventh and twelfth years of his reign; moreover, Persian queens had to come from one of seven noble Persian families. On both counts, Esther would have to be ruled out as queen. Also according to Herodotus, the Persian empire had 20 satrapies, not 127, as the author of Esther maintains (Esther 1:1). According to Herodotus, in the seventh year of Xerxes’ reign (when, according to Esther 2:16, Esther was taken to the king’s bed) Xerxes was still away fighting in Greece.10

Taken individually, these contradictions may not seem sufficiently serious to undermine the essential historicity of Esther, because errors in detail can easily occur in an essentially true historical account. Together, they may have more weight.

Ultimately, however, those scholars who reject the historicity of the story do so on the basis of literary considerations and the improbabilities of the story—from Vashti’s refusal to obey the king’s command to the king’s granting permission—a year ahead of time (Esther 3:12–13)—to slaughter an entire people within his empire, to the elevation of an ordinary Jewish girl to be queen of Persia, to the appointment of a non-Persian, Mordecai, to be prime minister.

Literary critics have shown that the primary motif of the book is feasting and that its four basic literary themes are power, loyalty to God and Israel, inviolability of the Jewish people and sudden reversal of situations (or peripety, to use the rhetorical term).11

Neither side in this debate about the historicity of the story can prove its case with certainty, and each reader must weigh the evidence for himself or herself.

2. Aren’t the names of the heroine and hero, Esther and Mordercai, derived from the names of pagan gods?

As early as the late 19th century, some scholars maintained that the name Mordecai should be equated with the Babylonian god Marduk, and Esther should be equated with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar.

Moreover, Haman, it was argued, should be identified with the Elamite god Humman, and Vashti with the Elamite goddess Mashti.

The Book of Esther, these scholars argued,12 represents the historization of a myth or myths.

Incidentally, the authenticity of the name Mordecai has been confirmed by archaeological evidence, and is indeed well attested. It appears in an Aramaic letter of the fifth century B.C. as Mrdk17 and in three variant syllabic spellings on the cuneiform Treasury Tablets found at Persepolis.18 And an accountant named Mardukâ visited Susa in either the last days of Darius or the first years of Xerxes.19 So it could be argued that the name Mordecai supports—or is at least consistent with—the historicity of the story. (In addition, the name of one of Haman’s sons has also been attested archaeologically. The name “Pharshandatha” [Hebrew, Pršndt’; Esther 9:7], occurs as Pršndt on an Achaemenid cylinder seal of the fifth century B.C.)20

3. Is the festival of Purim based on a pagan festival?

In a sense, yes; and that is another element in the argument that the Book of Esther represents the historization of a pagan myth, rather than actual history.

The origin of Purim, which celebrates the Jews’ delivery from Haman’s genocide plan, is still observed annually by Jews, at which time the Book of Esther, or megillah (scroll) as it is called, is read in the synagogue. Yet, like the great Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas,* Purim contains pagan elements, if not a pagan origin. Somewhere, somehow, a pagan festival was adopted and adapted to its present status. The scholars who have spearheaded this research claim to have found the pagan prototype for Purim in the Persian New Year festivals. Purim’s pagan (i.e., Babylonian) name certainly suggests pagan or non-Jewish origin.21

4. Is Esther the only book of the Bible that does not mention the name of God?

Yahweh, the personal name of the Hebrew God, does not appear in the Book of Esther. Esther is one of three biblical books in which it does not appear. Moreover, even the more generic name for God, Elohim, is absent from the Book of Esther. Esther and the Song of Songs are the only books of the Bible in which it does not appear.

This, too, it is claimed, suggests a story Persian origin somehow adapted by the Jews for their own didactic purposes.

By contrast, the Persian king is mentioned 190 times in 167 verses.

Not only is the name of God absent from the Book of Esther, but so are such basic themes and institutions of the Hebrew Bible as law, covenant, prayer, temple, and dietary laws (kashrut).22.

Mordecai’s faith in God’s providential care is clearly expressed in his admonition to Esther: “It’s possible that you came to the throne for just such a time as this” (4:14b).

That Esther is a religious book, despite the absence of God’s name, is also confirmed by the fact that Esther orders Mordecai and her countrymen to fast for her before she risks her own life by going to the king unsummoned to intercede for her people. To fast for her means to pray for her, for in the Old Testament, prayer routinely accompanied fasting24 (As for the residual risk, Esther was prepared to accept it: “And if I perish, I perish” [4:16].)

To the secular mind, the Book of Esther is filled with lucky coincidences: Esther’s becoming queen (2:17), Mordecai’s saving the king’s life (2:21–23), the king’s sleeplessness resulting in his being reminded of Mordecai’s discovery of the plot to kill the king (6:1–2), Haman’s asking the king for permission to hang Mordecai (6:4–10), etc. To the religious consciousness, however, the hand of God is seen at work here. God isn’t mentioned in the Esther drama, but he is clearly working behind the scenes, setting the stage and directing the players.

5. Isn’t the story immoral? Doesn’t the festival of Purim commemorate the massacre of innocent women and children?

Certainly many critics have claimed that. More than one scholar has opined that Queen Vashti, who refused to appear before King Xerxes and was deposed for her refusal, is the only decent person in the story. The other major characters are deceitful and cruel, their hands full of blood. Vashti at least had the good sense—and decency—not to degrade herself by appearing before a bunch of drunken, reveling men

Ingenious efforts have been made to explain away the embarrassing fact that 75, 000 people, including innocent women and children, were massacred on Adar 13, the date Haman fixed for the massacre of the Jews (Esther 9:16). Recently Robert Gordis26 has argued that, contrary to over 2, 000 years of universal agreement on the matter, Mordecai’s royal edict in Esther 8:11 did not grant Jews permission to kill innocent noncombatants. Rather, the phrase “along with their women and children” in 8:11 referred to the Jews’ women and children, not their enemies’.*

While such an explanation is perhaps comforting, in that it eliminates a vengeful and vindictive phrase incompatible with Judaism, Gordis’s interpretation is probably not correct.

The author of Esther, like many a modern person, would probably argue that Haman had initiated an all-out war of extermination against the Jews, a Holocaust if you will, that demanded an exceedingly strong response. From time immemorial, when it comes to a nation’s or a people’s survival, winning is evidently everything. While some philosophers and theologians may decry the axiom “All’s fair in love and war,” the historian knows and the average person suspects that, for better or worse, mankind has nearly always played by that rule.

But when all is said and done, many Jews are probably as embarrassed by the vengeful, blood-thirsty, measure-for-measure retaliation of Esther 8:11 and 9:16 as Christians are embarrassed by the cry of the Crusaders who, on attacking a certain “infidel” city containing “innocent” Christians, cried, “Kill them all! God knows his own!” In any event, the festival of Purim celebrates not so much the destruction of the enemy as the deliverance of the Jews (Esther 9:21–22), an important distinction to remember.

6. How did the Book of Esther manage to get into the Bible?

It probably wasn’t easy, for the book has been controversial from the beginning.

Apparently, the Book of Esther was not acceptable to the Jews who collected the famous Dead Sea Scrolls in their library at Qumran (c. 150 B.C.–68 A.D.) on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. At least fragments of every book of the Old Testament except Esther have been found at Qumran. Moreover, the festival of Purim, the raison d’être of the Book of Esther, was not part of the liturgical calendar observed at Qumran. So it may well be that the Book of Esther was not considered part of their Bible.

Moreover there is no evidence that the Book of Esther was accepted as canonical by the Jewish Academy of Jabneh (the Council of Jamnia), which considered the content of the Jewish canon about 90 A.D.28

Given the book’s mixed reviews among Jews, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Christians have reacted much the same way. While the Church Fathers in the West seem to have accepted the book as canonical, a number of Eastern Church Fathers excluded Esther from the canon.35

The view of Martin Luther (1483–1546) is well known and oft-quoted: “I am so hostile to this book [2 Maccabees] and to Esther that I could wish that they did not exist at all; for they judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety” (Table Talks).

7. Is there even more than one version of Esther?

Yes, the Greek edition of Esther was translated for the Jewish community of Alexandria sometime between 114 and 78 B.C. and is part of the Septuagint. It differs very significantly from the received Hebrew text (the Masoretic text).

For one thing, the Septuagint (LXX) contains six major passages, consisting, of 107 verses, not found in the Masoretic text (MT). Scholars refer to these additions as Adds A, B, C, D, E and F. In the Vulgate these Adds constitute Esther 11–16. At the time of the Reformation, these Adds were stamped as apocryphal and were rejected from the Protestant canon. However, Roman Catholics, at the Council of Trent in 1546, reaffirmed the canonicity of the Adds, and therefore they continue to be part of the Catholic Bible as chapters 11 through 16.

To complicate the textual problems of Esther still further, there are two very different Greek versions of Esther.36 In addition to the Septuagint version, there is the so-called Lucianic recension. These two Greek versions both contain the Adds, but they are different from one another in other respects. The Lucianic recension is a translation of a Hebrew text that is quite different at some points both from the Hebrew text presupposed by the Septuagint and by the Hebrew text ancestral to the received text. The Septuagint translation is a “literary” translation; it translates freely rather than literally, sometimes to the point of being paraphrastic. The translator preserved the content but not the exact wording of the Hebrew text. The Lucianic recension is shorter and omits passages found in the Septuagint.

The Hebrew text, on the other hand, emphasizes the establishment of Purim, which, according to chapter 9 of the Hebrew text, is the raison d’être of the entire story. Not surprisingly, the Church Fathers, who knew the Greek version or the Latin Vulgate, rather than the Hebrew account, also stressed Esther’s courage or God’s miracle in changing the king’s response from anger to gentleness, rather than the establishment of Purim, a Jewish festival not adopted by the Christian church.

8. I’ve heard that the story of Esther is patterned on the story of Moses and Exodus. Is this correct?

That’s what Gillis Gerleman of Germany has argued; and if he’s right, that is another reason to question the historicity of the story. Gerleman contends that:40 “All the essential features of the Esther narrative are already there in Exodus 1–12: the foreign court Egypt], the mortal threat [Pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew children are to be killed], the deliverance [the plagues and passing through the Red Sea], the revenge [the ten plagues] the triumph [the drowning of the Egyptians], and the establishment of a festival [Passover].”

According to Gerleman, not only were the plot and central theme of Esther patterned after the Exodus narrative, but even its details were. Thus, Esther (like Moses) was an adopted child who concealed her Jewish identity. Esther (like Moses) was at first reluctant to intercede for her people, and approached the king several times. As Moses was responsible for the death of many of his people’s enemies, so was Esther. As Moses had great trouble with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8–26), so did Esther—Haman was an Agagite (Esther 3:1), a descendant of Agag the Amalekite (1 Samuel 15:8), These are but a few of the details, in Esther that, according to Gerleman, were patterned after the Exodus narrative.

Thus far, Gerleman’s thesis has gained little scholarly support.41

The consensus of scholars seems to be that while there may be a core of historicity to the Esther story (that is there may have been an Esther/Hadassah who on some occasion saved her people, and an unrelated story of court intrigue featuring a Mordecai), the plot and its details were prompted by literary considerations rather than by the Exodus narrative, as suggested by Gerleman.

If the Book of Esther does have a kernel of truth then kernel like a grain of sand in an oyster shell, has been covered over by layer upon layer of lustrous material.

(2004). Bible Review, 3(1).

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