Living in exile poses a new set of dangers and opportunities for the Israelites. Foreign domination allows past foes to attempt to gain revenge yet can lead to special blessings and favor for Israel. These dangers and opportunities are graphically realized in the book of Esther.
Ether is the seventeenth book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible, Esther is the fifth of the Megillot, the five scrolls in the middle of the Ketuvim or “Writings.” The book of Esther is set in the time of Ahasuerus king of Persia, generally identified as Xerxes, who reigned from 486 to 465 BCE, and written down at some point afterward. The book of Esther describes the elevation of Esther as queen of Persia, how she was able to overcome the plot of Haman, and the establishment and justification of the feast of Purim.
The context of the story is established in Esther 1:1-2:23. Ahasuerus (Xerxes) is king and has provided a civic feast in Susa after six months of personal feasting, and summons his queen Vashti to present herself to the people (Esther 1:1-11). Vashti refuses his command, and Ahasuerus’ officials convince him to cast her out and send a decree about it throughout the empire (Esther 1:12-22). Afterward a search is made to find the woman who will take Vashti’s place as queen, we are introduced to Mordecai, a descendant of King Saul, and his niece Esther, Esther is brought into the harem as a prospective wife, and she pleases Ahasuerus and is made queen (Esther 2:1-20). Mordecai learns of a plot on the king’s life, makes it known, and it is recorded (Esther 2:21-23).
The story’s crisis is found in Esther 3:1-4:17. Haman the Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekites, is promoted by the king, and receives homage from all but Mordecai (Esther 3:1-5). Haman therefore plots against not only Mordecai but all of the Jewish people, and having cast lots to fix the date, receives permission from the king to send out a decree to destroy all of the Jewish people throughout the Persian Empire on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month of the year (Esther 3:6-15). All of the Jewish people who heard of it mourns, and Mordecai sends messages to Esther to supplicate before the king on behalf of her people (Esther 4:1-9). When Esther hesitates because of the risk of execution for going before the king unannounced, Mordecai reminds her of the danger she is in already and expresses confidence the Jews will be delivered and of her elevation for that purpose (Esther 4:10-14). Esther promises to visit the king (Esther 4:15-17).
Esther 5:1-10:3 describe the resolution and consequences of the story. Esther presents herself before Ahasuerus, is saved, and requests for him and Haman to come to a feast; at the banquet, she wishes for them to return again for another feast (Esther 5:1-14). Haman is exalted at his high estate and wishes to exact revenge against Mordecai personally; nevertheless, the king cannot sleep, and while hearing the royal chronicle read, wonders what has been done for Mordecai for having saved his life (Esther 6:1-3). Haman, coming to have Mordecai killed, is instead told to go and have Mordecai glorified, all based upon what Haman himself suggested, and he knows his downfall is near (Esther 6:4-14). At the second banquet, Esther begs for her life and the life of her people, and when Ahasuerus realizes what Haman has done, and sees him supplicating before his wife, demands his execution on the same gallows he had prepared for Mordecai (Esther 7:1-10). Mordecai is given Haman’s place, Mordecai and Esther contrive to have a decree sent allowing the Jews to gain vengeance on their enemies on the day when they were to be exterminated, which they do, and they inaugurate the feast of Purim (lots) to commemorate the reversal and their deliverance (Esther 8:1-9:32). The book ends with Mordecai maintaining the king’s affairs to the benefit of the king, the Jewish people, and all the nations of the Empire (Esther 10:1-3).
The book of Esther is the only book in the Old Testament that does not mention God, and yet it is clear throughout the story of Esther that God is present and working to deliver His people. We therefore can also maintain confidence in God and His goodness and protection, recognizing that His hand is present in the affairs of men in ways we may not perceive. Let us trust in God as Mordecai and Esther did!
Ethan R. Longhenry