A historical account of the supreme crisis that confronted the Jewish people in 474/73 b.c., when a royal decree of the Persian king Xerxes ordered their extermination, and of the providential means by which God wrought their deliverance. In the Hebrew Bible the book of Esther stands last in a group of 5 books bearing the common title Megilloth, the other 4 being Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations. Inasmuch as the Hebrew text of Esther begins with the word "and" some have suggested that originally it was attached to some other historical work, possibly Nehemiah--the book it follows in the LXX and in the English translations. Despite the fact that the book nowhere contains the name of God, the Jews gave it a place in the sacred canon. Certain early Christian writers omitted it from their canonical lists, and Martin Luther openly denounced the book.
The identity of the author of the book of Esther is unknown. However, the historical accuracy of the narrative and its many intimate details now confirmed by archaeology, together with certain characteristic word forms used in the book, and the fact that the writer had access to the official texts of the various decrees mentioned and quoted, all point to someone as the author who lived in Susa (Shushan) at the time, who was familiar with the palace grounds and buildings, who had access to the royal archives, and who was an educated Jew. Ezra or Mordecai has been suggested as possibly being the writer. The implicit claim of the book that it is a factual account of historical events has been remarkably confirmed by archaeological discoveries. Numerous significant details of the royal palace at Shushan mentioned by the writer have been observed in the ruins that have been unearthed. Copies of the royal Persian decrees found in Egypt furnish parallels in form and style that corroborate the authenticity of the decrees cited in the narrative. The true-to-life description of Persian manners and customs corresponds to what is known from other sources. See Est 1:5, 10, 14; 2:9, 21, 23; 3:7, 12, 13; 4:6, 11; 5:4; 8:8, 10, 15; 9:30; 10:1, 2.
The historical setting of the book of Esther is to be found in events closely connected with Xerxes' disastrous Greek campaign that marked the last serious Persian attempt to incorporate the city-states of Greece into the Persian Empire. The 6 months' feast of ch 1, which was attended by officials from all parts of the empire, was apparently the great council of war at which plans were laid for the invasion of Greece, inasmuch as the massive campaign was launched as soon thereafter as preparations could possibly have been completed. Esther was made queen soon after Xerxes' return from Greece, and the crisis occasioned by Haman's decree arose 4 or 5 years later. The precise chronological data provided by the writer (chs 1:3; 2:12, 16; 3:7, 12; 8:9, 12; 9:1, 17 19) for the principal events mentioned in the narrative make possible this close correlation with the known events of secular history. If the writer had located the great feast, the reception of Esther as queen, or the experience with Haman at a time when Xerxes was some 1,500 mi. (c. 2,400 km.) away in Greece for a period of many months, the implicit claim of the book to be historical would be placed in serious doubt. Conversely, this close correspondence with the facts of history attests its authenticity.
As a literary masterpiece the book of Esther rates high. It consists of a fast-moving sequence of highly dramatic situations of epic quality. Esther is not only beautiful, but a woman of clear judgement, remarkable self-control, infinite tact, firm loyalty, and noble self-sacrifice, who rises to heights of heroic action. Haman is a hateful, clever, unscrupulous, and egotistical villain. The surprising series of providential coincidences that reach a climax in his exposure and death and in deliverance for the Jews, whose extinction as a race he had planned, match in dramatic suspense anything that fiction has to offer. Although God is not mentioned by name, His overruling providence is the great theme of the book from beginning to end. The book highlights, also, the transitory nature of earthly power and prosperity. Doubtless because of these things the medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides exalts the book of Esther above all the books of the Prophets and the rest of the Hagiographa and places it on a par with the Pentateuch. If God can deliver His people from a crisis such as the one that confronted them in the days of Esther, certainly no earthly situation can prove too difficult for Him and no crisis can be so dark as to leave His people without hope.
The narrative logically falls into 5 sections, the 1st of which explains how a Jewish maiden happens to become queen of the Persian Empire (Est 1:1 to Est 2:20). The narrative develops as Haman is promoted to the office of prime minister and plots to exterminate the Jews (chs 2:21 to 3:15) and Esther sets out to champion the cause of her people (chs 4:1 to 5:8). It reaches its climax with the fall of Haman (chs 5:9 to 7:10) and the triumph of the Jews over their enemies (chs 8:1 to 10:3). The story opens with a description of a high festival of state at which all the princes and nobles of Persia are present, but which becomes the occasion for the deposition of Vashti as queen and the eventual appointment of Esther as her successor to royal favour. Next, the incident by which Mordecai saves Xerxes' life is related, by way of explaining Mordecai's later role in the narrative (ch 2:21 23). Haman's appointment as prime minister leads indirectly to personal hatred for Mordecai (ch 3:1 6) and to the plot by which he seeks to take revenge by means of a royal decree that sentences all Jews to death (vs. 7 15). The Jews are in despair, but Mordecai perceives that Esther's position as queen has placed her in a position to approach the king. He prevails upon her to champion her people's cause at great personal risk (ch 4:1 17). Esther tactfully approaches the king and makes sure of his favour, step by step, before lodging her accusation against Haman. Her handling of the critical and delicate situation is a demonstration of consummate skill and tact (chs 5:1 to 7:6). During the course of Esthe's manoeuvres to bring the king and Haman together under circumstances suited to her purpose, Haman is utterly humiliated and disheartened by being required to parade Mordecai about the city in royal splendour at the very time he has purposed to hang his mortal enemy. After the exposure and death of Haman events move rapidly with the promotion of Mordecai to Haman's post as prime minister and the issuance of a decree that effectively checkmates the one promulgated earlier upon the insistence of Haman (Est 8:1 to 9:16). The remainder of ch 9 explains the historical basis for the Feast of Purim, which has been universally observed by the Jews ever since (ch 9:17 32). Chapter 10 constitutes a conclusion that relates briefly the honour that comes to Mordecai as prime minister and notes how he uses this high office not only to the advantage of Persia and its king but also to further the welfare of his own people, the Jews.
Horn, Siegfried H., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1979.