The New International Encyclopædia/Esther, Book of
ESTHER, Book of. One of the very latest of the canonical books of the Old Testament, belonging to the third division of the collection known as the Hagiographa. It contains the story of the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from a destruction planned for them by Haman, the Grand Vizier of Ahasuerus (Xerxes, B.C. 485-65). The heroine of the book is a Jewess whose original name is Hadassah, but who appears as Esther. The scene is laid at the court of Ahasuerus in Susa. The King, who has deposed his Queen, Vashti, for refusing to obey his orders, gives direction to seek for a beautiful woman to take Vashti's plaee. Esther, a Jewess, is selected as the fairest of maidens, and meets with the favor of the King. She is the cousin of Mordecai, a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, by whom she has been brought up; but. shortly after Esther's elevation a great disaster threatens her people through the refusal of Mordecai to pay homage to Haman, the Grand Vizier, and who is a descendant of Agag, King of Amalek (I. Sam. xv.). Haman in great anger proceeds to Ahasuerus, and, accusing all the Jewish subjects of disloyalty, offers to put 10,000 talents of silver into the royal treasury as the proceeds of the permission to pillage the Jews. The King consents, and issues an edict for the extermination of the Jews and the confiscation of their property. At this moment Esther, urged on by Mordecai, intervenes. Uninvited she enters the presence of the King to intercede on behalf of her people. The King receives her graciously, and accepts her invitation to dine with her on two consecutive nights. On the night preceding the second banquet, at which Esther intended to make known her request, the King learns from the royal archives of the services rendered by Mordecai in discovering a conspiracy against Ahasuerus's life, for which he had never been rewarded. Haman, too, comes to the banquet, and the King, having in mind Mordecai, asks Haman what should be done with the man whom the King delighteth to honor. Haman replies, and endures the humility of himself leading Mordecai in triumph through the streets. At the second banquet Esther discloses her nationality and exposes the designs of Haman, who is seized and ordered to be executed on a gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai. The latter is raised to the vacant post of honor, and the Jews are given permission to defend themselves against the carrying out of the order for their extermination, which, in accordance with the customs of the Medes and Persians, could not be revoked. A great dread falls upon the people, and on the day set for the extermination of the Jews the latter cause a great slaughter among their enemies, besides gaining many converts to their religion. In commemoration of the deliverance the Feast of Purim was instituted.
The book of Esther, as is now generally recognized by scholars, is a romance, which may, however, contain an historical kernel, being based on some persecution endured by the Jews of Susa. Mordecai and Hainan, as descendants of Benjamin and Agag, typify the old feud between Hebrews and Amalekites. It is also probable that a Babylonian legend or myth has guided the author of the book in some of the situations of the dramatic tale. Mordecai is a derivative of Marduk, the chief god of Babylonia; Esther is a form of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar; while Haman and Vashti are names analogous to those borne by Elamitic deities. The story thus represents the conflict between Babylonian and Elamitic gods. The Feast of Purim also presents analogies to the Babylonian New Year's Festival.
The language of the book, as well as the circumstance that the Persian Empire is treated as a thing of the past, favor a late date for the composition. It cannot be earlier than the third century B.C., and may belong to the second century, in which the Jews endured a hard lot that led to the uprising under the lead of the Maccabees. The purpose of the book is twofold: (1) Primarily to illustrate God's care for His people, and thus to encourage the people to loyalty, despite present distress; and (2) to enter a plea for the general observance of a festival which appears at one time to have been limited to the Jews of Babylonia and Persia. See Purim.
Consult, besides the commentaries on the book of Esther, the articles of Toy, “Esther as a Babylonian Goddess,” in The New World, vol. vi. (Boston, 1897); Zimmern, in Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. x. (Giessen, 1891); Jensen, in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, vol. vi. (Vienna, 1892); Erbt, Die Purimsage in der Bibel (Berlin, 1900). See Esther, Apocryphal Book of.