Book of Esther

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The Book of Esther is a book of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and of the Old Testament.

The Book of Esther or the Megillah is the basis for the Jewish celebration of Purim. Its full text is read aloud twice



The Biblical Book of Esther is set in the third year of Ahasuerus a king of Persia often identified with Xerxes I or Artaxerxes II. It tells a tale of palace intrigue, attempted genocide and a brave Jewish queen.

Plot Summary

In the story, Ahasuerus is married to Vashti, whom he puts aside after she rejects his offer to visit him during a feast. Mordecai's cousin Hadassah is selected from the candidates to be Ahasuerus' new wife and assumes the "throne name" of Esther. His prime minister Haman (an Agagite) and Haman's wife Zeresh plot to have Ahasuerus kill all the Jews, without knowing that Esther is Jewish. Esther saves the day for her people: at the risk of endangering her own safety, she warns Ahasuerus of Haman's plot to kill all the Jews. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had had built for Mordecai, and Mordecai becomes prime minister in Haman's place.

Authorship and date

Esther is usually dated to the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E. Jewish tradition regards it as a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text written by Mordecai.

The historical accuracy of the Book of Esther is disputed. Initial criticism arose out of the History of Religions school of thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which actively sought to disprove the historicity of the Bible by drawing comparisons between Biblical narratives and pagan myths. Attempts were made to draw comparisons between individuals in the Book of Esther and various real and alleged Babylonian and Elamite gods and goddesses. Principally Esther was identified with Ishtar and Modercai with Marduk. These comparisons are no longer considered tenable by modern scholars but are still often voiced in popular debate. (See the article Esther for further information.)

More sobre criticism results from attempts to harmonize details of the book with information on Persian history provided by Greek historians. The issues are complex with various Greek sources contradicting each other and Persian records besides the Book of Esther. Arguments hinge on the identification of Ahasuerus with competing views on both sides of the debate indentifying him with different Persian monarchs.

Thus some readers consider Esther a work of history. Other readers consider Esther a work of didactic fiction. The two readings are followed separately in the sections that follow:

Historical reading

Historical literalists most commonly identify Ahasuerus with Xerxes I (ruled 486 - 465 B.C.E.) or with Artaxerxes II (ruled (c. 436 - 358 B.C.E.).

The Hebrew: Ahasuerus is mostly likely derived from Persian: Khshayarsha, the origin of the Greek Xerxes. One of Xerxes's wifes in the late 480s was Amestris, a daughter of one of his generals. (According to the Jewish tradition as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud tractate of Megillah, Mordecai and Haman were both former generals in the kings service.) Attempts have been made to identify her with with either Esther or Vashti. (It should be noted however that according to the Book of Esther, Esther was merely one of numerous concubines in Ahasuerus' harem.) An official named Marduka (generally considered equivalent to the name Mordecai) is mentioned as an offical in the Persian court at Susa during the reign of Xerxes I.

The Septuagint version of Esther however translates the name Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes - derived from the Persian: Artakhshatra. Josephus too relates that this was the name by which he was known to the Greeks. Identification as Artaxerxes II has been more popular than with Artaxerxes I (ruled 464 - 424 B.C.E.) however the latter had a Babylonian concubine, Kosmartydene, who was the mother of his son Darius II (ruled 423 - 404 B.C.E.). Jewish tradition relates that Esther was the mother of a King Darius and so some identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes I and Esther with Kosmartydene.

Based on the view that the Ahasuerus of the Book of Tobit is identical with that of the Book of Esther, some have also identified him as Nebuchanezzar's ally Cyaxares (ruled 625 - 585 B.C.E.). In certain manuscripts of Tobit the former is called Achiachar which like the Greek: Cyaxares is thought to be derived from Persian: Akhuwakhshatra. Depending on the interpretation of Esther 2:5-6, Mordecai or his great-grandfather Kish was carried away from Jerusalem with Jeconiah by Nebuchadnezzar, in 597 B.C.E. The view that it was Mordecai would be consistent with the identification of Ahasuerus with Cyaxares.

Identifications with other Persian monarchs have also been suggested.

Narrative reading

Some readers consider this story a work of didactic fiction. The exploits of the historical candidates for Ahasuerus do not enter into the Book of Esther which is a tale of palace intrigue, attempted genocide and a brave Jewish queen. Many read the story as a parable of quintessentially assimilated Jews who discover that they are targets of anti-Semitism, but are also in a position to save themselves and their fellow Jews.

Relation To Other Books In the Bible

Esther is (in the Hebrew version) one of only two books of the Bible that do not directly mention God (the other is Song of Songs). It is the only book of the Tanakh that is not represented among the Dead Sea scrolls.

Additions to Esther

An additional six chapters appear interspersed in Esther in the Septuagint, the Greek translation, which then was used by Jerome in compiling the Latin Vulgate; additionally, the Greek text contains many small changes in the meaning of the main text. The extra chapters include several prayers to God, perhaps because it was felt that the above-mentioned lack of mention of God was inappropriate in a holy book. Jerome recognized them as later additions, placing them at the end of his work.

By the time Esther was written, the foreign power visible on the horizon as a future threat to Judah was the Macedonians of Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persian empire about 150 years after the time of the story of Esther; the Septuagint version noticeably calls Haman a Macedonian where the Hebrew text describes him as an Agagite.

The canonicity of these Greek additions has been a subject of scholarly disagreement practically since their first appearance in the Septuagint - Martin Luther, being perhaps the most vocal Reformation era critic of the work, considered even the original Hebrew version to be of very doubtful value. Luther's complaints against the book carried past the point of scholarly critique, and led in part to the complaint of anti-semitism frequently made against him. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent, the summation of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, declared the entire book, both Hebrew text and Greek additions, to be canonical. While modern Roman Catholic scholars openly recognize the Greek additions as clearly being additions to the text, it should be noted that the Book of Esther is used twice in commonly used sections of the Catholic Lectionary. In both cases, the text used is not only taken from a Greek addition, the readings also are the prayer of Mordecai, and nothing of Esther's own words is ever used. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint version of Esther, as it does for all of the Old Testament.

Reinterpretations of the story

The classic Hollywood film version of the story is the 1960 Esther and the King starring Joan Collins and Richard Egan and directed by Raoul Walsh.

There are several paintings depicting Esther, including one by Millais.

External Links

Text and translations

  • Christian translations:
    • Template:Biblegateway
    • The Book of Esther ( Full text, KJV, (also available at Arabic (

Introduction and analysis

  • The 1910 Jewish Encyclopedia ( An early 20th century critical perspective.
  • Fixing the History Books ( An introduction to Dr. Chaim S. Heifetz's revision of Persian History, a traditional Jewish scholarly view.
  • Esther, Book of ( A Christian perspective of the book.cs:Kniha Ester

de:Buch Ester fr:Livre d'Esther ko:에스텔 (구약성서) he:מגילת אסתר nl:Esther ja:エステル記 pl:Księga Estery sv:Ester


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