By Mary Jane Chaignot

Perhaps the most oft-heard question relating to the Book of Esther is why it is in the Bible. It is the most secular of all the Books (the word, God, never appears in its verses) with no mention of the temple, the covenant, prayer, or Jewish practices. Nor are any of its characters particularly religious or pious. Still, it is part of the canon. Most attribute its inclusion to the fact that it provides the documentation for the celebration of a new festival, Purim. The Book is careful not to say God commanded this, and it clearly indicates that this was not a revival of an existing festival. Purim is not mentioned in the Torah. Nonetheless, it was adopted for all times and, indeed, opened the way for adding later holidays (like Hanukkah) to commemorate special events as the needs arose.

Though it is impossible to know the minds of the ancient peoples who were determining the canon, another feature of this book is that it relates how the Jews were delivered from harm at a crucial time in their history. Even though God is not mentioned, His providential hand is always evident. And this Book illustrates that His care extends to Jews outside Judea.

This story takes place in the Diaspora, not in Jerusalem. The Diaspora is a general term for the settlement of Jews outside of Palestine. In those areas, Jews were a distinct minority, living in a society that was ignorant about and disinterested in maintaining continuity for any of their Jewish practices or customs. Yet, somehow these Jews managed to continue the traditions of their fathers and upheld their identity in the face of foreign domination. The Book of Esther maintains that these Jews, and thereafter Jews anywhere in the Diaspora, were still included in God's care, held in His hands, and were contiguous with His children - regardless of where they lived.

This, of course, raises the question of historicity of the events in the book. Was this story told just to inspire and encourage peoples in far-off lands? Or did it really happen? Scholars are quick to point out the many historical difficulties within its pages. The first is that there are no extrabiblical sources that corroborate Vashti or Esther as queens. The only known queen of Xerxes was Amestris, who was not a Jew. From a practical standpoint, kings were restricted to marrying daughters of specified aristocratic families. And more than one eyebrow has been raised at the prospect that a Jewish woman willingly entered into marriage with a Gentile. (Read Ezra-Nehemiah for more on the problem of intermarriage.) It is possible, of course, that Xerxes had more than one wife and that not every wife was recorded in historical documents, but arguments based on silence can never be conclusive.

Another important red flag is that Xerxes was purported to be the governor of 127 provinces, when, in fact, it would have been more like 20-30. Those who claim authenticity argue that perhaps the number refers to subdivisions of each province. An additional numeric problem has to do with having a festival for 180 (!) days for everyone in the administration and the "entire army." It truly begs the question as to who was running the country while everyone in charge was off partying. Six months is a long time to celebrate. And does anyone really need a 75-foot gallows?

Notwithstanding these difficulties, there are several amazing narrative techniques that delight the reader. Let's assume for a moment that Xerxes did entertain the troops for six months, followed by a ten-day party for the entire city. The expressed purpose was to demonstrate his immense wealth and all the glory of his majesty. On the seventh day of his party, he sent seven eunuchs to fetch the queen. She was to "wear her crown" -- and probably nothing else. Despite his display of wealth and glory, a simple "no" by the queen turned his world upside down. Though "burning with anger," he could not decide what to do (six months of partying might have had something to do with this), and resorted to consulting with experts in the matters of law and justice. In other words, the man who controlled 127 provinces, innumerable princes and nobles, and an entire army was rendered incompetent by the simple "no" of a woman. That's great storytelling!

On a more somber note, many scholars are troubled by the vengeful response of the Jews. After the people had been delivered, Esther and Mordecai (with the king's permission) wrote an order authorizing the Jews throughout the provinces to slaughter their enemies. The number of deaths is astronomically high and furthermore, God did not direct these measures. Yet there is no sanction for either Mordecai or Esther regarding their actions. Some have argued that the whole incident happened in the first place because Mordecai's pride prevented him from honoring Haman. It again raises the historical question, which can never be adequately resolved.

The book itself is written with a "U-shaped" plot, common in many ancient myths and conflict stories. The plots revolve around banquets and reversals, with the central event being the royal procession of Mordecai, led by Haman. There is no consensus about the authorship, or even the date of the Book. Those who take seriously that this occurred during the reign of Xerxes argue for a time around 450-300 BCE. Others think it was written much later, possibly around 175-100 BCE. Despite the fact that the feast of Purim isn't mentioned in Jewish writings until the Maccabean period (thought to be around 100BCE), most hold for an earlier writing. If the story is essentially a parody of the Persian court, it makes more sense for it to have been written while that empire still existed. Regardless of these unresolvable questions, Esther stands for all time as a message of hope for Jews outside the Land of Promise.

There are four main sections in Esther: 1:1-2:23 - Esther becomes Queen; 3:1-8:17 - The Feud between Mordecai and Haman; 9:1-19 - The Day of Vengeance; 9:20-10:3 - Feast of Purim.

1:1-2:23 - Esther becomes Queen

  • 1:1-9
    • King Xerxes hosts banquets
    • First banquet was for nobles, officials, army
    • Banquet lasted for six months
    • Second banquet was for everyone in city of Susa
    • Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women
  • 1:10-22
    • End of Vashti
    • King commanded seven eunuchs to bring Vashti to put her on display
    • (King had been partying for seven days)
    • She was to wear her crown (possibly nothing else)
    • Queen refused to appear
    • King was mortified, embarrassed in front of everyone
    • Consulted with experts in law
    • Experts advised harsh response
    • Were afraid all women would hear and be disrespectful to husbands
    • King wrote decree
    • All men should rule their households
    • Vashti was dethroned
  • 2:1-23
    • 2:1-4 
      • Officials throughout the provinces were to scout out potential virgins
      • They would be given "Spa" treatments for 12 months
      • At the end of 12 months, the one who pleased the king would be made queen
    • 2:5-11
      • Esther is found
      • Mordecai (a Jew) was raising Esther who had been orphaned
      • Esther was taken to palace
      • King's eunuch, Hegai, immediately liked her
      • Hegai gave her special treatment
      • Mordecai told Esther not to reveal her heritage
      • Mordecai followed her to Susa, watched from courtyard
    • 2:12-14
      • Protocol for seeing the king
      • Maiden had to wait to be called
    • 2:15-18
      • Esther is chosen as queen
      • Esther was demure, naturally beautiful
      • King was immediately smitten with her
      • Search was over (after 10 months); Esther was crowned as Queen
    • 2:19-23
      • Mordecai hears assassination plot against King
      • Told Queen Esther about plot, king investigated and found it to be true
      • Potential assassins were hanged

3:1-8:17 - The Feud between Mordecai and Haman

  • 3:1-15
    • Haman plotted to kill Mordecai
      • 3:1-6
        • King honored Haman, a noble, gave him a promotion
        • Mordecai did not pay him honor
        • Royal officials told Haman about Mordecai's insolence
        • Word came out that Mordecai was a Jew
        • Haman determined to destroy Jews throughout kingdom
      • 3:7-15
        • Cast lots to determine date of slaughter of Jews
        • Haman went to King to tell him some citizens were insolent
        • Haman offered to destroy them and to pay the soldiers who did it
        • 10,000 talents of silver = 375 tons
        • King gave Haman his signet ring (symbol of authority)
        • Said he could keep the money, do whatever he wanted with the Jews
        • Decree went out saying all Jews could be killed on 13th of March-April
        • People in the city were bewildered
  • 4:1-17
    • Mordecai's plot to save the Jews
      • 4:1-3
        • Mordecai tore his clothes when he heard about the decree
        • All the Jews mourned
      • 4:4-17
        • Mordecai appeals to Esther
        • Esther saw him in mourning
        • Mordecai gave her a copy of decree
        • Esther had not been to see the King for 30 days
        • Anyone who went to King without being summoned risked death
        • King could spare the person's life by extending golden scepter
        • Mordecai told Esther she would not escape decree despite being in palace
        • Suggested perhaps she had been chosen queen to be in this position
        • Esther told Mordecai to fast for three days
        • She and her maids would also fast, then she would approach the King
  • 5:1-8
    • Esther's banquet
    • On the third day, Esther dressed up, went to see the King
    • He spared her life
    • Offered to give her whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom
    • Invited him and Haman to a banquet later in the day
    • They went
    • During dinner, King offered to give her whatever she wanted
    • Invited King and Haman for another banquet the following day
  • 5:9-14
    • Haman's plot against Mordecai
    • Haman was in great spirits after the banquet
    • Saw Mordecai in courtyard; saw that he would not honor him
    • Haman got furious
    • Bragged to entire family how he had been given special honor with Esther
    • Family suggested he build gallows (75 feet tall) to hang Mordecai on it
  • 6:1-5
    • King discovers Mordecai's good deed
    • King was restless and couldn't sleep one night; began to read Chronicles of his reign
    • Found the place in Chronicles where Mordecai saved him from assassination
    • Asked what honor had been given to Mordecai
    • Was told nothing had been done
    • Asked for Haman (who had just come in to talk about the hanging)
  • 6:6-11
    • Mordecai's honor
    • King asked Haman how to honor a man the King delighted in
    • Haman immediately assumed the King was referring to him
    • Suggested giving the man a new robe and the King's horse
    • A trusted noble could lead him through the city, proclaiming honor
    • King told Haman to do that for Mordecai
    • Haman carried out King's orders
  • 6:12-13
    • Haman's wife predicted downfall
    • Haman finished task, went home in mourning
    • His wife warned him against taking action against Mordecai
    • Predicted Haman would come to ruin
  • 6:14-7:10
    • Esther's second banquet
    • King's eunuchs came to accompany Haman to banquet
    • King and Haman attended Esther's second banquet
    • King asked what she wanted, offered up to half his kingdom
    • Esther asked for her life - and for the lives of her people
    • Said they had been sold for destruction
    • King was outraged, wanted to know who dared to do such a thing
    • Esther identified Haman
    • King stormed out; Haman stayed behind to beg for his life from Esther
    • Haman was about to fall on Esther's couch when King returned
    • King accused him of trying to molest the Queen
    • Haman was arrested on the spot; attendants told King about gallows
    • King ordered Haman to be hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai
    • Order was carried out
  • 8:1-2
    • Mordecai's promotion
    • King gave signet ring to Mordecai
    • Esther made Mordecai in charge of Haman's estate
  • 8:3-14
    • Haman's decree overturned
    • Esther asked the King to overturn Haman's decree
    • King gave Mordecai and Esther authority to write new decree
    • Said they could write what they chose, gave signet ring to seal it
    • King could not write a decree that revoked a previous one
    • A new one could only neutralize what had been written
    • Mordecai immediately wrote a new decree
    • Gave Jews the right to assemble and protect themselves
    • Jews could fight back on the 13th day of March-April
  • 8:15-17
    • Reaction of the people
    • Mordecai began wearing royal garments
    • People in the city celebrated
    • Jews everywhere rejoiced, feasted
    • Many people converted to Judaism out of fear of what the Jews might do to them

9:1-19 - The Day of Vengeance

  • 9:1-10
    • Day of Slaughter
    • Jews were prepared for attack; no one could stand against them
    • Nobles and princes, officials were all on the side of Jews
    • Were afraid to go against Mordecai
    • Mordecai became very powerful
    • Jews were successful in eliminating enemies
    • But did not lay their hands on the plunder
  • 9:11-15
    • Vengeance in Susa
    • 500 were killed in Susa, plus Haman's 10 sons
    • King asked Esther what she wanted - up to half his kingdom
    • She asked that Haman's sons be hanged on gallows (They were already dead) and for an extension of one more day of slaughter
    • King granted her request; another 300 men were killed
  • 9:16-19
    • Celebration and killing in the provinces
    • 75,000 were killed in the provinces
    • Jews in Susa began celebrations on 15th (Had two days to destroy enemies)
    • Jews in outlying areas celebrated on 14th
    • Celebration included feasting and exchange of presents

9:20-10:3 - Feast of Purim

  • 9:20-28
    • Letter of Mordecai
    • Mordecai wrote that these days should be remembered and celebrated for all time
    • Jews agreed
    • Feast was to be called Purim (comes from word pur, meaning "lot" - though the casting of lots was not a main feature of the story) Feast would be celebrated for two days every year
    • Every family, in every province and city would celebrate it
    • Recap of reasons for Feast
  • 9:29-32
    • Confirmation by Esther
    • Esther, with full authority, confirmed the letter regarding Purim
    • Mordecai sent letters throughout the 127 provinces
    • Events were written in Chronicles of the King
  • 10:1-3
    • Mordecai elevated to second in command, next to King
    • Acts of power and might were recorded in annals of the King
    • Mordecai was held in high honor among the Jews

The Book of Esther closes with vindication for the Jews. Mordecai and Esther are neither praised nor admonished for their actions. God has demonstrated once again that He is sovereign even when people are far from Him. The Book of Esther addresses the issue of retribution for sin by the hanging of Haman. It declares that faithfulness is rewarded and fighting against oppression is appropriate. Next month, however, the Book of Job will raise the profound issue of divine justice (theodicy) and the relationship of human suffering. Life isn't always as black and white as it seems.


Allen, L, and T. Laniak, "Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Press, 2003.

Alter, Robert and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1987.

Bechtel, Carol. "Esther." Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1989.

Huey, F.B. "Esther". The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1988. Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

McConville, J.G. "Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther." The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1985.