Introduction to Esther (Ezra 4:6; Esther 1) December 1
The second Jerusalem temple was completed in response to the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah early in the reign of the Persian king Darius the Great (also known as Darius II or Darius Hystaspes). Darius expanded the reach of the Persian Empire. By 516 B.C., around the time of the temple's completion, "he had pressed east as far as India and then returned to deal with the Libyans. His northward penetrations were not so successful, however, for he met stiff resistance from the Scythians and was forced to retreat. Still unsatisfied he set his sights on Europe. His first attempt to bring the independent Aegean [Greek] states under his control failed when the Ionian states [between Greece and southern Italy] which were already under Persian suzerainty broke free to assist their harassed kinfolk. He eventually prevailed, however, and incorporated all of western Asia into his realm. Flushed with success Darius made an ill-advised sweep across the Aegean Sea in the year 490 with the intent of conquering Athens and the other city-states of the Greek peninsula.... The Athenians met Darius head-on. In the decisive battle of Marathon the Persians underwent a humiliating defeat and were forced to retreat to the Asian mainland. Convinced that victory had eluded him only because of insufficient manpower, Darius resolved to return once more to Greece to finish what he had begun. A revolt in Egypt preempted this action, however.
"Before Darius could completely resolve his new problem and resume his European operations, he died, leaving his grand design to his son Xerxes....the Old Testament Ahasuerus. He had for some years been designated heir by his father, so the change in leadership was without contention. By virtue of his governorship of Babylon, Xerxes was admirably prepared to undertake the formidable responsibilities of his new office. Xerxes' first interest lay in the completion of the royal palace at Susa [the biblical Shushan] and further aggrandizement of Persepolis, the latter project occupying him on and off for the twenty-one years of his reign (486-465). A more pressing concern, however, was with Egypt, which rebelled at once upon his accession. In less than two years he was able to resolve this problem...." (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, pp. 490-491, 498). Ezra 4:6, which we earlier read in arrangement order of Ezra, tells us that the Samaritans wrote an accusation against the Jews of Judea in the beginning of his reign—to which he apparently paid no heed, perhaps because he was occupied with these other concerns at the time during his first two years as king. This brings us then to the third year of Xerxes' reign, 484-483 B.C., which is when the book of Esther begins (see Esther 1:1-3).
The book of Esther is about a beautiful young Jewish woman—raised by her older cousin Mordecai—who becomes Xerxes' queen and later bravely acts to thwart an evil adversary's plot to exterminate the whole Jewish race. The remarkable deliverance from this genocidal plot is still celebrated in the Jewish festival of Purim, the institution of which is explained near the end of the book.
Esther is one of five books among the Writings division of the Old Testament that are read during holy festivals. These are collectively known as the Megilloth ("Scrolls"). The book of Esther is called the Megillah (Scroll) because of its great popularity among Jewish readers. "Against a background of centuries of persecution, it is understandable why the Feast of Purim became such a favorite of the Jews. It recalls a time when they were able to turn the tables on those who wanted to destroy them. Purim is celebrated today amid a carnival-like atmosphere, with masquerade parties, noisemaking, and revelry. The story is reenacted in synagogues with the audience hissing Haman and cheering Mordecai. The Book of Esther is a profound statement about the heroic resistance necessary for survival in the face of violent anti-Semitism that continues to the present day" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, introductory notes on Esther).
However, Esther has long been a controversial book because of what many have reckoned as indefensible moral conduct on the part of Esther and Mordecai and the absence of any mention of God. On the first matter, we will examine the issues in that regard as we come to them in the account. But we may note up front that none of the Bible's human heroes are perfect except for Jesus Christ.
This brings us to the second matter of objection. It is certainly true that God is not named or directly referred to in a surface reading of the book (as is also the case with the Song of Solomon). Some have postulated that the reason God is not directly mentioned is that the book was intended as a Persian state chronicle explaining to the Persians the Jewish celebration of Purim. And that is certainly possible, though we still might expect a reference to "the God of the Jews" or something similar. The absence of a direct reference to God seems quite deliberate.
Some have proposed that God's name is hidden in four separate verses in Esther in acrostic style (1:20; 5:4, 13; 7:7), i.e. spelled out by the first or last letters of each word in the verse. This is supported by the fact that carefully structured acrostic spellings appear in several books of the Old Testament. In these four examples in Esther, the divine name Yhwh is spelled out from the first or last letters of the words in these verses. This may point to the nature in which God is revealed in the book. God is hidden in the story, but His presence is evident beyond measure. Certain important circumstances in the story contributing to the amazing outcome are clearly beyond mere time and chance. Furthermore, the reliance on fasting and Mordecai's certainty of "deliverance...from another place" if Esther failed to act (see Esther 4:3, 13-16) are veiled references to beseeching God and trusting in His providence. Indeed, the main theme of Esther is God's miraculous intervention and preservation of His people. Jews the world over consider the story of this book to be one of the greatest evidences of God's hand in the course of human history to preserve them as a people. (While the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament dating back to Christ's time—adds a number of explicit references to God, these are generally understood to have been added by people seeking to correct perceived spiritual inadequacy in the book.)
As for who wrote the book, no explicit statement is given. "A strong Jewish spirit pervades the book.... Moreover, the author was acquainted with Persian culture, as the extensive descriptions of the palace complex at Shushan (also called Susa) and the domestic details about the reign of King Ahasuerus [Xerxes] indicate. For these reasons, some [such as the third-century church father Clement of Alexandria and the medieval Jewish sage Ibn Ezra] have ascribed the authorship of the book to Mordecai, one of its principal characters" (Nelson Study Bible, introductory notes on Esther). Yet others object to this because of the book's concluding statements praising Mordecai (see 10:2-3)—though these could easily have been added by a later editor such as Ezra. In fact, Ezra has also been suggested as the book's author. Whoever the author was, one commentator says that he must have used "sources, such as some of the writings of Mordecai (9:20), books of the annals of the Median and Persian kings (2:23; 6:1; 10:2), and certain familiar oral traditions" (Expositor's, introductory notes on Esther).
Because of the way the book begins—"now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned...)"—it must have been written after the king's reign, and thus no earlier than 465 B.C. This is confirmed by the mention of the deeds of Mordecai in the past tense (10:2). "Yet the fact that Greek words do not appear in the book rules out a date after about 300 B.C. when [because of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rule of his successors] the Greek language became more prominent in the ancient Middle East. On the other hand, the numerous words of Persian origin in the book point to its being composed during the latter half of the fifth century B.C. For example, the book calls Xerxes by the Hebrew name [Akhshurosh, Anglicized as] Ahasuerus, a spelling derived from the Persian Khshayarsha. If it had been written after 300 B.C. a spelling closer to the Greek form Xerxes would be expected" (Nelson, introductory notes on Esther).
"While the historicity of the Book of Esther has been challenged, it meets every reasonable test. Descriptions of the Persian court and the customs of the times, the provision of precise dates, and the use of Persian names current in the era, as well as the characterization of Xerxes, are completely accurate. Independent confirmation of Mordecai's rise to power comes from a cuneiform tablet found in Borsippa, which identifies Marduka (Mordecai) as an official in the royal court at Susa in the early years of Xerxes' reign!" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, introductory notes on Esther).
The story of the miraculous salvation of the Jews was inspiring in the fourth century B.C., and this book became one of the most important literary pieces of Jewish history. Its inspiration continues for God's people today. Even as God protected the people of ancient Judah, though scattered from their homeland, from an enemy bent on destroying them, so will God protect His spiritual people today, scattered throughout the present evil world, from the great enemy who would destroy them. In the end, ultimate victory will belong to God and all His people—followed by triumphant joy and celebration.
The Deposing of Vashti (Ezra 4:6; Esther 1)
The account begins with a reference to Ahasuerus or Xerxes reigning over 127 provinces or districts. Some have argued that this is a mistake, since there were only 20 satrapies in the empire of Xerxes' father Darius. But the Hebrew word used here, medinah, referred to a subdivision of a satrapy, and it is reasonable that there would be 127 of these. (Another Hebrew-Aramaic word meaning satrapy could have been used if that was intended.)
Next we see the mention of two feasts—one for all the officials, royal servants, nobles and provincial governors lasting for six months (verses 3-4) and the other, at the end of the six months to cap it all off, a week-long celebration for all the people in Shushan (or Susa), both great and small (verse 5). Some have objected to a feast lasting six months, questioning how all the officials of the realm, particularly the provincial ones, could be away from their duties for so long. Yet it could well be that the officials came by groups in rotation. Xerxes' display of wealth and regalia over this period may have been to recruit needed support from all the regions of his realm, both near and far-flung, for his soon-coming resumption of his father's plan to conquer Greece.
The remainder of the chapter concerns the refusal of Xerxes' queen Vashti to answer the king's summons so he might show off her beauty. A major objection "raised against the historicity of Esther is that the only known wife of Xerxes was called Amestris, the daughter of a Persian general Otanes. Persian records do not mention a queen by the name of Vashti who was deposed, nor do they mention the name of Esther as Xerxes' wife [as the following chapters of the book of Esther show her to have become]. Amestris was known for her cruelty; [the Greek historian] Herodotus says she had the mother of her husband's paramour brutally mutilated and had fourteen noble Persian young men buried alive in an act of religious devotion.... A number of answers have been proposed: (1) in a polygamous society a king may have had more than one wife... (2) Esther may have [become] a subordinate wife or chief concubine... (3) the most persuasive explanation is one...which shows the similarity of the names 'Vashti' and 'Amestris' and concludes that they were one and the same person" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, introductory notes on Esther).
No specific reason is given as to why Vashti would not come. Perhaps she did not want to be degraded by being paraded before the king's drunken guests.
For counsel the infuriated ruler turned to the "wise men who understood the times" (verse 13). "Like their Babylonian counterparts, these wise men were astrologers and magicians who gave counsel according to their reading of celestial phenomena (cf. 1 Chronicles 12:32; Isa 44:25; 47:13; Jer 50:35-36; Dan 2:27; 5:15). It was the king's custom to consult experts in matters of law and justice and to hear their opinions before he acted on any matter. There were seven of these wise men, all with Persian names, called 'the seven nobles' [NIV] ('the seven princes,' KJV, RSV) of Persia and Media.... They were probably the Council of Seven mentioned in Ezra 7:14 and Herodotus 3.1.... 'Seven advisers' corresponds with the Persian tradition (Herodotus 1.31; 3.84; 7.8; 8.67; Xenophon Anabasis 1.6.4f)" (notes on Esther 1:13-14 and Ezra 7:14).
Speaking for the others, Memucan says that the queen's behavior, if tolerated, would lead to the wives of officials throughout the realm rebelling against their husbands—thus elevating the issue beyond a royal domestic dispute to that of a state concern, as the increase of ruling officials experiencing such trouble at home would weaken the empire. Perhaps these men were also thinking of their own personal domestic situations.
The proposal, to which the king agrees, is that Vashti be stripped of her position of chief wife and that this honor be given to another. It does not say that the king would divorce Vashti, though her complete removal from royal favor and from right to the king's presence effectively amounted to that.