Esther (Heb. ASTR, star, happiness; Sept. Esther), Queen of Persia and wife of Assuerus, who is identified with Xerxes (485-465 B.C.). She was a Jewess of the tribe of Benjamin, daughter of Abihail, and bore before her accession to the throne the name of Edissa (HDSH, HàdàssƒÅh, myrtle). Her family had been deported from Jerusalem to Babylon in the time of Jechonias (599 B.C.). On the death of her parents she was adopted by her father’s brother, Mardochai, who then dwelt in Susan, the capital of Persia. King Assuerus being angered at the refusal of his wife Vasthi to respond to his invitation to attend a banquet that he gave in the third year of his reign, divorced her and ordered the most attractive maidens of the kingdom brought before him that he might select her successor from among them. Among these was Esther, whose rare beauty captivated the king and moved him to place her on the throne. Her uncle Mardochai remained constantly near the palace so that he might advise and counsel her. While at the gate of the palace he discovered a plot of two of the king’s eunuchs to kill their royal master. This plot he revealed to Esther, who in turn informed the king. The plotters were executed, and a record of the services of Mardochai was entered in the chronicles of the kingdom. Not long thereafter, Aman, a royal favorite before whom the king had ordered all to bow, having frequently observed Mardochai at the gate of the palace and noticed that he refused to prostrate himself before him, cunningly obtained the king’s consent for a general massacre in one day of all the Jews in the kingdom. Following a Persian custom, Aman determined by lot (pàr, pl. pàrïm), that the massacre should take place a twelvemonth hence. A royal decree was thereupon sent throughout the Kingdom of Persia. Mardochai informed Esther of this and begged her to use her influence with the king and thus avert the threatening danger. At first she feared to enter the presence of the king unsummoned, for to do so was a capital offense. But, on the earnest entreaty of her uncle, she consented to approach after three days, which with her maids she would pass in fasting and prayer, and during which she requested her uncle to have all the Jews in the city fast and pray.
On the third day Esther appeared before the king, who received her graciously and promised to grant her request whatever it might be. She then asked him and Aman to dine with her. At the banquet they accepted her invitation to dine with her again on the following day. Aman, carried away by the joy that this honor gave him, issued orders for the erection of a gallows on which he purposed to hang the hated Mardochai. But that night the king, being sleepless, ordered the chronicles of the nation to be read to him. Learning that Mardochai had never been rewarded for his service in revealing the plot of the eunuchs, he asked Aman, the next day, to suggest a suitable reward for one “whom the king desired to honor”. Thinking it was himself that the king had in mind, Aman suggested the use or the king’s apparel and insignia. These the king ordered to be bestowed on Mardochai. At the second banquet, when the king repeated to Esther his offer to grant her whatever she might ask, she informed him of the plot of Aman which involved the destruction of the whole Jewish people to which she belonged, and pleaded that they should be spared. The king ordered that Aman should be hanged on the gibbet prepared for Mardochai, and, confiscating his property, bestowed it upon the intended victim. He charged Mardochai to address to all the governors of Persia letters authorizing the Jews to defend themselves and to kill all those who, by virtue of the previous decree, should attack them. During two days the Jews took a bloody revenge on their enemies in Susan and other cities. Mardochai then instituted the feast of Purim (lots) which he exhorted the Jews to celebrate in memory of the day which Aman had determined for their destruction, but which had been turned by Esther into a day of triumph. The foregoing story of Esther is taken from the Book of Esther as found in the Vulgate. Jewish traditions place the tomb of Esther at Hamadan (Ecbatana). The Fathers of the Church considered Esther as a type of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her poets have found a favorite subject. (R. Schwartz, Esther im deutschen u. neulateinischen Drama des Reformationszeitalters, Oldenburg, 1894.)
BOOK OF ESTHER.—In the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint the Book of Esther bears only the word “Esther” as title. But the Jewish rabbis called it also the “volume of Esther”, or simply “the volume” (megillah) to distinguish it from the other four volumes (megilloth), written on separate rolls, which were read in the synagogues on certain feast days. As this one was read on the feast of Purim and consisted largely of epistles (cf. Esth., ix, 20, 29), it was called by the Jews of Alexandria the “Epistle of Purim“. In the Hebrew canon the book was among the Hagiographa and placed after Ecclesiastes. In the Latin Vulgate it has always been classed with Tobias and Judith, after which it is placed. The Hebrew text that has come down to us varies considerably from those of the Septuagint and the Vulgate. The Septuagint, besides showing many unimportant divergencies, contains several additions in the body of the book or at the end. The additions are the portion of the Vulgate text after ch. x, 3. Although no trace of these fragments is found in the Hebrew Bible, they are most probably translations from an original Hebrew or Chaldaic text. Origen tells us that they existed in Theodotion’s version, and that they were used by Josephus in his “Antiquities” (XVI). St. Jerome, finding them in the Septuagint and the Old Latin version, placed them at the end of his almost literal translation of the existing Hebrew text, and indicated the place they occupied in the Septuagint. The chapters being thus rearranged, the book may be divided into two parts: the first relating the events which preceded and led up to the decree authorizing the extermination of the Jews (i-iii, 15; xi, 2; xiii, 7); the second showing how the Jews escaped from their enemies and avenged themselves (iv-v, 8; xiii-xv).
The Book of Esther, thus taken in part from the Hebrew Canon and in part from the Septuagint, found a place in the Christian Canon of the O. T. The chapters taken from the Septuagint were considered deuterocanonical, and, after St. Jerome, were separated from the ten chapters taken from the Hebrew which were called protocanonical (see Canon of the Holy Scriptures). A great many of the early Fathers clearly considered the entire work as inspired, although no one among them found it to his purpose to write a commentary on it. Its omission in some of the early catalogues of the Scriptures was accidental or unimportant. The first to reject the book was Luther, who declared that he so hated it that he wished that it did not exist (Table Talk, 59). His first followers wished only to reject the deuterocanonical parts, whereupon these, as well as other deuterocanonical parts of the Scriptures, were declared by the Council of Trent (Sess. IV, de Can. Scriptures) to be canonical and inspired. With the rise of rationalism the opinion of Luther found many supporters. When modern rationalists argue that the Book of Esther is irreligious in character, unlike the other books of the O.T., and therefore to be rejected, they have in mind only the first or protocanonical part, not the entire book, which is manifestly religious. But, although the first part is not explicitly religious, it contains nothing unworthy of a place in the Sacred Scriptures. And any way, as Driver points out (Introduc. to the Lit. of the O. T.), there is no reason why every part of the Biblical record should show the “same degree of subordination of human interests to the spirit of God“.
As to the authorship of the Book of Esther there is nothing but conjecture. The Talmud (Baba Bathra 15) assigns it to the Great Synagogue; St. Clement of Alexandria ascribes it to Mardochai; St. Augustine suggests Esdras as the author. Many, noting the writer’s familiarity with Persian customs and institutions and with the character of Assuerus, hold that he was a contemporary of Mardochai, whose memoirs he used. But such memoirs and other contemporary documents showing this familiar knowledge could have been used by a writer at a later period. And, although the absence in the text of allusion to Jerusalem seems to lead to the conclusion that the book was written and published in Persia at the end of the reign of Xerxes I (485-465 B.C.) or during the reign of his son Artaxerxes I (465-425 B.C.), the text seems to offer several facts which may be adduced with some show of reason in favor of a later date. They are: (I) an implied statement that Susan had ceased to be the capital of Persia, and a vague description of the extent of the kingdom (i, 1); (2) an explanation of Persian usages that implies unfamiliarity with them on the part of the readers (i, 13, 19; iv, 11; viii, 8); (3) the revengeful attitude of the Jews towards the Gentiles, by whom they felt they had been wronged, and with whom they wished to have little to do (iii, 8 sqq.); (4) a diction showing many late words and a deterioration in syntax; (5) references to “the Macedonians” and to the plot of Aman as an attempt to transfer “the kingdom of the Persians to the Macedonians” (xvi, 10, 14). On the strength of these passages various modern critics have assigned late dates for the authorship of the book, as, 135 B.C., 167 B.C., 238 B.C., the beginning of the third century B.C., or the early years of the Greek period which began 332 B.C. The majority accept the last opinion.
Some of the modern critics who have fixed upon late dates for the composition of the book deny that it has any historical value whatever, and declare it to be a work of the imagination, written for the purpose of popularizing the feast of Purim. In support of their contention they point out in the text what appear to be historical improbabilities, and attempt to show that the narrative has all the characteristics of a romance, the various incidents being artfully arranged so as to form a series of contrasts and to develop into a climax. But what seem to be historical improbabilities are in many cases trivial. Even advanced critics do not agree as to those which seem quite serious. While some, for instance, consider it wholly improbable that Assuerus and Aman should have been ignorant of the nationality of Esther, who was in frequent communication with Mardochai, a well-known Jew, others maintain that it was quite possible and probable that a young woman, known to be a Jewess, should be taken into the harem of a Persian king, and that with the assistance of a relative she should avert the ruin of her people, which a high official had endeavored to effect. The seeming improbability of other passages, if not entirely explained, can be sufficiently explained to destroy the conclusion, on this ground, that the book is not historical. As to artful contrasts and climax to which appeal is made as evidences that the book is the work of a mere romancer, it may be said with Driver (op. cit.) that fact is stranger than fiction, and that a conclusion based upon such appearances is precarious. There is undoubtedly an exercise of art in the composition of the work, but no more than any historian may use in accumulating and arranging the incidents of his history. A more generally accepted opinion among contemporary critics is that the work is substantially historical. Recognizing the author’s close acquaintance with Persian customs and institutions, they hold that the main elements of the work were supplied to him by tradition, but that, to satisfy his taste for dramatic effect, he introduced details which were not strictly historical. But the opinion held by most Catholics and by some Protestants is, that the work is historical in substance and in detail. They base their conclusions especially on the following: (I) the vivacity and simplicity of the narrative; (2) the precise and circumstantial details, as, particularly, the naming of unimportant personages, the noting of dates and events; (3) the references to the annals of the Persians; (4) the absence of anachronisms; (5) the agreement of proper names with the time in which the story is placed; (6) the confirmation of details by history and archaeology; (7) the celebration of the feast of Purim in commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews by Esther and Mardochai at the time of the Machabees (II Mach., xv, 37), at the time of Josephus (Antiq of the Jews, XI, vi, A§ 13), and since. The explanation of Kautzsch (An Outline of the Hist. of the Lit. of the O. T., p. 131) that the story of Esther was engrafted on a Jewish feast already existing and probably connected with a Persian festival, is only a surmise. Nor has any one else succeeded better in offering an explanation of the feast than that it had its origin as stated in the Book of Esther.
A. L. MCMAHON