Read the Passage: Esther 1
Author and Date: While technically anonymous, the book of Esther (along with the books of 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) was likely written by the scribe Ezra in the latter half of the fifth century BC. The setting of the book of Esther is Persia, which modern-day readers know as Iran. Chronologically speaking, the events recorded in this text occur between 483–473 BC and fit into the historical narrative of the Bible between Ezra 6 and 7 (cf. Ezra 4:6), making it one of the last books in the Old Testament timeline. The Persian King who ruled during this time-frame is Ahasuerus, also called Xerxes, who reigned from 486–464 BC. During this time the Medo-Persian Empire covered 127 provinces and stretched all the way from India to Egypt. Additionally, observe that much of Jerusalem, including the Temple, had been rebuilt by Zerubbabel just prior to the events in this book. Note further that Xerxes is the great-grandson of Darius the Mede who captured Babylon as is recorded in Dan. 5:30–31. The book of Esther is one of four Old Testament books not quoted in the New Testament, the others being Song of Solomon, Obadiah, and Nahum.
Theme and Purpose: When the Jews had been delivered from Egypt in 1445 BC, almost 1,000 years prior to the events of the book of Esther, God pronounced a curse upon the Amalekites, who were descendants of Esau (cf. Gen. 36:12), for they had attacked the Jews during the exodus event (cf. Exod. 17:8–16; Deut. 25:17–19). Later in 1030 BC, Saul was told to kill the Amalekites, including their king Agag (cf. 1 Sam. 15:2–3). Yet, Saul was disobedient, resulting in the Lord’s displeasure (cf. 1 Sam. 15:11, 26; 28:18) and in the prophet Samuel’s killing of Agag with a sword (cf. 1 Sam. 15:32–33). The central characters in the book of Esther are Mordecai, a Jewish descendant of Saul (cf. Est. 2:5), and Haman, an Amalekite descendant of Agag (cf. Est. 3:1, 10; 8:3, 5; 9:24). Although it had been roughly 550 years since the near destruction of the Amalekites by the Jews, the ancient hostility between these peoples underlies the tension between Mordecai and Haman in this book. Interestingly, the name of God does not appear in Esther (which is also true of Song of Solomon), while Ahasuerus’ name appears 29 times in the book and Esther’s name appears 55 times.
Structure and Outline: In light of the narrative nature of this biblical text, any outline of the book of Esther will be somewhat subjective. Below is a suggested thematic outline of this text:
- Esther’s Ascendance (1–2)
- Haman’s Plot (3–4)
- Mordecai’s Elevation (5–7)
- Israel’s Deliverance (8–10)
The King’s Feasts (1:1–8)
King Ahasuerus, whose Greek name is Xerxes, is introduced in the first verse of this text. The events in the book of Esther take place near the zenith of the Persian Empire, which is the empire that succeeded the Babylonian Empire. The text informs readers of the size and scope of the Persian Empire, as it covered 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia. The narrative begins in the third year of Ahasuerus’ reign, which was 483 BC. We read that the king was giving a six-month long feast for his leaders, followed by a 7-day feast for the residents of Shushan, or Susa, the winter capital of the Persian empire. The text gives no specific reason for these feasts, other than a display of the Ahasuerus’ power and riches. Yet, it is possible that the king had gathered his leaders to lay the groundwork for a desired future invasion of Greece. This planned campaign began in 481 BC, which occurs chronologically between Esther chapters 1 & 2.
The Queen’s Offense (1:9–15)
Esther 1:9 introduces Queen Vashti, whose name is Amestris in Greek. As was custom among the Persians, Vashti held a separate feast for the women of Shushan. The text records that on the last day of the feast, when the king was “merry with wine” (Est. 1:10), Ahasuerus commanded his eunuchs to bring Vashti to the men’s feast “in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold” (Est. 1:11). Vashti, however, refused the king’s command. The text does not explain why Vashti did not consent, yet some of the reasons for her refusal may have been: (1) that her appearance would have involved lewd behavior before drunken men, (2) that she was unwell on account of the feast and wine, or (3) that she, like her husband, had become proud and self-centered. Whatever the reason for Vashti’s defiance, it angered the king, for it embarrassed him and it was an unusual offense within Persian society.
The Counselor’s Suggestion (1:16–21)
At Est. 1:15 King Ahasuerus asked seven counselors how to proceed in light of Vashti’s refusal of his command. The reply of one of his wise men, an official named Memucan, is recorded in Est. 1:16–20. In his response, Memucan suggested that Vashti’s rejection of Ahasuerus’ command was not just an offense to the king, but also an offense to the princes and all of the people of the empire. This reply seems clearly to be designed not to appease the king’s anger, but to stoke it. In fact, Memucan claimed, without any evidence, “This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus, there will be excessive contempt and wrath” (Est. 1:18). Memucan’s solution, then, was to have Ahasuerus permanently ban queen Vashti from his presence and to “give her royal position to another better than she” (Est. 1:19).
- What do you know about the book of Esther? What verses or passages from this book come to mind?
- Why would a book be included in the Bible in which there no miracles, no prophecies, no moral laws, and from which God’s name is absent?
- Was Ahasuerus’ summoning of Vashti moral or immoral?
- Was Vashti’s refusal of Ahasuerus’ command moral or immoral?
- Why did Memucan offer such a drastic solution to Ahasuerus’ conundrum?