By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Book of Esther has a surprising claim to fame: it’s the only book in the Bible in which the word ‘God’ does not appear. (Curiously, it is also the only biblical book to mention the country of India, when the author is describing the breadth of the Persian empire.)
The name ‘Esther’ is actually Persian or Babylonian in origin: the Jewish name of the character is Hadassah, as Esther 2:7 makes clear (‘Esther’ may be related to the name of the Semitic goddess Ishtar). ‘Hadassah’ is close to the Babylonian word for ‘bride’, and ‘bride’ was another title given to Ishtar in Babylonian myth.
The Book of Esther is a work of fiction whose figures are almost entirely unknown in the historical records. Nevertheless, the story told in Esther is significant, telling us about the persecution of Jewish people under Persian rule.
Book of Esther: summary
Esther (or Hadassah) was the daughter of Abihail of the tribe of Benjamin. She was an orphan who was raised by her cousin Mordecai, who had been ‘carried away’ from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (Esther 2:6). Mordecai was Abihail’s nephew.
Xerxes, the Persian king, who is named Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, dismissed his wife, the queen Vashti, for disobeying him. During one of his great feasts, he had summoned her to appear before his guests so he could show off her beauty; she refused. (Vashti, by the way, is another name taken from Babylonian mythology: she was an Elamite goddess. Xerxes’ real wife was actually named Amestris.)
Ahasuerus summoned the most beautiful girls of the kingdom to him, so that he could choose a new wife. Esther was one of these girls. Ahasuerus preferred her to all of the other girls brought before him, and named her as his new wife, and his queen.
Thanks to her influential position at the Persian court, Esther – along with Mordecai’s guidance – was able to petition for better treatment of Jews living under Xerxes’ rule. This was fortunate, because Haman, a favourite courtier of Ahasuerus’, would have had the Jewish people massacred if he had his way, not least because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, accepting no authority except that of God.
Haman, by the way, is another Babylonian name: Hamman was the chief male deity of the Elamites. We’ll come back to that; but it’s worth noting that Haman is described as being the son of an Agagite, and we know from the First Book of Samuel that Agag was an Amalekite (1 Samuel 15:32), the Amalekites being sworn enemies of the Jewish people.
Indeed, Haman was successful in persuading the king to put his name to a decree calling for all Jewish people to be put to death. When Ahasuerus found out that Esther was Jewish – after she bravely revealed this fact to the king – he sought to nullify the royal decree calling for the deaths of Jews in his land.
Instead, the conniving Haman was put to death on the very gallows which he had planned to hang Mordecai from, and Mordecai was honoured by the king when he saved Ahasuerus’ life.
However, even Ahasuerus himself couldn’t revoke the decree calling for the Jews to be killed, but they were allowed to defend themselves against their attackers.
The Jewish people took revenge on those who had tried to have them killed, and Esther and Mordecai decreed that two days were to become annual celebrations in honour of the aversion of the plot to have the Jews killed, and a day of mourning and fasting would be observed in memory of the initial royal decree which had almost seen them put to death (for more on this, see below).
Book of Esther: analysis
The Book of Esther was written fairly late in the chronology of the Old Testament scriptures, as late as 130 BC according to some scholars. Indeed, in his Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament, Isaac Asimov surmises that the book’s fervent nationalism was one reason why the Book of Esther was included in the Old Testament, when so many other late texts were consigned to the ‘apocrypha’ pile.
The story of Esther is usually labelled a ‘historical novel’ or ‘historical romance’, because although it is set in a recognisable period of history, there are no real-life historical counterparts for any of the figures who appear in the book, with the one notable exception of Ahasuerus, who is generally believed to be an alternative name for Xerxes I. Xerxes, who ruled the Persian empire from 486 to 465 BC, is well-known for his crushing defeat against the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon in 480 BC.
Asimov proposes an allegorical way of responding to the events of the Book of Esther. As well as being a story about the persecution and eventual acceptance of the Jews, thanks to the courage of Esther and the cleverness of Mordecai, the events might be analysed as symbolic of the last days of the Assyrian empire.
As Asimov notes, ‘Mordecai’ is close to ‘Marduk’, the name of the chief Babylonian god who replaced the earlier Elamite god, Hamman. Meanwhile, Ishtar (for whom, read ‘Esther’?) replaced the Elamite deity Vashti as the chief goddess. This parallels Esther’s replacement of Vashti as Ahasuerus’ queen, and it also explains why Xerxes’ wife is given this name in the story.
When analysed this way, the Book of Esther is an allegory for a much older civilisation, and the way it – the Babylonian empire – replaced the earlier Elamite one. Indeed, even the name of Haman’s wife, Zeresh, is suspiciously close to Kirisha, the name of Hamman’s wife in Babylonian myth.
The Book of Esther is also believed to be the scriptural source for the Jewish festival known as Purim. Purim is the plural of the Hebrew word pur, which means ‘lot’. In Esther 3:6-7, the origins of Purim are outlined: they relate to Haman’s selection of the date on which the Jews would be massacred (‘lot’ in this context refers to the drawing of lots).
However, once again Asimov finds a Babylonian precursor to all this: Purim may have had its earliest origins in a Babylonian spring festival involving Marduk and Ishtar. During the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews could have adopted the festival, until it became the Judaic festival known as Purim.