By Reverend Christopher Cooke
Patricia Tull points out that of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, 38 have names of men.
How many have names of women?
Esther and Ruth are not only distinguished by the names of the books but also by being free-standing narratives springing from Judean history.
The characters, Esther and Ruth, are “women in alien lands”.
Carol Bechtel relates this story:
Soon after historian Deborah Lipstadt won a court victory over holocaust denier, David Irving, she went to Purim at her local synagogue. Then the Book of Esther, as ever, is read out. The words of Esther 4:14 struck home: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Carol Bechtel argues that God has given us the Book of Esther “for just such a time as this.”
Which Version of Esther?
The Jews and Protestants have the ten chapters found in our Old Testaments. The Catholics recognize six additions which can be found in our Apocryphas. I shall concentrate on our canonical version.
How should we read Esther?
There is a total variance between Jewish and Christian practice here.
How often have you read the Book of Esther?
How often have you heard it read in Church?
Martin Luther did not know what to do with the book. One passage appears in our three-year cycle and then, of course, it is optional whether it used. Its messages are over-looked.
In complete contrast, the Book of Esther is central to the celebration of the Jewish Festival of Purim. It is read with great excitement and alcohol. It is the Jewish pantomime but with a critical storyline that has become all too relevant time and again, Whenever Haman’s name is mentioned there are jeers and hisses.
Whenever Mordecai or Esther are mentioned there are cheers and hurrahs. When it is read aloud, then humour bubbles up. Hamans are constantly turning up in history.
What sort of literature is the Book of Esther?
Ahasuerus is also known as Xerxes. On the one hand, the writer is very well aware of the customs of the Persian court. On the other, King Xerxes/Ahasuerus was often at battle during the period of the Book of Esther. In addition, his listed wife does not tally with either Queen Vashti or Queen Esther. The book is also full of exaggeration.
There may not have been a definable Oliver Twist, but that does not mean there isn’t great truth in that novel by Charles Dickens. Carol Bechtel makes the same point about “A Christmas Carol” and its surreal moments.
The Book of Esther is a story with deep truths. As Carol Bechtel says, fiction is not the absence of truth but the vehicle for it.
God is very much in the background.
In this, the Book of Esther shares a number of features with the story of Joseph and the Books of Ruth and Jonah.
Sidnie Ann White describes Esther as a novella or short story. It is meant to be entertaining and the author maintains a tone of comic irony or even satire. Adele Berlin describes it as a “burlesque” (comic lampoon) and that ties in well with how Jews celebrate it.
The Book of Esther is full of feasts and banquets. Michael Fox drew attention to the ten banquets in two halves. It is surely no accident that Purim is a two-day festival. Jon Levenson argues that the banquets can be summed up by the Hebrew phrase: “the reverse occurred”. This is because the second half of banquets reverses the intention of the first half.
Dates and history.
The book of Esther is set during the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus or Xerxes I who ruled from 486 to 465 BCE.
597 and 587/6 BCE– The Kingdom of Judah is defeated by the Babylonian Empire and the Exile and prison camps take place as well as the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
C546 BCE – The Babylonian Empire is defeated and subsumed by the Persian Empire. The Persians tended to allow subject peoples to develop a certain limited autonomy and local religions were tolerated and encouraged (Books of Ezra and Nehemiah).
334-323 BCE – The whole region is conquered by the Macedonian Alexander the Great.
The opening words of the Book of Esther, “This happened in the days of Ahasuerus”, suggest the writer is looking back to a previous time. The author uses several Persian loan words and many authentic Persian names. The book is written in late Biblical Hebrew and the language is akin to the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles which are usually dated around 400-300 BCE i.e. eighty years after the action.
However, it probably cannot be later than the rise of the Seleucids during the Greek period around 200 BCE. Then the Greek rulers took an increasingly antagonistic policy towards their subject peoples. The Book of Esther talks about accommodation with the ruling powers and after 200 BCE, this was less possible. There is also an absence of Hellenistic vocabulary or colouring. So the Book of Esther is generally considered to have been written between 4oo BCE and 200 BCE.
Because the Book of Esther shows no interest in Palestine or Jerusalem whatever, it is generally thought to be written from the Jewish diaspora/dispersion.
A set of questions to aid reading the Book of Esther
|The story takes place in Susa, one of the four capital cities of the Persian Empire during the reign of King Ahasuerus in the early fifth century BCE. The Kingdom extended from India to Ethiopia. The number of provinces varied but they were usually around thirty. Esther and her older cousin Mordecai are Jews living in Persia as a result of the Babylonian exile a century before. Patricia Tull, Sidnie Ann White.|
1:1-9: Pomp and Circumstance.
What do you make of the number of provinces?
What do you make of 180 days of feasting?
What do you make of the surroundings and the furnishings?
|“The absence of women at Ahasuerus’ banquets enhance the perception that these were really just overdone ‘stag parties’, with all the licentiousness and disrespect the term implies”. Jon Levenson.|
1:10-21: Queen Vashti Sparks a State Crisis.
Why does Queen Vashti refuse to appear?
|“One woman pulls the rug out from under the most powerful man in the world… and she does so while his whole world is watching”. Carol Bechtel.|
What do you make of the judgement after the consultation of the sages and with reference to the laws?
How does King Ahasuerus shape up?
Is there a fear of contagion?
There is some doubt about whether Persian laws were unalterable but can you think of anything similar?
Does Ahasuerus remind you of anyone today?
|“Jewish listeners, brought up on the prophets, were sure to be making their own observations, and slightly assessing the injustice of the system that created so great a gulf between rich and poor”. Joyce Baldwin.|
|2:1-4: Roundup of the Contestants.|
The king needs a new Queen. What do you think of the advisors’ suggestion?
Is this a modern equivalent to a beauty contest?
What else does it remind you of?
What does it say about the position of women in Persia?