This short book contains a charming and, to be honest, a little frightening story about a devastating pogrom against the Jewish exiles in Mesopotamia, and throughout the vast Persian empire, possibly including the valiant band of returnees to Juda and Jerusalem with Ezra, who were in the process of restoring the City and the Temple there. What is charming is the story of Esther, Mordecai’s kinswoman (cousin), who finds herself selected to replace the high queen Vasthi, and so able to influence the king himself, at a moment that was crucial for the survival of her people. Thus did Esther become one of the greatest of the heroines of the Hebrew nation, and the inspiration behind the most colourful of the festivals in the Jewish calendar – Purim – in about February time. What is frightening is the vengeance demanded by even Esther (which is a little surprising) against the enemy of the Jewish people, the Macedonian Aman (aka. Haman), and his entire family, following which the Jews take revenge upon their enemies, killing thousands all over the Persian empire.
Anyway, here are a few clips. The first chapter is about the removal of the old queen Vasthi, who had refused to appear at the order of the king, who wanted to show her off to his visitors. The second chapter introduces Mardochaeus (aka. Mordecai) and his kinswoman Edissa (aka. Esther). She was acquired by the king to replace Vasthi, and he was yet unware that she belonged to the Hebrew nation. Meanwhile, Mardochaeus, as Esther’s protector, hung about outside the gates of the royal palace, where he was able to find out about an insurrection against the king, possibly instigated by Aman himself, who by this time had squirmed his way into being the chief advisor to the king.
“And it was while Mardochaeus haunted the palace gates that two of the royal chamberlains, Bagathan and Thares, door-keepers both at the palace entry, grew disaffected, and would have made a murderous attack on the king’s person. Mardochaeus came to hear of it, and told queen Esther; she, naming him as her informant, told her husband. The charge was investigated, and found true; the two conspirators were hanged, and the circumstance was put on record, being entered in the king’s own archives.“Esther, 2: 21-23
Mardochaeus was noted for his loyalty to the king, but nothing more is done in his regard. The third chapter tells of the ascendancy of Aman son of Amadathi, who must have been planning to use this to overthrow the king. The loyal Mardochaeus was something of a spanner in the works and had to be gotten rid of. Aside from his straightforwardness, Mardochaeus also refused to bend knee to anybody but the eternal God. And Aman liked to be genuflected to, apparently. And thus began his attack on all Jews, for they among all peoples would refuse to thus honour earthly powers.
“Aman, when he heard their story, and proved the truth of it for himself, that Mardochaeus would neither bow nor bend, fell into a great passion of rage; and, hearing that he was a Jew, he would not be content with laying hands on Mardochaeus only; the whole race, throughout all Assuerus’ dominions, should be brought to ruin for it. It was in the twelfth year of the reign, in Nisan, the first month of it, that the lot (which the Hebrews call Pur) was cast into the urn in Aman’s presence, to determine the day and month when he would make an end of the Jews; and the month chosen was the twelfth month, Adar.”Esther, 3: 5-7
And here we seen the origins of the festival of Purim, for Aman had decided by pur (lot, plural purim) when the Jews would be exterminated. And, using his high position, he managed to get the royal seal on his genocidal warrant. In chapter four, Esther discovers that imminent disaster threatens her people and Mardochaeus warns her that she even would not be exempt from the measures to be taken. Meanwhile nobody could see the king without being invited by him. Esther now mustered all her courage for a surprise visit, which would mean almost certain death for her. Fortunately, she had uncommon charm.
“The third day came, and Esther put on her royal robes; and, so clad, made her appearance before the king’s palace, within the royal (that is, the inner) court. There sat the king on his throne, in the palace council chamber, facing the main door; he saw Esther, his queen, standing there without, and the sight of her won his heart. Out went the golden sceptre he bore, and as she drew near to kiss the tip of it, ‘Why, Esther,’ said he, ‘what is thy errand? Ask me for half my kingdom, and it is thine.’ ‘My lord king,’ she answered, ‘do me the honour of dining with me to-day; I have a feast prepared; and bring Aman with thee.’ The king, without more ado, had Aman summoned to wait, there and then, on Esther’s pleasure; and both of them went to the feast she had prepared.”Esther, 5: 1-5
At this point, Esther was probably bent already upon the destruction of Aman, but she had to be very careful indeed, for he was high in the estimation of the king. And she knew her own place. She had evidently planned to draw both the king and Aman into a position of comfort before making her plea for the Jews. It was at the second feast she had arranged for the two that she dropped the bombshell. But, in his false sense of security, Aman prepared to harass the man he hated, the man who could spoil his plans:
“‘More,’ [Aman] said; ‘it was but this day queen Esther gave the king a banquet, and would have me and none other for his fellow-guest; to-morrow I must dine with her again, with the king present.’ ‘All this is mine,’ he said, ‘and all this is nothing to me, while I yet see Mardochaeus sitting there at the palace gate.’ But they had a remedy for this, his wife Zares and those friends of his. ‘Have a gallows made, fifty cubits high, so that tomorrow thou canst bid the king have Mardochaeus hanged on it. Then thou mayst go light-hearted enough, to feast with the king.’ This counsel Aman liked well, and he gave his men orders to have a high gallows in readiness.”Esther, 5: 12-14
Unfortunately for him, that very night, by some divine power, the king was reminded of Mardochaeus’ spirit of loyalty to him and he realised that the man had not been rewarded for it. In a wonderful display of Old Testament humour, Aman, as the second in command, was given the task of rewarding the man that he had shortly before been planning to have hung. Still humiliated by this, he was carried off to Esther’s second feast, where he met his doom.
“The king rose angrily from his place, left the banqueting-room, and went out to walk in the garden, among his trees. With that, Aman rose too, intent on winning his pardon from queen Esther; doubt he might not that the king was bent on his undoing. Thus minded, he fell sprawling across the couch on which Esther lay; and so the king found him, when he returned from garden to banqueting-room. ‘What,’ cried he, ‘will he ravish the queen before my eyes, and in my own house?’ And before the words were out of his mouth Aman was gagged and blindfold. And now Harbona, one of the chamberlains in attendance on the king’s person, came forward; ‘What of the gallows,’ said he, ‘fifty cubits high, that stands there by Aman’s house, ready for Mardochaeus, that saved the king’s life?’ ‘Let Aman himself hang on it,’ said the king. So Aman was hanged on the gallows he had raised for Mardochaeus; and with that, the king’s angry mood was appeased.”Esther, 7: 7-10
Unfortunately, the measures set in place by Aman could not be rescinded by the king. Rather, because of the laws of the Persian people, they had to be remedied. Instead of calling off the attack on the Jews, the king empowered them to defend themselves against their attackers (chapter eight). The date set by Aman, arranged by lot, now arrived: the thirteenth day of Adar (last month of the Hebrew year). The Jews, now armed for battle, for two days put the fear of God into their enemies. Meanwhile, Mardochaeus, newly honoured by the king for his forgotten loyalty, established the feast of Purim.
“So Mardochaeus wrote to all the king’s Jewish subjects, near and far, setting all this out and bidding them observe both the fourteenth and the fifteenth, year by year, as the days of Jewry’s vengeance, when weeping and lament gave place to mirth and gladness. There was to be feasting on both days, and on both days rejoicing; dainties should be exchanged, and gifts made to the poor. So the will they then had and the orders Mardochaeus sent became a yearly rite; to recall how Amadathi’s son, Aman the Agagite, thought to vent his enmity against the Jews by murderously destroying them, and how he consulted Pur, the lot; how Esther sought audience with the king, praying for a royal decree that should thwart his design, and make his malice fall on his own head; and how Aman and his sons went to the gallows. This feast has ever been known as the feast of Purim, because of Aman’s lot-taking.”Esther, 9: 20-26
And that is the story of Esther. The rest of the book, in my Knox translation, contains fragmentary texts that have been collected from various versions of the book of Esther. The Greek version of the Septuagint, which comes from a different tradition than the Hebrew versions known to Jews today, contains more material, which has been passed on to us through the Latin translations. Thus, chapter ten tells of a dream Mardochaeus had early on, which foretold the success of Esther. Chapter thirteen reproduces an edict of the king that condemned the Jews and the prayer of Mardochaeus on behalf of his people. Chapter fourteen contains Esther’s own prayer for her people, which sounds very much like sections of Baruch. The final chapter is the king’s edict cancelling the attack on the Jews and restoring their freedom to them.