Surveying the Text: Esther

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Introduction:

In the book of Esther, God is never mentioned, but is everywhere present. His providence surrounds all the events and characters. If we think about it carefully, we can perhaps see why a human author is not mentioned. This account has a very plain way of presenting itself—“story by God.”Plant From Bible

The Text:

“And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather together all the fair young virgins unto Shushan the palace, to the house of the women, unto the custody of Hege the king’s chamberlain, keeper of the women; and let their things for purification be given them: And let the maiden which pleaseth the king be queen instead of Vashti. And the thing pleased the king; and he did so” (Esther 2:3–4).

Summary of the Book:

You are all familiar with chiasms and, as it turns out, the book of Esther is structured as a chiasm. (See Dorsey.)

A The emperor’s proud feast

B Esther becomes queen

C King’s life is saved

D Haman’s plot

E Mordecai learns of plot

F Esther invites king and Haman to first banquet

G Turning point: Haman’s fortunes turn

F’ Esther invites king and Haman to second banquet

E’ Mordecai and Esther given Haman’s estate

D’ Haman’s plot foiled

C’ The Jews are saved

B’ Esther wins second day for Jews

A’ The Jews’ grateful feast

A Rollicking Good Story:

The name Esther is a Babylonian one, and most probably means Star. Her Hebrew name is the lovely name Hadassah, and if we translated it into English (instead of just transliterating it), we would have to call her Myrtle. It doesn’t have the same connotations, really.

This is a short story, not long at all, but it has all the ingredients you might want in a story. As one writer observed, we have a sharp and pronounced conflict between good and evil, we have a brave, sexy, and gorgeous heroine, some carousing at the royal court, palace and harem intrigues, a Cinderella motif (an orphan girl marries the emperor), a really fine villain with a cape and a waxed mustache, hapless victims rescued just in the nick of time, a profound reversal of fortune, a moment of truth in character formation, open battle, and poetic justice. What else could you possibly want?

A Showdown:

The reversal of Mordecai’s and Haman’s fortunes is a driving theme in the plot of this book (8:2). Mordecai does not appear as an over-scrupulous fusser at all — the whole thing appears to me to be covenantally personal. Haman is descended from Agag, the king of the Amalekites that Saul had once disobediently refused to kill, and Mordecai is descended from Kish, of the house of Saul, the king who had failed to kill Agag. They both appear to know, throughout the book, that there are some outstanding accounts remaining to be settled. When the book of Esther opens, Haman and Mordecai were already looking coldly at one another across the saloon, right hands twitching just above their holsters.

Should we blame Mordecai for not bowing before Haman? Not at all. First, there is no explicit or implicit condemnation of Mordecai’s action by the writer. Second, Mordecai’s refusal to pay homage to Haman (3:2) comes immediately after Mordecai reported (2:21-22) a threat to the king’s life. Thus, Mordecai is clearly not refusing to bend out of some kind of misguided Jewish zealotry. Third, Mordecai is willing to receive from Haman what he would not render to Haman (6:10-11). Thus, the refusal to bow was not a principled objection to a human being receiving civil honors. It was an objection to giving homage to a skunk, an objection which God vindicated throughout the remainder of the book.

Natural Antipathy:

And just as unbelief loves to eat souls — the bitter and envious ones have the sweetest crackle — so also unbelief is utterly hostile to that which is indigestible to it. That indigestible reality is evangelical and living faith — the only kind of faith that God gives. Faith and unbelief can recognize one another instantly — by the smell, Scripture says — and this is why Haman was giving Mordecai the stink eye from the first time he saw him. As already mentioned, there was some unfinished business between them, and they both knew about it. They both displayed their lineage — Haman by filling up with helium of vanity, and Mordecai by not bending, by refusing obeisance to the helium man.

The Basic Story:

After Esther had replaced Vashti as queen, Mordecai overheard a plot on the king’s life and told her about it (2:19-23). At just that moment, it happened that Mordecai refused to bow down before Haman, who as a result plotted to kill all the Jews (3:1-15). When Haman manipulated the king into signing a decree against the Jews, Mordecai persuaded Esther to make an appeal to the king (4:1-17). She does so, and as a result of her shrewd intervention Haman is eventually hanged (7:1-10). The king sends out a second edict, allowing the Jews to defend themselves (8:1-17), and the Jews take this opportunity to defeat and kill their enemies (9:1-19). To honor the victory, the holiday of Purim is established (9:20–32). The story ends with Mordecai being promoted (10:1–3). That enabled him to return to Jerusalem—in honor and not in disgrace.

Learning the lesson of Esther enables us to be the kind of Christians who have learned how to say, in the midst of our very own adventure story, “It appears that all is lost. Glory!”

Lack of Compromise:

This book has several genuine heroes, but this should make us reflect a bit. Mordecai and Esther are the center of the story, and both exhibit true courage and true loyalty to God. At the same time, their lack of compromise is the kind of thing that would fail many modern Christian “purity tests.” Mordecai’s name means “man of Marduk.” He saved the life of a despotic emperor. And yet he is the one who ran a great risk by refusing to bend before Haman. He is not simply “a political schemer or climber.” And Esther walked by faith . . . right into the harem.

Remember Obadiah’s faithfulness . . . working alongside Ahab. Purity matters, but not our kind of purity.

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"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago

“Learning the lesson of Esther enables us to be the kind of Christians who have learned how to say, in the midst of our very own adventure story, “It appears that all is lost. Glory!” ” ?????????

After that;

“Learning the lesson of Jesus enables us to be the kind of Christians who have learned how to say, in the midst of our very own adventure story, even on the last, dying day of it;

“It appears that all the lost have been ransomed, even me. Glory!” “

ME
ME
6 years ago

I really enjoyed this. That was the best retelling of Esther I’ve heard in along time. This cracked me up, “It appears that all is lost. Glory!” That’s what faith is really all about.

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago

Esther is one of my favorite books of the Bible. One thing I noticed on about my 50th reading was that the king was upset with Vashti because she didn’t appear when he did ask, but he was pleased with Esther because she did appear when he didn’t ask.

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

That is a very interesting observation, jigawatt.

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

Thanks. I really don’t know what the implications of it are. I suppose “remember what happened to Vashti when she challenged the king” was going through Esther’s mind. He and his advisors especially did take too kindly to it.

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

I think the Book of Esther is either treated with kid gloves or ignored. Similar treatment for Song of Solomon, Jonah, Job, Judges, and–why not–Daniel, too. It’s too easy to gloss over or “tone down” the rough stuff, as if, like Bill suggests, God is working a spate of reverse psychology on us. Reminds me of a Bible paraphrase I read once: in the tension between King Saul, Jonathan, and David, Saul goes on one of his tirades, calling Jonathan “a son of a perverse, rebellious woman” (1 Sam 20:30). Well, that’s how all the actual translations read–the paraphrase* had… Read more »

ME
ME
6 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

One thing I love about the bible, it’s written for the real world, not for our prudish Christian sensibilities. Those are usually rough people God chose, not members of polite society. So labeling Esther a “call girl,” is like, yes of course, many women in the bible are not exactly pure. Of course, many of the men are murderers, thieves, and tax collectors.

There is real value in understanding who and what human beings are, because then you come to understand why we might need a Savior in the first place.

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  ME

But “call girl” in this case is simply erroneous. There was a tradition of concubinage both inside and outside Israel, that was biblically regulated, and *very* distinct from prostitution. A woman could be virtuous and a concubine — the fault was more of the man who could not be content with rejoicing with the wife of his youth.

And in Esther’s case in particular, the women were rounded up and put into the harem. This was not a voluntary career choice, and certainly not a lifestyle eagerly pursued.

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

I got more of a chuckle the first time I realized what Saul was saying. It wasn’t the least bit funny situation — Saul was shaming both his son and his wife in a fit of childish, jealous temper — but I was a bit amused by the circumlocution and how I saw what the translators did there.

denise njim
denise njim
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

But there is still a great difference between Vashti’s and Esther’s standing with the King at the time of their confrontations. Vashti was still “in full favor” when she refused the King’s order. Esther was Queen, yes, but already she had not been called to come to the King for 30 days… she was no longer his favorite! To approach the King without being summoned meant death!

Bill
Bill
6 years ago

Good background on the book of Esther. Didn’t know about the Chiasm. I think the book of Esther is one of the hardest books to understand in the whole Bible. What are we to make of it? Where is Christ? How can Esther be commended when she never showed any fidelity to the OT covenant? She never prayed to God. She really was not a virtuous woman. Vashti had more virtue than Esther. She was willing to lose her position as queen to avoid being sexually exhibited or objectified to the men in the palace. Esther gave herself sexually to… Read more »

ME
ME
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Oh. Uhg.

bethyada
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Bill, that is seriously screwed up.

"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Jeremiah 27 16 Then I said to the priests and all these people, “This is what the Lord says: Do not listen to the prophets who say, ‘Very soon now the articles from theLord’s house will be brought back from Babylon.’ They are prophesying lies to you. 17 Do not listen to them. Serve the king of Babylon, and you will live. Bill: “What can we learn from this book? Don’t get seduced in Babylon?” Bill, Jerry 27:17 above, may not apply to Esther chronologically, but the principle might. Who is Lord over Babylon? You? DW: “Mordecai and Esther are… Read more »

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

This is a common interpretation. It owes more to moralistic pietism than to anything the OT actually required of the covenant people in exile, plus a little creative reading into the text to get Vashti off the hook. (Cf. also A Dad’s references to Jeremiah.)

Of course if you can show me the texts that forbid women from being forced into concubinage and outline what they’re supposed to do when it happens, you might be able to make a case.

Plus, “chose Babylon”? “With the covenant people in Jerusalem”? What about the deportation and the destruction of Jerusalem?

bethyada
6 years ago
Reply to  Dunsworth

This is a common interpretation.

All of it? You must have some questionable teachers in North America.

Other than some claims about Vashti being right in what she did, I have never come across this interpretation; though “interpretation” is a little generous for what amounts to: right means left, up means down, good means evil.

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

Certainly. But by common I mean “not unheard of,” not that it’s the majority of teachers that I’ve heard. It seems to get traction in the kind of circles where people pride themselves on not following the common horde.

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

When Christians buy into the spoon-fed tripe of feminism, they miss the whole point of Xerxes’ exile of his obstinate, rebellious wife. Vashti was a heroine only in this modernistic, girl-power culture.

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

There is another motivation for making Vashti the good guy — “purity culture.” There’s an element that wants to make Vashti into Elsie Dinsmore — even if it requires constructing a situation that is not indicated in the text, by assuming what “must have been” going on. So I think it comes from both sides.

"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

And Oh! Then there is this one! Jeremiah 29 4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carriedinto exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord… Read more »

"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

“We see Christ by seeing His exact opposite character when compared to the the lives of Esther and Mordecia. ” ????? Wow! Really? Here is what Christ actually said and did, under Roman occupation, when the real Jerusalem was the true whore! (your words, not mine.) Mark 12 13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach… Read more »

ArwenB
ArwenB
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Can’t tell if true thoughts or just trolling.

Still, Bill… It’s not polite to review a book you obviously haven’t read.

Bill
Bill
6 years ago
Reply to  ArwenB

Hello ArwenB, for the record, it is my true thoughts and I am not trolling. I have read the book of Esther many times and as I said on my post it I believe one of the hardest books to understand. I have genuinely struggled with this book. What is the proper way to preach this book? The common approach just ignores certain very troubling aspects of the main characters. Should we as Christians just ignore sin? How should we look at Solomon? God loved Solomon and used him, but we should not look at him as someone who walked… Read more »

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

When a book in the Bible is found offensive, one might do well to rearrange one’s notion of offensiveness. One would do well to avoid having a holier-than-Thou approach to God’s Word.

When you incur a visceral reaction to Scripture, the problem is probably–nay, definitely–with you.

"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Bill, how should God look at you and me?

He looks at you and me the same way that he looks at Esther and Mordecai? Right?

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

One wonders what sort of problems you might have with the Song of Solomon, which was clearly about a sex-obsessed stalker who objectifies women and his broken-vessel nympho-tramp who uses sex to ruin lives, the whole thing being cast as a musical where the chorus girls swoon at the chiseled hero and shamelessly cheer for the buxom shrew.

Those who blush at the actions in Esther are likely, after reading the Song of Songs, to run screaming to the sanitation rooms of their local holiness church to have their eyes scrubbed out.

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

It is a feast celebrating the genocide of Persians? Esther 8:11-13: “the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods, on one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. A copy of what was written was to be issued as a decree in every province, being publicly displayed to all… Read more »

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

Not only that, but the Jews did NOT commit genocide in any stretch of the imagination. The Persians were given the “lawful” liberty to commit genocide against the Jews, but the Jews were simple given the ability to DEFEND themselves…to kill those which attacked them (without bloodguilt). Which they did, and the story explicitly says that they did NOT go around seeking out Persians to kill, nor did they scoop up the plunder. Scripture does not quite paint the picture Bill has conjured. Perhaps his wild imaginations are hampering his ability to see the story clearly…?

Vanessa Loy
Vanessa Loy
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

What choice did Esther have? Xerxes probably would’ve raped or killed her if she refused.

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago

I REALLY want to see Darren Doane tackle this story!! No more cheesy, slow-paced, lackluster docu-dramas about sweet little Bible stories. Give me a full-blown PG-13 version of this AMAZING tale, jam packed with all the political intrigue, romantic tension, plot twists, and poetic justice that the Book of Esther provides. Seriously, done right, this should be a box office smash hit! If it’s done right, it should feel like a bucket of ice water poured over the heads of several Christians I know. Done right, it will cause the righteous to say, “Glory!” Done right, it won’t have Mordecai… Read more »

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

Yes, absolutely. And the life of David, too.

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

Amen to that!!

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

I was just recently reading I Samuel, and just for the first time got what was going on when David made a pact with the Philistine king.

So he promises the king he’ll do special ops on the border towns of Israel.

Then he actually goes out and raids the Philistine towns that are encroaching on the Promised Land, and makes sure there are no survivors to tell the king what was going on.

Heheh.

That does just not fly with a Sunday school mentality, but he was carrying out divine commission.

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Dunsworth

Yep. You gotta always keep the whole prescriptive vs. descriptive thing in mind constantly when reading the OT narrative passages. And just because God tells you what to do, that doesn’t justify sinful methods.

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

Yes, but what constitutes “sinful methods” has to be judged by actual revelation, not just what “feels mean,” too. Espionage and leaving no survivors among the peoples of the land were legitimate.

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Dunsworth

Absolutely. If God commands it, it’s not sinful, by definition. Maybe it was in David’s case. I’m not remembering the specific story.

Malachi
Malachi
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

What God commands a King or a Prophet of His most likely will never be the same thing that He commands all us “ordinary” people. He told a number of the heroes of the Faith to do quite a few things that raise eyebrows in today’s pacifist, “tolerant,” non-judgmental age. So, yeah, God’s commands ruffle a lot of feathers, but still, I don’t we can extrapolate His direct command to King David as a direct command for us. Maybe if we get to be King, though…

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

Wiping out the heathens within the God-granted borders of Israel was standing orders, until the job was done. David was just doing what Joshua didn’t finish, the judges left undone, and the Saul was too busy chasing him to take care of. And since David was the anointed king, the commission lay upon him to do it.

It was just convenient that the command to leave no survivors worked to his benefit in undercutting the Philistines while giving him respite from his conflict with Saul.

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Dunsworth

But did his actions amount to the breaking of a treaty? I get that deception is a legitamate tactic in such matters, but that would be too far.

Edit: I’m remembering more of the story now. He was supposedly in league with the Philistines at this point and he was acting as a kind of double agent, right? That would be a legit tactic.

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

Right, it wasn’t a treaty, it was a personal deal for the Philistine king to give him sanctuary while Saul was still chasing him. David is presumably trying to persuade the king that it’s safe to allow him and his men sanctuary within Philistine territory (certainly something the king might worry about) so he tells the king he’ll go raiding on the Israelite border towns and cut him in on the booty. So he goes raiding, and cuts him in the booty, only he’s raiding the Philistines instead, thus killing all kinds of birds — safety for himself, favor with… Read more »

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Dunsworth

Whenever I’m reading the story of David and Goliath to my kids, none of the kids books tell this, so I always add that David didn’t kill him with the sling and stone – he then went over to Goliath, took Goliath’s own sword and chopped his head off. And the sword was so big, it was probably more like using an axe.

My 3 year old son loves that part.

"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

And don’t forget, that like a typical guy, after the battle, David was carrying around the head! (Bet he had it tied to his belt!) ????????

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

I dunno. That was a really heavy head. He might have stuck it on a pike, from the back of the head through the eyes and gotten his brothers to help him run with it like a battering ram as they led the charge on the Philistines.

"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

See 1 Samuel 17:54 for the known facts!????????

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
6 years ago
Reply to  Malachi

Everybody focuses on the questionable situation of Esther being in Artaxerxes’ harem.

They don’t even notice the bit where the solution to the pogrom is simply to let the Jews kill their Persian neighbors’ entire families, if they are attacked. It makes something like “The 300” look mild.

Capndweeb
Capndweeb
6 years ago

I once had a car which I named Vashti–because she did not come when I summoned her.

Bill
Bill
6 years ago

I have noticed a lack of civility in many comments submitted here. As this is Doug Wilson’s blog, I am assuming those posting here enjoy reading his blog. One thing that is most notable about Doug is that he seasons his speech with salt. When I saw how he debated with the atheist Christopher Hitchens, I saw how much Doug really treated Chris with respect. It even appeared to me that they were friends. They couldn’t be more in disagreement about the issues, but they argued in a way that wasn’t disagreeable. I believe Doug was exhibiting Christlikeness in his… Read more »

jillybean
jillybean
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

I have noticed this as well. I am inclined to put it down to Calvinism which strikes me as a faith for grim mountain men who take no prisoners and bandy no gentle words. But that may be quite unfair of me.

Evan
Evan
6 years ago
Reply to  jillybean

I’ll take that as a compliment. :)

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Serious question here: what do you think of the Israelites’ conquest of the promised land under Joshua? For example, the fall of Jericho – was it a good thing that “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.”

Bill
Bill
6 years ago
Reply to  jigawatt

Thank you for asking the question is such a kind manner. I believe the conquest under Joshua was commanded by God and therefore it was the righteous thing to do. It was “Harem warfare.” It was ordered by direct revelation from God. The lands conquered outside the promise land had different laws that applied. See Dt 20:10ff. (Only the men were to be killed) To apply Harem Warfare rules outside the promise land would be a violation of God’s law. This is one of the problems with Esther. They were told to kill women and children by a pagan king… Read more »

jigawatt
jigawatt
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

This is one of the problems with Esther. They were told to kill women and children by a pagan king in the entire Persian Empire. If it was only self defense then no problem, but why did the children and women have to die? Of course it didn’t say that they actually killed women and children but we don’t know for sure. The text explicitly says it was for self defense. There is no indication that the Jews did anything that was against the King’s edict or that violated God’s Law. What you call a problem with the book of… Read more »

"A" dad
"A" dad
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Bill, as The Word says, “iron sharpens iron”. There is of course some friction involved.
I am not your father, though The Father chastens all of us, because he loves us.
I have noticed that many Christians don’t know how to give or take Word grounded admonition. Many won’t admonish at all, until they snap and get mad. Finally, don’t confuse civility with godliness. Jesus cleared the temple with a flail He made Himself, which caused a nice cleansing stampede! Full of Grace and Truth! Do stick around Bill, you, like me, will get sharper!????????????

Evan
Evan
6 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Well I don’t know about the rest of these clowns, but I came here to drink some beer and kick some ass.