Esther

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This article is about the heroine of the Book of Esther. For the book of Esther, see Book of Esther. For other uses, see Esther (disambiguation).
Queen Esther (1878) as imagined by Edwin Long.

Esther (/ˈɛstər/; Hebrew: אֶסְתֵּר, Modern Ester Tiberian ʼEstēr), born Hadassah, is the eponymous heroine of the Biblical Book of Esther.

According to the Bible, she was a Jewish queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus is traditionally identified with Xerxes I during the time of the Achaemenid empire. Her story is the basis for the celebration of Purim in Jewish tradition. However, there have yet to be any non-biblical accounts to verify her existence.

Biblical story[edit]

Main article: Book of Esther

King Ahasuerus held a 180-day feast in Susa (Shoushan). While in "high spirits" from the wine, he ordered his queen, Vashti, to appear before him and his guests to display her beauty. But when the attendants delivered the king's command to Queen Vashti, she refused to come. Furious at her refusal to obey, the king asked his wise men what should be done. One of them said that all the women in the empire would hear that "The King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not." Then the women of the empire would despise their husbands. And this would cause many problems in the kingdom. Therefore it would be good to depose her.[1]

To find a new queen suitable to the King, it was decreed that beautiful young virgins be gathered to the palace from every province of his kingdom. Each woman underwent twelve months of beautification in his harem, after which she would go to the king. When the woman's turn came, she was given anything she wanted to take with her from the harem to the king's palace. She would then go to the king in the evening, and in the morning go to the harem where the concubines stayed. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased enough with her to summon her again by name.[2]

For his queen, the King chose Esther, an orphan raised by her cousin,[3] Mordecai, to replace the recalcitrant Queen Vashti. Esther was originally named Hadassah, meaning myrtle.

Esther 2:7: "And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter: for she had neither father nor mother, and the maid was fair and beautiful; whom Mordecai, when her father and mother were dead, took for his own daughter." Esther was the daughter of a Benjamite, Abihail. When Cyrus gave permission for the exiles to return unto Jerusalem she stayed with Mordecai.

Shortly, when Mordecai was sitting at the king's gates, he overheard two of the king's officers guarding the gates plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai let Esther know, and she warned the king about it, and Mordecai was given credit. The two conspirators were hanged on a gallows.

Soon after this, King Ahasuerus granted Haman the Agagite,[4] one of the most prominent princes of the realm, special honours. All the people were to bow down to Haman when he rode his horse through the streets. All complied except for Mordecai, a Jew, who would bow to no one but his God. This enraged Haman, who, with his wife and advisers, plotted against the Jews, making a plan to kill and extirpate all Jews throughout the Persian empire, selecting the date for this act by the drawing of lots (Esther 3:7). After laying charges of sedition against the Jews, Haman gained the king's approval to write a decree for their destruction; offering ten thousand silver talents to the king for approval of this plan (Esther 3:9-11).

Mordecai tore his robes and put ash on his head (signs of mourning or grieving) on hearing this news. When Esther was told of this, she was grieved and sent Mordecai fresh robes, since none could "enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth." He refused and Esther sent "Hatach, one of the king’s chamberlains" appointed to wait on her, to ask Mordecai the cause of his mourning and why he refused the clothes. Mordecai sent back a reply explaining about Haman and the decree, sending her a copy of it, and the charge "that she should go in unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him for her people." Esther replied that there was a law that anyone who came unto the king uncalled by him should be put to death, "except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre, that he may live: but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days." (Esth. 4:11, KJV) Esther was terrified for her life if she did as Mordecai said.

Mordecai was told Esther's reply, and he sent back a message that Esther should not think that she would escape the genocide because she was in the king's house, any more than all the other Jews. And further, that, if she held her peace at this time, deliverance would arise from somewhere else, but she and her father's house would be destroyed. He ended his message with these consoling words: "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esth. 4:13-14, KJV.) Upon hearing Mordecai's message, Esther exhibited her resolution by seeking spiritual strength for her before she went uncalled unto the king—that she might steadfast, whether to perhaps find favor in the king's sight and be the means of deliverance for their people, or else to die in the attempt—in returning to Mordecai this answer: "Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish." (Esther 4:16 KJV.)

Mordecai followed her instructions. So she and her maid-servants and all the Jews present in Shushan, fasted earnestly for three days as part of a supplication to God on behalf of Esther.[5] At the end of the three days, Esther dressed in her royal apparel (Esther 5:1) and bravely went before the king, standing in the inner court where he sat upon his throne. When the king saw "Esther the queen standing in the court," (Esth. 5:2 KJV), he was pleased with her and held out his scepter to her, thus saving her from death (Esth. 4:11) and indicating that he accepted her visit. She came forward and touched his scepter. The king then asked Esther her will, and what her petition and request of him was, promising to grant even up to half his kingdom should she ask it. Esther humbly requested that the king and Haman come to a banquet she had prepared for the king. No one else was invited, which filled Haman with pride. During the banquet, Queen Esther requested of the king another banquet with him and Haman on the following day.

"Ahasuerus and Haman at Esther's Feast," by Rembrandt

After the banquet Haman ran into Mordecai sitting in the king's gate. Haman was so incensed with Mordecai for not deferring to him, that, on the advice of his wife and friends, he ordered a gallows constructed, 75 feet (23 m) high, on which to hang Mordecai the next day, after obtaining the king's consent. That night, the king couldn't sleep and so he had some histories read to him. From the reading the king remembered that Mordecai had saved him from an assassination attempt, and had received no reward in return. Early the next morning, Haman came to the king to ask permission to hang Mordecai, but before he could do so, the king asked him: "What should be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?" Haman thought the king meant himself, so he said that the man should wear a royal robe and be led on one of the king's horses through the city streets proclaiming before him, "This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!" Pleased by this idea, the king startled Haman by commanding Haman to lead none other than Mordecai through the streets in this way, to honor him for previously telling the king of a plot against him. Haman obeyed then, while Mordecai returned to his spot by the king's gate, Haman rushed home, grieving, and told his wise men and wife everything. His wife said to him, "You will surely come to ruin!"

That evening during the banquet, King Ahasuerus again asked Esther what her petition was and made her the same promise as before. Esther asked that her life be spared and the lives of her people, the Jews of the Persian Empire, who were the people Haman had previously convinced the king must be massacred (Esth. 3). In doing so, she declared her ethnicity. Haman's treachery so inflamed the king that he left the banquet and went into the palace garden. Haman, seeing that his situation was precarious, pled with Esther to save his life, ending up on her couch beside her as he begged—which caused the king to jump to an obvious conclusion upon returning to the banquet from the garden. Seeing Haman thus, the king's wrath knew no bounds, thinking that Haman was about to molest Esther. He cried, "Will he force the queen also before me in the house?" (Esth. 5: 8, KJV.) Whereupon, the king's chamberlains seized Haman, and one of them told the king of the gallows Haman had constructed for Mordecai. The king told them: "Hang [Haman] thereon."

And so Haman was hung on the gallows he had built for Mordecai, and "the king's wrath pacified." (Esth. 7:10, KJV.) The king then appointed Mordecai as his prime minister, after which Esther went again before the king, and "fell down at his feet, and besought him with tears to put away the mischief of Haman." Then, as before, the king held out the scepter toward Esther and she stood and pled with him to "reverse the letters" of Haman against the Jews. In consequence, the king instructed Mordecai to issue a decree giving the Jews the right to defend themselves. The second edict allowed the Jews to arm themselves, and kill not only their enemies but also their enemies' wives and children, as well as partake of the plunder (Esther 8:11). This precipitated a series of reprisals by the Jews against their enemies. This fight began on the 13th of Adar, the date the Jews were originally slated to be exterminated. Altogether eight hundred were killed in Susa alone, 75,000 in the rest of the empire. The Jews took no plunder (Esther 9:10,9:15-16).

The Jews established an annual feast, the feast of Purim, in memory of their deliverance. According to traditional rabbinic dating, this took place about fifty-two years after the start of the Babylonian Exile.[citation needed]

Origin and meaning[edit]

According to Esther 2:7, Esther was originally named Hadassah. Hadassah means "myrtle" in Hebrew. It has been conjectured that the name Esther is derived from a reconstructed Median word astra meaning myrtle.[6]

An alternative view is that Esther is derived from the theonym Ishtar. The Book of Daniel provides accounts of Jews in exile being assigned names relating to Babylonian gods and "Mordecai" is understood to mean servant of Marduk, a Babylonian god. "Esther" may have been a different Hebrew interpretation from the Proto-Semitic root "star/'morning/evening star'",[7] which descended with the /th/ into the Ugaritic Athtiratu[8] and Arabian Athtar.[9] The derivation must then have been secondary for the initial ayin to be confused with an aleph (both represented by vowels in Akkadian), and the second consonant descended as a /s/ (like in the Aramaic asthr "bright star"), rather than a /sh/ as in Hebrew and most commonly in Akkadian.

Wilson, who identified Ahasuerus with Xerxes I and Vashti with Amestris, suggested that both "Amestris" and "Esther" derived from Akkadian Ammi-Ishtar or Ummi-Ishtar.[10] Hoschander alternatively suggested Ishtar-udda-sha ("Ishtar is her light") as the origin with the possibility of -udda-sha being connected with the similarly sounding Hebrew name Hadassah. These names however remain unattested in sources, and come from the original Babylonian Empire from 2000 BCE,[citation needed] not the Chaldean Empire or Persian Empire of the Book of Esther.[citation needed]

The Targum[11] connects the name with the Persian word for "star", ستاره setareh, explaining that Esther was so named for being as beautiful as the Morning Star. In the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 29a), Esther is compared to the "morning star", and is considered the subject of Psalm 22, because its introduction is a "song for the morning star".

Interpretations[edit]

Further information: Esther in rabbinic literature

Esther is also commemorated as a matriarch in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod on May 24. She is also recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Dianne Tidball argues that while Vashti is a "feminist icon", Esther is a post-feminist icon.[12]

Abraham Kuyper notes some "disagreeable aspects" to her character — that she should not have agreed to take Vashti's place, that she refrained from saving her nation until her own life was threatened, and that she carries out bloodthirsty vengeance.[13]

Persian culture[edit]

The Shrine of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran
Tomb of Ester and Mordechai

Given the great historical link between Persian and Jewish history, modern day Persian Jews are called "Esther's Children". A building known as the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai is located in Hamadan, Iran,[14] although the village of Kfar Bar'am in northern Israel also claims to be the burial place of Queen Esther.[15]

Modern retelling[edit]

Canonical Status[edit]

The status of Esther as a canonical book of the Bible has historically been under dispute. For example, in the first several centuries of Christianity, Esther does not appear in the lists of books produced by Melito, Athanasius, Cyril, Gregory of Nazianzus, and others. Additionally, no copies of Esther were found at Qumran in the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nevertheless, by the fourth century CE, the majority of Western churches accepted Esther as a part of their Bibles.[19]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Esther 1:16-20
  2. ^ Esther 2:14
  3. ^ Esther 2:7
  4. ^ A descendant of the Amalekite people, of King Agag, whom King Saul of Israel was commanded by the prophet Samuel to utterly destroy because of their wickedness; but Saul chose to spare their king instead.(1Samuel 15:1-33) Haman's hatred of the Jews may have had its root in this event.
  5. ^ Fasting in supplication: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fasting_in_Judaism
  6. ^ John Barton, John Muddiman, The Oxford Bible commentary, entry Esther, Oxford University Press, 2001
  7. ^ John Huehnergard, "Appendix 1: Afro-Asiatic," In The Languages of Syria-Palestine And Arabia, edited by Roger D. Woodard, 225-246. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008: 243.
  8. ^ Aïcha Rahmouni, Divine Epithets in the Ugaritic Alphabetic Texts, Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 1, The Near and Middle East. Translated by J.N. Ford (Leiden, 2007), 86.
  9. ^ Joseph Offord, "The Deity of the Crescent Venus in West Asia," JRAS (1915): 198.
  10. ^ NeXtBible Study Dictionary, entry "Ahasbai"
  11. ^ Targum to Esther 2:7
  12. ^ Dianne Tidball, Esther: A True First Lady. Christian Focus Publications, 2001.
  13. ^ Abraham Kuyper, Women of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1941), 175-176.
  14. ^ Parvaneh Vahidmanesh (5 May 2010). "Sad Fate of Iran's Jews". 
  15. ^ Jacqueline Schaalje (June 2001). "Ancient synagogues in Bar'am and Capernaum". Jewish Magazine. 
  16. ^ Robin, Larsen and Levin. Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. p. 368. 
  17. ^ "The Maccabeats - Purim Song‏". YouTube. Retrieved 2011-08-09. 
  18. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2521404/?ref_=fn_al_tt_5
  19. ^ Lee McDonald, The Biblical Canon. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007. P 56, 109, 128, 131.

Further reading[edit]

  • Beal, Timothy K. The Book of Hiding: Gender, Ethnicity, Annihilation, and Esther. NY: Routledge, 1997. Postmodern theoretical apparatus, e.g., Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas
  • Michael V. Fox Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2001. 333 pp.
  • Robin, Diana Maury, Larsen, Anne R. and Levin, Carole (2007). Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. ABC-CLIO, Inc. 
  • Sasson, Jack M. "Esther" in Alter and Kermode, pp. 335–341, literary
  • Webberley, Helen The Book of Esther in C17th Dutch Art, AAANZ National Conference, Art Gallery NSW, 2002
  • Webberley, Helen Rembrandt and The Purim Story, in The Jewish Magazine, Feb 2008, [1]
  • White, Sidnie Ann. "Esther: A Feminine Model for Jewish Diaspora" in Newsom
  • Grossman, Jonathan Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2011.

External links[edit]