Esther, Book of
ESTHER, BOOK OF
One of the protocanonical books of the Old Testament, found among the Writings (the third section) in the Jewish Canon, after Lamentations and before Daniel [see canon, biblical, 2]. It is the last of the five m egillôt, or festive scrolls. This article discusses the contents, the text, the origin, and the purpose of the book, and, finally, the canonicity of the Greek additions.
Contents. The dramatic story of Esther recounts the deliverance of the Jewish people from grave danger through the instrumentality of a woman; it is thus similar in theme to the Book of judith. The setting is in Susa, at the palace of the Persian King Xerxes I (486–464 b.c.), given as "Assuerus" in the Hebrew text, "Artaxerxes" in the Greek. The king, after repudiating Queen Vashti, marries Esther, a young Jewess and the most beautiful girl in the kingdom. Haman, the king's vizier, determines by lot the 13th of Adar (Februrary–March) as the day for slaughtering all of the Jews in the empire. However, Esther and Mordechai, her uncle (or cousin) and foster father, are able to thwart Haman's plans. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai, and Mordechai is promoted to vizier for having uncovered a plot against the king. On the day set for their extermination, the Jews are allowed to defend themselves by slaughtering their enemies. In the provinces the Jews celebrated the victory the following day. But in Susa, Esther requested the king's permission to continue the slaughter on the 14th of Adar and to celebrate on the 15th. Thus, Esther and Mordechai decreed that these events should be commemorated annually by the Feast of purim on the 14th and 15th of Adar, at which time the Book of Esther is read.
Text. The Greek Septuagint (LXX) text is much longer than the Hebrew text because of numerous additions. St. Jerome, in translating the Vulgate, followed the Hebrew version, then translated the Greek additions, which he added to the end of the book. According to the Vulgate numbering, which the Douay follows, these Greek additions extend from 10.4 through 16.24. The CCD version, however, gives these sections in the order in which they are found in the LXX but designates them with successive letters of the alphabet, with Arabic numerals for the verses, in order to avoid disturbing the regular chapter and verse enumeration. The major sections are as follows: Mordechai's dream and his discovery of a plot (A.1–17; placed before 1.1); the edict sent out by Haman (B.1–7; placed between 3.13 and 3.14); the prayers of Mordechai and Esther (C.1–30) and Esther's reception by the king (D.1–16; placed after 4.16); the king's edict protecting the Jews (E.1–24; placed between 8.12 and 8.13); and the epilogue (F.1–11; placed at the end of the book).
These different recensions seem to reflect successive stages in the development of the story arising from popular Jewish tradition. The Greek additions (midrashic amplifications; see midrash) spiritualize the nonreligious tenor of the more primitive Hebrew text. Even with these additions the largely secular tone of the book and its almost savage nationalism contrasts unfavorably with the far more elevated and religious atmosphere of the Book of Judith.
Origin and Purpose. The story of Esther began to develop from an original nucleus between 300 and 150
b.c. in the eastern Jewish diaspora and reached its present form c. 150–100 b.c. The Greek additions probably date from c. 100 b.c. In the past most scholars considered the story based on an event in Jewish history, a threatened pogrom in the Persian Empire from which the Jews escaped. This is the event celebrated annually at Purim. Modern scholars, however, are less willing to see even a minimal basis in history. Many elements of the narrative lack all semblance of verisimilitude, such as the complacence of King Xerxes at the slaughter of tens of thousands of his subjects (9.5–17), to give but one example. The story is possibly a fictional illustration of the firm Jewish belief that those who trust in God will be delivered in all their needs and a concrete illustration of the poetic justice so often prayed for in the Psalms, that the evil doers should perish in the very trap they had set for the innocent (see Est 9.1). Some, however, consider the story a Jewish adaptation of an already existing story of non-Jewish origin. Thus, it could be rooted in an ancient Babylonian myth and festival commemorating the victory of the gods of Babylon over the gods of Elam. Marduk and Ishtar, the chief Babylonian gods, become Mardochai and Esther. Aman and Vashti are derived from Humman and Mashti, the principals of the Elamite pantheon. Others see it stemming from a story in Book 3 of Herodotus. A certain magus (see magi), Gaumata, upon the death of King Cambyses (530–522 b.c.), usurped the Persian throne by posing as the secretly murdered son of cyrus, king of Persia. The plot was uncovered by Phaidime, a concubine of the king, and Otanes, her father. Gaumata was executed, and there ensued a wholesale massacre of the Magi. The Persians celebrated this event with a festival, "The Massacre of the Magi." Scholars favoring a non-Jewish origin maintain that the Jews of the Diaspora became familiar with the pagan festival and adopted it. Later the Book of Esther was written to justify and regulate the feast, for which there was no basis in the Torah. At this time the festival became an occasion to fan the flames of Jewish nationalism.
Canonicity of the Greek Additions. Jerome and other Fathers questioned the authenticity of these passages. However, because of the influential position of the LXX, the Greek text with these deuterocanonical additions gradually won acceptance in the Christian Church. The Council of trent proclaimed the canonicity of the whole book as contained in the Vulgate.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 690–693. j. schildenberger, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 3:1115–16. h. bardtke and w. wer-beck, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 2:703–708. a. robert, "Historique (Genre)," Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) 4:20–23. a. barucq, tr., Esther [Bible de Jérusalem, 14 (Paris 1952)]. l. soubigou, La Sainte Bible, ed. l. pirot and a. clamer,v.4 (Paris 1952). b. w. anderson, "The Place of the Book of Esther in the Christian Bible," Journal of Religion, 30 (Chicago 1950) 32–43. h. ringgren, "Esther and Purim," Svensk exegetisk årsbok 20 (1955) 5–24.
[e. a. ballmann]