Introduction to Esther
The Book of Esther is entitled by the Jews, "the volume of Esther," or simply "the volume." In ancient times, it was always written on a separate roll, which was read entirely at the Feast of Purim. The Greek translators retained only "Esther," which thus became the ordinary title among Christians.
1. There is much controversy concerning the date of "Esther." The extreme minuteness of the details and vividness of the portraits in "Esther" certainly suggest the hand of a contemporary far more decidedly than any occasional expressions suggest a composer who lived long after the events commemorated. And the tone of the book is in accord with the history which it narrates, and is not unlike that of Zechariah. Therefore, on the whole, there is no sufficient ground for placing the composition of Esther later than that of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, or the time of Artaxerxes Longimanus. On the other hand, there is no ground for regarding Esther as earlier than the other post-captivity historical books - much less for placing it in the reign of Xerxes. Assuming Ahasuerus to be Xerxes (see point number 3 below), it may be said that both the opening sentence and the conclusion of the work indicate that the reign of Xerxes was over. Consequently, the earliest date that can reasonably be assigned to the book is 464 B.C.; and it is, on the whole, most probable that it was composed 20 or 30 years later (444-434 B.C.).
2. There are no means of determining who was the author of "Esther." He was not Ezra. He may have been Mordecai, or, more probably, a younger contemporary of Mordecai's.
The author, whoever he was, almost certainly wrote in Persia, where he had access to the royal archives, which contained an account, more or less full, of the transactions he was desirous of recording. Much also must have been derived from personal observation, and from communications with Mordecai and (perhaps) Esther. The book is more of a purely historical book than any other book in Scripture. Its main scope is simply to give an account of the circumstances under which the Feast of Purim was instituted. The absence of the name of God, and the slightness of the religious and didactic elements are marked characteristics. The author's Persian breeding, together probably with other circumstances, has prevented his sharing the ordinary Jewish spirit of local attachment, while at the same time, it has taught him a reticence with respect to the doctrines of his religion very unusual with his countrymen.
The narrative is striking and graphic; the style remarkably chaste and simple; and the sentences clear and unambiguous. The vocabulary, on the contrary, is, as might have been expected, not altogether pure, a certain number of Persian words being employed, and also a few terms characteristic of the later Hebrew or "Chaldee" dialect.
3. The authenticity of the history of Esther has been inpugned; but the main circumstances of the narrative, which at first sight appear improbable, are not so if the especially extravagant and capricious character of the Persian monarch be taken into account. Etymologically, the name Ahasuerus is identical with the Persian "Khshayarsha" and the Greek "Xerxes"; and it is to this particular Persian monarch that the portrait of Ahasuerus exhibits a striking similarity. The chronological notices in the work also exactly fit this monarch's history; and the entire representation of the court and kingdom is suitable to his time and character. That we have no direct profane confirmation of the narrative of Esther must be admitted, for the identity of Mordecai with Matacas (see Esther 2:5) is too doubtful to be relied upon; but that we have none, is sufficiently accounted for by the fact that the accounts of the reign of Xerxes after his 6th year, and more particularly, of his domestic life, are scanty in the extreme, the native records being silent, and the Greek writers concerning themselves almost entirely with those public events which bore upon the history of Greece. "Esther" is, in fact, the sole authority for the period and circumstances of which it treats; if untrue, it might have easily been proved to be untrue at the time when it was published, by reference to the extant "book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia," which it quotes Esther 2:23; Esther 10:2. It has, moreover, always been regarded by the Jews as an authentic account of the great deliverance which they celebrate annually by the feast of Purim.
4. In the Septuagint version occur "additions" to Esther consisting of five principal passages.
Their unauthentencity is very evident. They contradict the original document, and are quite different in tone and style from the rest of the book.
The principal intention of the "additions" is clear enough. They aim at giving a thoroughly religious character to a work in which, as originally written, the religious element was latent or only just perceptible. On the whole we may conclude that the Greek book of Esther, as we have it, was composed in the following way:
1. First, a translation was made of the Hebrew text, honest for the most part, but with a few very short additions and omissions;
2. Then, the markedly religious portions were added, the opening passage, the prayers of Mordecai and Esther, the exordium to Esther 5:1-14, the religious touches in Esther 6:1, Esther 6:13; and the concluding verses of Esther 10:1-3.
3. Finally, the "letters of Ahasuerus" were composed by a writer more familiar than most Hellenists with the true spirit of the Greek tongue, and these, being accepted as genuine, were inserted in Esther 3:1-15 and Esther 8.
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:)Ahasuerus - . Xerxes, the son of Darius Hystaspis. His empire is rightly described as from India even unto Ethiopia. The satrapies of Darius Hystaspis reached 29 in number, and the nations under Xerxes were about 60. The 127 "provinces" include probably sub-satrapies and other smaller divisions of the great governments.
That in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace,
In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him:In the third year - In this year, 483 B.C., Xerxes assembled the governors of provinces at Susa, in connection with his contemplated expedition against Greece.
The nobles - literally, "the first men." The Hebrew word used is one adopted from the Persian.
When he shewed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days.
And when these days were expired, the king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the palace, both unto great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king's palace;Feasts on this extensive scale were not unusual in the East. Cyrus is said on one occasion to have feasted "all the Persians." Even ordinarily, the later Persian monarchs entertained 15,000 persons at their table.
Where were white, green, and blue, hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble: the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black, marble.Rather, "where was an awning of fine white cotton and violet." White and blue (or violet) were the royal colors in Persia. Such awnings as are here described were very suitable to the pillared halls and porches of a Persian summer-palace, and especially to the situation of that of Susa.
The beds - Rather, "couches" or "sofas," on which the guests reclined at meals.
A pavement ... - See the margin. It is generally agreed that the four substances named are stones; but to identify the stones, or even their colors, is difficult.
And they gave them drink in vessels of gold, (the vessels being diverse one from another,) and royal wine in abundance, according to the state of the king.
And the drinking was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man's pleasure.According to the law - An exception to the ordinary practice of compulsory drinking had been made on this occasion by the king's order.
Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus.Vashti - If Ahasuerus is Xerxes, Vashti would be Amestris, whom the Greeks regarded as the only legitimate wife of that monarch, and who was certainly married to him before he ascended the throne. The name may be explained either as a corruption of Amestris, or as a title, vahishta, (Sanskrit: vasishtha, the superlative of vasu, "sweet"); and it may be supposed that the disgrace recorded (Esther 1:19-21, see the note) was only temporary; Amestris in the later part of Xerxes' reign recovering her former dignity.
On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains that served in the presence of Ahasuerus the king,
To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on.To bring Vashti the queen - This command, though contrary to Persian customs, is not out of harmony with the character of Xerxes; and is evidently related as something strange and unusual. Otherwise, the queen would not have refused to come.
But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.
Then the king said to the wise men, which knew the times, (for so was the king's manner toward all that knew law and judgment:Wise men ... - Not "astrologers," who were unknown in Persia; but rather men of practical wisdom, who knew the facts and customs of former times.
For so was the king's manner - Some render it: "for so was the king's business laid before all that knew law ..."
And the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, which saw the king's face, and which sat the first in the kingdom;)In Marsena we may perhaps recognize the famous Mardonius, and in Admatha, Xerxes' uncle, Artabanus.
The seven princes - There were seven families of the first rank in Persia, from which alone the king could take his wives. Their chiefs were entitled to have free access to the monarch's person. See the margin reference note.
What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, because she hath not performed the commandment of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?
And Memucan answered before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.
For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.
Likewise shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath.Translate it: "Likewise shall the princesses of Persia and Media, which have heard of the deed of the queen, say this day unto all the king's princes."
If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.That it be not altered - Compare the margin reference. This was the theory. Practically, the monarch, if he chose, could always dispense with the law. It was therefore quite within his power to restore Vashti to her queenly dignity notwithstanding the present decree, if he so pleased.
And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.
And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan:
For he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.He sent letters - The Persian system of posts incidentally noticed in the present book Esther 3:12-15; Esther 8:9-14, is in entire harmony with the accounts of Herodotus and Xenophon.
Into every province according to the writing thereof - The practice of the Persians to address proclamations to the subject-nations in their own speech, and not merely in the language of the conqueror, is illustrated by the bilingual and trilingual inscriptions of the Achaemenian monarchs, from Cyrus to Artaxerxes Ochus, each inscription being of the nature of a proclamation.
The decree was not unnecessary. The undue influence of women in domestic, and even in public, matters is a feature of the ancient Persian monarchy. Atossa completely ruled Darius. Xerxes himself was, in his later years, shamefully subject to Amestris. The example of the court would naturally infect the people. The decree therefore would be a protest, even if ineffectual, against a real and growing evil.
And that it should be published ... - Render it: "and speak the language of his own people;" in the sense that the wife's language, if different from her husband's, should in no case be allowed to prevail in the household.