-- indeed, one rabbi places it on an equality with the law, and therefore above the prophets and the "writings."
[Footnote 1: It is probable also that the two decrees, one commanding the celebration for two days, ix.20-28, the other enjoining fasting and lamentations, ix.29-32, are later additions, designed to incorporate the practice of a later time.]
The story is well told. The queen of Xerxes, king of Persia, is deposed for contumacy, and her crown is set upon the head of Esther, a lovely Jewish maiden. Presently the whole Jewish race is imperilled by an act of Mordecai, the foster-father of Esther, who refuses to do obeisance to Haman, a powerful and favourite courtier. Haman's plans for the destruction of the Jews are frustrated by Esther, acting on a suggestion of Mordecai. The courtier himself falls from power, and is finally hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, while Mordecai "the Jew" is exalted to the place next the king, and the Jews, whom the initial decree had doomed to extermination, turn the tables by slaying over 75,000 of their enemies throughout the empire, including the ten sons of Haman. In memory of the deliverance, the Purim festival is celebrated on the 14th and 15th of the month Adar.
The popularity of the book was due, no doubt, most of all to the power with which it expresses some of the most characteristic, if almost most odious, traits of Judaism; but also in a measure to its attractive literary qualities. The setting is brilliant, and the development of the incident is often skilful and dramatic, The elevation of Mordecai, due to the simple accident of the king's having passed a sleepless night, the unexpected accusation of Haman by Esther, the swift and complete reversal of the situation by which Haman is hanged upon his own gallows and Mordecai receives the royal ring -- the general sequence of incidents is conceived and elaborated with considerable dramatic power.
The large number of proper names, the occasional reference to chronicles, ii.23, vi.1, and the precise mention of dates, combine to raise the presumption that the book is real history; but a glance at the facts is sufficient to dispel this presumption. The story falls within the reign of Xerxes -- about 483 B.C., but the hero Mordecai is represented as being one of the exiles deported with Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. This is a manifest impossibility. Equally impossible is it that a Jewish maiden can have become the queen of Persia, in the face of the express statement of Herodotus (iii.84) that the king was bound to choose his consort from one of seven noble Persian families. These impossibilities are matched by numerous improbabilities. It is improbable, e.g., that Mordecai could have had such free intercourse with the harem, ii.11, unless he had been a eunuch, or in the palace, ii.19, unless he had been a royal official. It is improbable that Xerxes would have announced the date of the massacre months beforehand, improbable that he would later have sanctioned so indiscriminate a slaughter of his non-Jewish subjects, and most improbable of all that the Jews, who were in the minority, should have slain 75,000 of their enemies, who cannot be supposed to have been defenceless. It is much more likely that this wholesale butchery took place chiefly in the author's imagination, though doubtless the wish was father to the thought. Clearly he wrote long after the events he claims to be describing, and the sense of historical perspective is obscured where it is not lost. The Persian empire is a thing of the relatively distant past, i.1, 13, and though the author is acquainted with Persian customs and official titles, it is significant that the customs have sometimes to be explained. The book is, in fact, not a history, but a historical novel in miniature.
Its date is hard to fix, but it must be very late, probably the latest in the Old Testament. In spite of its obvious attempt to reproduce the classic Hebrew style, the book contains Aramaisms, late Hebrew words and constructions, and the language alone stamps it as late. Still more decisive, however, is its sentiment. Its intensely national pride, its cruel and fanatical exclusiveness, can be best explained as the result of a fierce persecution followed by a brilliant triumph; and this condition is exactly met by the period which succeeded the Maccabean wars (135 B.C. or later). The book, with its Persian setting, may indeed have been written earlier in Persia; but it more probably represents a phase of the fierce Palestinian Judaism of the last half of the second century B.C. It has been suggested with much probability that Haman is modelled on Antiochus Epiphanes; between their murderous designs against the Jews there is certainly a strong resemblance, iii.9, 1 Macc. i.41, iii.34-36.
The object of the book appears to have been twofold: to explain the origin of the Purim festival, and to glorify the Jewish people. The real explanation of the festival is shrouded in mystery. The book traces it to the triumph of the Jews over their enemies and connects it with Pur, ix.26, supposed to mean "lot"; but no such Persian word has yet been discovered. Doubtless, however, the book is correct in assigning the origin of the festival to Persia. A festival with a somewhat dissimilar name -- Farwardigan -- was held in Persia in spring to commemorate the dead, and there may be just a hint of this in the fasting with which the festival was preceded, ix.31, cf.1 Sam. xxxi.13, 2 Sam. i.12. The Babylonians had also held a new year festival in spring, at which the gods, under the presidency of Marduk, were supposed to draw the lots for the coming year: this may have been the ultimate origin of the "lot," which is repeatedly emphasized in the book of Esther, iii.7, ix.24, 26. In other words, the Jews adopted a Persian festival, which had already incorporated older Babylonian elements; for there can be little doubt that the ultimate ground-work of the book is Babylonian mythology. Esther is so similar to Istar, and Mordecai to Marduk, that their identity is hardly questionable; and in the overthrow of Haman by Mordecai it is hard not to see the reproduction of the overthrow of Hamman, the ancient god of the Elamites, the enemies of the Babylonians, by Marduk, god of the Babylonians. This supposition leaves certain elements unexplained -- Vashti, e.g., is without Babylonian analogy, but it is too probable an explanation to be ignored; and it goes to illustrate the profound and lasting influence of Babylonia upon Israel. The similarity of the name Esther to Amestris, who was Xerxes' queen (Hdt. vii.114, ix.112) may account for the story being set in the reign of Xerxes.
A collateral purpose of the book is the glorification of the Jews. In the dramatic contest between Haman the Agagite and Mordecai the Jew, the latter is victor. He refuses to bow before Haman, and Providence justifies his refusal; for the Jews are born to dominion, and all who oppose or oppress them must fall. Everywhere their superiority is apparent: Esther the Jewess is fairer than Vashti, and Mordecai, like Joseph in the old days, takes his place beside the king.
What we regretfully miss in the book is a truly religious note. It is national to the core; but, for once in the Old Testament, nationality is not wedded to a worthy conception of God. Too much stress need not be laid on the absence of His name -- this may have been due to the somewhat secular character of the festival with its giving and receiving of presents -- and the presence of God, as the guardian of the fortunes of Israel, is presupposed throughout the whole story, notably in Mordecai's confident hope that enlargement and deliverance would arise to the Jews from one place, if not from another, iv.14. But the religion of the book -- for religion it is entitled to be called -- is absolutely destitute of ethical elements. It is with a shudder that we read of Esther's request for a second butchery, ix.13; and all the romantic glamour of the story cannot blind us to its religious emptiness and moral depravity. In a generation which had smarted under the persecution of Antiochus and shed its blood in defence of its liberty and ancestral traditions, such bitter fanaticism is not unintelligible. But the popularity of the book shows how little the prophetic elements in Israel's religion had touched the people's heart, and how stubborn a resistance was sure to be offered to the generous and emancipating word of Jesus.