ESTHER (Hebrew, ; Greek, Εσθήρ):
Name of the chief character in the Book of Esther, derived, according to some authorities, from the Persian "stara" (star); but regarded by others as a modification of "Ishtar," the name of the Babylonian goddess (see below).—Biblical Data:
The story of Esther, as given in the book bearing her name, is as follows: The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, had deposed his queen Vashti because she refused, during a festival, toshow at his command her charms before the assembled princes of the realm (i. 10). Many beautiful maidens were then brought before the king in order that he might choose a successor to the unruly Vashti. He selected Esther as by far the most comely. The heroine is represented as an orphan daughter of the tribe of Benjamin, who had spent her life among the Jewish exiles in Persia (ii. 5), where she lived under the protection of her cousin Mordecai. The grand vizier, Haman the Agagite, commanded Mordecai to do obeisance to him. Upon Mordecai's refusal to prostrate himself, Haman informed the king that the Jews were a useless and turbulent people and inclined to disloyalty, and he promised to pay 10,000 silver talents into the royal treasury for the permission to pillage and exterminate this alien race. The king then issued a proclamation ordering the confiscation of Jewish property and a general extermination of all the Jews within the empire. Haman set by lot the day for this outrage (iii. 6), but Mordecai persuaded Esther to undertake the deliverance of her compatriots.Haman and Mordecai.
After a three days' fast observed by the entire Jewish community, the queen, at great personal risk, decided to go before the king and beg him to rescind his decree (iv. 16). Ahasuerus, delighted with her appearance, held out to her his scepter in token of clemency, and promised to dine with her in her own apartments on two successive nights (v. 2-8). On the night before the second banquet, when Esther intended to make her petition, the king, being sleepless, commanded that the national records be read to, him. The part which was read touched upon the valuable services of Mordecai (vi. 1 et seq.), who some time before had discovered and revealed to the queen a plot against the king's life devised by two of the chamberlains (ii. 23). For this, by some unexplained oversight, Mordecai had received no reward. In the meantime the queen had invited the grand vizier to the banquet. When Haman, who was much pleased at the unusual honor shown him by the queen, appeared before the king to ask permission to execute Mordecai at once, Ahasuerus asked him, "What shall be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor?" Haman, thinking that the allusion was to himself, suggested a magnificent pageant, at which one of the great nobles should serve as attendant (vi. 9). The king immediately adopted the suggestion, and ordered Haman to act as chief follower in a procession in honor of Mordecai (vi. 10).
The next day at the banquet, when Esther preferred her request, both the king and the grand vizier learned for the first time that the queen was a Jewess. Ahasuerus granted her petition at once and ordered that Haman be hanged on the gibbet which the latter had prepared for his adversary Mordecai (vii.). Mordecai was then made grand vizier, and through his and Esther's intervention another edict was issued granting to the Jews the power to pillage and to slay their enemies.
Before the day set for the slaughter arrived a great number of persons, in order to avoid the impending disaster, became Jewish proselytes, and a great terror of the Jews spread all over Persia (viii. 17).
The Jews, assisted by the royal officers, who feared the king, were eminently successful in slaying their enemies (ix. 11), but refused to avail themselves of their right to plunder (ix. 16). The queen, not content with a single day's slaughter, then requested the king to grant to her people a second day of vengeance, and begged that the bodies of Haman's ten sons, who had been slain in the fray, be hanged on the gibbet (ix. 13). Esther and Mordecai, acting with "all authority" (ix. 29), then founded the yearly feast of Purim, held on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar as a joyous commemoration of the deliverance of their race.
The story of Esther—typical in many regards of the perennial fate of the Jews, and recalled even more vividly by their daily experience than by the annual reading of theMegillah at Purim—invited, both by the brevity of some parts of the narrative and by the associations of its events with the bitter lot of Israel, amplifications readily supplied by popular fancy and the artificial interpretation of Biblical verse. The additions to Esther in the (Greek) Apocrypha have their counterparts in the post-Biblical literature of the Jews, and while it is certain that the old assumption of a Hebrew original for the additions in the Greek Book of Esther is not tenable (see Kautzsch, "Die Apocryphen und Pseudepigraphen des Alten Testaments," i. 194), it is not clear that the later Jewish amplifications are adaptations of Greek originals.
The following post-Biblical writings have to be considered:
- (1) The first Targum. The Antwerp and Paris polyglots give a different and longer text than the London. The best edition is by De Lagarde (reprinted from the first Venice Bible) in "Hagiographa Chaldaice," Leipsic, 1873. The date of the first Targum is about 700 (see S. Posner, "Das Targum Rishon," Breslau, 1896).
- (2) Targum Sheni (the second; date about 800), containing material not germane to the Esther story. This may be characterized as a genuine and exuberant midrash. Edited by De Lagarde (in "Hagiographa Chaldaice," Berlin, 1873) and by P. Cassel ("Aus Literatur und Geschichte," Berlin and Leipsic, 1885, and "Das Buch Esther," Berlin, 1891, Ger. transl.).
- (3) Babylonian Talmud, Meg. 10b-14a.
- (4) Pirḳe R. El. 49a, 50 (8th cent.).
- (5) Yosippon (beginning of 10th cent.; see Zunz, "G. V." pp. 264 et seq.).
- (6) Midr. R. to Esther (probably 11th cent.).
- (7) Midr. Leḳaḥ Ṭob (Buber, "Sifre di-Agadta," Wilna, 1880).
- (8) Midr. Abba Gorion (Buber, l.c.; Jellinek, "B. H." i. 1-18).
- (9) Midr. Teh. to Ps. xxii.
- (10) Midr. Megillat Esther (ed. by Horwitz in his "Sammlung Kleiner Midrashim," Berlin, 1881).
- (11) Ḥelma de Mordekai (Aramaic: Jellinek, "B. H." v. 1-8; De Lagarde, l.c. pp. 362-365; Ad. Merx, "Chrestomathia Targumica," 1888, pp. 154 et seq.).
- (12) Yalḳ. Shim'oni to Esther.
With the omission of what more properly belongs under Ahasuerus, Haman, and Mordecai, the following is briefly the story of Esther's life as elaborated by these various midrashim: A foundling or an orphan, her father dying before her birth, her mother at her birth, Esther was reared in the house of Mordecai, her cousin, to whom, according to some accounts, she was even married (the word , Esth. ii. 7, being equal to = "house," which is frequently used for "wife" in rabbinic literature). Her original name was "Hadassah" (myrtle), that of "Esther" being given her by the star-worshipers, as reflecting her sweet character and the comeliness of her person. When the edict of the king was promulgated, and his eunuchs scoured the country in search of a new wife for the monarch, Esther, acting on her own judgment or upon the order of Mordecai, hid herself so as not to be seen of men, and remained in seclusion for four years, until even God's voice urged her to repair to the king's palace, where her absence had been noticed. Her appearance among the candidates for the queen's vacant place causes a commotion, all feeling that with her charms none can compete; her rivals even make haste to adorn her. She spurns the usual resources for enhancing her beauty, so that the keeper of the harem becomes alarmed lest he be accused of neglect. He therefore showers attentions upon her, and places at her disposal riches never given to others. But she will not be tempted to use the king's goods, nor will she eat of the king's food, being a faithful Jewess; together with her maids (seven, according to the number of the week-days and of the planets) she continues her modest mode of living. When her turn comes to be ushered into the royal presence, Median and Persian women flank her on both sides, but her beauty is such that the decision in her favor is at once assured. The king has been in the habit of comparing the charms of the applicants with a picture of Vashti suspended over his couch, and up to the time when Esther approaches him none has eclipsed the beauty of his beheaded spouse. But at the sight of Esther he at once removes the picture. Esther, true to Mordecai's injunction, conceals her birth from her royal consort. Mordecai was prompted to give her this command by the desire not to win favors as Esther's cousin. The king, of course, is very desirous of learning all about her antecedents, but Esther, after vouchsafing him the information that she, too, is of princely blood, turns the conversation, by a few happy counter-questions regarding Vashti, in a way to leave the king's curiosity unsatisfied.Mordecai and Esther.
Still Ahasuerus will not be baffled. Consulting Mordecai, he endeavors to arouse Esther's jealousy—thinking that this will loosen her tongue—by again gathering maidens in his courtyard, as though he is ready to mete out to her the fate of her unfortunate predecessor. But even under this provocation Esther preserves her silence. Mordecai's daily visits to the courtyard are for the purpose of ascertaining whether Esther has remained true to the precepts of her religion. She had not eaten forbidden food, preferring a diet of vegetables, and had otherwise scrupulously observed the Law. When the crisis came Mordecai—who had, by his refusal to bow to Haman or, rather, to the image of an idol ostentatiously displayed on his breast (Pirḳe R. El. lxix.), brought calamity upon the Jews—appeared in his mourning garments, and Esther, frightened, gave birth to a still-born child. To avoid gossip she sent Hatach instead of going herself to ascertain the cause of the trouble. This Hatach was afterward met by Haman and slain. Still Mordecai had been able to tell Hatach his dream, that Esther would be the little rill of water separating the two fighting monsters, and that the rill would grow to be a large stream flooding the earth—a dream he had often related to her in her youth.Esther Before Ahasuerus.
Mordecai called upon her to pray for her people and then intercede with the king. Though Pesaḥ was near, and the provision of Megillat Ta'anit forbidding fasting during this time could not be observed without disregarding Mordecai's plea, she overcame her cousin's scruples by a very apt counter-question, and at her request all the Jews "that had on that day already partaken of food" observed a rigid fast, in spite of (Esth. iv. 17) the feast-day (Pesaḥ), while Mordecai prayed and summoned the children and obliged even them to abstain from food, so that they cried out with loud voices. Esther in the meantime put aside her jewels and rich dresses, loosenedher hair, fasted, and prayed that she might be successful in her dangerous errand. On the third day, with serene mien she passed on to the inner court, arraying herself (or arrayed by the "Holy Ghost," Esth. Rabbah) in her best, and taking her two maids, upon one of whom, according to court etiquette, she leaned, while the other carried her train. As soon as she came abreast with the idols (perhaps an anti-Christian insinuation) the "Holy Ghost" departed from her, so that she exclaimed, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Ps. xxii. 1); thereupon, repenting having called the enemy "dog," she now named him "lion," and was accompanied by three angels to the king. Ahasuerus attempted to ignore her, and turned his face away, but an angel forced him to look at her. She, however, fainted at the sight of his flushed face and burning eyes, and leaned her head on her handmaid, expecting to hear her doom pronounced; but God increased her beauty to such an extent that Ahasuerus could not resist. An angel lengthened the scepter so that Esther might touch it: she invited the king to her banquet. Why Haman was invited the Rabbis explain in various ways. She desired to make the king jealous by playing the lover to Haman, which she did at the feast, planning to have him killed even though she should share his fate. At the supreme moment, when she denounced Haman, it was an angel that threw Haman on the couch, though he intended to kneel before the queen; so that the king, suspecting an attempt upon the virtue and life of his queen, forthwith ordered him to be hanged.
To the Rabbis Esther is one of the four most beautiful women ever created. She remained eternally young; when she married Ahasuerus she was at least forty years of age, or even, according to some, eighty years (ה = 5, ם = 60, ד = 4, ה = 5 = 74 years; hence her name "Hadassah"). She is also counted among the prophetesses of Israel.
As to the historical value of the foregoing data, opinions differ. Comparatively few modern scholars of note consider the narrative of Esther to rest on an historical foundation. The most important names among the more recent defenders of the historicity of the book are perhaps Hävernick, Keil, Oppert, and Orelli. The vast majority of modern expositors have reached the conclusionthat the book is a piece of pure fiction, although some writers qualify their criticism by an attempt to treat it as a historical romance. The following are the chief arguments showing the impossibility of the story of Esther:Improbabilities of the Story.
- 1. It is now generally recognized that the Ahasuerus (), mentioned in Esther, in Ezra iv. 6, and in Dan. ix. 1, is identical with the Persian king known as Xerxes (Ξέρζης, "Khshayarha"), who reigned from 485 to 464 B.C.; but it is impossible to find any historical parallel for a Jewish consort to this king. Some critics formerly identified Esther with Amastris (Ionic, "Amestris"), who is mentioned by Herodotus (viii. 114, ix. 110; compare Ctesias, 20) as the queen of Xerxes at the time when Esther, according to Esth. ii. 6, became the wife of Ahasuerus. Amastris, however, was the daughter of a Persian general and, therefore, not a Jewess. Furthermore, the facts of Amastris' reign do not agree with the Biblical story of Esther. Besides all this, it is impossible to connect the two names etymologically. M'Clymont (Hastings, "Dict. Bible," i. 772) thinks it possible that Esther and Vashti may have been merely the chief favorites of the harem, and are consequently not mentioned in parallel historical accounts.It is very doubtful whether the haughty Persian aristocracy, always highly influential with the monarch, would have tolerated the choice of a Jewish queen and a Jewish prime minister (Mordecai), to the exclusion of their own class—not to speak of the improbability of the prime ministry of Haman the Agagite, who preceded Mordecai. "Agagite" can only be interpreted here as synonymous with "Amalekite" (compare "Agag," king of the Amalekites, the foe of Saul, I Sam. xv. 8, 20, 32; Num. xxiv. 7; see Agag). Oppert's attempt to connect the term "Agagite" with "Agaz," a Median tribe mentioned by Sargon, can not be taken seriously. The term, as applied to Haman, is a gross anachronism; and the author of Esther no doubt used it intentionally as a fitting name for an enemy of Israel. In the Greek version of Esther, Haman is called a Macedonian.
- 2. Perhaps the most striking point against the historical value of the Book of Esther is the remarkable decree permitting the Jews to massacre their enemies and fellow subjects during a period of two days. If such an extraordinary event had actually taken place, should not some confirmation of the Biblical account have been found in other records? Again, could the king have withstood the attitude of the native nobles, who would hardly have looked upon such an occurrence without offering armed resistance to their feeble and capricious sovereign? A similar objection may be made against the probability of the first edict permitting Haman the Amalekite to massacre all the Jews. Would there not be some confirmation of it in parallel records? This whole section bears the stamp of free invention.
- 3. Extraordinary also is the statement that Esther did not reveal her Jewish origin when she was chosen queen (ii. 10), although it was known that she came from the house of Mordecai, who was a professing Jew (iii. 4), and that she maintained a constant communication with him from the harem (iv. 4-17).
- 4. Hardly less striking is the description of the Jews by Haman as being "dispersed among the people in all provinces of thy kingdom" and as disobedient "to the king's laws" (iii. 8). This certainly applies more to the Greek than to the Persian period, in which the Diaspora had not yet begun and during which there is no record of rebellious tendencies on the part of the Jews against the royal authority.
- 5. Finally, in this connection, the author's knowledge of Persian customs is not in keeping with contemporary records. The chief conflicting points are as follows: (a) Mordecai was permitted free access to his cousin in the harem, a state of affairs wholly at variance with Oriental usage, both ancient and modern. (b) The queen could not send a message to her own husband (!). (c) The division of the empire into 127 provinces contrasts strangely with the twenty historical Persian satrapies. (d) The fact that Haman tolerated for a long time Mordecai's refusal to do obeisance is hardly in accordance with the customs of the East. Any native venturing to stand in the presence of a Turkish grand vizier would certainly be severely dealt with without delay. (e) This very refusal of Mordecai to prostrate himself belongs rather to the Greek than to the earlier Oriental period, when such an act would have involved no personal degradation (compare Gen. xxiii. 7, xxxiii. 3; Herodotus, vii. 136). (f) Most of the proper names in Esther which are given as Persian appear to be rather of Semitic than of Iranian origin, in spite of Oppert's attempt to explain many of them from the Persian (compare, however, Scheftelowitz, "Arisches im Alten Testament," 1901, i.).
In view of all the evidence the authority of the Book of Esther as a historical record must be definitely rejected. Its position in the canon among the Hagiographa or "Ketubim" is the only thing which has induced Orthodox scholars to defend its historical character at all. Even the Jews of the first and second centuries of the common era questioned its right to be included among the canonical books of the Bible (compare Meg. 7a). The author makes no mention whatever of God, to whom, in all the other books of the Old Testament, the deliverance of Israel is ascribed. The only allusion in Esther to religion is the mention of fasting (iv. 16, ix. 31). All this agrees with the theory of a late origin for the book, as it is known, for example, from Ecclesiastes, that the religious spirit had degenerated even in Judea in the Greek period, to which Esther, like Daniel, in all probability belongs.
Esther could hardly have been written by a contemporary of the Persian empire, because (1) of the exaggerated way in which not only the splendor of the court, but all the events described, are treated (compare the twelve months spent by the maidens in adorning themselves for the king; the feasts of 187 days, etc., all of which point rather to the past than to a contemporary state of affairs); (2) the uncomplimentary details given about a great Persian king, who is mentioned by name, would not have appeared during his dynasty.
It is difficult to go so far as Grätz, who assignsEsther to an adherent of the Maccabean party in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. The vast difference in religious and moral tone between Esther and Daniel—the latter a true product of Antiochus' reign—seems to make such a theory impossible. Nor is the view of Jensen, followed by Nöldeke, more convincing to the unprejudiced mind. He endeavors to prove that the origin of the whole story lies in a Babylonian-Elamitic myth. He identifies Esther with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (Aphrodite); Mordecai with Marduk, the tutelary deity of Babylon; and Haman with Hamman or Humman, the chief god of the Elamites, in whose capital, Susa, the scene is laid; while Vashti is also supposed to be an Elamite deity. Jensen considers that the Feast of Purim, which is the climax of the book, may have been adapted from a similar Babylonian festival by the Jews, who Hebraized the original Babylonian legend regarding the origin of the ceremonies. The great objection to such a theory is that no Babylonian festival corresponding with the full moon of the twelfth month is known.
- Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the O. T. pp. 449 et seq.;
- Cheyne, Esther, in Encyc. Brit. 1878;
- Founders of Old Testament Criticism, pp. 359 et seq.;
- Kuenen, Onderzoek, iii. 551 et seq.;
- Lagarde, Purim, in Abhandlungen, der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Göttingen, 1887;
- Wildeboer, Esther, in Nowack's Handkommentar zum Alten Testament;
- Toy, Esther as a Babylonian Goddess, in New World, vi. 130-145;
- Nöldeke, Esther, in Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. ii. 1400-1407;
- M'Clymont, in Hastings, Dict. Bible, pp. 772-776;
- Frazer, Golden Bough, 2d ed., iii. 153, 157, 158.