Esther’s Historical Background

The book of Esther is a story designed to echo Israel’s literary history to encourage and inspire national hope for a good future. It is a tale of deliverance, and the influences of other Biblical deliverance narratives, such as Joseph, Moses and the Judges, naturally imprint the organization of Esther’s rhythm as the reader cycles through the threat of danger, cries for help, intercession with a sovereign power, and ultimate victory over Israel’s enemy.

Author

Esther is an anonymous book[1], and although speculation at authorship ranges from Mordecai[2] to a Persian court scribe, [3]  we have no solid evidence of who wrote it.

Setting

Esther is set in the capital city of Susa, Persia, the empire that inherited the Judean deportees living throughout the Babylonian Empire. The Judeans had lived in the land of Babylon for fifty-five years (597-538 BCE) after being taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. Knowing that God had promised their return to the land of Judea after seventy years of exile in Babylon (Jer. 25:11), they accepted their punishment in Babylon. They built houses, conducted business, married and blessed their neighbors as instructed by Jeremiah (Jer. 29:4-7).  The Jews settled and raised families [4] (Esther 2:6-7).

persian lionA generation of Jews born and raised in Babylon were adopted into the Persian Empire when Cyrus conquered Babylon peacefully in 539 BCE. Cyrus boasted he had liberated all the gods of the people Babylon conquered, and invited the exiles to return home and rebuild their destroyed temples (Ezra 1:1-4, 2 Chron. 36:22-23). Over forty thousand Jews returned to Judea (Ezra 2:64, Neh. 7:66). This return marked the end of the exile and the beginning of the Diaspora.[5] J. Vernon McGee estimates there were several million Jews who voluntarily stayed behind in Southern Mesopotamia,[6] and they formed a large Jewish community with considerable scholarly influence in the Jewish Diaspora.[7] This Babylonian Diasporic community outside Palestine would eventually grow and gain greater “religious stature”[8] than those living in the Promised Land. Esther takes place among these Jews who chose to remain in their adopted lands outside Israel.

Historical King

Modern scholars mostly agree that Ahasuerus, the king in Esther, was Xerxes the first.[9] He ruled Persia from 486-465 BCE[10] during the height of the Persian Empire which spread from India to Egypt to Greece (1:1, 8:9). [11]  Xerxes’s reign was marked by decadence and harem intrigues. Although there was a “decent amount of peace and stability”[12] in the land during his reign. Plato said he was spoiled and led by his eunuchs.[13] This historical data corresponds with Esther’s portrayal of a royal court dripping in splendor and wine, ruled by an easily-influenced, fickle king (1:4-8, 21; 2:4, 18; 3:10-11; 8:7-8). After Xerxes’s infamous battles with Greece, he is portrayed by Greek historians as a broken man who turns his attention to building projects,[14] and the events described in Esther are placed in this era, specifically from 479-478 BCE.[15]

Audience

Since the inception of Esther is vague, its intended audience is also ambiguous. If we examine details in Esther, we can craft an adequate picture of these Judean expatriates, who likely mirror the intended audience. They were spread all throughout the Persian Empire (8:9). Their community was distinctly Jewish, conspicuous in its unique customs and language (3:8, 8:9). We read that Mordecai was a minor official in the Persian court (2:19), and this indicates that some were invested in the local politics. Though they were comfortable and at home in Persia, they embraced their Jewish heritage, as Mordecai did (3:4). Haman claimed they broke the king’s laws, yet Suserian citizens disagreed (3:15). Both Mordecai and Esther desire the king’s safety (2:22). No doubt, many Jews living in the Persia Empire did the same. Esther marries a foreigner, and though there is little doubt she had no choice in the matter, foreign marriages were a weakness for the Judeans and most likely common at this time (Ezra 9:1-2, Neh. 13:25). Our rough sketch reveals a people that took Jeremiah’s words to heart (Jer. 29:4-7). They put down roots in exile, perhaps too liberally in mixed marriages, and worked for the good of their neighbors and government.

Problem

If we leave the sketch at this point, it remains unfinished. For, Esther portrays a sinister force at work against the Jews (3:6, 10). Threat of annihilation threatens the descendants of Abraham. Haman seeks to kill every Jew in the land. We, as modern readers, have centuries of hindsight to confirm that this threat is neither exaggerated, nor limited to one time or place. The Jewish people have faced not only discrimination, but genocide, repeatedly in their long history. The original readers might not have been facing the exact threat portrayed in Esther, but there is little doubt they had powerful enemies looming.

God’s Role

Esther does not offer words of comfort, nor divine words of affirmation for the reader. Esther tells the tale of deliverance without commentary. This lack speaks volumes to a people whose ears have been ringing with the Word of God for centuries. Does a Jew, who has chosen to live outside the Promised Land, have a right to claim the promises of God? Should a Jew, who is living in the day when God hides His face (Deut. 31:18), cry for help? “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? (NIV Psalm 137:4)” Is there deliverance for us who live in the silence of God? Always, says the story of Esther.

 

References

[1] Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP Academic, 1998), 491.
[2] J. Vernon McGee, Ezra Nehemiah Esther, Thru the Bible Commentary Series (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 169.
[3] Robert Gordis, 1981, “RELIGION, WISDOM AND HISTORY IN THE BOOK OF ESTHER–   A NEW SOLUTION TO AN ANCIENT CRUX,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 100, no. 3: 359, Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed October 5, 2017), 378.
[4] All Bible references are from Esther unless noted.
[5] Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, How Firm a Foundation (Brewster, MS: Paraclete Press, 1997), 206.
[6] McGee, 170.
[7] Rasmussen, 141.
[8] Eckstein, 17.
[9] Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 349.
[10] Rasmussen, 143.
[11] Hill and Walton, 349.
[12] Dan Carlin, “King of Kings III”, Hardcore History, Podcast Audio, August 7, 2016. http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-58-kings-kings-iii/.
[13] Carlin.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Rasmussen, 143

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