Esther Saves Her People

The Text

  1. That same day King Xerxes gave Queen Esther the estate of Haman, archenemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came before the king because Esther had explained their relationship.
  2. The king took off his signet ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. Esther appointed Mordecai over Haman's estate.
  3. Then Esther again spoke to the king, falling at his feet, begging with tears to counter the evil of Haman the Agagite and revoke the plan that he had plotted against the Jews.
  4. The king extended his gold scepter to Esther. She got to her feet and stood before the king.
  5. She said, “If it please the king and he regards me with favor and thinks this is right, and if he has any affection for me at all, let an order be written that cancels the bulletins authorizing the plan of Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite to annihilate the Jews in all the king's provinces.
  6. “How can I stand to see this catastrophe wipe out my people? How can I bear to stand by and watch the massacre of my own relatives?”
  7. King Xerxes said to Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew: “I've given Haman's estate to Esther and he's been hanged on the gallows because he attacked the Jews.
  8. “So go ahead now and write whatever you decide on behalf of the Jews; then seal it with the signet ring.” (An order written in the king's name and sealed with his signet ring is irrevocable.)
  9. So the king's secretaries were brought in on the twenty-third day of the third month, the month of Sivan, and the order regarding the Jews was written word for word as Mordecai dictated and was addressed to the satraps, governors, and officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces in all, to each province in its own script and each people in their own language, including the Jews in their script and language.
  10. He wrote under the name of King Xerxes and sealed the order with the royal signet ring; he sent out the bulletins by couriers on horseback, riding the fastest royal steeds bred from the royal stud.
  11. The king's order authorized the Jews in every city to arm and defend themselves to the death, killing anyone who threatened them or their women and children, and confiscating for themselves anything owned by their enemies.
  12. The day set for this in all King Xerxes' provinces was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar.
  13. The order was posted in public places in each province so everyone could read it, authorizing the Jews to be prepared on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.
  14. The couriers, fired up by the king's order, raced off on their royal horses. At the same time, the order was posted in the palace complex of Susa.
  15. Mordecai walked out of the king's presence wearing a royal robe of violet and white, a huge gold crown, and a purple cape of fine linen. The city of Susa exploded with joy.
  16. For Jews it was all sunshine and laughter: they celebrated, they were honored.
  17. It was that way all over the country, in every province, every city when the king's bulletin was posted: the Jews took to the streets in celebration, cheering, and feasting. Not only that, but many non-Jews became Jews—now it was dangerous not to be a Jew!

Esther 8:1–17, The Message


The traditional foods of Purim include hamentaschen (literally, “Haman's pockets'), a triangular fruit-filled cookie said to emulate the shape of Haman's three-cornered hat.

The History

In 539 b.c.e. King Cyrus II (also known as Cyrus the Great) of Persia conquered Babylon and issued what has come to be known as the Cyrus Cylinder, a declaration that the Persians would destroy neither the Babylonians nor their culture. He also decreed that the peoples exiled under the Babylonians could return to their homelands. While the document did not mention the Jews specifically, the policy allowed many Jews (some scholars say 42,000) to go back to Jerusalem; many more (perhaps up to 1 million) remained in Persia, for the Persians were tolerant of all religious practices (though many Persians had adopted Zoroastrianism), including the Jews' observance of the Law and worship of God. Upon reaching Jerusalem, the returning refugees began rebuilding the Temple, and immediately ran into conflict with the Samaritans of the area, who did not hold the Temple as the center of religious life and did not want to lose their privileged position in society. Threatening rebellion, the Samaritans petitioned Cyrus for a stop-work order on the Temple, which he granted.

Previously, Cyrus had united the Persian kingdoms in 559 b.c.e. and had defeated the Medean Empire in 550 b.c.e. and annexed Lydia. Cyrus died (probably in battle) about 530 b.c.e., and rule passed to his son, Cambyses II, who conquered Egypt. Cambyses' reign was short, and in 521 b.c.e. power passed to his relative, Darius (Dariush) I. After quashing a number of rebellions and consolidating power, Darius married Atossa, a daughter of Cyrus the Great. Darius reformed the legal code and the military while extending the empire as far north as the Caucasus. Governing such an enormous area proved unwieldy, so he divided the empire into twenty semiautonomous provinces (called satrapies) and appointed a satrap to administer each one. He also had a canal excavated to join the Nile River to the Red Sea and had a new capital built at Persepolis. Under Darius, Persia became a mighty economic power, trading as far west as Sicily and Carthage and as far east as the Indus River. When he died in 485 b.c.e., his son Xerxes I came to the throne. Like his father, who suffered defeat at the Battle of Marathon, Xerxes tried to invade Greece but was unsuccessful; afterward, the empire fell into a state of unrest, and Xerxes was murdered in 465 b.c.e., at which point Artaxerxes I became king. He ruled until 424 b.c.e., succeeded by his son Xerxes II, who was assassinated after only forty-five days in office. Xerxes' halfbrother Ochus seized the throne and took the name Darius II; he died in 404 b.c.e., and Artaxerxes II came to power.

Scholars are quite divided about how the narrative related in the Book of Esther fits into the historical chronology, or even if the narrative is actually historic or purely allegoric. Some claim that Ahasuerus (also known as Achashverosh) may be the same ruler otherwise known as Xerxes I; others, that he may have been Artaxerxes II. A number of scholars also claim that the reason Darius II allowed the Jews to recommence reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple was that he was the son of Esther and Xerxes I. As there are no extrabiblical accounts of a Queen Esther of Persia, the historicity of the narrative remains a subject of contention, particularly since the story continues to serve as the basis for the Jewish folk holiday of Purim.

Biblical Passage Notes

The Book of Esther (in Hebrew, Hadassah, meaning “myrrh”) is an oddity (or some would say, a rarity) in the canon of Jewish scriptures for several reasons. First, it is one of only two books named after women (Ruth being the other); second, it is one of the only books in the Bible not to mention God (although there seems to be a vague reference in the text to an entity that will save the people, if it is not Esther); third, the story it tells of the deliverance of the Jewish people from near certain annihilation thanks to the political savvy of a Jewish woman married to a foreign king demonstrates once again (as in the case of Ruth) Israel's tolerance and adaptiveness to marriage “outside of the tribe” in certain eras of its long history. Though some scholars believe the story takes place during the reign of Xerxes (also called Ahasuerus, King of Persia, in the 6th century b.c.e.), most scholars date the writing of the book to the 4th century b.c.e., about the time of the death of Alexander the Great.

As a result of this remarkable story, the Jewish people added another feast day to their already celebratory calendar, one of the most joyous of all Jewish holidays known as Purim (Hebrew for “lots”). In the biblical selection above, Queen Esther has foiled Haman, the evil advisor to the king, and all his plans to eradicate her uncle, Mordecai, and the Jewish people as well. At the advice of her uncle, Esther had never revealed to the king her true ethnic identity, and taking a gamble that he loved her enough to grant her wishes despite her background, she saves her countrymen and -women and vanquishes their scheming foes. Hence Esther is celebrated as a savior of the people, and Purim is both her feast and theirs.

Esther's skillful maneuvering within the court of the Persian king centers around two banquets by which she carries out her plan to unveil Haman's evil plotting and to demonstrate how his jealousy and prejudices will cause his undoing. We are never told exactly what was served at either of these meals, although one can imagine that a dinner with the King of Persia would not have been a simple affair. Perhaps as a continuance of the spirit of Esther's banquets, Purim celebrations center on a meal—a meal that over time has developed its own protocol. The holiday is preceded by a minor fast to commemorate Esther's three days of eschewing food prior to approaching the king with her supplications. On the main day of Purim itself (usually sometime around the end of February), the book of Esther (called the megillah, or “scroll”) is read, either in its entirety or in some shortened form. It is customary for the listening audience to boo, hiss, stamp their feet, and rattle graggers (noisemakers or clackers) at the mention of Haman's name: the purpose is to “blot out the name of Haman,” just as he had tried to blot out the lives and the spirit of the Jewish people.

The Talmud instructs that everyone should “eat, drink and be merry” to the point where the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai” cannot be distinguished. But revelry is not the only focus: the festival places a great emphasis on gifts to charity, the “sending out of portions” of food and drink. Purim celebrations also often include plays and beauty contests that tend to have a carnival-like atmosphere. For these reasons, Purim is greatly anticipated and widely celebrated among all Jews, though in a unique way within each community.

The Preparation

The traditional foods of Purim include hamentaschen (literally, “Haman's pockets”), a triangular fruit-filled cookie said to emulate the shape of Haman's three-cornered hat; latkes (potato pancakes); vegetarian fare (tradition holds that Esther kept kosher by eating beans and peas while living in the Persian capital of Susa); poppy seeds (a symbol of Esther's fasting), and other seeds as well; kreplach (ground meat wrapped in dough, much in the same way and shape as hamentaschen); braided challah (as a remembrance of the rope that hung Haman); folares (in the Sephardic tradition, pastry dough wrapped around hard-boiled eggs); fish (baked in vinegar, raisins, and spices); turkey; and of course, wine for the drinking portion. All are served at a festive meal, held late in the afternoon, called the Seudah. It is usually celebrated with family and friends, with a menu not unlike what follows.