The Book of Esther: Its Canonization, Historicity, and Relevance
The book of Esther stands as unique among not only the historical books, but among the entire Old Testament as well. While written, I believe, as a historical narrative (scholars disagree however, on the genre of Esther), Esther holds the distinction of being but one of two books (the other being the Song of Solomon) in which God is not mentioned. While some have raised objections to the canonization of a book which fails to mention God, others call into the question the historicity of Esther, and regard it as a fictional narrative serving merely to bolster the national ethic of the Jews or to justify the existence of the uniquely non-theocratic holiday of Purim. In this article, I will attempt to show not only the historicity of the book of Esther, but also its rightful place within canonicity, as well as its emphasis on the providence of God in light of his apparent absence.
The book of Esther relates the story of Esther and Mordecai, two Jews living within the Persian Empire, who eventually thwart a plot to exterminate the Jewish people. Esther becomes Queen, while Mordecai plays the role of helpful advisor, encouraging her to use her position of power to undermine the less-than-noble desires of the King’s second-in-command, Haman. Covering a period of ten years (483-473 B.C.), the book of Esther tells of events occurring during the reign of Ahasuerus, more commonly known as Xerxes. While the authorship remains unknown, it is evident from the text that the author would have had some familiarity with Persian customs, as well as life within the royal court. Aside from cultural observations, the author shows familiarity with chronological details that coincide with the events of the day, as well as the correct use of Persian names and the allusion to the extent of Xerxes’ empire. It is on this basis, I believe, that the strongest evidence for an accurate historicity of Esther can be maintained. In addition to historical and chronological details, the author invites the reader to determine his truthfulness through outside sources such as the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia.
Historical and Chronological Details
In the first chapter of Esther, verse three, we read: “…in the third year of his reign, he (Xerxes) gave a banquet for all his princes and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of his provinces being in his presence.” The point of interest to be noted here is that this coincides neatly with Xerxes preparation for the second of two full-scale invasions of Greece, this one occurring from 480 to 479 B.C. According to the biblical account, Esther was taken in to see the king in the tenth month of the seventh year of his reign. If one can trust the account of Herodotus, Xerxes would have begun his return to Persia in the latter part of 480, just after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis. From this chronology one can ascertain that the deposal of Queen Vashti occurred just prior to Xerxes’ departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther just after his return. This coincides perfectly with the account of Herodotus, who claimed that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis, which was in the year Esther was made queen.”
Esther speaks of “hangings of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen.” The royal colors of Persian at this time, it just so happens, were white and blue (or violet), which coincides too with a description of Mordecai leaving the presence of the king “in royal robes of blue and white.” The description of Xerxes’ signet ring and his sealing of a decree by Haman matches the custom of Persian royalty in sealing official documents with cylinder seals or signet rings. The famed postal service of Persia too is indirectly alluded to when Xerxes “sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province according to its script and to every people according to their language.”
Archaeologically speaking, the book of Esther is precisely accurate in its details. As John Urquhart writes:
"…the references in the book are in perfect accord with the plan of the great structure as laid bare by the recent French excavations. We read (Est 4) that Mordecai, clad in sackcloth, walked in "the broad palace of the city, which was before the king's gate." The ruins show that the House of the Women was on the East side of the palace next to the city, and that a gate led from it into "the street of the city." In Est. 5:1, we read that Esther "stood in the inner court of the king's house, over against the king's house." "The king," we also read, "sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the entrance of the house," and that from the throne he "saw Esther the queen standing in the court." Every detail is exact. A corridor led from the House of the Women to the inner court; and at the side of the court opposite to the corridor was the hall, or throne-room of the palace. Exactly in the center of the farther wall the throne was placed and from that lofty seat the king, overlooking an intervening screen, saw the queen waiting for an audience. Other details, such as that of the king's passing from the queen's banqueting-house into the garden, show a similarly exact acquaintance with the palace as it then was."
Granted, historical details do not necessarily make a work non-fictional. The book of Esther is not merely a dry, recollection of historical events, but rather a skillfully constructed comedy, and there are no outside sources to affirm the main elements of the story (Esther being made queen, the massacre of 75,000 Persians, etc. etc.). However, it appears that the author’s intention from the outset is to relate a story of overall truthfulness, and while certain aspects of Esther cannot be corroborated, many others can. I see no reason then, to disregard Esther as a historical narrative. The level of precision when relating something as insignificant as palace architecture is enough to make me seriously doubt the assertion that the main elements of Esther are mere fabrications set within an archaeologically specific and chronologically accurate narrative. If Esther is just fiction, why such an emphasis on accurate detail?
Concerning Purim, in chapter three of Esther we see the antagonist, Haman, casting lots to determine the date of the destruction of the Jews. Eventually, this day came to be celebrated by the Jews as the holiday of Purim (meaning lots) to celebrate the day of their salvation (and counter-strike against the Persians. While many scholars see in this the influence of paganism on the Jews, others, myself included, see yet again the providence of God as well as his power over pagan customs. Haman must have been delighted with the outcome of his casting of lots, as the date fell on the twelfth month, while Haman cast his lot in the first month. This must have been seen as quite propitious, as it allowed Haman ample time to prepare for the destruction of the Jews. However, in light of the eventual outcome, it actually worked in the favor of the Jews, as God unfolded his plan for their salvation over the coming year. Hence, the holiday of Purim can be seen, like the book of Esther, as a signifier of the care and watchfulness of Yahweh.
Was Canonization Justified?
Arguments against the canonization of the Book of Esther invariably drew from the book’s failure to mention God. But though not directly named, is God really absent? Gregory R. Goswell, in his article “Keeping God out of Esther,” argues that the absence of God from Esther was no mistake, rather an intentional literary strategy whose aim was to “focus attention upon the human initiative (Selbstbehauptung) and courage of the Jewish protagonists, especially as modeled by Esther. God’s control of events, while assumed, is not stated, precisely so that the roles of Mordecai, Esther and the other Jews might take centre stage.”
Aside from authorial intentions though, the sheer number of “coincidences” within Esther beg the reader to take notice of just how miraculous this account really is. To begin with, Vashti’s sudden disobedience to her husband’s request allows an opening atop the hierarchy for Esther to ascend. Soon after, Mordecai just happens to witness a plot against the king’s life which in turn puts him into favor with Xerxes. Furthermore, a suspicious bout of insomnia leads Xerxes to engage in some late night reading, reminding the forgetful king of the noble actions of Mordecai. An ironic twist in the story shows Haman ultimately deciding the honors bestowed upon Mordecai (who happened to walk in at exact moment of the king’s ponderance of how to honor Mordecai), and later the king walks in to misinterpret Haman’s act of pleading as an assault on the queen’s life! This string of coincidences, which ultimately act to both honor Esther and Mordecai as well as to protect the Jewish people against annihilation, are good evidences of the providence and sovereignty of a loving god; a god whose plans, while mysterious, are nevertheless perfectly and wonderfully executed. It is obvious then that “the story of Esther is not a subtle communication of the message that God is at work behind the scenes.”
While elements of history as well as a divine plan are evident throughout, what then is the point of Esther? In contrast to other books of the Old Testament, the idea of covenant is surprisingly absent from the narrative. The Jews of Esther have retained their unique status within the ancient world (with even Haman’s wife observing that to oppose the Jews is folly), but religious elements so prevalent throughout the O.T. seem to be either non-existent, not observed (as in the case of Esther breaking dietary laws), or not connected with God in an obvious fashion (such as the fasting in chapter 4).
First, it must be noted that the Jews of Esther are in exile, not in possession of the land given to them by Yahweh. This fact alone greatly changes the perspective of the author’s descriptions, or lack of, of the religious practices of the Jews. As Roy B. Zuck writes:
"What must be kept in mind is that Esther concerns the Jewish community of the Diaspora and not the restored nation of Judea. This distinction is important because the covenant was made not with a heterogeneous and scattered people but with the nation gathered and worshipping as a corporate entity. The Temple and Jerusalem were still at the center of the theocratic program, and it was there,and there only, that Yahweh promised to meet with His covenant people as a collective expression of His kingdom on earth. Covenant, therefore, was crucially important in the theology of Ezra-Nehemiah, but of only marginal interest in Esther."
Secondly, in looking at the larger context of the entire Old Testament, it is more than safe to assume that both Mordecai and Esther were ideal examples of faithful Jews living in exile. Since fasting is so inextricably tied to a petitioning and subservience to God all throughout the Bible, how else is one to view it in this instance? Furthermore, the wise words of Mordecai to Esther succinctly summarize an attitude of perfect faith and obedience: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place.”
The book of Esther then, while textually excluding God, is nevertheless a story of God’s faithfulness to his chosen people. Whether intentionally or not, by excluding reference to God the author has brilliantly addressed a struggle held by every Christian reader of today: the silence of God. God is the unseen force behind the events of Esther, acting in the most unexpected ways to protect his people. Neither its historicity, canonization or message need to be overly scrutinized, as the Book of Esther displays a depth of historical accuracy, the overt presence of God, and an inspirational message of an enduring faith under the threat of death, all wrapped up within a package of brilliant storytelling.