A Esther 1:1-22 – Queen Vashti Deposed
B Esther 2:1-18 – Esther Goes to King
C Esther 2:19-23 – Mordecai Learns of Plot to Kill the King
D Esther 3:1-15 – Haman’s Plot
C′ Esther 4:1-17 – Mordecai Learns of Plot to Kill the Jews
B′ Esther 5:1-14 – Esther Goes to King
A′ Esther 6:1-14 – Mordecai Exalted
B Esther 7:1-10 – Esther’s Request
C Esther 8:1-2 – Mordecai Appointed Over House of Haman
D Esther 8:3-17 – Haman’s Plot Foiled
C′′ Esther 9:1-10 – Jews Destroy Enemies and Haman’s Sons
B′′ Esther 9:11-19 – Esther’s Request
A′′ Esther 9:20-10:3 – Mordecai Honored & Promoted
Timeline (515-509 BC)
539-531 BC – Cyrus/Darius The Mede
530-523 BC – Cambyses II
522-487 BC – Darius/Artaxerxes/Ahasuerus
Historical Context of Esther
The book of Esther is one of the last narratives in the Hebrew Bible, and it brings the history of Israel to a dramatic climax. We are told in the first verse that Esther takes place “in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia)” (Esther 1:1). If we piece together and harmonize Esther with the chronology in Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah, we can identify this Ahasuerus as the same king who is elsewhere called Darius or Artaxerxes. As with titles like Pharoah or President, Ahasuerus is not a personal name, but a throne name that means “king of kings,” or “chief of rulers.” This is the same king under whom Haggai and Zechariah prophesied (not to be confused with Darius The Mede/Cyrus). This would place Esther’s coronation as queen in 515 BC, about 70 years after Babylon’s destruction of the temple. By this time, the events of Daniel’s life have already taken place. Mordecai, who was brought to Babylon in the first wave of exiles but returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2), is now an old man and magistrate living in Shushan, the capital of Persia. Meanwhile back in Jerusalem, Haggai and Zechariah have encouraged the Jews and the reconstruction of the temple has just been completed (516 BC). This is a significant moment in Jewish history that inaugurates the era of what we now call “Second Temple Judaism,” and it is at this moment that the events of Esther begin to unfold.
When King Ahasuerus came to power (521 BC), the Persian empire was in turmoil and needed to be reunited, after a year or so of reconquering the kingdom, there was immense pressure to find a way of keeping peace amongst so many diverse people groups, languages, and ethnicities. The opening verses of Esther emphasize the immense size of the Persian empire (127 provinces from India to Ethiopia), this is a little smaller than the United States, but without a shared national identity or instant means of communication and travel. The capital of Persia was Shushan, which is in modern day Iran, and about 1,400 miles from Jerusalem. To govern an empire of this size would require a high level of political maneuvering, peacekeeping, and public relations, this explains why Ahasuerus throws a six-month long feast for his nobles, princes, officials, and servants. These were the lesser magistrates in charge of holding the Persian empire together. This context is crucial for understanding the actions of each character in the Esther narrative.
Literary Structure of Esther
Esther is structured as two stories that parallel each other. The king needs a new queen to replace Vashti, and the king needs a new advisor to replace Haman. Esther and Mordecai will fill these roles. The first half of Esther revolves around Haman’s plot against the Jews, there is a turning point in chapter 6 where Mordecai is exalted, and then the second half of the book is the unraveling of Haman’s plans. As with the Joseph story in Genesis, the Esther narrative reveals that what the enemy intends for evil, God intends for good, or as the Proverb says, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, And he who rolls a stone will have it roll back on him” (Pr. 26:27).
Feasts In Esther
One of the major themes of Esther is feasting and sabbath rest. There are nine feasts (or seven depending on how you count them) listed in Esther. The first three are in chapter 1 and culminate with Vashti’s rebellion on the seventh day against the king. This is meant to remind us of Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the garden on the sabbath. The text draws our attention to this parallel in Esther 1:5, when it says that the feast took place “in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.” Vashti has become a new serpent, a new Eve, disobeying the king’s command and seeking to undermine his authority.
The fourth feast is the wedding and coronation feast of Esther. After this, we have Esther’s two feasts for the king and Haman, then Mordecai arranges for a feast of celebration before the days of Purim take place. This is something of a public relations campaign to signify that the King is now on the side of the Jews (contra the original decree via Haman), and it is here that we read “in every province and city, wherever the king’s command and decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a holiday. Then many of the people of the land became Jews, because fear of the Jews fell upon them (Esther 8:17). God has set a table before the Jews in the presence of their enemies, and through this feast God brings many people into the kingdom. Finally there are the two feasts of Purim, one on the 14th of Adar, and a second one on the 15th of Adar. These feasts anticipate the wedding supper of the lamb (Rev. 19:9), where Christ comes as the true Ahasuerus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, to destroy the beast and his armies (Rev. 19:16).
Feasts In Esther
- The King’s 180 Day Feast (Esther 1:3)
- The Seven Day Feast In Shushan (Esther 1:5)
- Vashti’s Feast (Esther 1:9)
- Esther’s Coronation Feast (Esther 2:18)
- Esther’s First Feast for the King and Haman (Esther 5:4)
- Esther’s Second Feast for the King and Haman (Esther 5:8)
- Feast of Victory Before Purim (Esther 8:17)
- Feast of Purim on 14th of Adar (Esther 9:17)
- Feast of Purim in Shushan on 15th of Adar (Esther 9:18)
The Misunderstood Characters of Esther
Many treatments of King Ahasuerus present him as a drunken and immoral tyrant who no woman would want to be married to. But this does not fit with how the text portrays him. At this point in history, Ahasuerus is God’s anointed one (like his predecessor Cyrus, see Is. 45:1). This does not mean that Ahasuerus never sins, but it does mean that Ahasuerus is a type of Christ and foreshadows His coming universal kingdom. We see in the first chapter that far from being impulsive, Ahasuerus is a patient and wise ruler. He gives a generous feast for his subordinates and does not make drinking compulsory (Esther 1:8), allowing them to eat and drink as they please. This is a level of toleration that we did not see under Babylon, if you remember the story of Daniel, he and his three friends had to get a special exemption to not eat the king’s meat and drink (Daniel 1). Ahasuerus has given more liberty to these magistrates than many rulers before him. After Queen Vashti refuses to come before the King, he does not lash out against her, but instead seeks out counsel from the wise men. We are told explicitly that these were “wise men who understood the times (for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice).” In other words, Ahasuerus is not an impulsive tyrant, we are told he is a king who seeks safety in the multitude of counselors (Pr. 11:14).
In biblical (and secular) symbolism, the wife of the king is an embodiment and representation of the kingdom. The king is a symbolic father and husband to the nation, and the queen is a symbolic mother and wife. Or to use New Testament language, Christ is the head and husband, the Church is the body and bride. We are told in Esther 1:11, that the king desired to show Queen Vashti’s beauty to the people and the officials (see echoes of Psalm 45:10-15). This was not just a bragging instance of “my wife is prettier than your wife,” but a display of royal beauty that signified the beauty of the Persian empire. For Vashti to refuse her husband and king’s command, was to destabilize the unity of the empire and the social order. If the queen does not even listen to the king, why should anyone else? Vashti’s refusal then, if handled foolishly, could mean the dismantling of Persia.
Vashti’s refusal to obey the king was sinful on multiple levels. First, as a wife this was a direct refusal to submit to Ahasuerus as her husband. Nowhere does the text say or suggest that the King commanded her to come naked wearing only the crown (as some commentators think). Second, God requires those who are in are places of authority to be examples to those who look up to them. It is a greater sin for a parent to lie and steal, than for a five-year old kid to do the same. It is a more heinous in the eyes of God for pastors or elders to commit adultery than for teenagers in the congregation to do the same. God had put Vashti in the highest place of honor, and yet she uses her position to model rebellion for other wives in the kingdom. Third, and more relevant to the story of Esther, Vashti was a symbol of Mother Persia. In an empire with 127 different provinces and peoples of differing languages and cultures, the Queen was a universal symbol of what it meant to be Persian above all else. She was the principle of unity that Ahasuerus needed to keep the empire together. This is what makes Vashti’s refusal a threat to national security and not a mere domestic dispute, and it is why the king calls his council together to decide what must be done to contain the damage.
The solution to Vashti’s rebellion is to replace her with a new queen who represented the best of what Persia had to offer. This empire-wide beauty pageant was not just to find the king a new wife because he was lonely, but to find a faithful wife to be a new Mother Persia, a woman from the people, for the people, and representative of them.
Esther’s name Hadassah means myrtle and represents the Jews in the time after the exile. In Nehemiah, Isaiah, and Zechariah, the myrtle tree is used as a symbol for God’s people. It says in Isaiah 55:13, Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, And instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree; And it shall be to the Lord for a name, For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Vashti is like Israel in their rebellion against God, she is a brier that God divorces. Esther is a myrtle tree, she is beloved and chosen out from amongst all the nations as God’s favored one. The question before Esther, and before the Jews of this time is: Will you be faithful and bear witness before the world? Or will you hide your light and Jewish identity under a bushel?
At first, Esther does not bear witness, she listens to her father instead of her husband. This accounts for why there is a second gathering of virgins in Esther 2:19, and why Esther later says that she has not been called before the king for thirty days (Esther 4:11). The text hints at the reasoning for this as being Esther’s obedience to Mordecai rather than Ahasuerus (Esther 2:20). Esther has failed to leave and cleave to her husband (Gen. 2:24). Perhaps at some level, Ahasuerus does not fully trust her. This may also explain why Haman was promoted instead of Mordecai. God is teaching his people that the way to authority is through bearing faithful witness as Daniel did rather than being ashamed or deceptive about their religious loyalty to God.
Mordecai is Esther’s cousin and father by adoption (Esther 2:5-7). Both are from the royal line of Saul and the tribe of Benjamin. After being taken into exile as a young man, and then returning to Jerusalem for a time, Mordecai is now an old man and magistrate in Persia. The prophet Jeremiah had given the Jews specific instructions for how to conduct themselves under this new regime (Jeremiah 29). Daniel and his three friends are exemplary in being faithful to God’s Word through Jeremiah, they honor the king, they seek the peace of the city, and yet they do not compromise or hide their identity as Jews. Daniel bears witness even unto death. Mordecai on the other hand is a mixed bag. He saves the life of the king but tells Esther to hide her identity. Mordecai, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, is more concerned about politics and their place in the nation, than obeying the clear commands of God. There was nothing idolatrous or sinful about bowing to honor Haman, for we see this custom of bowing throughout the Old Testament and are explicitly commanded to render honor in Romans 13:7. It is Mordecai’s pride and refusal to bow (like Vashti refused the king) that puts the entire Jewish nation in danger. This was the same sin that the Jews in Jeremiah’s day committed, trusting in political maneuvering (alliance with Egypt) rather than submitting to the governing authorities appointed over them by God.
Haman is the arch-villain of the story, and we are told that he is an Agagite (Esther 3:1). We are given the details of both Haman and Mordecai’s lineage because the story of Esther is a revival and conclusion of a feud going back a thousand years. In 1 Samuel 15, Saul disobeys God by sparing Agag the king of the Amalekites. The Amalekites were under God’s ban of herem warfare and Israel was to destroy man, woman, and child, leaving nothing alive. Because Saul disobeyed God, the kingdom is torn from him, and Samuel the prophet hacks Agag to pieces. So the book of Esther is a fulfillment of God’s promise in Exodus 17:14 to, “utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven…[and]…the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” It was right after the Exodus that Amalek attacked Israel in the wilderness, and now a thousand years later, Amalek attacks them again right after their exodus from Babylonian exile. Thus, Haman’s plot is the last in a long war between these two nations.
The Meaning of Purim
Why did the Jews choose Purim as the name for this final feast? Well just as Esther has a double name, Hadassah in Hebrew and Esther in Persian, so also the word Purim has a double name and meaning as well. We are told in Esther 9:24 that purim means lots, and this comes from Haman casting lots to determine what day the Jews would be destroyed. At this level, the meaning of Purim could be summarized by Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” God is sovereign over the evil schemes of men. But if you think about it, by itself, lots is an odd name for this act of God’s deliverance. Why not call it “Esther’s Feast” or “Mordecai’s Revenge?”
The key to solving this puzzle comes in Esther 4:14, where Mordecai says to Esther, “For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” In Numbers 30, there is a series of laws about a young woman who makes a vow in her father or husband’s house. If the father or husband remains silent, the oath is binding. But if he speaks up, he can annul it and make it void. Mordecai was Esther’s father and had commanded her to remain silent about her Jewish identity, but now it is time for her to speak up, and to do so against her husband and king. This is a dangerous move because of what happened to Vashti earlier. Esther is running the risk of dishonoring Ahasuerus by asking him to revoke a law that in Persia is irrevocable. You can also see how this reverses the roles of authority in Numbers 30 for the young woman to try to annul her husband’s vow! In Hebrew, the word pur means annulment, and it is this same root word that we find throughout Numbers 30. So pur in Ancient Persian meant lot, but pur in Hebrew means annulment. This is the double meaning of Purim, God works through Haman’s Purim (lots) and Esther’s Purim (annulments) to return Haman’s wickedness upon his own head. This is ultimately a picture of what Jesus does on the cross. Christ takes what Satan intended for the destruction of God’s people and turns it into their deliverance. In the greatest twist of cosmic irony and divine comedy, God gets Satan to detonate his own kingdom, and as with all of the Jewish festivals, Purim is a celebration of this glorious gospel.