Introduction to Esther
The book of Esther is unique in at least two respects. It is one of only two Biblical books centered around a woman (the other is Ruth). It is the only book with no mention of God anywhere in its ten chapters, although the providential hand of God is marvelously evident throughout the book.
The setting is in the court of the great Persian emperor Xerxes (same as the Biblical Ahasuerus), where Esther had been made queen, despite her Jewish background. The events described apparently took place partially before and partially after the time of Xerxes’ ill-fated attempted invasion of Greece.
The authorship of Esther is uncertain. A number of scholars think Ezra may have written it since the time corresponds to that of Ezra, and both were associated with the Persian court. Many others ascribe it to Mordecai, Esther’s older cousin and mentor. For some unclear reason, the author made considerable effort to keep his account free of any mention of God, prayer or other religious matters. Presumably, this was because there was considerable anti-Semitic feeling in Persia at the time, very likely because of the attempted Haman genocide and the Jews’ bloody vengeance in return. Nevertheless, one senses the strong faith of both Esther and Mordecai, as well as the remarkable sequence of providential ways in which God, behind the scenes, was preserving His chosen people.
Although no direct confirmation has been found of Haman’s attempted genocide and the other events described in the book of Esther, all that is known about the times, places and people in the book is consistent with all known data from ancient history and archaeology. There is no valid reason to doubt the complete historicity of the book of Esther.
1:1 Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus is believed by some to be a title rather than a personal name, but most scholars argue that Ahasuerus was the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Xerxes, who reigned over the Persian empire during the period 486–464 B.C. Assuming this identification is correct, the events recorded in the book of Esther must have taken place in the period between the sixth and seventh chapters of Ezra, with the Artaxerxes mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah identified then as the son of Ahasuerus.
1:1 India even to Ethiopia. At one of Xerxes’ capitals, Persepolis, a foundation tablet was excavated in which the emperor boasted that his empire extended to India and Kush (i.e., Ethiopia). The “India” referred to is the region of Punjab today.
1:3 made a feast. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Persian emperor Xerxes—who did rule “from India even unto Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1)—held a great feast and conference with all his military leaders during the third year of his reign. This event was held to prepare for his projected naval invasion of Greece. His fleet, however, suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.
1:4 the riches. Xerxes was the fourth king prophesied in Daniel 11:2, who was to be “far richer” than all before him. Xerxes historically is indeed known to have developed an exceedingly rich and luxurious regime.
1:5 Shushan. Shushan is the same as Susa, the winter capital of the Persian empire, about 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf. It has been excavated and well identified archaeologically.
1:9 Vashti. Persia’s queen is called Amestris in Greek writings of the time. According to many interpreters, however, Xerxes had several wives in his large harem, and it is possible that both Amestris and Vashti were wives of Xerxes. It is even possible that Amestris was the same as Esther.
1:12 chamberlains. The chamberlains were eunuchs, in charge of the king’s harem. Each woman in the harem was actually married to the king; they were more than simply concubines. One—in this case, the beautiful Vashti—was considered the primary wife and recognized as the queen, from whom one son would inherit the kingdom. This son probably was Artaxerxes, who was the emperor under whom Ezra and Nehemiah served. Artaxerxes thus became a stepson of Esther (Xerxes died about thirteen years after Esther became queen). Vashti’s refusal to display herself before a drunken crowd of government officials was an act of both illegal disobedience to her husband, yet it was an act of moral courage before her Creator.
1:13 wise men. These “wise men” were probably astrologers, expert practitioners of the ancient pagan art which professed ability to forecast the future by the positions and motions of the stars. It is believed that the great feast described in this chapter was probably in preparation for the projected invasion of Greece. It is noteworthy that the counsel of the supposed wise men who “knew the times” did not warn Ahasuerus (that is, Xerxes) against launching this project which would prove so disastrous for the Persians. They were, however, very positive about advising him to reassert male sovereignty in the home.
1:19 be not altered. See also Daniel 6:13. The Persians considered their laws to be so perfect—an opinion probably justified in most cases—that once enacted, they could be neither repealed nor revised. Vashti thus lost her position as queen, but was presumably still in the harem.
1:22 he sent letters. The Persian postal system at this period was very extensive and efficient, being structured in similar fashion to the United States Pony Express system of the mid-nineteenth century. An actual leather postal sack containing Persian official documents of the period has been found preserved in the dry climate of Egypt, which was then a part of the Persian Empire.