There have only been two books in the Bible thus far named after women: Ruth, which was several books ago, and Esther, which I just finished. Given the relatively pleasant vibes of Ruth, and the tameness of Ezra and Nehemiah leading into this book, I expected Esther to be more of the same. At 10 chapters it’s a short book too, and all of the short books so far have been tame ones. So it was a bit of a surprise to find that the book of Esther gives us quite an unequivocal break to this trend.
The book starts off pretty scandalous right out of the gate. Once again the setting is Persia, and this time the king is named Ahasuerus. It seems to be generally thought that Ahasuerus is just the Hebrew name for Xerxes, though I think certain other texts translate it as Artaxerxes. Either way, both of those kings were part of the book of Ezra (and Artaxerxes was king during Nehemiah), so clearly Esther is set in a similar timeframe. Anyway, the book starts off with Ahasuerus king of Persia being married to a woman named Vashti. (Totally random side note: The very first mention of India’s existence happens here, when the book describes which areas were part of the Persian empire at the time.)
Queen Vashti is very beautiful. King Ahasuerus knows it and apparently likes to flaunt her around as his arm candy. He throws a huge party in Shushan, which is the city where he reigns – the capital of Persia. He flaunts his wealth for 180 days (is the party 180 days long?? The book is unclear), and then he has a big banquet that lasts another 7 days. By the 7th day of the banquet, the king is fully drunk off his ass and he tells his 7 eunuchs to go fetch Vashti so he can show off her hotness to all his party guests. Vashti, meanwhile, seems to be fed up with Ahasuerus’ antics by this point, because she politely tells the eunuchs to tell the king to go f*ck himself. Not surprisingly, the king is not pleased with her response, and he decides not only to dump Vasthi, but to make it a law of the land that “all the women will respect their husbands,” and “every man should be ruler over his own household.” Yeesh, what an a-hole.
The next order of business for Ahasuerus, now that he has dumped Vasthi, is to find a new wife/queen. That’s where Esther enters the picture. There is a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin named Mordecai who lives in Shushan. Mordecai has a cousin named Esther who he raised as a daughter because her mother and father died. Anyway when king Ahasuerus appoints commissioners in every province to bring beautiful virgins into his harem so that he can choose a queen from them, Esther gets brought in as one of the candidates. The rest of the process plays like a Miss America pageant or a season of The Bachelor, with each of the contestants undergoing 12 months of beauty treatments with oil of myrrh and perfumes and cosmetics, under the supervision of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who is in charge of the concubines. Each contestant is brought to the king when the time comes and does not return to him unless he is pleased with her and summons her by name. Long story short, Esther eventually wins the contest and Ahasuerus makes her queen. She does not tell anyone that she is a Jew.
There is then a weird passage where Mordecai discovers that two of the king’s officers (Bigthanab and Teresh) are conspiring to assassinate King Ahasuerus. So Mordecai tells Queen Esther and Esther tells Ahasuerus, and Ahasuerus has the two men hanged. The story seems random when it pops up, but it becomes relevant later in the book. Sometime after this, some dude named Haman works his way up the ranks of the king’s court and the king gives Haman “a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles.” All the royal officials at the king’s gate kneel before Haman, except Mordecai, who seems to have no interest in paying any special respects to him. Haman does NOT respond well to this. He knows Mordecai is a Jew, so he decides to have his revenge on Mordecai by not only killing him, but killing all the Jews in Persia. Haman convinces Ahasuerus to let him issue a decree to do this. He sends out the order to all the provinces in the kingdom: “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and little children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.” This guy is a lunatic with a serious chip on his shoulder.
When Mordecai learns of the decree, he freaks out and begs Esther to tell the king to put a stop to it. Esther is very hesitant at first, because the king doesn’t even know she is Jewish. But Mordecai convinces her that she has no other choice. So one day, Esther asks the king to come to a banquet that she has prepared for him and to bring Haman. He does, and at the banquet, the king asks Esther, “Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.” Esther tells Ahasuerus that she would like him and Haman to come to another banquet that she’ll hold tomorrow, and then she’ll tell him what she wants. Ohhhh k. Haman then leaves the banquet thinking that he’s the most important dude in the world, because he seems to be the guest of honor at these fancy banquets held by the queen. But then he sees Mordecai on his way home from Banquet #1 and gets pissed again, so he orders his men to build a gallows that is 75 feet high. He makes a plan to ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai hanged on it. Apparently it only takes one afternoon to build a 75 foot gallows. Mmmm k.
That night, king Ahasuerus can’t sleep, so he randomly has “the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign,” brought in and read to him. Maybe he thinks that’ll put him into a coma quick. But instead it makes him realize that Mordecai was the one who had saved his life by outting Bigthanab and Teresh back in chapter 2, when they were plotting to assassinate Ahasuerus. And Mordecai has never been honored for this favor. Just then (it must be early morning by now), Haman shows up in the court to talk to Ahasuerus about hanging Mordecai. The king brings Haman in to talk, but blindsides him by asking him to do just the opposite (before Haman can get a word in edgewise about his request), and telling Haman to HONOR Mordecai with a royal robe and horse with royal crest and parade him through the city streets!! So Haman has no choice but to follow the king’s orders. Once he completes this humiliating task, he then rushes home, devastated. But before he can spend more than a couple minutes crying into his beer, the king’s eunuchs show up and hurry him off to Esther’s Banquet #2.
At Banquet #2, the king once again asks Esther what is her request. She answers him, “If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation.” The king asks Esther who would dare do such a terrible thing, and she answers, “The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman.” Yikes. This is really NOT how Haman imagined this day to play out when he woke up in the morning. So the king flips out, and Haman desperately begs Esther for his life. But the king is hearing none of it. The king then has Haman hanged on the very gallows that Haman had constructed for the purpose of hanging Mordecai. Dun dun DUUNNNN!!
Ahasuerus then immediately puts Esther in charge of Haman’s estate. Esther informs the king of her relation to Mordecai, and the king takes the signet ring he had given to Haman and gives it to Mordecai instead. Esther then appoints Mordecai over Haman’s estate. Esther asks the king if they can now issue a decree across the kingdom which reverses Haman’s order to kill all the Jews. The king tells them to go for it and do whatever they think is right. Any document bearing the seal of the king’s signet ring (which the king has now given to Mordecai) cannot be revoked. Now that is power. And this is where it suddenly starts to get shady. The king’s edict (as written by Mordecai) doesn’t simply reverse Haman’s order to kill the Jews. It also grants the Jews “the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate any armed force of any nationality or province that might attack them and their women and children; and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus [is] the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar.” Okaayy … soooo … does this mean that the Jews can now go kill all of the people who had planned to kill them?? It’s unclear at this point (end of chapter 8). In any event, who cares, because the Jews throw a big party to celebrate!! Woot woot. Many other people in the kingdom even convert to Judaism “because fear of the Jews seize[s] them.” Errrr … that’s … cool. I guess.
Then we get to chapter 9, and that is when it becomes quite clear what the intent of the edict is, as written by Mordecai: “1. On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them.” That’s RIGHT, bitches!! Who’s in charge now?! “5. The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. 6. In the citadel of Shushan, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. 7. They also killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, 8. Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, 9. Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha, 10. the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. But they did not lay their hands on the plunder.” Aww how kind of them, to not take the plunder after slaughtering everyone. But one day of killing isn’t enough for Mordecai, oh no. He’s not done yet. He has Esther go back and ask the king if they can kill more people the next day. So the next day they kill 300 more people in Shushan, and 75,000 people in all the rest of the king’s provinces!!
So what’s a gal to do after killing 76,000-ish people?? Throw a huge PARTY, of course!! Duh!! And not only that, Mordecai/Esther also make an official yearly holiday out of it. That’s right, boys and girls, this heartwarming tale I’ve just told you is the origin of the Jewish holiday Purim! (“24. For Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the pur (that is, the lot) for their ruin and destruction. 25. But when the plot came to the king’s attention,a he issued written orders that the evil scheme Haman had devised against the Jews should come back onto his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. 26. Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur.”) So sweet. The book ends with this final line, in chapter 10: “3. Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.” He “speaks up” for the welfare of all Jews alright.
There’s nothing good in Esther. If you were to read only the second half of chapter 9 where it describes the celebration of Purim, out of context, you would see this: “… 22. [Mordecai] wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” And you’d be all like, “D’awww!! How nice!!” And you would be sorely misguided.
One thing that is amusing in this book, at least to me, is the character of Vashti. I love that she fully just tells the king where to shove it when he tries to flaunt her goods to all his drunk party bros. A google search reveals that she seems to be some sort of feminist icon for this reason. Too bad we don’t get more of her story. In the extremely rare glimpses we get of any potentially cool chicks in the Bible, it’s never any more than a few hints here and there. Never a full story.
Need I say more about the bad stuff than what has already been said in my summary? The one other interesting detail I’ll add to this is that the way Mordecai has to convince Esther to tell the king to stop Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews is kinda funny. As my synopsis mentions, Esther is afraid to approach the king about it, so this is how Mordecai convinces her that she needs to do it: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” It’s only then that she relents and agrees to talk to the king. It sounds like her motivations may be more about CYA than they are about saving her people.
The other interesting thing about this book is that all you really have to do is cut out the first half of chapter 9 and one or two short verses from chapter 8, and the book would actually be mostly decent. All the Jews would’ve had to do is to stop at the part where Esther and Mordecai convince the king to reverse Haman’s Jew-extermination edict. That would’ve solved the problem. And then they coulda thrown the big party, and everything woulda been hunky dory!! Or mostly, anyway. Haman would’ve still been hanged, but at least it would have only been the guilty party getting the punishment. I searched around for some YouTube vids on the origin of Purim, and of course, the ones I found have zero problem editing out these passages and thereby easily turning the story into something heartwarming and inspiring. Just check out this example:
Amazing. And shady. I’m quickly learning that this is how all the Bible stories are told. Just leave out the really bad stuff, and the gist and meaning of the stories change entirely. Easy peasy. Sigh. Anyway, here is my rating of Esther:
This book is bad. It’s a book that could be about triumph over adversity, if it wasn’t also a book about vicious revenge. Bummer. The only reason I gave it any higher than a 0/10 was because it was at least entertaining. Next up, we have the book of Job. I am dreading it, because I know it is going to be a monster of a book. Uggh.