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The Book of Esther

Updated on January 28, 2010

The Book of Esther is an Old Testament book recounting the story of Esther, savior of the Jews during the time of the Persian domination. Esther's heroism resulted in the institution of the festival of Purim (Lots).


The book begins as Ahasuerus (Xerxes), King of Persia, dismisses his queen, Vashti, because of her disobedience. In her place Ahasuerus chooses the Jewess Hadassah, who is then given the Persian name "Esther." Esther's guardian and cousin, Mordecai, discovers an intrigue against the King's life, and warns him through Esther, whose religion and relationship to Mordecai have been kept secret. Because Mordecai refuses to do homage to Haman, the King's chief minister, Haman persuades Ahasuerus to decree that all the Jews of Persia be slain. Haman chooses the day of the massacre by drawing lots (hence the name of the holiday, Purim, meaning "lots").

Persuaded to intercede for her people, Esther invites the King and Haman to a banquet, where the King promises to grant almost any request of Esther. Esther asks only that her guests return the next day. Meanwhile, Haman has constructed a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. At the second banquet, however, Esther reveals that Haman is the enemy of the Jews, her people. Haman's plea for mercy violates court decency, and he is sentenced to be hanged on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai. Mordecai is then made Haman's successor.

Unable to rescind his original decree of slaughter, Ahasuerus grants the Jews permission to defend themselves against their enemies and urges all public officials to aid in their defense. The Jews destroy their enemies, and Mordecai and Esther institute the annual festival of Purim to commemorate the days of salvation and deliverance.


Esther is the only Old Testament book not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and was probably not regarded as canonical by the Essene community at Qumran, the reputed authors of the scrolls. Although orthodox Jews opposed its inclusion in the canon because the book omits mention of God, the Law, or the Covenant, it was included in the official canon of the Old Testament by the Council of Jamnia in 90 A.D. The Christian Church had also rejected the Book of Esther but finally accepted it in their canon as well.


Scholars have questioned the accuracy of the events narrated in the Book of Esther, and have suggested that it is a fictitious account composed to provide a basis for a festival (Purim) that was originally a pagan feast. Actually, the form of the book is historical, and there is much evidence that the details of time, place, and custom are historically correct. It is true that there are many improbable elements in the story, as well as inaccurate assertions about the length of Esther's reign. These inaccuracies, however, do not themselves weaken the essential historicity of the book. Scholars disagree about the origin of the festival of Purim, but because of the Persian setting of the book, many believe that Purim derived from the Persian New Year festival, and that the name "Purim" is a folk etymology given by the Babylonian Jews.


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