What is the book of Esther Really About?

Maggid books has just published an excellent comprehensive 493-page study of the biblical book Esther called “Esther: Power, Fate, and Fragility in Exile” by Dr. Erica Brown, an award-winning author of many books, lecturer, and Jewish teacher. Her book tells readers exactly what the Bible text is saying, not what people read into it, She does so in clear easy to read language. She writes that power, fate, and fragility “is represented in every chapter,” and she shows how it is done. “Esther” is part of a series of Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, that uses an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates traditional rabbinic interpretations with scholarly literary techniques to explore the characters, themes, and text of the Hebrew Bible.

Dr. Brown mentions many sources for her interpretations, Jewish and non-Jewish. She tells us that an opinion in the Babylonian Talmud Megilla 7a states that the Book of Esther was composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Many people are convinced that the events recorded in Esther actually happened. However, the philosopher Joseph ibn Kaspi “views the Esther story as an allegory that shows how human beings can overcome unfavorable” situations.”

The book is praised by lots of people because of its happy ending. However, people like the Protestant leader Martin Luther and other Christian scholars were hostile to the book because of its “sour attitude toward gentiles, and its primal emotions of anger and revenge.” The scholar B. W. Anderson wrote, “The story unveils the dark passions of the human heart: envy, hatred, fear, anger, vindictiveness, pride.” He advised fellow Christians to stay away from Esther. The scholar C. A. Moore wrote in his Anchor Bible commentary on Esther that Maimonides (1138-1204) rated it favorably, after the Pentateuch, but, “That Esther was able to conceal her Jewishness, that is, her adherence to the Jewish religion, clearly indicates that she did not observe all of the Jewish dietary laws.”

Many ancient Jews around 200 BCE were also dissatisfied with the book because it fails to mention that Esther observed Jewish law and that it was God who brought the salvation. Brown comments, that accordingly they added 107 verses that they wanted the book to have, verses that are in the apocrypha today. Two Aramaic translations of the book were composed that had similar additions. Many Jewish commentators read what was missing in the book’s words. For example, Saadia Gaon (882-942) claims that there is information in the book that only God could have known.

The book is preoccupied with royalty. The “root mlk (king, rule) occurs over 250 times in the 167 verses of Esther.” Similarly, the term mishteh (a wine festival) appears twenty times even though there is only twenty-four additional times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Esther has the longest verse in the Hebrew Bible, 43 Hebrew words. The feasts in Esther come in couplets. There are constant reversal of fortunes to each of the book’s major characters.

She discusses many other subjects. The long list of questions that I derived from Erica Brown’s book and outlined below show why we need a good commentary to understand this biblical book, a book that some mistakenly think is a simple story.

People

Why was Ahasuerus’s punishment of his wife Vashti justified? Who was Ahasuerus? Was he foolish, evil, or wise? How do we interpret his constant anger? Who was Vashti? Is Vashti the patron saint of equal rights? Should Esther have preferred death rather than marrying a pagan king? Is the Jewish Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi correct when he justified Esther’s sleeping with the king as a wrongdoing for the sake of heaven, and because it is the greater collective good? Or is he incorrect because Esther could have had no idea that matters would turn out as they did? Why was Esther’s initial reaction to Mordecai’s request that she petition the king a refusal? Why do some Jewish commentators say that Esther and Mordecai were married when the text does not indicate this and the women chosen for the king had to be virgins? Why did Mordechai tell Esther not to reveal that she is Jewish? How did she hide it? Why was Haman angry at Mordechai?

Events

Does it make sense that women were doused in perfume for a year before being brought to the king? How are women treated in this work? Why didn’t Mordechai show Haman respect? The patriarch Jacob’s sons even bowed to the viceroy of Egypt, not knowing he was their brother Joseph. Clothing is mentioned frequently in the book, such as in Mordechai’s rise to prominence, why is it used? Should we see a connection to clothing in many other biblical events as in the story of Adam and Eve and the tale of Jacob giving his son Joseph a special garment and in the garments worn by priests? Why didn’t Mordecai turn to God when he heard Jews will be killed and instead put on torn garments?

The Book

What is the significance of the minor characters in the book such as Haman’s wife and Esther’s servant? Why is the book named after Esther? Was Mordechai the bigger hero? Is one of the purposes of the book to show Jews how to live in exile? Why are some events in the book told briefly while other appear at length and others such as why Haman was elevated by the king not explained at all? Is Haman’s decision to kill all Jews the only example of discrimination in the Bible? Why is the holiday called Purim which is not a Hebrew word, but Persian, and why is it in the plural form?

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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