Problems in the Book of Esther
[Introduction: Critics on Esther] [Canon Position] [Objections to Historicity] [Conclusion]

Unusual? Perhaps not even that is the right word. All of us know about Esther's peculiar difference from the rest of the Bible: It is the one book that makes no direct mention of God. But that's not the only odd thing about Esther -- what's also strange is that modern critics (those I have looked at so far) don't give Esther too hard of a time compared to other books of the Bible. In fact, they nearly treat it with soft mittens compared to, say, one of the Gospels.

Which is not to say that they are convinced it is historical, although they have been willing to grant it, at least, the status of "historical novel" that might have some basis in an actual event; or else they will say that it contains some implausibilities, but nothing that could be said to be impossible. What has compelled these rather moderate positions is a recognition that Esther contains a great deal of accurate information that seems unlikely for a much later writer. Even the moderate-to-liberal Anchor commentary series tells us that Esther "abounds in evidence that the author knew much about the time, place, and setting for his story." [Moo.Es, xxxv, xli]

The writer knows about the extent of the Persian Empire (1:1), of the winter palace at Susa (1:2), of Xerxes' penchant for lavish parties (1:4-7), his extravagant promises and gifts (5:3, 6:6-7) and irrational temper (1:12, 7:7-8); of Persian governmental features such as the 7 kingly advisers (1:14); the efficient Persian postal system (3:13, 8:10), details of court life (2:23, 3:2, 6:8); the seclusion of the king from others; and customs and observations (2:23, 5:14, 7:10, etc.); and of Persian names (1:3, 5-20; 3:12, etc., as well as the name "Mordecai", which was apparently quite common in the period, and is found attached to one particular official of Xerxes' court, an accountant, who would match well with Esther's Mordecai).

Esther also is notably lacking in Greek words, which is strange if it was penned as late as some critics allege (especially as the same critics are quick to late-date Daniel on the basis of just three Greek words).

The critics are quick to say that none of this proves historicity, and of course they are right in a strict sense; yet these instances certainly lend credence to the account as a whole -- otherwise, what meaning does internal accuracy have as a test for historicity?

The question moves to whether Esther can be found to be in any sense in error, and we will examine some specific instances of supposed error.

Canon Position

We should begin with a few minor issues related to Esther's canonical status. Critics may note that Esther is the one OT book not found at Qumran; but this may simply be by chance, or because it certified the holiday of Purim, which the Qumranites did not obsevre [Clin.ENE, 254].

As with Daniel, the lack of mention of Esther or Mordecai on Ben Sirach roll call of heroes is often cited, but is wrong for the same reason: Ben Sirach was intent upon honoring builders, and thus also omitted Ezra. (I might suggest that the derivation of the names from pagan gods -- Ishtar and Marduk -- may have not pleased Ben Sirach either.)

Other critics may note that there were questions among the rabbis about whether or not Esther was canonical, but each time a question over the book's canonicity is mentioned, it is done in order to refute the contention that it is not [Clin.ENE, 254]. Esther appears to have had the same status as a "fringe" document that made the cut that certain books of the NT (Hebrews, Jude, etc.) had within their own context.

However, what little we have on the subject indicates much less of a discussion than even the Christian church experienced.

Finally, it has been noted that Esther is never quoted in the NT, though one may rightly ask at what point in the NT any part of Esther would have been useful.

Objections to Historicity

We now turn to specific places where the historicity of this book is in dispute.

1:1 Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:)

The objections begin at the very beginning, with a point that while this writer has the extent of Xerxes' empire correct, the empire had 20 satrapies, not 127...but as Moore acknowledges, even in tendering this objection, the verse refers to provinces, not satrapies [Moo.Es, 4].

1:3-4 In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him: When he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even and hundred and fourscore days.

Some object that a 180-day feast seems to be an absurdity, but note that what is done for 180 days is not just feasting, but "showing the riches" of the kingdom. This type of event (which fits in well in the known secular chronology with Xerxes' attempt to drum up support for his war against Greece by putting together a 180-day display of his wealth prior to submitting the war proposal to his princes, as was reported by Herodotus -- Clin.ENE, 260; Bren.ENE, 305) suggests a rotation of nobility coming in to be wined and dined at the expense of the king -- it does not suggest a wholesale abandonment of administrative posts by all invitees throughout the empire for a period of 6 months.

1:12 But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.

Three objections emerge from this verse. One Skeptic tells us, "According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the queen of Xerxes was named Amestris, not Esther or Vashti, nor does Esther appear as the name of any other Persian king. It was Persian practice to marry strictly between the seven Persian royal founding families. Amestris was the daughter of a Persian general."

There is no need to worry about the lack of an Esther or a Vashti in Herodotus, though: Persian kings could take multiple wives (as did Darius, Xerxes' predecessor, who had three; note also that Esther is indicated to be one of many women; 2:14, 17), and "Vashti" may be derived from the Avestan Vashishta ("the best" or perhaps "sweetheart") -- which would make it a royal title or epithet rather than a proper name [Clin.ENE, 279; Bren.ENE, 307].

Yamauchi, however, notes the study of Wright [Yam.PB, 231] showing that with phonetic modifications, Vashti can indeed be identified with Amestris, and Shea has demonstrated a synchonism that Xerxes' four years in Greece coincide with the four years between the deposition of Vashti and the installation of Esther (1:3, 2:16).

Moreover, critics seem to assume that Esther is relating that Vashti was killed for her insolence; more likely she was simply demoted in status in the royal harem.

As for the bit about the seven families, it refers to "the narrative of a pledge made by Darius with his fellow-conspirators against Pseudo-Smerdis that they would take wives only from one another's families." Herodotus "does not indicate that this became formal imperial policy." [Clin.ENE, 257-8] Moreover, Amestris herself came from outside these families, as did wives of Darius [Yam.PB, 233].

A third objection is that Vashti's refusal to obey Xerxes is psycholgically impossible; I think that this objection stands as obviously misguided -- history amply shows that men and women are capable of standing before tyrants; those who think not are those without nerve of their own. (For what it is worth, my beloved Mrs. H would have done the same thing!)

1:19 If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.

It is noted that there is no evidence outside of the OT (here, and in Daniel) that Persian law was irrevocable [Moo.Es, 10-11]. One wonders why this is not evidence enough that it was (would it not be enough if these were extra-biblical sources?), but as Clines notes [Clin.ENE, 259], such absolute power "is presupposed by any imperial dictatorship..." There is certainly nothing unlikely about such a principle being in force.

1:20, 22 And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small...For he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.

The objection to this verse is twofold: First, that the decree is absurd and would therefore hardly be promulgated; second, the decree would not be published in multiple languages.

The latter objection is itself unworthy, as there were a number of languages and scripts in the Persian empire [Moo.Es, 11]. As for the former objection, Moore wryly obsevres, even as he tenders the objection himself: "Then again, drunken men sometimes are ridiculous." [Moo.Es, 14]

2:5-6 Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite; Who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.

A Skeptic offered an objection to this verse: "If Mordecai was carried into exile in 597 BCE (2:6), he would have been over 110 years old by the reign of Xerxes. How old would that make his cousin Esther, who was supposed to be famous for her great beauty?"

The grammar of the Hebrew allows us to understand either Mordecai or Kish as the one who was carried away into captivity (though admittedly a referral to Kish would not be the most natural sense; Clin.ENE, 259), so it is most likely the latter that is intended.

2:12 Now when every maid's turn was come to go in to king Ahasuerus, after that she had been twelve months, according to the manner of the women, (for so were the days of their purifications accomplished, to wit, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odours, and with other things for the purifying of the women;)

Some critics have objected to the incredible length of this "beauty treatment." Albright responded by citing a parallel practice among 19th century (!) Ethiopians who used a special fumigating "cosmetic burner," but it is probably enough to point out, with Clines, that this passage highlights the extravagance and artificiality of the Persian court [Clin.ENE, 289]. The tyrannical and wealthy will go to whatever extremes please them.

3:12-13 Then were the king's scribes called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and there was written according to all that Haman had commanded unto the king's lieutenants, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the rulers of every people of every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and sealed with the king's ring. And the letters were sent by posts into all the king's provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.

A couple of objections come out of this passage. First, it is considered doubtful that Xerxes would "so blithely hand over an entire nation within his empire for destruction." [Moo.Es, 41]

In response some have noted that there are historical parallels, ranging from the attempted massacre of the whole of the Italic race by Mithridates in 88 BC to the slaughter of 80,000-150,000 Romans reported by Cicero, to the 20th-century Holocaust. It is probably unwise to underestimate the indifference a tyrant may have to the destruction of a given people whom he sees as being of no particular benefit to his interests.

Second, it is found strange that an 11-month period would be allowed to lapse before Haman took his action. A parallel is often cited in the 4-month delay in a decree implemented by Antiochus III in 193 BC [Clin.ENE, 257], but it is enough to point out that the casting of lots in the ancient world was often used for important decisions; in Assyria, for example, lots were used to determine government positions for the year following [Bren.ENE, 281].

If some people trusted lots to this extent, then Haman (being thusly superstitious) would have been likely to have seen a "bright side" in the delay (e.g., "it is what the gods intended") -- and taken advantage of the chance to foment hatred against his prospective victims (or else, make it all easier by giving the Jews time to leave the kingdom, and perhaps their wealth and property behind).

9:6 And in Shushan the palace the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men.

Moore [Moo.Es, 87] considers it unlikely that Xerxes would allow fighting within the confines of the palace, but we might simply ask whether this was an instance where anyone asked (or would have asked) Xerxes' permission beforehand.

Conclusion

Objections to the historicity of Esther are based not on solid evidence, but rather "on improbabilities judged from our limited knowledge of the ancient world." [Bren.ENE, 285]

-JPH

Sources

  1. Bren.ENE -- Breneman, Mervin. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993.
  2. Clin.ENE -- Clines, D. J. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.
  3. Moo.Es -- Moore, Carey A. Esther. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
  4. Yam.PB -- Yamauchi, Edwin. Persia and the Bible. Baker, 1990.