Study Guide

Book of Esther

Book of Esther Introduction

How do you deal with someone's insidious plot to murder you and everybody like you?

The Book of Esther provides one possible answer to that question, tough cookie though it is. Today, that query may not loom quite as large in America, but it definitely does in many other places throughout the world (the Middle East, Burma, the Congo—and about a dozen or more other places).

It happened to loom really large in the ancient Middle East too. In Esther's case, though, no one seems to know if there really was a wicked counselor named Haman who attempted to manipulate the emperor (probably Xerxes I, though here he's called "Ahasuerus") into having all the Jews in the Persian Empire murdered during the fifth century BCE.

Nevertheless, you don't have to look too deeply into Jewish history to find highly similar attempts at genocide and persecution against the Jews. The story (which was probably written during the third or fourth Century BCE) may have helped people who were living under later rulers and needed to reckon with threats from above (regardless of how historically accurate the story is—or isn't).

Good Girl, Mad World

Esther is one of the first in a long line of stories about how a good and clever woman helps a powerful, evil, and monstrous (or maybe just confused) villain switch towards making the right decisions (in this case, it's King Ahasuerus). In a way, it's a little like Beauty and the Beast—except the Beast never sat around tacitly supporting a genocide, Belle never sought vengeance against the people who were trying to kill her, and Lumiere never walked around weeping and wearing sack-cloth.

But despite all that, Esther's a good example of this type of story. To give a non-Disney version, you could think of The Arabian Nights, where the heroine gets her husband to stop murdering his wives every night by telling him a series of entertaining tales (come to think of it, actually that is a Disney example, because Aladdin's part of The Arabian Nights).

It's also a bit of an unusual fit. It isn't one of the major books of the Tanakh or the prophets or anything. It's wedged in with the "Writings," next to a miscellany of texts, like The Book of Daniel and The Song of Songs. It's also particularly odd because it doesn't really mention God, doesn't really fit into that whole spiritual narrative which occupies the Torah and the Prophets. It's a suspense and adventure story on the one hand, but it's also a more serious tale about how the Jewish people manage to preserve themselves and their culture when faced with a threat from hostile authorities.

Additionally, one of Esther's greatest contributions to culture—the holiday of Purim—is a time for fun and merriment (and also an opportunity to look for spiritual meanings hidden within the tale).

What is Book of Esther About and Why Should I Care?

The Book of Esther has a James Bond-ish, ticking-time-bomb plot. It's also heavy on action, drama, and Game of Thrones-style intrigue, while being notably lacking in legal codes, commandments, theology—all that kind of thing. This is one book of the Bible you could easily read while marinating in a bubble bath, without feeling particularly sacrilegious (not that, uh, any of us have done that here at Shmoop). Our point is that the book is compact and smooth—a straightforward, streamlined example of an ancient Hebrew short story.

We're not suggesting that whoever wrote the book of Esther was exactly the Alice Munro of his or her time, but the author was indeed another master storyteller. A closer comparison would be a story that's a classic, but more focused on action than on character. Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" would work as an example of the style (if not of the substance).

Darker Dimensions

But Esther is more than an entertaining yarn. To be sure, it is more of a "tale" than an epic investigation into the relationship between God and humanity. (In fact, considering that it doesn't really mention God, it might be the Bible's most secular book.) Overall, though, it's a story about how a pair of scrappy underdogs—Esther and Mordecai—face seemingly insurmountable odds and end up putting it all together in the end. The author suggests that, while living in exile the Jewish people can—with tough work and intelligence—secure a decent place for themselves within the kingdoms ruled by Gentile conquerors. (So, maybe it's more like The Little Giants or The Mighty Ducks than all that high-art literary Munro and Fitzgerald stuff.)

Yet, there are darker dimensions to the story, going beyond the basic theme of preventing a genocide. Esther, Mordecai, and their allies seek vengeance against the supporters of the evil counselor Haman, racking up a considerable death toll, for one thing. As well, the king Ahasuerus is a bit of a cipher. You can't really figure out what the dude's psychology is, or what he's "on about" (to borrow a U.K.-ism). So, that's all disquieting food for thought.

But despite these violent and confusing undertones and the somewhat confusing, momentary disappearance of God from the Biblical storyline, the reader will undoubtedly be moved to repeat an immortal line from The Royal Tennenbaums: "Go, Mordecai!"

Book of Esther Resources

Websites

The Gateway to Esther
Bible Gateway gives many, many different translations of Esther (in lots of different languages). It's a useful resource, especially if you want to read the King James and New Revised Standard versions side by side.

Commentary from the Sages
The Chabad website gives an illuminating selection of comments from different rabbis and Jewish sages on the Book of Esther.

Movie or TV Productions

The Book of Esther (2013)
This is the most recent movie production of the Book of Esther. It didn't get stunning reviews or anything, but still… it exists.

Esther (1999)
This TV movie version of the Esther story stars Academy Award Winner F. Murray Abraham as Mordecai.

Esther and the King (1960)
This early-sixties-style Bible pic stars Joan Collins—later of the hit show Dynasty—as Esther. It uses a framing story where a modern-day (or, rather, sixties-era) woman tells her daughter the story of Esther to teach her about courage and resilience.

One Night with the King (2006)
Of all the Esther movies, this one probably had the biggest amount of popularity (not that much, but more than all the other ones). The late, great Peter O'Toole makes an appearance as… um, a prophet named Samuel. He's not the Samuel—but yeah, some character they added.

Historical Documents

Parts Added to the (Very Different) Greek Version of Esther
These are the parts that the Greek Septuagint translation added to Esther, making it more religious by having Esther and Mordecai make prayers of thanks to God.

Video

Weisgall's Esther
This is a contemporary opera by Hugo Weisgall. The music is hard to find online (since the opera's still current and under copyright), but you can see a promotional video about it on YouTube.

"The Megillah in Depth"
The Hasidic Jewish organization Chabad has a whole series of videos about how to read the hidden deeper meanings in Esther.

"Purim Song"
This Jewish a cappella group at Yale did this song as a tribute to the beloved holiday. Their interpretation of the Esther tale also tries to find a religious meaning inside the story.

Audio

Handel's Esther
The great composer, George Frederic Handel, wrote an oratorio based on the playwright Jean Racine's version of the Book of Esther. This version is brought to you by Pacific Music Works in Seattle.

Images

"The Swooning of Esther"
This seventeenth-century French composer's painting depicts the moment when Esther gets the bad news about Haman's evil plot from Mordecai. In this version, she passes out after receiving the note.

"The Feast of Esther"
Jean Lievens—a little-known Dutch painter who was overshadowed in his time by the master of all Dutch painters, Rembrandt—depicted the scene where Esther, King Ahasuerus, and Haman get down to some serious banqueting. (Psst: Rembrandt painted the same thing once too. He's like The Simpsons—they've always already done it.)

"Queen Esther"
A nineteenth-century British painter who specialized in Biblical and historical subjects, Edwin Long offered up this depiction of Esther, with a pair of eunuchs attending to her.

"Vashti Refuses the King's Summons"
Another painting by Long, this painting focuses on a more unexpected subject—Vashti—rather than on Esther.

Just Plain "Esther"
John Everett Millais was one of the painters who founded the British "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" in the nineteenth century. Here's Millais' portrait of Esther in that particular style.

Rembrandt's Take
The all-time #1 Dutch painter—by common consensus, the Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan of Dutch painters—Rembrandt, painted this version of the banquet scene from Esther. It's the moment right after Esther calls out Haman—and the king's looking upset.