Like Daniel, Esther is an example of a short story from the ancient Hebrews. It's one continuous tale, as well. Whereas Daniel is comprised of a bunch of different stories (all from the lives of Daniel and the people associated with him), Esther sticks to the same narrative. But does it fit into the Hebrew Bible's big narrative: the story of how God guides the Jewish people through history?
The "Writings" or "Ketuvim" make up the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and people typically believed they were written under divine inspiration (though they weren't quite as inspired as the Prophets). So people usually interpreted Esther as having some deeper religious meaning, looking for the workings of God behind what on its surface seems like a Game of Thrones-style tale of court intrigue.
The title comes from the name of its heroine, Esther—that's pretty clear. Yet, it's also significant. Mordecai gets as much stage time as Esther, but the book isn't named "Mordecai"—even though the moment where he doesn't get executed and Haman does is the big climax and focal point of the story. But Esther is the savior, she's the one (as the title reminds us) who gets it done.
The happy ending to Esther is the key to the whole story. It's what everyone's waiting for, the moment of the big turn-around. Haman and Mordecai change places. Haman hangs on the gallows he built for Mordecai and Mordecai becomes the valued counselor to the king that Haman had once been. At the same time, the Jews are saved from their impending genocide.
It's sort of like the movie Trading Places—except, um… okay, so it's actually not at all like that movie. It would be like that movie if Dan Akroyd had been trying to kill Eddie Murphy, but then was hoisted on his own petard. And the Jamie Lee Curtis character would need to be Esther… or something? (Anyway, with all these characters swapping their lots in life, there are certain slight plot similarities.)
The Book of Esther is set in exile. The Jews have already weathered some pretty tough and crazy Babylonian kings, but have endured long enough to see more kindly Persian rulers. However, the kindliness eventually runs out. The new king, Ahasuerus (probably Xerxes I) doesn't seem to be quite as sharp as his forebears (kings like Cyrus and Darius), so the Jewish people are put into a dicey position once again.
The setting of the book is in a foreign land under a foreign empire—just like in the Book of Daniel. Though, Esther itself was probably written a century or two afterward, when the Jews were still dealing with foreign rulers who could sometimes be quite hostile. Thus, the Book of Esther was the kind of book that could help Jews who were living outside of the Levant or who were living under Gentile kings to remain courageous and have faith in themselves and in their sense of identity. The book describes people who managed to remain Jewish (though Esther temporarily hid her identity) while dealing with a time and a place of intense adversity.
At the end of the Book of Esther, the world gets turned upside down (or, right-side up): the bad guy who seemed to be on the verge of a horrible victory gets hanged, the good guy takes his place in the king's court, and the party of people about to commit a massacre become massacred themselves. Everything runs in reverse, overturning all expectations.
As for the gallows itself, well, it's really big (75 feet)—outlandishly and pointlessly so. It demonstrates the egotism and wicked madness of Haman to the world (even though building it was technically his wife's idea). He constructs the gallows as a horrible, over-the-top way of pursuing an unjust personal vendetta—killing Mordecai—but it backfires and ends up being used to kill the person who built it. The irony—the ancient irony!
It's karma, yo, or the Jewish version of karma—poetic justice or divine justice, we suppose. But so what? Sure that makes it a more dramatic story, but does it have any symbolic meaning beyond that?
At least, in the history of Jewish interpretations of the book, it does have a deeper meaning. One medieval Jewish commentator claimed that the reason Haman builds such a big gallows is that astrological predictions had stated that Mordecai would eventually be "above Haman's house" (meaning he would have control of it). So, Haman tried to reverse the prediction by hanging Mordecai literally "above" his house on a really tall gallows.
That's clearly pretty "out there" as an explanation (though it's sort of clever too). But the main thing to say about the gallows-switch might be that it shows how, when evil seems like it's about to win out over good, it can suddenly all be flipped around.
The Book of Esther officially makes Purim a holiday and tells all Jews, everywhere, to celebrate it. But it doesn't give an extensive glimpse of the actual customs of Purim itself—aside from saying that people should give food gifts to each other and also provide charity to the poor.
Sometimes people call Purim the "Jewish Halloween," but that's not actually a very technically accurate description. It does involve dressing up in costumes, but the bigger point of Purim is to see what the world would look like if everything were turned upside down. It's celebrating a day when everything went topsy-turvy and evil that seemed like it was about to win a victory over good was suddenly destroyed. Turns out, it looks like a pretty good time.
Traditionally, Purim involves lots of wine drinking and feasting, in addition to the costume-wearing and masquerade. Sometimes people would do things that reversed the normal social order in an intentionally crazy way—students would give mockingly fake lessons to their teachers, for example. In the past, people would even sometimes burn an effigy of Haman (similar to "Guy Fawkes Day" in Britain). (Source.)
There are similar festivals in other countries. The Roman Empire celebrated a holiday called Saturnalia where slaves were served by their masters, instead of the other way around. In India, Hindus traditionally celebrate a holiday called "Holi," which celebrates another unexpected victory of good over evil and which involves throwing colored powder that helps cover up people's class differences for a day. And in Britain there was a day where the "Lord of Misrule" presided over a "Feast of Fools" close to Christmas—another anarchistic and fun-filled holiday.
These holidays are traditionally a good way of letting off steam, switching everything upside down helps people to relax enough to keep going when things are back to the way they were before. But they also implicitly admit that there could be a better way of doing things: the way the world is currently organized isn't final, isn't the only way it all could be.
Also, the title of the holiday "Purim" comes from the lot, or "Pur," Haman cast to try to determine the day the massacre would occur. As it was, the lot was turned against him. The day it landed on became the day when his plan was foiled (too bad for him, eh?).
The person who saves the Jews from Haman doesn't initially come from some sort of exalted position (even though she later becomes the queen). She comes from below and works her way up to the top. The harem may have seemed like an unlikely place for salvation to come from. It was where the king's concubines and dancing girls were kept, and no one had realized that Esther was Jewish because she concealed her identity.
But this is a common factor in different Biblical stories: Moses comes from an unexpected location (within the Egyptian royal family) to save his people, for instance. Yet, whereas Moses had to figure out his true identity, Esther already knew it and needed to conceal it. The Gospels, too, involve salvation coming from an unexpected quarter—Jesus is a carpenter's son, not a king or a warrior or anything like that.
In later, mystical Jewish interpretations, people often interpreted the Book of Esther as being a kind of code describing the spiritual experience. When Esther rises up to become queen, it really means that she is a soul who has redeemed herself and her people from the consequences of sin by rising up to a higher spiritual state through prayer. Every single event in the story is read as describing both a historical event and an inner truth about the life of the soul and the way individual people are redeemed from evil. (Source).
Esther isn't too graphic, but any book that prominently features a massacre (in this case, both a failed one and a successful one) is obviously going to be something more than PG-13 rated. The Book of Esther excels at violence—75,000 people get killed in the provinces and a guy gets hanged to death on a really big gallows. So, yeah—we're going with a definite R.
Jean Racine, Esther
Jean Racine was considered the master of French tragedy in his day (the seventeenth-century day, that is). However, his play about Esther isn't all that tragic. After all, Esther wins the day and everything. (The play was originally written to be educational. It was performed for students at a school for upper-class girls, encouraging them to emulate Esther's model.)
Debra Sparks, Good for the Jews
This award-winning book takes the story of Esther and—altering it significantly—changes the setting to modern day Madison, Wisconsin. There's apparently lots of stuff in here that wasn't in the original Esther—it features more sex scenes, suicide, and high school intrigue than the original (which featured… er, none of those things).
An important member of the uber-powerful Medici family in sixteenth-century Florence, Tornabuoni was also a poet who often wrote about biblical heroines like Esther and Judith. You can read more about her in this article.
In this HBO movie about the Florida recount in the 2000 Bush v. Gore election, Florida's former secretary of state, Katherine Harris (played by Laura Dern) compares herself to Esther at one point, stating that she's helping to save Florida's Jews by getting the election to run in Bush's favor (the dialogue isn't meant to be historically accurate—it's imaginary, for the record).
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenenbaums has absolutely nothing to do with the Book of Esther. But one of the kids in the movie does have a pet hawk named Mordecai. In a semi-famous scene, The Beatles' "Hey Jude" plays as Mordecai sails into the air, enjoying a freedom unattainable by the movie's damaged characters. Check out the action here.
In this veggie version of the Esther story (an episode from the Veggie Tales Christian TV series), Haman isn't going to kill the Jews—but he does want to send them to the "Island of Perpetual Tickling." (And Vashti gets thrown out for refusing to make the king a midnight sandwich). It has the same message as the Book of Esther (having courage to do what's right), but it tones down the subject matter to make it appropriate for kids.