Study Guide

Book of Esther

Book of Esther Summary

The Book of Esther begins with the Queen of King Ahasuerus—Vashti—snubbing the king's request to meet with her. Naturally, being a rather unstable fellow, Ahasuerus fires-slash-divorces her. Now he needs to pick a new queen and eventually manages to select Esther—a comely, young (secretly Jewish) woman who is a part of his harem.

As for her backstory, Esther's an orphan who was raised by her righteous cousin, Mordecai. When the king came looking for young virgins to possibly fill the role of his new queen, Esther made sure to jump into line. She wins favor with the people in the harem and eventually with the king himself, becoming queen. Moreover, Mordecai helps uncover a plot to kill the king, allowing Esther to warn him in time. This earns him some Brownie points as well.

But all is not well in the king's courts—treachery is afoot. When Mordecai refuses to bow down to the evil counselor Haman in the street, the evil, (probably) mustache-twisting counselor decides to engineer a plot to murder all the Jews in the Persian Empire. The plot basically involves Haman going to the king and saying, "I think we should kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire." And the king says (to paraphrase him), "Alright."

Haman walks away, twisting his mustache some more (probably), glad that the king has cottoned to his genocidal plans. The king doesn't know that his own queen is Jewish, because Esther's been keeping it secret. But the threat of the Jews' imminent demise kicks Esther and Mordecai into action. Mordecai goes and wails outside the palace gates while wearing sackcloth, and Esther fasts for three days before visiting the king.

Esther is worried the king will execute her for visiting him unannounced, but—to the contrary—he is mellow and pleased. He offers to give her whatever she wants. She asks him to have a banquet for her and Haman the next day. Then, after that banquet, she asks for another one on the following day. Meanwhile, Haman is excited about the massacre that's about to happen. He builds a huge gallows to hang Mordecai.

But his hopes are dashed the following morning, when the king—remembering how Mordecai saved his life—orders Haman to honor Mordecai and lead him in a parade through the town (which Haman very reluctantly does). At the second banquet, Esther asks the king to punish Haman for trying to kill her and her people—and the king does. Haman is hanged to death on the same gallows he had built for Mordecai (ironic, indeed). The Jews of Persia massacre all of Haman's agents and supporters (roughly 75,000 people in all), Mordecai is made into the king's new counselor, and Purim becomes an official Jewish holiday to celebrate. Good times, gang.

  • Chapter 1

    Party Like It's Roughly 500 BCE

    • The first chapter starts off by describing the setting: this all went down in the Persian capital of Susa, where King Ahasuerus was ruling over an empire that extended from India to Ethiopia.
    • Three years into his reign, Ahasuerus throws a huge banquet, showing off his wealth to all of the different governors and officials in his kingdom. It's a massive party that goes on for one hundred and eighty days.
    • Then, he gives another banquet for all the people living in his citadel—both the important people and the unimportant. It lasts for seven days. All of the kings' luxurious couches and curtains are on show, and he amply provides wine for his guests in golden goblets.
    • The queen, Vashti, also provides a separate banquet for all the women in the kingdom.
    • On the seventh day, King Ahasuerus orders the queen to come so that he can show her beauty off to all the people in the kingdom, sending eunuchs to tell her.
    • But the queen refuses to come. Uh-oh.

    Sounds like a Case for Judge Judy

    • King Ahasuerus goes into a rage and asks his sages what the law says about this.
    • The sages say that the queen has not only wronged the king but all the people in the kingdom as well, since she's setting a disobedient example for all the wives. They tell him he needs to dismiss the queen.
    • So the king divorces Vashti, strips her of her title, and orders her never to come before him again.
    • He also writes letters to each of his provinces telling everyone that men should be the masters of their houses. (Nice touch, fella.)
  • Chapter 2

    Tonight on The Bachelor: Harem Edition

    • Now, the search is on for a new queen. The king's servants (under his head eunuch, Hegai) help gather together a number of young virgins to join the king's harem, from which he will choose his new spouse.
    • Meanwhile, in another part of town, there is a good, virtuous Jewish man named Mordecai. He was among the Jews who were kidnapped and brought to the east by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. 
    • Mordecai has been raising his orphaned cousin Esther as his own child. When they hear about the king's call for young virgins to audition for the part of being the queen (it seems like there's been a bunch of reality shows exactly like this, doesn't it?), Esther joins the king's harem too. 
    • Soon enough, she impresses the chief eunuch Hegai, who dishes out the cosmetic treatments and food rations that Esther needs, in addition to providing her with seven maids. She quickly rises to the highest place out of all the harem girls.

    "You Can Call Me 'Queen Bee'"

    • Yet, she hasn't revealed that she's Jewish. She's trying to "pass," as it's said, because Mordecai told her not to tell. He continues to stop by and see how things are working out for Esther at the harem. 
    • Esther still hasn't met the king yet, but after twelve months of cosmetic treatments and special harem-girl training, at last the time has come. 
    • Each woman will spend a night with the king and receive whatever gift she asks for, to bring back to the harem's quarters. 
    • When Esther's turn comes, she cautiously decides to only ask for whatever gifts Hegai tells her are okay to ask for. 
    • Come morning, she's now the king's favorite as well. He decides to make her his new queen, permanently replacing Vashti. He throws a big banquet in her honor. There is much celebration and many gifts given to the different provinces.

    Two Dead Eunuchs

    • A little while before Esther was made queen, Mordecai happened to be sitting near the palace gates (probably waiting to get news from Esther) when he heard two of the king's eunuchs talking about assassinating the king. 
    • Mordecai tells Esther about it and in turn she tells the king—not forgetting to mention that the news came from Mordecai. The eunuchs are executed by hanging and Mordecai's good deed is recorded in the king's annals.
  • Chapter 3

    Enter: The Jerk

    • After Esther has been made queen and Mordecai has saved the king's life, the king promotes a dude named Haman to be his new head counselor, showering him with honors above all the other officials and ordering everyone to bow down to Haman when he passes by.
    • However, one man refuses to bow down: Mordecai. People try to convince him, but he says that, since he's a Jew, he can't do it.
    • Haman is outraged by this act of perceived disrespect. He decides that killing Mordecai alone wouldn't be enough. He needs to kill Mordecai's entire people.

    Death by Decree

    • Haman goes to King Ahasuerus and proposes his plan. He says that there is a people living in the kingdom who have different customs and laws, who won't follow the Empire's own rules. 
    • Thus, Haman argues, it would be appropriate to kill all of them and plunder their wealth for profit. 
    • The king thinks this genocidal plot is a pretty swell plan. He gives Haman his own signet ring and authorizes him to use royal funds to carry out the act. 
    • Haman sends out letters to all the provinces, written in the king's name and sealed with the king's ring. He instructs the different satraps and governors to kill every single Jew—man, woman, and child—on a specific day of the twelfth month of the year.
    • The couriers go out to issue the decree—which apparently causes all kinds of confusion in the royal capital of Susa—while Haman and the king sit down to enjoy a drink.
  • Chapter 4

    Sackcloth Chic

    • When Mordecai hears about this evil plot, he reacts the way any decent Biblical character would react: he puts on sackcloth and ashes and walks around the city, wailing, before finally winding up at the King's gate. Meanwhile, all the other Jews are similarly lamenting over the fate that's been prepared for them.
    • Esther doesn't know about the impending genocide at first, so she tries to send Mordecai some regular clothes. But he refuses—the sackcloth is a more effective look.
    • So, she sends the eunuch Hathach to go to Mordecai and ask him what's going on. Mordecai fills him in on Haman's genocidal scheme and the amount of plunder Haman says he wants to put into the king's treasuries. Mordecai shows Hathach a copy of the decree to prove it and asks him to try to get Esther to help prevent the genocide.

    A Slightly Reluctant Heroine

    • Hathach returns to Esther and tells her what Mordecai wants her to do. However, Esther sends a message back to Mordecai, saying that anyone who enters the king's court without permission will be put to death (unless the king excuses them). And the king hasn't asked to see her in about a month.
    • Mordecai sends back another message, saying that she shouldn't imagine that she can escape this genocide just by hiding out in the castle. Her identity will probably be discovered and she and her father's family will get destroyed, while help comes to the Jews from elsewhere. He suggests that to help prevent the genocide might be the reason she was made queen in the first place.
    • So, Esther agrees to help—but she says that Mordecai and the other Jews need to help her by fasting for three days. She and her maids will fast as well and see if it all works out. Mordecai goes and organizes this mass fast.
  • Chapter 5

    Let's Do Olive Garden

    • At the end of the three days, Esther goes to visit the king. He holds out his golden scepter to her, meaning that he's giving her permission to be in his court (i.e., he's not gonna kill her).
    • Despite having not seen her in thirty days, the king is glad to see her. He offers to give her whatever she wants, even half his kingdom.
    • She asks that the king and Haman join her at a banquet she's prepared for them today—so they do.
    • At the end of the banquet, the king asks Esther if she would like anything else. She says she would like to have another banquet with the king and Haman again, tomorrow. The king grants her request.

    Gallows Humor

    • Haman leaves the banquet in high spirits. He's pretty pleased with himself and feels honored that Esther (who he doesn't know is Jewish) chose to invite him alone to eat with her and the king.
    • However, he runs into Mordecai, who is sitting at the king's gate. Mordecai still refuses to bow to him.
    • Enraged, Haman heads home, assembling his wife and his friends. He tells them about all the honors he's received and how the queen wanted to dine with him and everything—but it's still no use, as long as Mordecai won't respect him.
    • They advise him, telling him to build a massive gallows (fifty cubits, or seventy-five feet high) on which to hang Mordecai.
    • Haman is pleased with this advice. He builds the unnecessarily large gallows, thinking he'll execute Mordecai the following morning.
  • Chapter 6

    Read the Annals, or Count Sheep?

    • Fortunately, that night the king has insomnia. He asks his servants to read to him from his annals and they end up reading him the story of how Mordecai saved him from the assassination plot.
    • The king remembers how this was actually a pretty nice thing to do. He decides to honor Mordecai, who basically didn't receive any honors for saving the king's life up until then—a state of affairs the king wants to remedy.

    Honor Roll

    • The next day, Haman comes into the court, intending to recommend hanging Mordecai on the mega-gallows Haman has just built.
    • But before he can even get a word out, the king asks him what should be done for the person he (the king) wants to honor.
    • Haman thinks the king is talking about him, so he recommends a whole bunch of nice things: he should be dressed in royal robes and led around town on one of the king's own horses, wearing a royal crown on its (the horse's) head. He'll be led through the town in a procession announcing his honor.
    • The king says that this should be done for… (wait for it) Mordecai. Haman doesn't say anything back. He just carries out the order, leading Mordecai around the city on a royal horse.
    • Haman is naturally pretty upset about this. He mopes about it to his wife Zeresh and to his friends. They tell him that his plot to kill the Jews probably won't prevail if Mordecai is being honored like this.
    • As the chapter ends, Haman departs for the banquet, soon to discover his fate.
  • Chapter 7

    Haman and the Hang Man

    • The second banquet is in full swing. As they're sitting around, drinking wine, the king asks Esther if she'd like another gift.
    • Esther reveals her true identity as a Jew, asking for her life and the lives of her people to be spared.
    • The king—again, not the brightest bulb in the bunch—asks who the wicked person is who decided to do this thing (even though the king personally signed off on the evil plan, earlier). Esther says that it's Haman.
    • The king rises in wrath and goes into the palace garden, while Haman—seeing that the king intends to kill him—begs for his life from Esther.
    • However, he finds no mercy with Esther. When the king returns he sees that Haman has flung himself onto Esther's couch, trying to attack her.
    • Obviously this doesn't help Haman's case for mercy, so the eunuchs put a bag over his head (or cover his face in some other way) and drag him off to be executed.
    • They see the giant gallows Haman built to kill Mordecai and decide it would be a pretty handy means of killing Haman… which they proceed to do.
    • Ironic, no?
  • Chapter 8

    Switcheroo

    • With Haman's plan to kill Mordecai and all the other Jews almost fully foiled (they just need to officially reverse his orders), everything else starts to look up for the heroes too.
    • King Ahasuerus gives control of Haman's house to Esther, who then gives it to Mordecai. Mordecai also gets the signet ring (bearing the royal seal) that Haman had had formerly.
    • Next, Esther weeps at the king's feet and begs him not to go through with Haman's plan (which you would tend to think was already pretty much over, considering the king just had Haman killed).
    • The king agrees, authorizing Mordecai to revoke the decree using the king's seal.
    • Mordecai has letters written in all the different languages of the king's empire, telling people not to go through with the massacre and giving the Jews permission to defend themselves using violence, if necessary.
    • Mordecai is decked out in royal robes and a crown and the people of Susa rejoice. All the Jews are joyful. They celebrate in their different towns and cities when the good news arrives.
    • Even people who aren't Jewish claim to be Jewish, because they're afraid of reprisals now that Haman's plot has been overturned.
  • Chapter 9

    A Massacre and Mellowing Out

    • Now, on the day when the Jews were going to be massacred (which, for the record, was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, called "Adar"), the Jews end up banding together and killing the people who originally were going to try to kill them.
    • All the governors and officials and satraps support the Jews and stand out of their way, because they're afraid of Mordecai, who has now become extremely powerful.
    • The Jews kill over five hundred people in the citadel of Susa and kill every one of Haman's ten sons—but they don't plunder their wealth after they kill them.
    • The king hears about this news and asks Esther what else she'd like him to do. She says that the Jews should be allowed to keep killing their enemies for another day and that Haman's ten sons' corpses should be hanged from the gallows.
    • The king agrees. The Jews kill three hundred more people and hang Haman's sons' corpses, while still refraining from plunder.
    • At the same time, throughout all the provinces, the Jews have killed over seventy-five thousand of their enemies. They then rest and celebrate on the following day.
    • The people in the provinces rest on the fourteenth and the people of Susa rest on the fifteenth of the month, celebrating at slightly different times.

    The Purpose of Purim

    • This is how the holiday of Purim came to exist: Mordecai sends out another decree telling everyone that they should observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar as a holiday every year from now on.
    • To celebrate how their near demise was turned into a day of rejoicing (not to mention successful revenge), they should give food gifts to one another and give presents to the poor, feasting and making merry.
    • The book explains that the reason "Purim" has its name is because the word "Pur" means "the lot" (like in gambling), since Haman cast lots to determine the day he would destroy the Jews. But instead, the lot was reversed against him—he determined the days of his own destruction.
    • Purim became a big deal says the book itself (and it did). The book says that every Jew should continue to observe the holiday on and on through history.
    • Esther and Mordecai both fix Purim as an official holiday for the Jews with their decree, along with regulating their times of fasting and lamentations.
  • Chapter 10

    Double Check the Annals

    • This super-short chapter ends the book, stating that King Ahasuerus continued to have great power, exacting tribute money from many different lands.
    • If anyone wants to know more about the story of Esther and Mordecai, and if it really happened, the book says they should read the official annals of Persia and Media where it's all recorded.
    • In the end, it says Mordecai became the king's second-in-command and was able to benefit his people and all of their descendants.