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The Book of Esther, also known in Hebrew as "the Scroll" (Megillah), is a book in the third section (Ketuvim, "Writings") of the Jewish Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and in the Christian Old Testament. It relates the story of a Jewish girl in Persia, born as Hadassah but known as Esther, who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts a genocide of her people. The story forms the core of the Jewish festival of Purim, during which it is read aloud twice: once in the evening and again the following morning. Other than the Song of Songs, Esther is the only book in the Bible that does not explicitly mention God.
Traditionally, unlike other Tanakh scrolls, a scroll of Esther is given only one roller, fixed to its left-hand side, rather than the customary two rollers (one fixed to the right-hand side as well as the one fixed to the left-hand side).[why?]
The biblical Book of Esther is set in the third year of Ahasuerus, a king of Persia. The name Ahasuerus is equivalent to Xerxes, both deriving from the Persian Khshayārsha, thus Ahasuerus is usually identified as Xerxes I (486–465 BCE), though Ahasuerus is identified as Artaxerxes in the later Greek version of Esther (as well as by Josephus, the Jewish commentary Esther Rabbah, the Ethiopic translation and the Christian theologian Bar-Hebraeus who identified him more precisely as Artaxerxes II ).
Ahasuerus, ruler of a massive Persian empire, holds a lavish party, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all inhabitants of the capital city Shushan. Ahasuerus orders the queen Vashti to display her beauty before the guests. She refuses. Worried all women will learn from this, Ahasuerus removes her as queen and has a royal decree sent across the empire that men should be the ruler of their households and should speak their own native tongue. Ahasuerus then orders all beautiful young girls to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is the orphan Esther, whose Jewish name is Hadassah. After the death of her parents, she is being fostered by her cousin Mordecai. She finds favor in the king's eyes, and is made his new queen. Esther does not reveal that she is Jewish. Shortly afterwards, Mordecai discovers a plot by courtiers Bigthan and Teresh to assassinate Ahasuerus. The conspirators are apprehended and hanged, and Mordecai's service to the king is recorded.
Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his prime minister. Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman's disfavor as he refuses to bow down to him. Having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordecai but all the Jews in the empire. He obtains Ahasuerus' permission to execute this plan, against payment of ten thousand talents of silver (which the King declines to accept and rather allows him to execute his plan on principle), and he casts lots to choose the date on which to do this—the thirteenth of the month of Adar. On that day, everyone in the empire is free to massacre the Jews and despoil their property. When Mordecai finds out about the plans he and all Jews mourn and fast. Mordecai informs Esther what has happened and tells her to intercede with the King. She is afraid to break the law and go to the King unsummoned. This action would incur the death penalty. Mordecai tells her that she must. She orders Mordecai to have all Jews fast for three days together with her, and on the third day she goes to Ahasuerus, who stretches out his sceptre to her which shows that she is not to be punished. She invites him to a feast in the company of Haman. During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordecai and consults with his friends. At his wife's suggestion, he builds a gallows for Mordecai.
That night, Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and when the court records are read to him to help him sleep, he learns of the services rendered by Mordecai in the previous plot against his life. Ahasuerus is told that Mordecai has not received any recognition for saving the king's life. Just then, Haman appears, to ask the King to hang Mordecai, but before he can make this request, King Ahasuerus asks Haman what should be done for the man that the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the man that the king is referring to is himself, Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king's royal robes and led around on the king's royal horse, while a herald calls: "See how the king honours a man he wishes to reward!" To his horror and surprise, the king instructs Haman to do so to Mordecai. After leading Mordecai's parade, he returns in mourning to his wife and friends, who suggest his downfall has begun.
Immediately after, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther's second banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, including her. Overcome by rage, Ahasuerus leaves the room; meanwhile Haman stays behind and begs Esther for his life, falling upon her in desperation. The king comes back in at this moment and thinks Haman is assaulting the queen; this makes him angrier than before and he orders Haman hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai. The previous decree against the Jews cannot be annulled, but the king allows the Jews to defend themselves during attacks. As a result, on 13 Adar, 500 attackers and Haman's ten sons are killed in Shushan, followed by a Jewish slaughter of 75,000 Persians, although they took no plunder. Esther sends a letter instituting an annual commemoration of the Jewish people's redemption, in a holiday called Purim (lots). Ahasuerus remains very powerful and continues reigning, with Mordecai assuming a prominent position in his court.
Esther is usually dated to the 3rd or 4th century BCE. Shemaryahu Talmon, however, suggests that "the traditional setting of the book in the days of Xerxes I [(485–465 BC[E])] cannot be wide off the mark." Jewish tradition regards it as a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text written by Mordecai.
The Greek additions to the Septuagint version of Esther (which do not appear in original Jewish/Hebrew version; see "Additions to Esther" below) are dated to around the late 2nd century or early 1st BCE.
The book of Esther falls under the category of Ketuvim, one of three parts of the Jewish canon. According to some sources, it is a historical novella, written to explain the origin of the Jewish holiday of Purim.
As noted by biblical scholar Michael D. Coogan, the book contains specific details regarding certain subject matter (for example, Persian rule) which are historically inaccurate. For example, Coogan discusses an apparent inaccuracy regarding the age of Esther's cousin (or, according to others, uncle) Mordecai. In Esther 2:5–6, either Mordecai or his great-grandfather Kish is identified as having been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE: "Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jeconiah king of Judah." If this refers to Mordecai, he would have had to live over a century to have witnessed the events described in the Book of Esther. However, the verse may be read as referring not to Mordecai's exile to Babylon, but to his great-grandfather Kish's exile.
In her article “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling,” biblical scholar Adele Berlin discusses the reasoning behind scholarly concern about the historicity of Esther. Much of this debate relates to the importance of distinguishing history and fiction within biblical texts, as Berlin argues, in order to gain a more accurate understanding of the history of the Israelite people. Berlin quotes a series of scholars who suggest that the author of Esther did not mean for the book to be considered as a historical writing, but intentionally wrote it to be a historical novella. The genre of novellas under which Esther falls was common during both the Persian and Hellenistic periods to which scholars have dated the book of Esther.
There are certain elements of the book of Esther that are historically accurate. The story told in the book of Esther takes place during the rule of Ahasuerus, who has been identified as the 5th-century Persian king Xerxes (486–465). The author also displays an accurate knowledge of Persian customs and palaces. However, according to Coogan, considerable historical inaccuracies remain throughout the text, supporting the view that the book of Esther is to be read as a historical novella which tells a story describing historical events but is not necessarily historical fact. Edwin M. Yamauchi has questioned the reliability of other historical sources, such as Herodotus, to which Esther has been compared. Yamauchi wrote, “[Herodotus] was, however, the victim of unreliable informants and was not infallible.”  The reason for questioning the historical accuracy of such ancient writers as Herodotus is that he is one of the primary sources of knowledge for this time period, and it has been frequently assumed that his account may be more accurate than Esther's account.
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Those arguing in favour of an historical reading of Esther, most commonly identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes II (ruled 405–359 BCE) although in the past it was often assumed that he was Xerxes I (ruled 486–465 BCE). The Hebrew Ahasuerus is most likely derived from Persian Khshayarsha, the origin of the Greek Xerxes. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Xerxes sought his harem after being defeated in the Greco-Persian Wars. He makes no reference to individual members of the harem except for a domineering Queen consort named Amestris, whose father, Otanes, was one of Xerxes's generals. (In contrast, the Greek historian Ctesias refers to a similar father-in-law/general figure named Onaphas.) Amestris has often been identified with Vashti, but this identification is problematic, as Amestris remained a powerful figure well into the reign of her son, Artaxerxes I, whereas Vashti is portrayed as dismissed in the early part of Xerxes's reign. Alternative attempts have been made to identify her with Esther, although Esther is an orphan whose father was a Jew named Abihail.
As for the identity of Mordecai, the similar names Marduka and Marduku have been found as the name of officials in the Persian court in over thirty texts from the period of Xerxes I and his father Darius, and may refer to up to four individuals, one of which might after all be Mordecai.
The "Old Greek" Septuagint version of Esther translates the name Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes, a Greek name derived from the Persian Artakhshatra. Josephus too relates that this was the name by which he was known to the Greeks, and the Midrashic text, Esther Rabba also makes the identification. Bar-Hebraeus identified Ahasuerus explicitly as Artaxerxes II; however, the names are not necessarily equivalent: Hebrew has a form of the name Artaxerxes distinct from Ahasuerus, and a direct Greek rendering of Ahasuerus is used by both Josephus and the Septuagint for occurrences of the name outside the Book of Esther. Instead, the Hebrew name Ahasuerus accords with an inscription of the time that notes that Artaxerxes II was named also Arshu, understood as a shortening of Achshiyarshu the Babylonian rendering of the Persian Khshayarsha (Xerxes), through which the Hebrew Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) is derived. Ctesias related that Artaxerxes II was also called Arsicas which is understood as a similar shortening with the Persian suffix -ke that is applied to shortened names. Deinon related that Artaxerxes II was also called Oarses which is also understood to be derived from Khshayarsha.
Another view attempts to identify him instead with Artaxerxes I (ruled 465–424 BCE), whose Babylonian concubine, Kosmartydene, was the mother of his son Darius II (ruled 424–405 BCE). Jewish tradition relates that Esther was the mother of a King Darius and so some try to identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes I and Esther with Kosmartydene.
Based on the view that the Ahasuerus of the Book of Tobit is identical with that of the Book of Esther, some have also identified him as Nebuchadnezzar's ally Cyaxares (ruled 625–585 BCE). In certain manuscripts of Tobit, the former is called Achiachar, which, like the Greek Cyaxares, is thought to be derived from Persian Akhuwakhshatra. Depending on the interpretation of Esther 2:5–6, Mordecai or his great-grandfather Kish was carried away from Jerusalem with Jeconiah by Nebuchadnezzar, in 597 BCE. The view that it was Mordecai would be consistent with the identification of Ahasuerus with Cyaxares. Identifications with other Persian monarchs have also been suggested.
Jacob Hoschander has argued that evidence of the historicity of Haman and his father Hamedatha is seen in Omanus and Anadatus mentioned by Strabo as being honoured with Anahita in the city of Zela. Hoschander argues that these were not deities as Strabo supposed but garbled forms of "Haman" and "Hamedatha" who were being worshipped as martyrs. The names are indeed unattested in Persian texts as gods, however the Talmud (Sanhedrin 61b) and Rashi both record a practice of deifying Haman and Josephus speaks of him being worshipped. Attempts have been made to connect both "Omanus" and "Haman" with the Zoroastrian term Vohu Mana; however this denotes the principle of "Good Thoughts" and is not the name of a deity.)
Whenever the book was written and whatever the historicity of the events recounted in it, clearly by the time it was written the term "Yehudim" (יהודים – Jews) already gained a meaning quite close to what it means up to the present—i.e. an ethnic-religious group, scattered in many countries, organised in autonomous communities and a target of hatred.
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There are many classical Jewish readings of allegories into the book of Esther, mostly from Hasidic sources. They say that the literal meaning is true but that hidden behind this historical account are many allegories.
Though God is never explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, some Christians believe that his influence during the story is implied.
Some Christian readers consider this story to contain an allegory, representing the interaction between the church as 'bride' and God. This reading is related to the allegorical reading of the Song of Solomon and to the theme of the Bride of God, which in Jewish tradition manifests as the Shekinah.
Esther is the only book of the Tanakh that is not represented among the Dead Sea scrolls. It has often been compared to the first half of the Book of Daniel and to the deuterocanonical Books of Tobit and Judith for its subject matter.
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An additional six chapters appear interspersed in Esther in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the bible. This was noted by Jerome in compiling the Latin Vulgate. Additionally, the Greek text contains many small changes in the meaning of the main text. Jerome recognized them as additions not present in the Hebrew Text and placed them at the end of his Latin translation as chapters 10:4–16:24. However, some modern Catholic English Bibles restore the Septuagint order, such as Esther in the NAB.
These additions include:
By the time Esther was written, the foreign power visible on the horizon as a future threat to Judah was the Macedonians of Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persian empire about 150 years after the time of the story of Esther; the Septuagint version noticeably calls Haman a "Bougaion" (βουγαῖον) where the Hebrew text describes him as an Agagite.
The canonicity of these Greek additions has been a subject of scholarly disagreement practically since their first appearance in the Septuagint— Martin Luther, being perhaps the most vocal Reformation-era critic of the work, considered even the original Hebrew version to be of very doubtful value. Luther's complaints against the book carried past the point of scholarly critique and may reflect Luther's antisemitism, which is disputed, such as in the biography of Luther by Derek Wilson, which points out that Luther's anger at the Jews was not at their race but at their theology.
The Council of Trent, the summation of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, accepted the entire book, both Hebrew text and Greek additions, as canonical. While modern Roman Catholic scholars openly recognize the Greek additions as clearly being additions to the text, the Book of Esther is used twice in commonly used sections of the Catholic Lectionary. In both cases, the text used is not only taken from a Greek addition, the readings also are the prayer of Mordecai, and nothing of Esther's own words is ever used. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint version of Esther, as it does for all of the Old Testament. The additions are specifically listed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article VI, of the Church of England: "The rest of the Book of Esther".
Esther Rabbah includes all of Additions to Esther save the "letter texts". It is these "letter texts" that contain the ahistorical assertions that Haman was a Greek.
In 1992, a 30-minute, fully animated video, twelfth in Hanna-Barbera's The Greatest Adventure series, titled Queen Esther features the voices of Helen Slater as Queen Esther, Dean Jones as King Ahasuerus, Werner Klemperer as Haman, and Ron Rifkin as Mordecai.
The 1999 TV movie Esther starred Louise Lombard as Esther and F. Murray Abraham as Mordecai.
The 2006 film One Night with the King is a reenactment of the biblical story of Esther.
There are several paintings depicting Esther, including one by Millais.
A half-hour musical adaptation "Esther's Destiny" with Book, Music and Lyrics by Bill Yuval Burnett has been performed at numerous synagogues and special events around Los Angeles and is currently part of the repertoire of the Jubilation Musical Society, an organization that provides Musical Theater and Songs for Jewish Holidays, services and special events.
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