The Book of Esther is named after its Jewish heroine. It tells the story of the plot of Haman the Agagite, jealous and powerful vizier of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) of Persia (485-464 B.C.), to destroy in a single day all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. He is moved to this out of hatred for the Jewish servant Mordecai, who for religious motives refuses to render him homage. The day of the proposed massacre is determined by lot. Meanwhile Esther, niece and adopted daughter of Mordecai, is chosen queen by King Xerxes in place of Vashti. She averts the pogrom planned against her people and has the royal decree of extermination reversed against Haman and the enemies of the Jews. Mordecai replaces Haman, and together with Esther, works for the welfare of their people. The event is celebrated with feasting and great joy, and the memory of it is to be perpetuated by the annual observance of the feast of Purim (lots), when the lot of destruction for the Jews was reversed for one of deliverance and triumph by Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai.
The purpose of the book is didactic: the glorification of the Jewish people and the explanation of the origin, significance and date of the feast of Purim on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar (February-March). The book was intended as a consolation for Israel, a reminder that God’s providence continually watches over them, never abandoning them when they serve him faithfully or turn to him in sincere repentance. There is no justification for interpreting the story in mythological or cultic terms, as though Mordecai and Esther represented Marduk and Ishtar in their mythological triumph over two Elamite deities.
The Hebrew text of Esther is found in the Hebrew Bible, where it is the last of the five megilloth (scrolls) read on special feasts of the Jewish liturgical year.
The book is a free composition – not a historical document, despite the Achaemenian coloring of the narrative. Its time of composition may well have been at the end of the Persian Empire, toward the close of the fourth century B.C. The author shows skill in developing his story and in using the art of contrast for instruction and edification. The solution to the difficulties of the book is to be found in its literary presentation rather than in a forced attempt to square detailed data of the narrative with facts. The evident literary motif of the reversal of fortune of the prosperous wicked and the oppressed virtuous through eventual punishment of the former and triumph of the latter, finds parallels in the story of Joseph (Gn 37; 39-45) and of Judith (8-16). The book is vindictive, but it should be remembered that the precept of love of enemies had not yet been taught by the word and example of Christ.
The text of Esther, written originally in Hebrew, was transmitted in two forms: a short Hebrew form and a longer Greek version. The latter contains 107 additional verses, inserted at appropriate places within the Hebrew form of the text. A few of these seem to have a Hebrew origin while the rest are Greek in original composition. It is possible that the Hebrew form of the text is original throughout. If it systematically omits reference to God and his Providence over Israel, this is perhaps due to fear of irreverent response (see note on 4, 14). The Greek text with the above-mentioned additions is probably a later literary paraphrase in which the author seeks to have the reader share his sentiments. This standard Greek text is pre-Christian in origin. The church has accepted the additions as equally inspired with the rest of the book.
In the present translation, the portions preceded by the letters A through F indicate the underlying Greek additions referred to above. The regular chapter numbers apply to the Hebrew text.
The book may be divided as follows:
Prologue (A, 1-17)
Elevation of Esther (1, 1-2, 23)
Haman’s Plot against the Jews (3, 1-13; B, 1-7; 3, 14-4, 8; B, 8; 4, 9-16; C, 1-D, 16; 5, 1-14)
Vindication of the Jews (6, 1-8, 12; E, 1-24; 8, 13-10, 3)
Epilogue (F, 1-11)
The order of the Vulgate text in relation to the order of the Greek text is as follows:
Vulg. 11, 2-12, 6 == A, 1-17 at the beginning of the book.
13, 1-7 == B, 1-7 after 3, 13.
13, 8-15, 3-19 == C, 1-D, 16 after 4, 16.
15, 1-2 == B, 8.9 after 4, 8.
16, 1-24 == E, 1-24 after 8, 12.
10, 4-10, 13 == F, 1-10 after 10, 3.
1 In the second year of the reign of the great King Ahasuerus, on the first day of Nisan, Mordecai, son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, had a dream.
He was a Jew residing in the city of Susa, a prominent man who served at the king’s court,
and one of the captives whom Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had taken from Jerusalem with Jeconiah, king of Judah.
2 This was his dream. There was noise and tumult, thunder and earthquake-confusion upon the earth.
Two great dragons came on, both poised for combat. They uttered a mighty cry,
and at their cry every nation prepared for war, to fight against the race of the just.
It was a dark and gloomy day. Tribulation and distress, evil and great confusion, lay upon the earth.
The whole race of the just were dismayed with fear of the evils to come upon them, and were at the point of destruction.
Then they cried out to God, and as they cried, there appeared to come forth a great river, a flood of water from a little spring.
The light of the sun broke forth; the lowly were exalted and they devoured the nobles.
Having seen this dream and what God intended to do, Mordecai awoke. He kept it in mind, and tried in every way, until night, to understand its meaning.
Mordecai lodged at the court with Bagathan and Thares, two eunuchs of the king who were court guards.
He overheard them plotting, investigated their plans, and discovered that they were preparing to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. So he informed the king about them,
and the king had the two eunuchs questioned and, upon their confession, put to death.
Then the king had these things recorded; Mordecai, too, put them into writing.
3 The king also appointed Mordecai to serve at the court, and rewarded him for his actions.
4 Haman, however, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, who was in high honor with the king, sought to harm Mordecai and his people because of the two eunuchs of the king.
1  King Ahasuerus: Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.). Mordecai: a Babylonian name, after the god Marduk. The genealogy of Mordecai is designed to reflect opposition to Israel’s enemy, as narrated in ⇒ 1 Sam 15:7ff, where Saul (whose father’s name was Kish, of the Tribe of Benjamin) conquered Agag the Amalekite; in ⇒ Esther A:17 Haman is said to be the son of an Agagite. Further emphasis on the Benjaminite-Agagite opposition can be seen in Shimei, the Benjaminite who reviled David (⇒ 2 Sam 16:5ff). Jair appears to be the minor Judge, a Transjordanian Manassehite (⇒ Judges 10:3). The chronology of the book would make Mordecai well over one hundred years old, since he was deported with Jehoiachin about 598 B.C.; cf ⇒ Esther 2:5f.
2  The interpretation of this dream is given in ⇒ Esther F:1-6.
3  Rewarded him: this reward comes only later; see the sequence of events from the Hebrew text of Esther at ⇒ Esther 2:22f, and ⇒ Esther 6:3 below.
4  Haman . . . the Agagite: opposed Mordecai the Benjaminite, by whom, however, he was overcome (⇒ Esther 7:9f), just as King Agag, the Amalekite, was conquered by King Saul, ancestor of Mordecai (⇒ 1 Sam 15:7ff).
1 During the reign of Ahasuerus-this was the Ahasuerus who ruled over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia-
2 while he was occupying the royal throne in the stronghold of Susa,
in the third year of his reign, he presided over a feast for all his officers and ministers: the Persian and Median aristocracy, the nobles, and the governors of the provinces.
For as many as a hundred and eighty days, he displayed the glorious riches of his kingdom and the resplendent wealth of his royal estate.
At the end of this time the king gave a feast of seven days in the garden court of the royal palace for all the people, great and small, who were in the stronghold of Susa.
There were white cotton draperies and violet hangings, held by cords of crimson byssus from silver rings on marble pillars. Gold and silver couches were on the pavement, which was of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones.
Liquor was served in a variety of golden cups, and the royal wine flowed freely, as befitted the king’s munificence.
By ordinance of the king the drinking was unstinted, for he had instructed all the stewards of his household to comply with the good pleasure of everyone.
3 Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women inside the royal palace of King Ahasuerus.
On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he instructed Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended King Ahasuerus,
to bring Queen Vashti into his presence wearing the royal crown, that he might display her beauty to the populace and the officials, for she was lovely to behold.
But Queen Vashti refused to come at the royal order issued through the eunuchs. At this the king’s wrath flared up, and he burned with fury.
He conferred with the wise men versed in the law, because the king’s business was conducted in general consultation with lawyers and jurists.
He summoned Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven Persian and Median officials who were in the king’s personal service and held first rank in the realm,
and asked them, “What is to be done by law with Queen Vashti for disobeying the order of King Ahasuerus issued through the eunuchs?”
In the presence of the king and of the officials, Memucan answered: “Queen Vashti has not wronged the king alone, but all the officials and the populace throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus.
For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and they will look with disdain upon their husbands when it is reported, “King Ahasuerus commanded that Queen Vashti be ushered into his presence, but she would not come.’
This very day the Persian and Median ladies who hear of the queen’s conduct will rebel against all the royal officials, with corresponding disdain and rancor.
4 If it please the king, let an irrevocable royal decree be issued by him and inscribed among the laws of the Persians and Medes, forbidding Vashti to come into the presence of King Ahasuerus and authorizing the king to give her royal dignity to one more worthy than she.
Thus, when the decree which the king will issue is published throughout his realm, vast as it is, all wives will honor their husbands, from the greatest to the least.”
This proposal found acceptance with the king and the officials, and the king acted on the advice of Memucan.
5 He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, to the effect that every man should be lord in his own home.
1  From India to Ethiopia: from western India to Upper Egypt, the greatest extent of the Persian Empire achieved under Darius the Great, father of Ahasuerus.
2  Susa: ancient capital of Elam (⇒ Genesis 14:1); under the Achamenid kings, one of the two capitals of the Persian Empire. The other was Persepolis, the summer palace of the kings.
3  Queen Vashti: Herodotus (Histories 7:61) relates that the wife of Ahasuerus was Amestris.
4  Irrevocable royal decree: the historian Siculus Indicates that such a concept of irrevocable laws existed in the time of Darius III (335-331 B.C.), the last of the Persian kings; cf ⇒ Esther 8:8.
5  To each province . . . script and to each people . . . language: many languages were spoken in the Persian Empire, the principal ones being Persian, Elamite, Babylonian, Aramaic, Phoenician, Egyptian, and Greek. Each of them had its own script.