The book of Esther was composed during the early Hellenistic period. It’s fairly positive view of Gentiles indicates that it was likely written before the heated struggle before the Seleucids and the Maccabeans began. It is set in the late sixth century, the Persian royal court and is a work of historical fiction that accounts for how the holiday of Purim was instituted. It tells the story of how Esther (Hadassah) and Mordecai, by cunning and decisive action, thwarted the scheming Haman and rescued the people from genocide.  The story shows how diaspora Jews found ways to assimilate to new cultural contexts, but also to retain the distinctiveness and integrity of their own identity. It is telling and tragic that the Jewish people have continued to have need of a holiday to celebrate overcoming the genocidal efforts of others.

This book is one of the latest to gain entry into the canon of Hebrew Scripture (not until the third century of the common era), and no wonder: it is human, not divine agency, that wins the day; God, in fact, is wholly absent in the story; and traditional themes such as law and covenant are missing. Yet it also embodies themes both crucial to traditional Jewish identity (such as survival by one’s wits) and central to emerging Jewish identity (such as how to live amidst Gentiles).

Keep an eye out for how Esther grows throughout the story from a passive “trophy” wife to a commanding presence who saves her people.


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