The book of Esther tells the story of the beautiful orphan who hides her Jewish identity, becomes queen of Persia, and saves her people from destruction. The tale also explains the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim. But the real meaning of Esther's story, some biblical scholars say, is a lesson about hope and how to deal with assimilation. In Esther, Jews can find a model of strength and determination: one who shows how even in persecution, they can survive and prosper. "Esther provides hope for the Jewish people, in good times and bad. They hope for someone like Esther to deliver them," says Carey Moore, emeritus professor of religion at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
Esther is unique among books of the Bible because God is never directly mentioned in the original Hebrew version. He is present offstage, though, Moore says, "in the wings, guiding the plot." Also unlike many biblical books, the book of Esther contains nothing supernatural or miraculous. It is seen by many scholars as a work of literary fiction, Moore says, "more like a novella than a historical account."
Esther's story begins in Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire, probably in the late fifth century B.C. The reigning Queen Vashti is banished from the kingdom for refusing to appear on command before her drunken husband, King Ahasuerus, and his unruly guests. Vashti's banishment is an object lesson to the other women of the kingdom—they must obey their husbands. To find a new queen, the king announces an ancient Persian version of American Idol, a national search for suitable young virgins.
Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew) is an orphan who is being raised by her cousin Mordecai. She joins the harem as a contestant, spends a year beautifying herself, and takes her cousin's advice about keeping her Jewish heritage a secret. The king falls for her and crowns her.
Meanwhile, Mordecai overhears a plot to kill the king and tells Esther, who warns the king, saving his life. The deed is recorded, but the king neglects to reward Mordecai—an oversight that will be corrected later, at a crucial plot point. As a Jew, Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, the king's haughty prime minister, as has been ordered by the king. Haman, enraged by Mordecai's insult, gets the king to sign off on a decree to kill all the Jews in the kingdom.
Hearing of Haman's plot, Mordecai goes into mourning, wearing sackcloth and ashes. He begs Esther to go to the king and save her people. Esther balks; for anyone—even a wife—to appear before the king unsummoned can be punishable by death. Mordecai persists. Esther's silence won't protect her from the pogrom, he says. What's more, he says, perhaps she was made queen for this very reason—to save her people. Finally, she agrees to approach the king, although she knows she may die for her efforts. "If I perish, I perish," she says.
Esther's decision to act highlights a "theological" theme, says Sidnie White Crawford, a religion professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "In normal life, God doesn't come down in a thunderclap and give instructions. Humans must act, even without knowing the outcome of their actions. It's part of human existence. The story is saying don't be afraid; you won't ever be sure of the will of God. Just do your best."