Another strong theme running through the Esther story is assimilation, says Penina Adelman, scholar in residence at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. "Esther could have passed as a non-Jew and blended in, but at the crucial time, she stood up for her people in a dangerous situation."
The king, however, is happy to see her and promises to grant her request, whatever it is. Esther invites him and Haman to a feast. She feeds them and invites them to another feast the following night, where she will reveal what she wants.
That night, after the first banquet, the king cannot sleep. To pass the time, his servants read the book of records to him. The king realizes he never properly thanked Mordecai for saving him. The next morning the king asks Haman for his advice on how to honor someone. Haman, thinking the honoree is himself, says the king should dress the honoree in royal clothes and parade him around town on the king's horse. Haman is humiliated when the king asks him to perform these honors for Mordecai.
At the second banquet, Esther reveals Haman's plot to the king, and she acknowledges her Jewish identity. Furious at Haman, the king storms out. When he returns, he finds Haman pleading with Esther to save him. Haman is on top of her, begging, and the king interprets Haman's actions as rape. That seals Haman's fate: He is hanged on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. (It should be noted that while the Megillah, the scroll that relates the story, uses the Hebrew verb talah, which means to hang, some scholars prefer an interpretation saying that he was impaled on a stake.)
Unfortunately, the king can't overturn his previous pogrom order; he says a decree that is written in the name of the king and signed with the royal signet ring cannot be repealed. So he tells Esther and Mordecai to write a new edict saying the Jews should fight back when they are attacked, and he encourages the gentiles to help them. They do, killing more than 75,000 people, including Haman's 10 sons. Although they are given permission to plunder, the Jews don't take any spoil. After the battle, the festival of Purim is instituted to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews and to celebrate Esther's bravery and cunning.
Purim is traditionally celebrated with great merriment, including a costume party, where people wear masks and dress up as characters in the Esther story. A traditional Purim food is hamantaschen—triangular cookies with poppy seeds or other sweet fillings, in the shape of Haman's hat. Crawford compares the Purim masquerade to the physical manifestation of Esther and Mordecai's actions. "They took on the outer trappings of the gentile world they lived in, but they never forgot that they were Jewish," she says.
Crawford sees the story as teaching readers how to live as a minority within a gentile society, by cooperating with others but also by protecting and lifting up the Jews. "The Esther story is a warning that anti-Semitism exists; it's a real danger; but as a Jew, you must be prepared to react to it," she notes. Another underlying message is of the dangers of stereotyping. Not all the gentiles in the story are evil like Haman, Crawford points out. Many of them liked the Jews and came to their defense.
Historically, Esther has been a controversial figure. Some rabbis and others have criticized her for being a bad Jew. She didn't observe kosher dietary laws, she married a gentile, and she was vengeful and bloodthirsty; she had Haman's 10 sons hanged, after all. Some feminists scold Esther for accomplishing her goals through her beauty and feminine wiles—by giving dinner parties, manipulating her husband, and taking orders from him and Mordecai. Vashti, they say, is the real feminist heroine, the strong, honorable woman who was unjustly punished for refusing to be degraded by her oafish husband.