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."
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.
Still, the traditional view of Esther as the brave heroine prevails. "Esther embodies feminist ideals: She was brave, courageous, tough, with an imagination equal to the task of saving the Jews," says Moore. Adds Adelman: "Esther had the wisdom to get what she wanted from the king, not by being strident or adversarial, which doesn't get you too far. She succeeded where Vashti failed."
And of all the women of the Bible, Esther recently received the best publicity boost, from pop star Madonna. When the Material Girl became enamored of Jewish mysticism—kabbalah—she changed her name to Esther.