Notes on the Book of Esther

Last year I had the best calling in the Church: Gospel Doctrine teacher, during study of the Old Testament. I wrote out fairly detailed notes for each lesson and figured I’d post some of them here in case they’re helpful to a future teacher. 

Esther is an interesting book. It doesn’t read like the rest of the Bible. It’s one of two books (along with The Song of Solomon) that doesn’t mention God, although it does assume a sense of guided destiny and it mentions fasting. It’s the only Old Testament book that wasn’t found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It also has some historical issues – for example, Mordecai would have to be over 100 years old for the dates to work out right. It’s possible that it started with some historical events that were passed down orally and someone eventually wrote them down, mixing up a few dates and names in the process.

Let’s start by reviewing the characters involved in this story.
Ahasueras – king of Persia, also named Xerxes (Greek) – has a palace in Shushan, the capital of Persia, 482 B.C.
Vashti – First queen
Mordecai – Esther’s cousin (2:7) who raised her after her parents died – Jewish
Esther – Second queen – Hebrew name Hadassah
Haman – Agagite, main villain

Chapter 1 – The Party
King throws a big party to show off his wealth, lasts 6 months (v. 4)
Then they have a 7-day feast, all the guys in palace garden, all the women in the royal house.
v. 8 – all-you-can-drink

v. 10 – At the end of the 7 days, the king wants to introduce his wife to his guests. He sends for her and. . . she refuses to come. For some reason she didn’t want to leave her party and join a drunken brawl in the garden.

The king is offended and asks his counselors (wise men) what he should do about it. v. 17 – they tell him he needs to come down hard because as soon as the women of the city find out the queen disobeyed the queen, mass chaos would ensue. So, the king writes a royal decree that says Vashti is no longer queen and her royal estate will go to another (v. 19)

Chapter 2 – “The Bachelor”
Chapter 2 describes what’s essentially an ancient version of the reality tv show, The Bachelor. The king’s servants find young women throughout the land to compete for the position of queen. One of these is our hero, Esther. She and her cousin Mordecai are Jewish, but Mordecai tells her to not let anyone know about it. Once they gather all the contestants together, they get to live in the palace and get massages and beauty treatments for a year (v. 12).

The king meets with one woman per day and doesn’t invite any of them back. Until he gets to Esther. v. 17 – love at first sight! Another big feast to celebrate the new queen. During this celebration, Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king and tells Esther to tell the king. The plot is foiled and the plotters are hanged.

Chapter 3 – Enter the Villain
Haman was a descendant of Agag, which I’m sure you all remember from 1 Samuel. Agag was king of the Amalekites, which were the group Saul was commanded to completely destroy – but Saul got in trouble for holding on to some of their animals, claiming he wanted to use them for sacrifice. So, Haman had likely inherited a deep hatred for the Jews.

Haman was promoted to some high office by the king and everyone was supposed to bow to him. Mordecai refuses and Haman decides it’s time to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. He was apparently prone to overreaction. He convinces the king to write a decree stating that all Jews shall be killed on the 13th day of the 12th month of that year.

Chapter 4 – Mordecai tells Esther to talk to the king
Mordecai panics and tells Esther she needs to tell the king she’s Jewish and get him to reverse his decision. Esther says (v. 11) that she’s not allowed to speak to the king unless she’s invited in by him, and that hasn’t happened in a month. Violating this rule is punishable by death. Interesting relationship.

Mordecai points out that Esther will be killed as well and then says, v. 14, that this might be the whole purpose of her becoming queen, to save her people. Esther asks Mordecai to have the Jews in the city fast for three days and then she’ll approach the king. v. 16 – “If I perish, I perish”

Chapter 5 – Esther approaches the king
The king is fortunately happy to see his queen and holds out the golden scepter as a sign that she is permitted to approach. She proposes a banquet for the king and Haman. At the banquet, she seems to chicken out and proposes a second banquet. v. 9 – Haman is stoked that he got invited to the banquet. He brags to his wife and friends (v. 12) that no one else was invited. But his happiness is stifled as long as he sees Mordecai alive (v. 13).

Haman’s wife, Zaresh, said, “You know what will make you feel better? Build a giant gallows (75 feet tall) so you can anticipate the hanging of Mordecai. Then you’ll be able to enjoy your second banquet.” (That was kind of paraphrasing v. 14.)

Chapter 6 – Mordecai is honored
The king has insomnia and asks one of his servants to read a history book (yawn!) to him. In it was recorded the fact that Mordecai saved the king’s life way back in chapter 2. He realizes that Mordecai was never honored for his good deed. Then Haman shows up, with really bad timing. He is excited to tell the king about the awesome new gallows he prepared for Mordecai’s execution.

In v. 6-9, the king asks what would be the best way to honor someone. Haman assumes he’s describing his own reward, so he says he should be put on the king’s royal horse and paraded through the city. v. 10 – the king says that’s a great idea and asks Haman to honor Mordecai in just the way he’s described. He goes home to tell his wife about it and the king’s servants show up to take him to the banquet.

Chapter 7 – Banquet #2
Haman joins the king and queen at the second banquet and Esther reveals that she’s a Jew and the king’s decree means her own death. The king asked how this happened and Esther pointed at Haman across the table.

The king is so angry, he goes out into the garden. Haman decides to plead with the queen and follows her into her bedroom and falls on her bed. The king walks in (v. 8). A servant (who must not have been a fan of Haman) reminds the king about Haman’s 75-foot gallows and the king says, “Hang him on it.” (v. 9)

Chapter 8 – All is Well
Mordecai takes over Haman’s position, the king can’t reverse the decree but he makes a new one that the Jews can attack the people that were going to kill them.

Chapter 9 – Vengeance
The Jews attack their enemies and in v. 19 they designated the 14th day of the 12th month as a feast day. This is called the Festival of Purim (v. 26), which is still celebrated by many Jews today – it falls next on March 4-5. They exchange gifts of food and drink, donate to the poor, eat a big meal, act out the story of Esther. They have noise-makers to boo every time Haman’s name is mentioned. They used to even burn Haman in effigy.

So, that’s Esther.

What’s the purpose of this story — what is the author trying to teach readers? Any thoughts on what we can learn from Esther’s example?

Trying to deal with life in exile. They can still influence and improve their situation. Heroes still exist. Individuals still have a role to play — the guided actions of one can affect many. And a little hope for vengeance.

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