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Old Testament | Esther | Summary

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Summary

Esther 1–2 explains how a Jewish woman named Esther, called Hadassah in Hebrew, became a queen of the Persian King Ahasuerus.

  • In the midst of a lavish feast, King Ahasuerus summons his queen, Vashti, to parade herself before the assembled guests and display her beauty.
  • When Vashti refuses, Ahasuerus removes her from her position as queen and issues a public decree that wives must not disobey their husbands in such a way.
  • Ahasuerus chooses the young Jewish woman Esther, put forward by her cousin and adoptive father Mordecai, to be his new queen.
  • Mordecai then helps uncover an assassination plot against Ahasuerus and brings it to the king's attention with Esther's help.

Chapters 3–8 narrate a sudden threat of persecution of Jews in the Persian Empire and Esther's bold actions to save her people.

  • Mordecai refuses to bow down before Ahasuerus's highest official, Haman, so Haman convinces the king to command the execution of Jews throughout the empire.
  • Esther learns of this crisis and exchanges messages with Mordecai, who urges her to act.
  • Risking her own life by approaching the king without an invitation, Esther prompts Ahasuerus to invite Haman to a private banquet.
  • Haman boasts of his favored status with the king and queen while amplifying his hatred of Mordecai, only to be ordered the next day to bestow special honors on Mordecai.
  • Again at banquet with Haman and the king, Esther asks the king to save her and her people from persecution and reveals that Haman is the one responsible for their plight.
  • The king responds positively to Esther's plea, and Haman is hanged on the very gallows where he had hoped to execute Mordecai.
  • King Ahasuerus elevates Mordecai to Haman's former role. Together, Mordecai and Esther reverse Haman's order calling for the annihilation of Jews.

The final two chapters of Esther conclude the story and connect it with the origins of the Jewish holiday Purim.

  • With Mordecai now in power, Jews throughout the empire retaliate with violence against those who had planned to kill them.
  • To celebrate the deliverance of the Jews from this crisis, Mordecai establishes a celebratory feast on the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar. The feast is named Purim because Haman had cast the "lot" (Hebrew: pur) to destroy the Jews but failed.
  • Esther ends with a brief epilogue, emphasizing that all these events are recorded in the Persian royal annals.

Analysis

Esther is an example of a literary genre found in early Jewish texts often called the "court tale." Like the Joseph novella in Genesis and the stories in Daniel, it depicts exemplary Jewish individuals demonstrating wisdom and shrewdness in the perilous context of a foreign royal court. Despite this clear comparison, Esther is unique in many respects. God is never mentioned in the Hebrew version of the book. Esther and Mordecai demonstrate not so much piety, like Daniel or Joseph, as political cunning. Esther depicts what would be the earliest episode of an attempt at widespread systematic Jewish persecution, although it is questionable whether the events in the story actually took place. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Esther is the end of the book, which celebrates without hesitation widespread retaliatory violence against the would-be enemies of the Jews. These unusual qualities made Esther one of the most debated books for inclusion in the canon of the Hebrew Bible for both Judaism and Christianity.Esther serves in part as an etiology, or origin story, for the Jewish holiday Purim. It offers an explanation of the name of the holiday, relating to the casting of a "lot" (pur). It also explains the observance as originally a celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from persecution by Mordecai and Esther. Esther 9:22 explains that the holiday should include joyous feasting, the exchange of gifts, and acts of charity. These elements remain components of the observance of Purim along with reading the megillah, or scroll, of Esther in synagogues on the holiday.


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