December 18, 2017

Esther, Part 1: Setting, Structure, and Themes

Layton Talbert

FrontLine • September/October 2007

At a Glance: Ezra Part 1Ezra Part 2Nehemiah Part 1Nehemiah Part 2

The last four installments of this column have surveyed the late historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The chronological companion of those two records is the book of Esther. This column has already addressed Esther, but that was over thirteen years ago (March/April 1994). To round out this survey of these late historical books, then, it will be worth revisiting Esther now. This two-installment column, however, will be much more than a mere rerun.

Background

Historical Setting. The story of Esther is set in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire, during the reign of Ahasuerus (his Aramaic name), better known by his Greek name of Xerxes (485–464 bc). The events of Esther spanned about a decade of Xerxes’ reign (482–473)—a timeframe that fell between Judah’s first return to Jerusalem and completion of the temple (536–516) and the second return under Ezra to Jerusalem (458). The dates may be traced from the following texts:

  • 1:3—482 bc, Xerxes deposes Queen Vashti
  • 2:16—478 bc, Xerxes makes Esther his queen
  • 3:7—473 bc , Haman plots Jewish genocide

Extrabiblical history tells us that Xerxes’ massive military campaign against the Greeks fell between the events of Esther 1 and 2. In fact, Xerxes’ feast in Esther 1 may have doubled as strategy sessions for the upcoming Greek campaign. Xerxes’ initial success at Thermopylae was followed by a stinging defeat in the famous battles at Salamis (480) and Plataea (479). It was not until after his return from this campaign that Xerxes turned his attention again to the domestic issue of choosing a new queen.

Prophetic Setting. A remarkable angelic prophecy revealed to Daniel sixty years earlier predicts the royal succession after Cyrus (10:1), in whose first year—539—the Jews returned. The prophecy passes over “three kings” to focus on “a fourth” who “shall be far richer than they all” and would “stir up all against the realm of Grecia” (Dan. 11:2). History fills in the names of those kings. The succession of rulers following Cyrus was as follows:

  1. Cambyses—a cruel tyrant (530–522 BC)
  2. Pseudo-Smerdis—reigned only one year (522)
  3. Darius I—under his reign Persia flourished (522–486)
  4. Xerxes I—Ahasuerus of the book of Esther (485–464)

The prophetic mention of Xerxes’ great wealth corresponds to the descriptions in Esther 1. Xerxes also “stirred up all against the realm of Greece” by leading a huge but disastrous expedition against Greece in 480 (partly to avenge his father Darius’ defeat at Marathon in 490). As the Book of Esther opens, Xerxes is laying plans that will fulfill, directly and voluntarily but unwittingly, a prophecy revealed to and through Daniel sixty years earlier. These military pursuits explain his rather odd distraction from the Vashti affair hinted at in Esther 2:1. Xerxes’ campaign against Greece fills the gap between the opening feast in chapter 1 (in Xerxes’ third year, 482) and the accession of Esther as queen in chapter 2 (in Xerxes’ seventh year, 478).

Cosmic Setting. The earthly events of Esther unfold against the prophetic background of the prophecy in Daniel 11:2; but Daniel 11:2 is unveiled against the cosmic background Daniel 10:12, 13, and 10:20–11:1. These verses describe the cosmic warfare over angelic influence of earthly rulers and affairs. The danger encountered and recorded in the Book of Esther is not just about a genocidal threat posed to God’s people by an arrogant and angry upstart prince. The larger invisible dimension of spiritual warfare must never be forgotten or underestimated, especially when God’s people and purposes are involved. Just as more was at stake in the establishment of the Jews’ temple in Ezra and the Jews’ city in Nehemiah, the human confrontation recorded in the story of Esther is the earthly reflection of a spiritual war in the heavens. Satan maintains an intense interest in disrupting the plans and promises of God rooted in the ongoing existence and welfare of Israel. This is not just ancient history; regardless of one’s ecclesiological orientation (whether covenant or dispensational), no one who believes in the providence of God can dismiss the events since 1948 as accidental, insignificant, or unremarkable.

Structure

Esther is a multilayered literary tapestry. Though nonfictional, the book’s organization follows a standard narrative structure, crafted along the lines of what we would call a dramatic short story.

Exposition (1–2)sets the stage for the story

  • After a six-month “open house,” King Xerxes throws a lavish weeklong feast and calls for Queen Vashti to appear. When she refuses, the humiliated and enraged monarch deposes her and makes her a public example (1).
  • Xerxes seeks new queen and chooses Esther, who happens to be a Jew (2:1–20).
  • Foreshadowing Incident: Mordecai uncovers assassination plot against Xerxes and saves the king’s life, an act recorded in the royal records but not rewarded (2:21–23).

Crisis (3)the inciting incident that creates tension/conflict

  • Crisis Incident: Haman promoted; Mordecai offends; Haman plots (3:1–6).
  • Haman casts the lot (Pur) to determine the most auspicious timing for his pogrom (3:7) and receives the backing of Xerxes’ irreversible decree (3:8–15).

Resolution (4–9:19)rising action sustains suspense, peaking toward resolution-climax

  • Mordecai discovers plot and exhorts Esther; Esther resolves (4).
  • Esther, granted an audience with Xerxes, invites him and Haman to a banquet, where she invites them to a second banquet the next day (5:1–8).
  • Haman gloats over his honors, grumbles over Mordecai’s snubs, and has a gallows constructed for Mordecai (5:9–14).
  • Pivot Incident: Xerxes’ insomnia, reading, and question; Haman’s arrival, humiliation, and (wife’s) prediction (6).
  • Esther’s final banquet, announcement, and accusation (7:1–6).
  • Xerxes’ wrath, misapprehension, and sentence (7:7– 10).
  • Original decree countered; Jews delivered and feared (8:1–9:19).

Denouement (9:20–10:3)rapidly descending action and tying up loose ends

  • Feast of Purim instituted and explained
  • Exaltation of Mordecai

Thematic Elements

Repeated words and events comprise the major thematic building materials that hold the structure of Esther together. These include feasts, wrath, reversals, and destruction.

Feasts

A prominent structuring principle in Esther is the Hebrew word mishteh, translated “feast” or “banquet.” The term appears twenty times in the book—almost half of all OT occurrences. The entire story is structured around the celebration of pairs of feasts, arranged in a roughly concentric pattern (cf. Jobes, Esther, 155):

A: Xerxes’ feast for the nobility throughout the empire (1:2–4)

a: Xerxes’ and Vashti’s feasts for Persians in Susa (1:5–9)

B: Feast in celebration of Esther’s accession (2:18)

C: Esther’s first feast for the king and Haman (5:1–8)

C’: E sther’s second feast for the king and Haman (7:1–9)

B’: Feast in celebration of reversal (8:17)

A’: Feast of Purim feast for the Jews throughout the empire (9:17, 19)

a’: Feast of Purim for the Jews in Susa (9:18)

Wrath

Each occasion of wrath initiates a shift in the direction of the story. These displays of human wrath—that seemingly most unpredictable and uncontrollable element in our experience—are the providential hinges on which the story of Esther turns.

  • Wrath of King against Vashti (1:12; 2:1)—creates Esther’s accession
  • Wrath of Bigthan and Teresh against King (2:21)— creates Mordecai’s exaltation
  • Wrath of Haman against Mordecai (3:5; 5:9)—creates Jews’ crisis
  • Wrath of King against Haman (7:7, 10)—creates crisis’ resolution

Reversal

The most striking feature of the book is the complete reversal of a hopeless situation against all expectation. It is, in fact, a complete shift or transfer of power from the Jews’ enemies to the Jews. The irony of reversal is underscored in a variety of ways in the book.

Incidental Reversal
  • Haman hates Mordecai (3); Haman honors Mordecai (6)
  • Xerxes gives Haman his ring (3); Xerxes gives Mordecai his ring (8)
  • Haman’s decree published (3); Mordecai’s decree published (8)
  • Decree against the Jews (3); Decree against the Jews’ enemies (8)
  • Shushan perplexed (3:15); Shushan rejoices (8:15)
  • Jews mourn (4:3); Jews rejoice (8:17)
  • Haman rejoices and boasts (5:9–12); Haman mourns and fears (6:12; 7:6)
  • Zeresh advises Mordecai’s death; Zeresh predicts Haman’s downfall (6)
  • Haman makes gallows for Mordecai (5); Haman hanged on gallows (7, 9)
Structural Reversal

That the turning point of the action is a remarkably unremarkable event— royal insomnia—again underscores providence.

A: Prologue (1)

B: First decree (2–3): danger

C: Clash: Haman/Mordecai (4–5)

D: “On that night . . . ” (6:1): crisis

C’: Triumph: Mordecai/Haman (6–7)

B’: Second decree (8–9): deliverance

A’: Epilogue (10)

Stated Reversal

What is implicit hinted throughout the story is explicitly stated twice. In both cases, the Hebrew verb haphak indicates “to overturn completely, to turn upside down”:

  • “In the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have power over them, (though it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them;)” (9:1).
  • “As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day” (9:22).

Destruction

The predominant thematic crisis in the book is encapsulated in the word destruction. The eight references to Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews (3:6, 9, 13; 4:7, 8; 7:4; 8:5, 6) are answered by eight references to the Jews’ destroying their enemies (8:11; 9:5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16).

These motifs (and others) are woven into an overarching emphasis: the vital interplay between divine intervention and human activity in the world. Part 2 of this focus on Esther will further develop the theme and theology of Esther and will also offer answers to some perturbing questions raised by this book.


Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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