ESTHER, BOOK OF.
1. The Name. The Book of Esther takes its name from that of the heroine, which is usually derived from the Persian sitareh ("star"), but is probably the same as the Babylonian Ishtar. This identification is supported by the evident derivation of the name of her protector Mordecai (Heb.Mordekhay, Septuagint Mardochaios, "one who belongs to the god Marduk"). Though this name is rather strange for a Jew so true to his faith, analogies are not lacking (cf. A. H. Sayce, 'Higher Criticism' and the Monuments, p. 470, London, 1894).
2. The Story. The scene of action is the Persian court in Shushan in the time of Ahasuerus, i.e., Xerxes. The narrative tells how the beautiful Jewess Hadassah, "Myrtle," came to the court and under the name of Esther was made the consort of the king. In this position she was able to save her people from threatened destruction. A favorite of the king, Haman, having had a dispute with her cousin Mordecai because the latter would not bow down to him, induced the capricious king to fix a day by lot (Persian pūr?) on which the Jews throughout the kingdom were to be exterminated. Esther induced the king to favor her people, Haman was executed, and Mordecai took his place in the government. A new edict of the king permitted the Jews to resist the attack, and thus the feared thirteenth of Adar became a day of victory and the fourteenth, in Shushan the fifteenth, a festive day. The festival was called purim from the lots. The institution of the celebration is traced to Mordecai and Esther.
3. Character and Date. The narrative is harmonious and written with dramatic skill. Chap. ix. 24-28 records that Mordecai reported the events in a letter addressed to the Jews of all the provinces of the kingdom with the request that they celebrate in future fourteenth and fifteenth Adar as festal days, giving presents to one another and alms to the poor. In this institution of the Purim-festival its name is explained from the lots cast at the beginning of the narrative (iv. 7). This section is a recapitulation of the preceding narrative, forming a fitting end of the roll appointed to be read on the Purim-festival. Verses 29-32 are no doubt duplicates and were inserted later than v. 20-28. The writer drew from oral and probably also from written sources some time after the events, because Ahasuerus and Mordecai belonged to the past (cf. i. 1-2, x. 1 sqq.). These passages refute the assumption of Clement of Alexandria, and Ibn Ezra, wrongly construing ix. 20, 32, that the book was written by Mordecai; and the authorship is undetermined. The time of composition can be fixed only approximately. Although the time of Artaxerxes I. has been suggested, matter and linguistic character indicate the latest Persian or the Greek period. The language is permeated by Aramaisms and Persisms, and is otherwise in a state of decay. The book must belong to the most recent part of the canon. That the author wrote in Persian has no warrant.
4. Historicity. The historicity of the narrative has been stoutly questioned. It has been held that the book contains a number of anachronisms and misstatements of Persian customs. Ahasuerus has been identified with Xerxes; and from what is otherwise known of the voluptuous habits and capricious whims, of the sudden alternations between favor and disfavor, and the passionate cruelty and the adventurous pride of this despot, the identification is justifiable. Certain other facts, like the Greek campaigns, tally well with the narrative in Esther. On the other hand the account of Xerxes' marriage after the Greek campaign, as recorded by Herodotus (ix. 108 sqq.), is not in harmony with the story of this book. Esther can not be identified with Amestris, whose lofty position makes impossible the no less distinguished dignity enjoyed by Esther according to the Biblical narrative. The historicity of the narrative is also opposed by the existence of a law according to which the king of the Persians in his selection of a wife was restricted to the (seven) noblest families of the Persians (cf. Herodotus, iii. 84). The question then remains, how far Herodotus is reliable. These narratives were certainly orally transmitted with delight, and moreover passed through a noteworthy literary redaction. In this way inaccuracies and exaggerations might easily creep in. Thus according to ii. 6-7 Esther and Mordecai had been deported with Jehoiachin, whereas from their age they must have been [remote] descendants of the prisoners of his time; the statements in iii. 15, viii. 15 of the sympathy of the inhabitants of Shushan for the Jews are too strong to be true. But the substance of the history neither stands nor falls with these details. The main support of the narrative consists obviously of the Purim-feast itself. Outside of the Book of Esther, the feast is first mentioned II Macc. xv. 36 as "The Day of Mordecai." On its origin and celebration cf. also Josephus, Ant. XI., vi. 13. The book is considered pure fiction by such modern scholars as Zunz (ZDMG, xxvii. 684 sqq.) and E. Reuss (Geschichte des Alten Testaments, pp. 581 sqq. Brunswick, 1892-94) .
5. The Festival, Its Name and Origin. Since the word pur ("lot"?), the Persian origin of which has not been proved, points to a foreign origin, some have endeavored to trace the Purim-festival as well as the entire narrative to foreign sources: Hitzig recalled the Neo-Arabic phūr, "New-year" and the Persian intercalary days Purdeghan; he thought that the basis was in some event which happened about New Year, not in the time of the Achæmenidæ but under the rule of the Parthian Arsacidæ, from which language pur, "lot" may come. Lagarde thought that the Purim-feast is the Persian festival in honor of the dead, Farwardigan, which was celebrated with joy, the Greek name of which, phourdigan (used by Menander), coincides partly with the Hebrew, the original of which was purdaia instead of purim, appearing as a variant in the Septuagint phourdia. Since this is not satisfactory, the reference to a Babylonian myth and festival has found more favor. Zimmern would trace a connection of the Purim-festival with the Babylonian New-year's festival called Zagmuku or Akîtu, and identified pur with the Assyrian puhru, "totality," "assembly"; the meaning "lots" might be understood from the fact that at the assembly of the gods at that festival the destinies (lots) for the coming year were appointed. As that festival was celebrated in honor of Marduk, the name Mordecai indicated that the Hebrew matter was derived from Babylonian sources. This Jensen endeavored to prove more decisively by the equations: Haman = Humba, Humban, the head of the Elamitic pantheon; Esther = Ishtar; the wife of Haman Zaras = Kirisa, wife of Humba; Vashti = Mashti, a Babylonian goddess. The Babylonian New-year myth, with which was blended the memory of the overthrow of Elamitic over-lordship, was then changed into a legend of the subduing of the enemies of the Jews. Finally, B. Meissner thought of the Sakäen-festival which Berosus records, during which a slave, dressed in a royal dress, for five days enjoyed high honors, which suggests Esther vi. 7 sqq. This festival was originally identical with the Babylonian New-year's festival and was blended by the Persians with that used among them (cf. the five Farwardigan days). On this occasion Ishtar (Esther) came prominently before Marduk (Mordecai). But in none of these hypotheses do the date and duration agree with those of the Jewish festival. Neither the Persian nor the Babylonian New-year is in the middle of the month of Adar. The word pur still remains unexplained, and the identification with the Assyrian puhru is doubtful. It is possible that the Jews may have combined with a foreign festival the recollection of a national event; but the change of a myth into a history so full of vigor is not credible. All their postexilic festivals are based upon historical events. On this account scholars like Ewald and Winer admit a historical kernel of the Esther-narrative, and are followed by Bertheau-Ryssel, Riehm, Oettli, and Driver.
6. Ethics of the Book. The ethical character of the book was also attacked, earlier even than its credibility. Greatly as it was esteemed by the Jews, whose national consciousness was flattered by the contents, the Christians became here more aware than in any other canonical book of the contrast of Christianity and particularistic Judaism. Luther with his usual freedom expressed a very adverse opinion, Semler's judgment was no less decisive, while De Wette, Block, and Zunz call attention to the spirit of pride and vengeance, and to the lack of piety in the book. But these reproaches involve an unjust estimate of the facts. The Jews of the book can not be charged with irreligiousness and impiety. Without the consciousness that God alone could save them and their people from danger, the fast by which Esther and the others prepared themselves for their heroic deed had no meaning; without unlimited trust in the faithfulness of the Lord, the heroic words of Mordecai, iv. 13-14, are inexplicable. The fact that the use of specifically religious language and reference to religious institutions is scanty is not a fault in a book read at a joyous feast, especially when those institutions were not important for the festival itself (cf. Riehm, TSK,1862, pp. 407 sqq.). The book is a product of the time when ancient Israel was about to pass into narrow external Judaism, intent more upon its self-preservation than upon the fulfilment of its destiny. The character of the events is purely national and recalls that of the Maccabean period, consequently the Purim-festival can not be equated with the great festivals of Israel, which are more comprehensive.
7. Its Canonicity. The canonicity of the book was challenged by the Jews, and the observance of the feast was objected to by eighty-five elders, as recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud. Among Christians the opposition was more lasting. In the Greek Church during the first four centuries it was counted by some (e.g., by Athanasius) among the deuterocanonical (Apocryphal) books of the Old Testament, but the Latin Church gave it canonical authority. The Septuagint placed it at the end of the historical books, enlarged by many additions (see APOCRYPHA, A, IV, 2). Jerome placed these additions at the end of his translation, as "Additions to Esther" among the Apocrypha.
C. VON ORELLI.