A Brief Synopsis of the Book of Esther
The Book of Esther opens with a description of an enormous 180-day party thrown by King Achashverosh in his 3rd year as king of the Persian Empire, ruling over 127 provinces. As the days of feasting draw to a close, he summons his wife, Vashti, to show off her beauty (by appearing wearing only her crown!). But Vashti refuses to come and the king, following his ministers’ advice, has her banished.
As time passes, Achashverosh realizes the consequences of his actions and misses his queen. The deed, however, is done. Seeing that their ruler regretted the action that they suggested, the ministers propose that he find a new queen via an elaborate beauty contest of all the kingdom’s beautiful maidens. From all over the 127 provinces, beautiful women are brought to the palace for the king to select his new queen.
In Shushan, the capital city, lives a beautiful Jewess named Esther (also called Hadassah). She is an orphan who was raised by her uncle, Mordechai, one of the leaders of the Jewish people in exile. When they come to take her to the palace, Mordechai, insightfully instructs her not to reveal that she is a Jewess or who her family is. Needless to say, after a 12 month process, Esther is deemed the fairest of them all. “The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she carried charm and favor before him more than all the other virgins, so he placed the royal crown on her head, and made her queen in place of Vashti”(Esther 2:17).
While Mordechai does not reveal his relationship to the new queen, he frequents the palace gates to hear news of Esther’s well being. One day he overhears two men plotting to murder the king and he quickly sends word to Esther, who reveals the plot to the king in the name of Mordechai. The plotters are caught and executed, and Mordechai ‘s name and deed are written in the king’s Book of Chronicles.
In the meantime, Achashverosh appoints Haman the Agagite (An Amalekite -click here) as Prime Minister and issues a decree that all should bow to him. Mordechai refuses to bow down before Haman. [The Midrash informs us that Haman wore a necklace with a large idol, which is one reason Mordechai refused to bow before him.] Mordechai’s refusal infuriates Haman. Already driven by his family’s historic hatred of the Jewish people, Haman goes to King Achashverosh (with 10,000 silver pieces) and asks for permission to destroy the Jews. He presents the issue to the king as a matter of loyalty, saying “There is a certain people, scattered and spread out among the peoples in all the states of your kingdom, their laws are different from other peoples and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not worth it for the king to leave them alive” (Esther 3:8). The king agrees and issues an edict to all 127 provinces saying that on the 13th of Adar, the Jews in all the provinces are to be exterminated and their property kept as plunder.
Upon hearing this vile edict, Mordechai dons sackcloth and ashes. He quickly sends word to Esther that she must go to the king and stop this horrible decree from becoming reality. Esther, however, is afraid to approach the king. It is known that anyone who approaches the king without being summoned faces the chance of death. But Mordechai sees the bigger picture and tells Esther “Do not imagine that [you can] save yourself in the king’s palace from the fate of all the Jews. For if you indeed keep silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and your father’s household will perish. And who knows that but for a time like this you are in a royal position?!”(Esther 4:13-14) Summoning all of her courage, Esther agrees to go to the king but she first asks Mordechai to request all the Jews to fast for three days and repent for their own sins while praying for the heavenly decree against them to be reversed.
With great trepidation and dressed in her most beautiful robes, Esther approaches King Achashverosh. As she walks towards his throne she prays that G-d has taken into account the three days of fasting and repentance and has nullified His decree against the Jews. Seeing the beautiful queen, the king holds out his golden scepter, a sign that she is welcome in his court, and offers to grant her any request. Modestly, Esther requests only that Achashverosh and his Prime Minister Haman join her for a private feast. Pleased at her minimal request, which shows him that she was a wise choice as queen, the King agrees. Haman is summoned and the three dine together. At the end of the feast, the king once again tells her to ask whatever she would of him and she only requests that the king and Haman join her for a second feast on the following day.
After the private feast, Haman sets out for his home well pleased with the great favor shown to him by the queen. On his way, however, he passes Mordechai, who once again refuses to bow, reigniting Haman’s fury. By the time Haman reaches his home, he is crazed with anger at Mordechai’s refusal to bow – after all, he is Haman, second to the king and so beloved even by the queen! He tells his wife, Zeresh, and his gathered friends “Even Queen Esther did not bring anyone else with the king except me, to the feast she prepared, and tomorrow as well, I am invited to her feast with the king. All this is worth nothing to me, every time I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate!”(Esther 5:12-13) . Zeresh, who equals her husband in wickedness, suggests that Haman immediately build a gallows on which to hang Mordechai personally. This Haman does, with the assistance of his ten sons.
That night, King Achashverosh is unable to sleep. After tossing and turning, he calls for his ministers to bring him the Book of Chronicles and read it to him. The section is read that recalls the great service rendered to him by Mordechai for uncovering the plot on the king’s life and Achashverosh realizes that he has never rewarded Mordechai. Just as the king is deciding how to best reward a man who has saved his life, Haman enters. He has come, after building the gallows, to ask the king for permission to hang Mordechai. Before he can speak, however, the king asks his opinion on how the king can best honor a most loyal subject. Thinking that the king is referring to him, Haman suggests that the king dress the subject in the king’s finest robes and have him led around town on the king’s steed. Pleased with the suggestion, he orders Haman to dress Mordechai in the finest royal robes and to lead him around Shushan on his best stallion.
After returning home feeling thoroughly humiliated, Haman is summoned to the palace to dine with the King and Queen. As the banquet comes to a close, Esther tells the king that someone seeks her death and the death of her people. Outraged, the king demands to know who this man is. Esther reveals her identity as a Jew and identifies Haman as the archenemy. Overcome by anger, the king went out to “the garden orchard, while Haman stood up to plead for his life from Queen Esther…The king then returned from the garden orchard to the wine feast chamber, [just as] Haman was falling on the couch on which Esther was lying. The king said, ‘Does he also intend to assault the queen in my presence here in the palace?!’” (Esther 7:7-8) The king will not be placated, and Haman is hanged from the very gallows that he built for Mordechai.
Achashverosh now sees the damage that his late Prime Minister has caused and appoints Mordechai as his new Prime Minister. The very first edict that Mordechai and Esther issue grants the Jews the right to defend themselves against those who try to harm them.
When the 13th of Adar arrives, the Jews successfully defeat their enemies throughout the provinces, although in Shushan the battle continues throughout the day of the 14th of Adar. The ten sons of Haman are killed and their bodies are hanged publicly. When their enemies are vanquished, the Jews celebrate their survival with great feasts, thus the 14th (outside of Shushan) and the 15th are the days for celebrating Purim.
Mordechai, as the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, and Esther, declare that henceforth the 14th of Adar shall be a day of feasting in all of the outlying provinces, but the 15th shall be a day of feasting in the city of Shushan, for these were the days on which the threat was abated. (The Great Sages amended this to give honor to the city of Jerusalem so that all cities which had walls at the time Joshua conquered the land of Canaan were given the same status as Shushan, thus in Jerusalem Jews celebrate Shushan Purim on the 15th.) Mordechai also codified the particular practices of the holiday of Purim: the reading of the Megillah, the festive meal, gifts of food and charity to the poor.
“King Achashverosh then imposed a tax on the mainland and on the sea islands. And the entire account of his power and might, and the details of Mordechai’s greatness which the king promoted, are indeed recorded in the Book of Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia. For Mordechai the Jew was King Achashverosh’s viceroy, the leader of the Jews, and accepted by most of his brethren, promoting his people’s welfare and preaching peace for all their descendants” (Esther 10).
Important Characters in the Book of Esther
To understand the story of Esther, it is important to know a little more about the major players in the story.
Achashverosh: While some historian’s correlate Achashverosh to Cambys, son of Cyrus, or as the son of Darius the Mede, tradition identifies him as a pretender to the throne who gained power through deceit and/or bribery. No matter how Achashverosh achieved his kingship, he ruled over a vast kingdom, yet the Megillah itself shows us what sort of ruler he was. From the outset, it is apparent that he is easily swayed by the opinions of others. In the first chapter, he demands that Vashti come to the men’s party to display her beauty. Like a child, he must prove that he has the best. Nor is it Achashverosh’s own idea that she be banished when she refuses to come. He is angry, but it is his ministers who tell him that she must be gotten rid of, lest the women throughout the kingdom stop following the orders of their husbands! In fact, it is even the king’s servants who suggest how he find a new wife. Throughout the Megillah, one very rarely sees Achashverosh making a decision for himself. Achashverosh’s waffling (indetermination) is particularly apparent in his rewarding Mordechai for saving the king’s life, even though he had recently signed a decree to murder all of the Jews.
Another important aspect of Achashverosh’s character is his jealousy. The Midrash explains that one of the reasons Esther invited Haman to the private feast was to arouse the king’s suspicions. Indeed one Midrash notes that the reason that the king could not sleep that night because he was worried over the implications of Esther inviting Haman. One can only imagine his reaction when he returned to the room and saw Haman on the couch of the queen, even if he had accidently fallen there!
Vashti: By marrying Vashti, Achashverosh legitimized his right to the throne. Vashti was the daughter of Bal’shatzar (the last Babylonian king who was defeated by Darius and Cyrus) and the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzer (who destroyed the First Holy Temple and Jerusalem). As a descendant of this evil line, Vashti was the epitome of wickedness and licentiousness. In fact, the Midrash teaches that she did not refuse to come before the king because of modesty, but because her beauty was marred by a sudden affliction of a skin disease (leprosy). Had she not been thus afflicted, she would not have limited her behavior in any way. The Midrash also teaches us that while she was only 12 when her father was murdered by Darius the Mede (she was 18 at the time of Achashverosh’s party), she had already been inculcated with a deep hatred for the Jews. According to traditional sources, Queen Vashti used to force her Jewish maidservants to scrub the palace floors on Shabbat.
Mordechai: A descendant of King Saul (from the tribe of Benjamin), Mordechai was a prophet and a member of the Sanhedrin (the supreme court) in Jerusalem before the exile. He was considered one of the greatest Torah leaders of his generation and the Jews in exile looked to him for guidance.
Esther: Esther was a prophetess who possessed exceptional beauty and modesty. Esther was actually her Persian name, her Hebrew name was Hadassah, which means myrtle branch. She lived in the palace of the king without revealing her Jewish identity, which is alluded to by her Persian name, Esther, which means ‘hidden’ in Hebrew. After the Jews were saved, Esther helped Mordechai send out letters to all of the provinces instructing them on the commemoration of Purim. According to tradition, King Darius II, who allows the Jews to rebuild the Holy Temple, was the son of Esther and Achashverosh.
Haman: Haman is introduced in the Megillah as an Agagite, referring to his lineage as a descendant of Agag. Agag was the last king of Amalek, the national archenemy of the Jewish people. While the Amalekite nation was destroyed by King Saul (Samuel I), Saul disobeyed G-d’s commandment and had mercy on Agag, allowing him to live. When the prophet Samuel heard of this he was furious and killed Agag himself, but the damage was already done, for Agag had enough time to sow the seeds of future generations. For more information on Agag and the Amalekites, click here. Haman was married to Zeresh and they had ten sons and, according to the Midrash, one daughter, as well. His ten sons were hanged and his daughter committed suicide.
Zeresh: The wife of Haman is considered to be equal in wickedness to her husband. In fact, during the reading of the Megillah, many also boo and hiss when her name is read. Zeresh and Haman are prototypes for ‘like-marrying-like.’ What was important in their lives was honor and power, but only complete honor and power, as seen by their hatred of Mordechai. The Megillah shows Zeresh’s great importance in mentioning her as Haman’s consultant, demonstrating that they were as one in their thirst for power and their desire to destroy the Jews. Zeresh, however, was wise enough to see that the king’s order for Haman to lead Mordechai through Shushan as a certain sign that he is about to lose to the Jews, for she says: “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is a descendant of the Jews, you will not be able to harm him, for you will surely fall before him” (Esther 6:13).