Esther is a controversial book. There is no reference to God, a Jewish woman married a pagan king, and the Jews initiated the Feast of Purim—the only biblical festival not commanded by God. The events of Esther took place during the period contemporary with Ezra and Nehemiah.
The initial scenes of the book set the stage for the drama of the whole. King Ahasuerus was an opulent ruler (Esth 1:1-12). In the third year of his rule, he held a feast that lasted five months. In the presence of his officials, the king displayed his great wealth. This period concluded with a seven-day feast, at which wine was flowing freely, and no one was in want. At the end of the weeklong banquet, Ahasuerus sent seven of his attendants to bring his wife, Queen Vashti “to show off her beauty to the people and the officials, because she was very beautiful” (Esth 1:11). But against all customs of the day, Vashti refused and “the king became furious and his anger burned within him” (Esth 1:12).
Ahasuerus consulted with the wise men of Persia to determine the legal censure appropriate for the Queen’s rebellion (Esth 1:13-22). Memucan proposed that Vashti’s rebellion could have consequences throughout the kingdom; if the Queen could rebel against the great King Ahasuerus, then would not the common women of the kingdom do the same? The only suitable punishment, the counselors concluded, was to banish and replace Vashti—“so all women will honor their husbands, from the least to the greatest” (Esth 1:20). The king agreed.
Ahasuerus set forth a process to find a new queen (Esth 2:1-21). As the king’s commissioners searched for beauty, they happened upon Esther. Esther was in legal custody of her uncle, Mordecai, a Benjamite who had been exiled to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. Immediately the king was struck by Esther’s appearance; he “accelerated the process of the beauty treatments and the special diet that she received” (Esth 2:9). Since being the adopted child of an exiled Jew may have hindered Esther’s chance to become queen, Esther and Mordecai kept their proud lineage to themselves (Esth 2:10-11). Even though Esther refused any extra ornamentation to attract the king’s attention, she “won approval in the sight of everyone who saw her” (Esth 2:15)—including the king, who made her his bride (Esth 2:16-18). Yet, under the advice of her uncle, even when Esther was made queen, she did not tell the king that she was the adopted daughter of an exiled Jew.
In time, Mordecai rose to prominence by saving the king’s life (Esth 2:21-23). When Mordecai learned of an assassination plot by two of the king’s eunuchs, he informed Queen Esther, and she told the King of the eunuchs’ plan. The actions of the Queen’s uncle were so noteworthy that “this event was recorded in the court records of daily events in the king’s presence” (Esth 2:23). Mordecai was steadfast in devotion to God, a stance that would jeopardize all Jews. In time, the king honored one of his servants, Haman, promoting him to a position of prominence and even requiring all at the King’s gate to bow and pay him homage. Mordecai refused; he informed others at the gate that he was a devout Jew (Esth 3:3-4). Haman was furious at being spurned by one so lowly as Mordecai. But he went further: “He set out to destroy all of Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout Ahasuerus’ kingdom” (Esth 3:6). He informed the king that it was “not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them” (Esth 3:8) since they operated by different laws than the Persians and refused to honor the king’s decrees. If the actions of Vashti could lead to upheaval, those of Mordecai no less. The king agreed and took every legal recourse for the destruction of the Jews throughout Persia, to commence on the thirteenth day of Adar, the twelfth month (Esth 3:12-15).
From the moment when God called Abraham in Genesis 12 to Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land in Joshua 3, God demonstrated His faithfulness to His chosen people. Israel’s privileged status was the fulcrum of the drama in Esther 1-3. Though Israel had enjoyed God’s special providence at so many points in their history, many in Israel failed to recognize Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Ironically, the Jewish leadership understood Jesus’ life and ministry to be a threat to their national standing in the Roman Empire. Israel’s privileged status can thus also be understood as the fulcrum of the storyline of Scripture. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, many Jews, John wrote, began to follow Jesus. Jesus’ popularity threatened the Jewish leadership’s grip on national identity maintenance in the Roman Empire. They gathered the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do since this man does many signs? If we let Him continue in this way, everybody will believe in Him! Then the Romans will come and remove both our place and our nation” (John 11:47-48).