After writing about the book of Esther in “Ruth, Esther, and Judith,” I wrote the following Afterword about the book.
Esther is in no way similar to what many think the book contains.
Perhaps most noteworthy about the book of Esther is that it contains no mention of God and no indication that the Judeans observed any biblical command. Even when the Judeans fasted because of Esther’s request, no mention is made that they prayed for divine aid. As we saw, this failure to state that they observed the Torah bothered the Jewish community and many imaginative additions to the book were invented to supply the missing religious content.
In addition, our study has revealed numerous points that run counter to popular conception:
- Esther was not a heroine. She repeatedly expressed hesitation from the moment that Mordecai requested that she speak to the king to save the Judeans from Haman’s decree, to every encounter she later had with the king. She needed the assurance gained by having people fast for her safety. It appears that she was unable to talk to Ahasuerus when she approached him after the fast because she feared for her life, so instead of revealing why she came she invited him and Haman to a feast. Even at the feast, she was hesitant and stalled by inviting the pair to a second feast.
- Mordecai is the hero of Purim. It is he, not Esther, whom the book praises in its conclusion. According to II Maccabees 15:36, Adar 14 was called the “Day of Mordecai.”
- Purim today is not celebrated as Mordecai asked the people to do, and as they agreed to do. The original holiday was observed for two days, on Adar 14–15. Later, for unknown reasons, it was changed to a single- day holiday observed on Adar 15 in walled cities such as Jerusalem and on Adar 14 elsewhere.
- Both Esther’s and Mordecai’s names, although considered Jewish names today, are Persian names most likely based on the idols Ishtar and Marduk.
- Purim, too, is not a Hebrew word. The book had to define pur as a lottery. Thus, the holiday’s name is based on Haman’s superstitious notion that a lottery could reveal the auspicious day for exterminating Judeans.
- The Hebrew noun used for Judeans, Yehudim, is obscure. It could refer to the descendants of the tribe of Judah, which was the principle tribe of the time – and therefore for simplicity’s sake, all were called by this name. Alternatively, it could be translated as “Jews.” While the name “Jews” was derived from Judean, there is no certainty that the people were called Jews at that time.
- The primary practices of Purim include feasting, drinking alcohol, and sending gifts. This reflects how the pagan Ahasuerus celebrated. He had banquets with much alcohol and shared the food and drink with his people. There is nothing Jewish about this kind of celebration. The notion that people should drink so much that they cannot distinguish Mordecai from Haman, which is mentioned in the Talmud, is also pagan. It reminds us of how Ahasuerus was so inebriated that he dismissed his wife Vashti, even though he considered her so beautiful that he wanted to show her off to his people.
- The requirement to read the book of Esther during the holiday is not mentioned in the book and was instituted later.
- Yet, Purim reminds Jews that despite many persecutions Jews will never disappear, a fact that even Haman’s wife is reported to recognize in this book.