Queen Esther's Story and Jewish Purim Holiday

Her History Is Doubtful, But Her Holiday of Purim Is Fun

Esther Feasts with the King, painting by James Tissot
Esther Feasts with the King, painting by James Tissot.

SuperStock / Getty Images 

One of the most well-known heroines in the Jewish Bible is Queen Esther, who became the king of Persia's consort and thereby had the means to save her people from slaughter. The Jewish holiday of Purim, which typically falls sometime in March, tells Esther's story.

Queen Esther Was a Jewish 'Cinderella'

In many ways, Esther's story – known as the Book of Esther in the Christian Old Testament and the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther in the Jewish Bible – reads like a Cinderella tale.

The story begins with the Persian ruler Ahasuerus, a figure often associated with the Persian monarch known by his Greek name, Xerxes. The king was so proud of his beautiful queen, Vashti, that he ordered her to appear unveiled before the country's princes at a feast. Since appearing unveiled was the social equivalent of being physically naked, Vashti refused. The king was enraged, and his counselors urged him to make an example of Vashti so that other wives wouldn't become disobedient like the queen.

Thus poor Vashti was executed for defending her modesty. Then Ahasuerus ordered the comely virgins of the land to be brought to court, to undergo a year of preparation in the harem (talk about extreme makeovers!). Each woman was brought before the king for examination and returned to the harem to await his second summons. From this array of lovelies, the king chose Esther to be his next queen.

Esther Hid Her Jewish Heritage

What Ahasuerus didn't know was that his next queen was actually a nice Jewish girl named Hadassah ("myrtle" in Hebrew), who had been brought up by her uncle (or possibly cousin), Mordecai. Hadassah's guardian counseled her to hide her Jewish heritage from her royal husband.

This proved fairly easy since, upon her selection as the next queen, Hadassah's name was changed to Esther. According to The Jewish Encyclopedia, some historians interpret the name Esther to be a derivation of the Persian word for "star" denoting her ascendancy. Others suggest that Esther was derived from Ishtar, the mother goddess of Babylonian religion.

Either way, Hadassah's makeover was complete, and as Esther, she wed King Ahasuerus.

Enter the Villain: Haman the Prime Minister

About this time, Ahasuerus appointed Haman to be his prime minister. There soon was bad blood between Haman and Mordecai, who cited religious reasons for refusing to bow down to Haman as custom demanded. Rather than going after Mordecai alone, the prime minister told the king that the Jews living in Persia were worthless scoundrels who deserved to be annihilated. Haman promised to give the king 10,000 silver pieces in exchange for a royal decree allowing him to slaughter not only Jewish men, but women and children as well.

Then Haman cast the "pur," or lot, to determine the date of the slaughter, and it fell upon the 13th day of the Jewish month of Adar.

Mordecai Found Out the Plot

However, Mordecai found out Haman's plot, and he tore his clothes and put ashes on his face in grief, as did other Jews he'd alerted. When Queen Esther learned of her guardian's distress, she sent him clothes but he refused them. Then she sent one of her guards to find out the trouble and Mordecai told the guard everything of Haman's plot.

Mordecai begged Queen Esther to intercede with the king on behalf of her people, uttering some of the Bible's most famous words: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Queen Esther Braved the King's Decree

There was only one problem with Mordecai's request: By law, no one could come into the king's presence without his permission, even his wife. Esther and her Jewish compatriots fasted for three days in order for her to get up her courage. Then she put on all her best finery and approached the king without a summons. Ahasuerus extended his royal scepter to her, indicating that he accepted her visit. When the king asked Esther want she wanted, she said she came to invite Ahasuerus and Haman to feast.

On the second day of banquets, Ahasuerus offered Esther anything she wanted, even half his kingdom. Instead, the queen begged for her life and that of all the Jews in Persia, revealing to the king Haman's plots against them, especially Mordecai. Haman was executed in the same manner planned for Mordecai. With the king's agreement, the Jews rose up and slaughtered Haman's henchmen on the 13th day of Adar, the day originally planned for the Jews' annihilation, and plundered their goods. Then they feasted for two days, the 14th and 15th of Adar, to celebrate their rescue.

King Ahasuerus remained delighted with Queen Esther and named her guardian Mordecai to be his prime minister in the villain Haman's place.

In their article on Esther in The Jewish Encyclopedia, scholars Emil G. Hirsch, John Dyneley Prince and Solomon Schechter state unequivocally that the biblical record of the Book of Esther can't be considered historically accurate, even though it's a thrilling tale of how Queen Esther of Persia saved the Jewish people from annihilation.

For starters, the scholars say it's highly unlikely that Persian nobles would have permitted their king to elevate both a Jewish queen and a Jewish prime minister. The scholars cite other factors that tend to refute Book of Esther's historicity:

* The author never mentions God, to whom Israel's deliverance is attributed in every other Old Testament book. Biblical historians say this omission supports a later origin for Esther, probably the Hellenistic period when Jewish religious observance had waned, as shown in other biblical books from the same era such as Ecclesiastes and Daniel.

* The author couldn't have been writing during the height of the Persian Empire because exaggerated descriptions of the royal court and uncomplimentary tales of a king who is mentioned by name. At least, he couldn't have written such critical descriptions and lived to tell the tale.

Scholars Debate History Versus Fiction

In an article for the Journal of Biblical Literature, “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling,” scholar Adele Berlin also writes about the scholarly concerns over Esther's historical accuracy. She outlines the work of several scholars in distinguishing authentic history from fiction in biblical texts. Berlin and other scholars concur that Esther is probably a historical novella, that is, a work of fiction that incorporates accurate historical settings and details.

Like historical fiction today, the Book of Esther could have been written as an instructive romance, a way to encourage Jews facing oppression from Greeks and Romans. In fact, scholars Hirsch, Prince and Schechter go so far as to argue that the sole object of the Book of Esther was to provide some "back story" for the Feast of Purim, whose antecedents are obscure because it corresponds to no recorded Babylonian or Hebrew festival.

Contemporary Purim Observance Is Fun

Today's observances of Purim, the Jewish holiday commemorating Queen Esther's story, are likened to those of Christian festivals such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carinvale in Rio de Janeiro. Although the holiday has a religious overlay involving fasting, giving to the poor, and reading the Megillah of Esther twice in the synagogue, the focus for most Jews is on the fun of Purim. Holiday practices include exchanging gifts of food and drink, feasting, holding beauty pageants and watching plays in which costumed children act out the story of brave and beautiful Queen Esther, who saved the Jewish people.


Hirsch, Emil G., with John Dyneley Prince and Solomon Schechter, "Esther," The Jewish Encyclopedia http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=483&letter=E&search=Esther#ixzz1Fx2v2MSQ

Berlin, Adele, “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling,” Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 120, Issue No. 1 (Spring 2001).

Souffer, Ezra, "The History of Purim," The Jewish Magazine, http://www.jewishmag.com/7mag/history/purim.htm

The Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press, 1994).

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Astle, Cynthia. "Queen Esther's Story and Jewish Purim Holiday." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/queen-esther-saved-the-jewish-people-116362. Astle, Cynthia. (2021, September 16). Queen Esther's Story and Jewish Purim Holiday. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/queen-esther-saved-the-jewish-people-116362 Astle, Cynthia. "Queen Esther's Story and Jewish Purim Holiday." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/queen-esther-saved-the-jewish-people-116362 (accessed June 10, 2023).