The Book of Esther recounts the story of Purim, telling of how the Jews of Persia were saved from destruction. During the time of King Ahasuerus, one of his ministers, Haman, sought to destroy the Jews in revenge for being snubbed by the Jew Mordecai, who refused to bow down to him. With the king’s authority, he draws lots (pur) to determine the fateful day, which falls on the 13th of the month of Adar.
Learning of this decree, Mordecai approaches the new queen, his cousin Esther, to intercede with the king. Esther, who has not revealed her Judaism publicly, fasts for three days in preparation for this task. At a banquet for the king and Haman, she denounces the evil Haman, who is eventually hanged. Because a royal decree cannot be rescinded–
including the decree ordering the extermination of the Jews–Mordecai must send another decree to all the provinces. This letter authorizes the Jews to protect themselves from their enemies. The days following the Jews’ struggle with their enemies (the 14th and 15th of Adar) are declared days of feasting and merrymaking, today celebrated as Purim.
The Beginnings of Purim
Although it provides the blueprint for the festival of Purim, the origins of the Book of Esther remain obscure. The text’s style of Hebrew and its lack of corroborating historical information from ancient Persia suggest that the Book of Esther was not authored until well after the time it claims to describe. Nonetheless, the Book of Esther does contain many parallels to various ancient Near Eastern and Greek myths, particularly those of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar.
Some scholars argue that the Book of Esther adapted stories about these pagan gods–Marduk becoming Mordecai and Ishtar transformed to Esther–to reflect the realities of its own Jewish authors in exile. The period of Greek hegemony in the Land of Israel seems to have offered the social, cultural, and political circumstances for the development of this reinterpreted mythology. The actual text of the Book of Esther is thought to be of late Second Temple authorship, being amongst the latest books to enter the Bible, alongside Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Daniel.
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