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Literature / Book of Esther

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Esther exposes the true enemy.

The Book of Esther tells the story of the titular heroine, a young woman who was taken to become a Persian Queen, while her cousin works in the kingís court. While there, a plot is made by the official Haman to murder all the Jews.

One of the fun and more exciting stories in The Bible, the events are commemorated by the uproarious festival of Purim, and the (surprisingly short) book is read in the synagogue that day at an atypically noisy session.

The Jewish and Protestant canon version of Esther is ten chapters long, with the tenth chapter ending at verse 3. The Vulgate version (which is based on the Greek) extended the story to about sixteen chapters, though these additions are interspersed into the original story in Catholic editions, bringing the chapter count back down to ten. It also changes the Persian king's name from Xerxes/Ahasuerus to Artaxerxes.

The story is the basis for the film One Night with the King, the VeggieTales episode "Esther: The Girl who Became Queen," and author Joan Wolf's romance novel The Reluctant Queen: The Love Story of Esther. It was also adapted into a politically charged Israeli film, titled Esther by Amos Gitai.

Structure of the book:

  • Mordecai's dream and a mention of King Artaxerxes' two traitors (Additions to Esther, Catholic Bibles only)
  • Vashti deposed as queen (Esther chapter 1)
  • Esther installed as new queen (Esther chapter 2)
  • Haman orders a pogrom against the Jews (Esther chapter 3; Catholic Bibles include the addition of the king's letter)
  • Mordecai pleads with Esther to speak to King Ahasuerus (Esther chapter 4; Catholic Bibles include both Mordecai and Esther's prayers to God)
  • Esther invites King Ahasuerus to a feast (Esther chapter 5; Catholic Bibles replace the first few verses of this chapter with a Greek addition)
  • Mordecai rewarded, and Haman humiliated (Esther chapter 6)
  • Haman exposed by Esther to King Ahasuerus (Esther chapter 7)
  • King Ahasuerus lets Esther write new orders to counter Haman's pogrom (Esther chapter 8; Catholic Bibles include the letter ordering the countermand)
  • Haman's pogrom defeated and origin of the holiday of Purim (Esther chapter 9)
  • Epilogue (Esther chapter 10; Catholic Bibles include Mordecai's explanation of the dream and a bit of further history regarding Purim)

Tropes present in the story:

  • Allowed Internal War: The king's Evil Chancellor Haman decrees that the Jews must be slaughtered, and makes this official with the king's own seal. The king is in love with Esther, but can't contradict an order bearing his seal, so instead he allows Esther to warn her people and arm themselves.
  • Anachronic Order:
    • In Christian canonical ordering, the Book of Esther comes after the Book of Nehemiah, even though its events come directly before. (In the Jewish ordering, Esther is grouped with the literary books and Nehemiah with the late historical books, in different subsections of the Bible.)
    • In the book itself, the last six chapters in the Greek version are written outside the order of the rest of the book, making reading it straight through make very little sense to the reader near the end.
  • Ancient Persia: Esther becomes Queen of Persia after marrying King Ahasuerus. Additionally, the whole reason Haman tries to kill all the Jews is because Mordechai, a Jew, refused to follow the Persian custom of proskynesis.
  • Aren't You Forgetting Someone?: King Ahasuerus asks Haman how he should honor somebody who's done a great service to him. Being the king's (arrogant) right-hand man, Haman thinks Ahasuerus means him. So he goes nuts describing all the great things that should happen to this 'unnamed hero'. Then he finds out that the honor is meant for his greatest enemy, Mordecai.
  • Artistic License Ė History: Although it's very clear there was a King Xerxes/Ahasuerus (actually, a couple of them, the one from this book usually identified as Xerxes I), history never says he had a primary wife by the name of Vashti. His primary queen was named Amestris. Although it's clear he had a Royal Harem full of other, "lesser" queens, there is no record of any "beauty contest" held to obtain them. He most likely obtained these wives and concubines in the same way that most kings of that time and place obtained their wives and concubines: through Altar Diplomacy. Nor did Amestris ever get divorced by him, or deposed from her position as queen.
  • Audience Participation: When the book is read aloud during Purim, audiences are expected to boo and jeer every time they hear the name of Haman (boooo!). Noisemakers are even provided just so we can be sure his name is properly drowned out.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: A longer version with all the girls (including Esther) selected for the contest.
  • Beauty Contest: Ahasuerus has a very elaborate one to choose the new queen. No surprises: the winner is Esther.
  • Bowdlerise: Many people hear the search for a queen portrayed as a beauty contest. While physical beauty was part of it, it was really more about who could "please the king" the most... in bed. In other words, it was more of a Casting Couch than a Beauty Contest. Also, these girls had little to no say in whether or not they actually joined the Royal Harem.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • If anyone visits the king without him having called for it, the visitor is to be killed unless the king decides it's one he's glad to see. Naturally, this puts a snag in Esther addressing to the king the matter of the Jews. Thankfully, though, she has her family, maidservants, and fellow Jews fast along with her so that things could turn out in her favor. (In the Greek additions to the story, Esther also prays to God for the sake of her seeking favor with the king to hear her request.)
    • When Haman finds out that Mordecai's reason for not bowing down to him is that Mordecai is a Jew, he decides to massacre all the Jews. Arguably averted, however, as Haman is called the Agagite, which might mean he was a descendant of the people of King Agag, the Amalekites (or figuratively, it might mean enemy of the Jews). In the Books of Samuel God had ordered King Saul to kill all the Amalekites, including children and livestock. Saul fell from grace with God and was replaced with David as king of the Israelites, after Saul had not followed God's orders rigorously enough.
  • Dream Intro: The Greek additions to the original story start with one for Mordecai. The last chapter ends with Mordecai's interpretation of the dream he had at the beginning.
  • Evil Chancellor: Haman is one of the earliest examples and one of the evilest.
  • Expose the Villain, Get His Job: After Haman has been put to death for trying to kill Esther's cousin, Mordecai, their family, and their race, Mordecai is given Haman's old job as royal advisor to the king.
  • Fainting: According to the Greek additions to the original story, Esther fainted when she went into the king's throne room on the third day to address the king in order to save her people.
  • False Rape Accusation: Haman fell upon the couch the queen was sitting on, begging for mercy after Esther revealed his plot to wipe out the Jews. When the King saw this, he accused Haman of trying to rape his wife and ordered him to be executed.
  • Farce: A very early example of the genre, with a buffoonish king, a comically evil villain, obvious Contrived Coincidences, and a feel-good happily-ever-after ending.
  • Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence: Haman's stated rationale for ordering a massacre of the Jews is, quote, "Their laws are different from those of every other people."
  • Final Solution: What Haman proposes regarding the Persian Jews.
  • Forgot I Could Change the Rules: Averted. The king is maneuvered into creating a law that would allow all the Jews to be massacred by Haman. When Queen Esther reveals to the king that she's Jewish herself and exposes Haman's plot, the law authorizing pogrom cannot be annulled, even by the king. However, there is nothing that prevents him from passing a new law enabling the Jewish population to defend themselves with state support.
  • Genocide Backfire: How Ahasuerus gets around the fact that he can't alter the law authorizing the pogrom: He adds an amendment saying that it's perfectly legal for the Jews to fight back against anyone who wants to kill them. Cue ass-kicking of anti-semites.
  • Guile Heroine: Esther is able to keep her head in stressful circumstances, and her courage saves her people.
  • Happily Adopted: The book states twice that after Esther's parents' death Mordecai, her cousin, "took her as his daughter." He remains by her side throughout the entire story.
  • Happily Ever Before: For one person; Xerxes's assassination is foiled in this book, but later he was eventually murdered by a court guard. There is also no mention of Esther outside of this book.
  • Hate Sink: Haman the Agagite, the Emperorís vizier, possibly lays the groundwork for characters who are designed to be loathed as much as possible, considering his narcissism, ambition and anti-Semitism. Haman forces citizens to bow to him, and is suggested to have embroidered a graven image into his clothing, essentially forcing them to worship an idol. When his fellow courtier, Mordecai the Judean, refuses to bow for this reason, Haman plots a genocide against the Jewish people, as well as personally building a gallows for Mordecai when the latter still refuses to bow. It is telling that a near-universal custom when reading Megillat Ester (the Hebrew name of the work) during the Jewish festival of Purim is to jeer and make noise when Hamanís name is mentioned, making him an odd religiously significant version of a character meant to draw ire from the audience.
  • Heel Realization: King Ahasuerus, after being scorned by his consort Queen Vashti and in a drunken state orders for her to be removed from her position as queen, even going so far as to have a law put in place that all wives of his empire must give respect unto their husbands, realizes what he had done after he recovers from the wine and his anger. Unfortunately, he also realizes that the law of the Medes and Persians states that any decree of the king that is made into official law cannot be revoked (which is later stated in Esther's plea to the king to have Haman's plan to exterminate the Jews revoked), so he has his servants go and find ten beautiful maidens that he could choose his next queen from, which eventually leads to Esther being that queen.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Haman builds a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. When his plot is discovered, Hangman Haman himself is hanged on it.
  • Humiliation Conga: Boy does Haman ever get his comeuppance! First is a Hitler-to-Jesse-Owens mission — he has to publicly honor his hated rival Mordecai, with an elaborate parade that Haman came up with when thinking he'd be the honoree. Then his fancy dinner with the king and queen turns out to be a set-up to expose him as the villain. When he tries to plead with the queen for his life, the king thinks he's trying to assault or rape her and sentences him to death right then and there. He winds up Hoist by His Own Petard on the gallows he built himself for Mordecai. Every detail of Haman's luck is really spiraling downhill. You almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The gallows that Haman builds (and gets hanged on at the end) was most likely an impaling stake, which was the usual Persian practice of the time. It was fifty cubits high— about 75 feet. Ouch.
  • Informed Judaism: Esther's Jewishness is a major plot point, but she apparently passed for a non-Jew well enough that her own husband was surprised to find out her ethnicity/religion. However, hiding her Jewishness from Ahasuerus before they get married is also part of Mordecai's plan. Possibly a more accurate example of this trope in the story would be the scholarly suggestion that Esther and Mordecai are secular Jews, rather than religious ones. See YMMV.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Mordecai tells Esther outright that the Jews will be saved regardless of her actions, because God won't allow otherwise to happen. Esther is the one who will suffer if she refuses to help.
  • Internal Reveal: A dramatic high point occurs when Esther reveals her Jewish identity to the King and Haman, which the readers have known all along.
  • Irrevocable Order: Ahasuerus informs Esther that the previous royal order to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire cannot be rescinded once issued, necessitating the Loophole Abuse method of issuing a second order allowing the Jews to defend themselves on the designated day.
  • I Owe You My Life: Mordecai reveals the plot to kill Ahasuerus, and the king later decides to reward him.
  • Jesus Taboo: Rather surprisingly for a book of The Bible, the story never once mentions the name of God. (At least not the Hebrew only version anyway; the Greek additions are another story.) It's generally accepted that the point is God can work behind the scenes In Mysterious Ways even when he is The Unseen.
  • "Just So" Story: There is no evidence Persia ever had a Jewish queen, and it's possible Esther was invented to explain the festival of Purim which already existed. No doubt, though, Xerxes was an actual Persian King, possibly the same one who is in 300 as a matter of fact.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Haman is furious when Mordecai refuses to bow to him, and decides to kill all the Jews to get revenge.
  • Last of His Kind: Haman the Agagite was believed to be the last of the Amalekites, whom God told His people to destroy completely. (Although the Greek additions change Haman to a Macedonian.) His fate was sealed when Esther revealed him before the king as the man that had plotted to destroy the Jews. His sons were also destroyed to make sure there would be no survivors.
  • Loophole Abuse: How Haman's planned massacre is ultimately prevented. Not even the king can rescind a royal decree once issued — but there's nothing preventing him from issuing a new decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves and, in their turn, take the property of those who tried to kill them.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: The girls selected for the harem are mentioned as being virgins (though some translate it simply as "teenage girls" whether they were actually virgins or not). Esther, in particular, is lauded for her chastity, which is described as being part of her beauty or appeal. note 
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Haman goes to ask the king for a death warrant for Mordecai, but gets sidetracked when Ahasuerus asks him what a good reward would be for a man who has done great service to the king. Haman, assuming that he's the honoree, proposes an elaborate public ceremony. Turns out the king was asking about Mordecai, and Haman is ordered to carry out his own plan to honor his hated rival. Humiliation Conga ensues.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Haman throws himself at Queen Esther to beg for his life, another thing that backfires. The king comes in at the wrong moment and assumes that Haman is trying to assault/rape her. This does not end well for Haman.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Ahasuerus calls in Haman to discuss how he should reward a man who has done a great service to the king. Haman assumes he's the one implied, only to find to his horror that the king actually meant Haman's hated rival Mordecai.
  • Original Position Fallacy: Haman being asked to think up a reward and assuming it's for himself is a textbook example.
  • Promoted to Parent: Mordecai has raised Esther after her parents died.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Esther pleads with Ahasuerus to cancel Haman's plans for genocide of her people. Ahasuerus tells her that nothing that is signed and sealed with the king's signet ring can be revoked, but also allows her to have new orders written that allow the Jews to defend themselves on the day the genocide would take place.
  • Plunder: Although the Jews who were allowed to defend themselves from Haman's forces on the day the genocide would take place were allowed by decree to take the property of their assailants as plunder for themselves, the Jews refuse to do so, proving that they were only interested in protecting themselves.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Ahasuerus holds a competition to find himself a beautiful wife to replace his divorced one Vashti.
  • Rags to Royalty: Esther gets hand-picked to be the queen.
  • Robbing the Dead: Part of the law Haman proposed was that anyone who killed a Jew was allowed to take their possessions. Averted when the law allowing the Jews to fight back was passed: While it contained a similar proviso, the Jews did not plunder those they killed.
  • Royal Harem: The home of all the women selected for the Beauty Contest.
  • Suddenly Ethnicity: To stop Haman's planned pogrom, Esther makes the big reveal that she's Jewish. Granted, the audience has known this all along, but her own husband is astonished to find out.
  • There Are No Coincidences: "It so happened" is a recurring line in this book.
  • Through His Stomach: Esther prepares two banquets for King Ahasuerus in order to gain his favor and listen to her petition to spare her people. It is at the second banquet that Esther exposes Haman as the adversary responsible for the plot against the Jews.
  • Toilet Seat Divorce: The king divorces Vashti because she refused to appear in public.
  • Top Wife: This role is first held by Vashti, until she refused her husband Ahasuerus's drunken request to parade before his party guests in her crown, and his advisors talked him into banishing her. Ahasuerus feels bad about that, but since he can't take it back, he holds a Beauty Contest (read: Casting Couch) to find a new queen. Young girls are brought to the palace, treated for a year with cosmetics and essential oils, and presented to him. Whichever one he likes best will be the Replacement Goldfish for Vashti, and everyone else stays in the Royal Harem (seeing as they're now unavailable to anyone else). It so happened that the one chosen was the eponymous Esther.
  • Trophy Wife: Esther is chosen to be King Ahasuerus's queen to replace the banished Vashti. An atypical example both because Esther was forced into it, and, though chosen largely for her looks, she actually turns out to be a Guile Heroine who uses her position to save her people from genocide.
  • Unkempt Beauty: Esther is one of many young women being inspected by the king as a new bride, and each of them is allowed to take whatever they want with them when they're presented. However, Esther doesn't take "anything but what Hegai, the kingís eunuch, guardian of the women, advised." She's nonetheless noted to impress everyone who looks at her, and the king chooses her as his new queen.
  • The Unseen: God is never once mentioned, but the story serves as a great example of Him placing the right people in places where they'll eventually be needed.
  • Villains Want Mercy: Haman begs Esther to save his life. It backfires when Ahasuerus catches him throwing himself at her while on her bed.
  • Wife Husbandry: Subverted as Mordecai doesn't marry Esther, even though he's supposed to as a kinsman redeemer who raised Esther as his own daughter. She marries King Ahasuerus instead.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Esther is declared to be this by Ahasuerus.
  • You Can Leave Your Hat On: A literal case, at least implied. The previous queen, Vashti, is asked to parade before Ahasuerus' drunken party guests wearing her royal crown — the insinuation being, only her crown. Her refusal sets the story in motion.