Esther (אֶסְתֵּר, Standard Hebrew Ester, Tiberian Hebrew ʾEstēr) was a woman in the Hebrew Bible, the queen of Ahasuerus (commonly identified with Xerxes I or Artaxerxes II), and heroine of the Biblical Book of Esther which is named after her.
According to the Book of Esther she was a Jewish woman originally named Hadassah. When she entered the royal harem she received the name Esther by which she was hence forth known. Hadassah means "myrtle" in Hebrew and the name Esther is most likely related to the Median word for myrtle, astra and the Persian word satarah meaning star — the myrtle blossom resembles a twinkling star.
Esther can be also be understood to mean "hidden" in Hebrew, and her name is interpreted thus in Midrash, where it is told that Esther hid her nationality and lineage as Mordecai had advised. In addition God's workings are hidden in the events of the Book of Esther even though he is never mentioned explicitly.
The Targum provides another Midrashic explanation claiming that she was as beautiful as the Evening Star, which is astara in Greek. Critics of the historicity of the Book of Esther attempt to derive the name from Ishtar, the pagan goddess associated with the Evening Star, although the usual Hebrew rendition of the latter name is the phonetically unrelated Ashtoreth. The names may nevertheless be coincidentally related, as the Semitic name Ishtar may share a common origin with Indo-European words for star.
Esther was the daughter of Abihail, a Benjamite. She resided with her cousin Mordecai, who held some office in the household of the Persian king at "Shushan in the palace."
Ahasuerus, having rid himself of Vashti, chose Esther to be his wife and queen. Soon after this he gave Haman the Agagite, his prime minister, power and authority to kill and extirpate all the Jews throughout the Persian empire. By the interposition of Esther this terrible catastrophe was averted. Haman was hanged on the gallows he had intended for Mordecai; and the Jews established an annual feast, the feast of Purim, in memory of their wonderful deliverance. According to traditional Jewish dating this took place about fifty-two years after the Return.
Esther appears in the Bible as a woman of deep piety, faith, courage, patriotism, and caution, combined with resolution; a dutiful daughter to her adopted father, docile and obedient to his counsels, and anxious to share the king's favour with him for the good of the Jewish people. That she was raised up as an instrument in the hand of God to avert the destruction of the Jewish people, and to afford them protection and forward their wealth and peace in their captivity, is also manifest from the Scripture account.
There is some debate as to whether Esther really lived. Some believe that she did. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Xerxes sought his harem after being defeated in the Greco-Persian Wars. He makes no reference to individual members of the Harem with the exception of domineering Queen consort Amestris.
Others associate the story with the Babylonian god Marduk and his consort Ishtar, suggesting similarities of the Jewish festival of Purim with a conjectural Elamite festival. Purim marks the rescue of the Jews by Esther and Mordecai while the Elamite festival is said to mark the victory of Marduk and Ishtar over rivals said to be named Uman (or variations of this, similar to Haman) and Mashti (similar to Vashti), suggesting that "Esther" and "Mordecai" are simply Hebrew forms of "Ishtar" and "Marduk". The custom of preparing hamantaschen is reminiscent of a description of Ishtar in Jeremiah 7:18, when it was customary "to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven." In this view, the story is "historic fiction" with no basis in fact, but intended as an allegory or "teaching story", and ultimately dependent on Chaldean mythology. Critics of this view point out that nothing is known with certainty about Elamite religion and that such a festival as well as the names Uman and Mashti are purely conjectural. In addition phonetic difficulties exist in attempting to relate the names Esther and Ishtar, and hamantaschen originated amongst Jews of Eastern Europe in relatively recent times.
Last updated: 05-21-2005 10:23:40