To-day Jews in every land pay reverence at the Feast of Purim to the beautiful woman who saved their nation from destruction more than two thousand years ago. In Jewish homes there is feasting and gaiety, and at the Synagogue the Book of Esther is read aloud to keep green the memory of the patriot queen.
Throughout the centuries scholars and divines have questioned the historical authenticity of the story, and have disputed over its authorship, but, despite criticism and disparagement, it has continued to hold its place in the sacred Scriptures. Even Luther, though he protested against its "heathenish improprieties," and suspected its Judaising tendencies, could find no valid reason to exclude the Book of Esther from the canon. So full of nobility is the heroine, and so suggestive the story of Divine intervention on behalf of persecuted Israel, that Christian and Jew alike have agreed in accepting the book as inspired writing.
The figure of Esther appears in the firmament of history like a bright star illuminating the dark cloud which hung over her people, the darkest which ever Israel had known. They were scattered throughout the provinces of the Persian Empire as captives and slaves, and those who sought power or independence were driven to conceal their nationality. Esther, when she was sent to the palace of Shushan, was cautioned to conceal her parentage. She was an orphan, the daughter of Abihail, of the tribe of Benjamin, and had been received into the household of her cousin Mordecai, who "took her for his own daughter." The "maid was fair and beautiful," and her adopted father entertained great expectations for her future.
Ahasuerus, a mighty potentate, sat at this time upon the throne of Persia, and ruled over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, extending from India even unto Ethiopia. At the time when our story opens the nobles and princes of all these dominions were gathered together in Shushan, the capital city, to feast with the king. He was at the zenith of his power as an Eastern monarch, an autocrat of the autocrats, steeped in voluptuous living. All yielded him abject obedience, save one proud and beautiful woman, Vashti, the queen.
She refused to display her charms to his princely guests, who, like the king, were merry with wine. Ahasuerus could ill brook a revolting wife. Within the seclusion of the harem he might have been lenient to the caprices of a beautiful favourite, but Vashti had openly defied him.
This was intolerable; for the princes and nobles would return to the provinces with the astonishing news, and the ladies of Persia and Media, copying the queen's deed, would also defy their husbands. Thus argued the king and his wise men, and they promptly nipped the first assertion of the rights of woman in the bud. Vashti was dethroned.
Such is the stirring prelude which introduces our beautiful heroine into the drama enacted at the palace of Shushan. Our sympathy follows into exile the chaste and noble queen who sacrificed a crown rather than degrade her womanhood. We have, too, some shred of admiration for Ahasuerus, for though he had been driven by circumstances to banish the noble Vashti, he chose another good and heroic woman to fill her place. The throne of Persia was indeed honoured in its queens.
Esther, the fair Jewess, her nationality as yet unknown, has now been brought, through the influence of her adopted father, Mordecai, to the women's house of the palace, and finds favour with the king above all the other maidens introduced to his notice. "And the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti."
The universal conception of Esther, whether by poet or painter, is of a sweet, graceful, beautiful girl, timid and retiring by nature, but capable of great heroism when her patriotic sentiments were roused. The latent fire of a noble race, whom oppression could not conquer, stirred the blood in her veins, and the memory of genera-tions of heroic ancestors shone in her glorious eyes. She now lived in luxury in the palace of Shushan, the idolised bride of the mighty king.
Gorgeous apparel and sparkling gems set off her radiant beauty. Her days were passed in elegant ease amidst the splash of fountains, the warbling of birds, and the strains of ravishing music. She was surrounded by everything calculated to please the senses and lull the mind. But the young queen, reclining on silken cushions upon her couch of gold, was sad at heart. Dire news had reached her of the threatened destruction of her people, and in vain her maidens danced and tuned their lutes; they could not chase the grief and alarm from her fair face. Her sorrow was the heavier that it must be borne in secret. The noble ladies in the palace, and the attendants who served her so obsequiously, did not guess that she was a daughter of the despised race.
Since Esther was made queen, an adventurer, one Haman the Agagite, had obtained ascendency over the king, and being promoted above all the other princes, demanded to suffer them." The king granted a decree of extermination against the Jews, and gave his ring to Haman as a pledge.
Queen Esther, the beautiful Jewish maiden who delivered her nation from persecution, and in whose honour one of the sacred books of Holy Scripture is written special homage. But Mordecai, the Jew, who sat in the king's gate, refused to bow before Haman, therefore the piqued favourite determined to be avenged. It had come to his knowledge that Mordecai was a Jew, and in order to encompass his death he wove a plot for the destruction of all Jews throughout the king's dominions. Ahasuerus listened to Haman's artful insinuation: There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws, therefore it is not for the king's profit