“If I have found favor in your eyes, O king,” Queen Esther replied,
“and if it please your majesty, grant me my life…
and the lives of my people–that is what I want.
For we have been handed over, my people and I,
to destruction, slaughter, and annihilation.”
–Esther 7:3-4

The Book of Esther is a short novel about a young Jewish woman who saves the Jewish people from genocide. As wife to the Persian King Xerxes, she alone seems to have a shot at changing his mind about exterminating all Jews in the Persian Empire.

The trouble starts when Haman, the king’s prime minister, sees that Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and guardian, does not bow before him or any other officers of the royal court. This makes Haman “furiously angry,” and, upon discovering that Mordecai is a Jew, he becomes bent on destroying not just Mordecai, but all the Jews living in the empire. Mordecai tells Esther of Haman’s plot and pleads with her to go before the king and change his mind. She— revealing that she is a Jew and that the people Haman plans to exterminate are her people— wins the king over, and he orders the prime minister to be slain. He also allows the Jews to make a pre-emptive strike at others who are trying to destroy them. This day becomes known as the feast of Purim, which Jews still celebrate as a memorial of their great day of victory.

The Book of Esther is set in the Persian period (around 486 to 465 B.C.), but was written sometime around 160 B.C. Though considered one of the Historical Books in the Old Testament, the massacres it describes are most likely exaggerated, a product of poetic license. The point of the book is to explain how and why a feast day came to be, and to warn of the treacheries of occupying governments.

Interestingly, the Hebrew version of Esther contains no references to God! The earliest Greek translators were scandalized so they added prayers and petitions. This modified version became accepted by Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who both follow the tradition of the Greek Bible or Septuagint.