The Scroll of Esther, Megillat Esther, contains an account of the Jewish people living in Persia. Following the destruction of the first Temple at the hands of the Babylonians, the Jews of Israel were exiled to Babylon. Not long afterwards, the Babylonians were defeated by Cyrus king of Persia, and the Jews of Babylon found themselves under Persian rule. The story of Esther takes place against this backdrop of Persian exile.
When exactly the story of Esther takes place is a matter of scholarly debate. Cyrus the Great was the first Persian king to control Babylon. In the first year of his reign he makes a famous decree, calling on the Jews of his kingdom to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Unfortunately, not many Jews heed the call, and even the ones who do are eventually stopped by the people living in the land. It is not until the second year of King Darius that construction of the Temple resumes, and it is finally completed in Darius’s sixth year. According to most historians, King Ahasuerus, king of the story of Esther, is associated with the Persian king Xerxes who ruled after King Darius. During his time, therefore, the second Temple would have already been completed and the Jews of the story were living in exile, even though Jewish life in the Land of Israel was beginning to flourish.
Jewish tradition, however, places King Ahasuerus between Cyrus and Darius. The Sages even suggest that Darius was the son of Ahasuerus and Esther. In their opinion, the story of Esther takes place after the Cyrus declaration but before the reconstruction of the Temple. In that case, the Jews of the story are the ones who disregard the decree of Cyrus and chose to remain in exile rather than returning to the Land of Israel and participate in the reconstruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.
Esther in Hebrew comes from the word hester (הסתר), which means hidden. Megilla (מגילה), scroll, is related to the word ligalot (לגלות), which means to reveal. The challenge in reading the scroll of Esther is to reveal the messages veiled within the exciting plot. At first glance, the story seems to be one of royal intrigue, power, wealth and politics. Superficially, the events of the Megilla seem to be the result of the whims of an intoxicated king. Where is God in the Scroll of Esther? His name does not appear even once in the entire story, making it the only book of the Bible that does not mention God’s name. The reader’s job is to uncover God’s hand guiding the events of what seems to be a string of coincidences.
Another hidden theme in the Scroll of Esther is Jerusalem. Although the Jews are in exile, Jerusalem is very much on everyone’s minds. According to the Sages, Ahasuerus has halted the reconstruction of the Temple, and he throws a feast when he believes that the Jews have been forsaken and will never return to Jerusalem. He deliberately offers Esther only half his kingdom, refusing to restart the construction of the Temple. Mordecai, a former citizen of Jerusalem living in the Shushan, capital of the Persian empire, is teaching about the Temple and putting aside money for its construction. At the same time, however, the Jews of the Persian Empire have perhaps weakened their connection with the Land of Israel. They could have immigrated to Israel years before during Cyrus’ rule, but opted to stay in exile. The start of the Scroll of Esther even finds them at Ahasuerus’ feast where the Temple vessels are on display. It has been suggested that the events of the story, and the decree of Haman, were Divine retribution for forsaking the Land of Israel and the Temple.
The miracle of the story of Esther carries an important message to the people of that time period, and for all ages. Living in exile, the Jews felt distanced physically from their land and spiritually from their God. They no longer deserved the open miracles they had experienced in their history and their homeland. The story of Esther taught that God has not, and will not, abandoned His people. Although He is hidden in exile, He is very much present, pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The God who split the sea and made the wall of Jericho fall, is the same God who deposed Vashti, chose Esther and hung Haman.
In a subtle way, The Scroll of Esther reminds exiled Jews throughout the ages of some very fundamental ideas. First, they must never forsake Jerusalem, but remember her no matter where they find themselves. Second, that even outside of Israel where God’s presence is less obvious, they must discover a “hidden God,” and see Him in all aspects of day to day life, not just in open miracles. And finally, they must always remember that the Lord has not forsaken His promise to return the Children of Israel to the Land of Israel.