If nothing else, the book of Esther is great literature. In fact, I believe it is one of the greatest literary pieces, one of the greatest bits of storytelling, in the entire Bible. It ranks right alongside the book of Ruth in that regard. Much of the reason for this assessment can be attributed to timing. The story draws the reader in and builds slowly to a climax.
In these middle chapters of the book, we see the wisdom of Queen Esther. In order to save her people, the Jews, from catastrophe, she does not immediately ask the king to fulfill her desires because she probably knows that to make her request immediately and straightforwardly will not meet with success. Instead, she invites the king and the wicked Haman to a banquet. Then, when the king again offers to meet her request for anything, up to half of his kingdom, she again strings him along with an invitation to another banquet.
Meanwhile, Haman’s anger towards Mordecai begins to bubble up to the boiling point and he has a gallows prepared upon which to hang his Jewish enemy. At the same time, the king experiences a sleepless night and chooses to go over his record books rather than lie in bed. He discovers that Mordecai has never been honored for his service to the king in uncovering an assassination plot. Thus, he chooses to reward Mordecai and, “by chance,” to do it through the agency of Haman who happens to be passing through the court at that time. Certainly, a Jewish audience hearing this story for the first time would have seen these elements of happenstance in the story as evidence of their God working behind the scenes to bring about his good ends for his people.
All of this builds to the perfect climax in terms of storytelling. At the second banquet, Esther presents her request for her life and the lives of her people to be spared. She, wisely again, does not tell the king who her people are, and presumably, the king does not know. When the king asks who has delivered over his beloved queen to death, Esther points the finger at Haman. The king rises from his seat in hot wrath and goes to the palace garden, apparently to cool off. When he returns to the room he finds Haman throwing himself on the queen to beg for his life. The king misinterprets this as a sexual advance. Just at that moment, a servant arrives to tell the king about the gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai. The story reaches its perfect climax when the king says, “Hang him on that!” Thus, they hung Haman on the gallows and the king’s anger abated, and the story moves to its anti-climax.
All of these story elements work so perfectly, unlike events in real life. Thus it would seem to me that the book of Esther is just that—a story—historical fiction if you will. However, it is a story that would have had great meaning to the Jews in exile, or even in the post-exilic period. It is a story that would have reassured the Jews, as Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I do agree, however, with Lawrence Boadt, that the conclusion of this story is rather frightening. Rather than simply asking for the opportunity to defend themselves against their attackers, the Jews through Mordecai seek the opportunity for revenge. They seek to not only defend themselves but “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus…” (Esther 8:11-12) This aspect of the story seems to neglect what is rightly said elsewhere in Scripture: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)