THE Book of Nehemiah is, in the main, a personal narrative, containing an account of Nehemiah himself, and of certain proceedings in which he was engaged, between the twentieth year of Artaxerxes Longimanus and his thirty-second or thirty-third year. It is a natural sequel to the Book of Ezra, with which it has always been united in the Jewish canon, though recognised as a "Second Part" of the Book. The principal object of the writer is to describe the circumstances attending the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem in B.C. 444, and its dedication, some years later, with great pomp and ceremony. To explain the part which he himself took in these transactions, he has to preface his account with a purely personal sketch, descriptive of the circumstances under which he became engaged in the work as its director and superintendent. This sketch occupies the first two chapters. The main narrative then commences, and is carried on uninterruptedly to the fifth verse of ch. 7., when it is broken in upon by the introduction of a list, identical (or nearly so) with one given by Ezra in the second chapter of his Book — a list of the families which returned from the Babylonian captivity under Zerubbabel, with the number of each family, and the names of the principal chiefs. This occupies ch. 7. from verse 6 to the end. The narrative is then resumed, and continued through three chapters (chs. 8.-10.), the principal subject-matter in this part being the religious instruction of the people, their celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, and the voluntary covenant with Almighty God into which they entered, by the advice of the Levites. After this, the sequence of the history is again interrupted — this time by the insertion of six distinct and independent lists, which occupy a chapter and a half (chs. 11. and 12:1-26). The dedication of the wall is then related (Nehemiah 12:27-43), In conclusion, an account is given of certain religious arrangements and reforms which Nehemiah effected (Nehemiah 12:44-47, and ch. 13.).
There can be no doubt that Nehemiah himself is the author of those portions of the work which are of most interest, and give it its distinctive character. The initial sentence — "The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah"— applies beyond all question to the parts which are written in the first person (Nehemiah 1.-7.; 12:27-47; 13.). So much is generally allowed. It is argued, on the other hand, that the parts where Nehemiah is spoken of in the third person — notably, chs. 8, 9, and 10. — are not from his pen; and their authorship has been attributed to Ezra. It may be admitted that the internal evidence of style and manner favours strongly the view that this section is not the original composition of Nehemiah. There is nothing, however, to militate against the supposition that it was drawn up by his authority, and received the sanction of his approval. Ezra's claim to have written it cannot be substantiated; on the contrary, a careful analysis of the language leads to the very opposite conclusion. We must regard it as an anonymous work, which, however, Nehemiah probably saw, and placed in its present position. With respect to the lists, which make up the remainder of the Book, that of ch. 7. is probably an official document, drawn up in the time of Zerubbabel, extracted by Nehemiah from the national archives; that of ch. 11. is the official account of his own census; those of ch. 12. cannot have taken their present shape much before the time of Alexander the Great, since Jaddua was his contemporary; but it is quite possible that Nehemiah may have originated them, and that certain additions may have been made to them subsequently. In this case Nehemiah would be, either as original composer or as compiler, the responsible author of the whole Book, with the exception of a few verses.
The earliest date at which Nehemiah can have composed the last section of the work (Nehemiah 12:27 - 13:31) is B.C. 431, the year in which, after visiting Babylon, he came to Jerusalem the second time (Nehemiah 13:6). Probably he wrote very soon after carrying through his reforms, since he expresses himself with a warmth only natural if the struggle had been recent. These considerations limit the date of the original work to about B.C. 431-430. The final recension may have been made about a century later.
4. GENERAL CHARACTER.
In general character the Book of Nehemiah very much resembles that of Ezra. It is a plain, straight-forward, simple history of a short period of the Jewish state, containing in it nothing miraculous, nothing particularly exciting or extraordinary. The Jewish community is in a depressed condition; and though external adversaries are resisted, and, on the whole, resisted with success, no great triumph is achieved, no very remarkable deliverance effected. At the same time, the internal condition of things is far from satisfactory; the evils which Ezra had resisted have recurred, and brought others in their train, which cause those who are at the head of affairs much anxiety. Nehemiah writes in a depressed tone, like a man who is not appreciated by his generation, and who is unhappy. The language which he uses is simple, and somewhat rough, as if he had not enjoyed the advantage of much education. Like that of Ezra and of the writer of the Book of Esther, it contains a good many Persian words. It is, however, Hebrew throughout, with no intermixture of Chaldee. The style, as might be expected from the diversity of source already noticed, is far from being uniform. The lists are bald and dry, as was natural with official documents. The section extending from ch. 8. to the end of ch. 10. is free and flowing, betrays the band of a practised writer, but is not characterised by much originality. On the other hand, the parts written by Nehemiah himself are quite peculiar. Vigorous, rough, strikingly dramatic, and markedly devotional in their tone, they show us an author of an original turn, who thought for himself, felt strongly, and expressed himself tersely and aptly, if with some rudeness. There is no portion of Scripture on which individuality is more impressed than the opening and concluding sections of this composite "Book," which are evidently the direct work of Nehemiah.
5. CIRCUMSTANCES AND CHARACTER OF THE AUTHOR.
Nehemiah was the son of Hachaliah, of the tribe of Judah. He belonged, apparently, to the "Jews of the dispersion," and, while still a youth, became attached to the Persian court, where his merit, or his appearance, enabled him to obtain the "important and lucrative office of a royal cupbearer." This position brought him into direct contact with the king and queen of the time, who were Artaxerxes Longimanus and Damaspia. Longimanus had already shown himself friendly to the Jews, and being of a kindly and affable temper, appears to have become attached to his attendant, and to have been on terms of familiarity with him which we should scarcely have expected. Nehemiah relates how, while he was in attendance on the court at Susa, the chief royal residence, he heard of the desolation of Jerusalem through his brothel Hanani, who had recently visited the holy city and seen its sad condition (Nehemiah 1:1-3). Pierced to the heart by the description, he gave himself up for many days to fasting and mourning and prayer. The king for some time did not observe his. grief; but after three or four months it had so altered him, that, on his appearance one day to take up his term of service, Artaxerxes noticed the change, and asked for an explanation. Nehemiah upon this unbosomed himself, and finding the king sympathetic, obtained leave of absence from the court, an appointment to be governor of Jerusalem, and permission to rebuild the wall, to restore the temple fortress, and to repair the residence of the governor, of which he was to take possession. With these instructions, and with letters to the satraps of the provinces through which he had to pass, Nehemiah quitted Susa, accompanied by a strong escort, in the spring or early summer of B.C. 444. We are not told how much time was occupied by his journey; but having arrived in safety at Jerusalem, he, like Ezra, rested "three days" (comp. Ezra 8:32 with Nehemiah 2:11). He then proceeded, under cover of night, to make a survey of the wall. It was well known to him that any attempt to put the city into a state of defence would meet with a formidable opposition on the part of powerful persons in the neighbourhood. He therefore kept his commission secret, effected his survey of the wall secretly, and let no word of his intentions go forth, until he had made such preparations that the whole work might be begun and ended within a few weeks. The essence of his arrangement was the partitioning out of the task among a large number of working-parties, all prepared to act simultaneously, and each completing its own portion of the wall without reference to the remainder (ch. 3.). The plan succeeded. Though opposition of various kinds was made, and open violence threatened, no actual collision took place between the Jews and their adversaries; and in little more than seven weeks the entire wall was repaired and restored to its full height (Nehemiah 6:15). Solid folding-doors were then placed in the gateways, guards established, and a rule laid down that the gates should be closed at nightfall, and not opened in the morning "until the sun was hot" (Nehemiah 7:3). Thus the main work which Nehemiah had set himself to do was accomplished within six months of the day that he obtained his commission from Artaxerxes.
His administration during the remainder of the time that he governed Judaea, which was certainly not less than thirteen years, was characterised by the same vigour, promptness, and energy which had marked its opening months. It was also remarkable for the consideration which he showed for those under his ruled and for the noble hospitality which he dispensed both towards natives and towards foreigners (Nehemiah 5:14-18). He augmented the population of Jerusalem, too scanty for the size of its wails, by bringing men in from the country districts (Nehemiah 11:1); redeemed large numbers of Jews, who had been sold into slavery among the heathen, and restored them to their native land (Nehemiah 5:8); put an end to a system of borrowing money upon mortgage, or raising it by selling sons and daughters into servitude, which was reducing the lower class of Jews to the condition of the poor Roman plebeians of the early commonwealth (ibid. vers. 1-13; Nehemiah 10:31); restored the strict observance of the Sabbath, and of the sabbatical year (Nehemiah 10:31; 13:15-22); established the annual payment of one-third of a shekel by each adult male towards the temple service and fabric (Nehemiah 10:32), together with a system for supplying the wood necessary for the sacrifices (ibid. ver. 34); prevented the temple from being polluted by the heathen, and profaned by being used for secular purposes (Nehemiah 13:4-9); enforced the payment of tithes, which was falling into disuse (Nehemiah 10:37; 13:10-13); and, like Ezra, compelled all those who had married foreign wives to divorce them, and send them back, with their children, to their own people (Nehemiah 13:1-3, and 23-28). His efforts to effect these reforms were thwarted and resisted by an important party among the priests and nobles, which leant towards secularism, was addicted to intermarriage with the heathen, and desirous of fusion with the surrounding nations. An ordinary man might have shrunk from affronting the views of a party so strong and so powerful, one supported by neighbouring princes, and upheld at Jerusalem by the high priest of the time, Eliashib. Nehemiah set himself to "contend with the rulers" (Nehemiah 13:11)and the "nobles" (ibid. ver. 17); "chased from him" the grandson of the high priest (ibid. ver. 28); "cursed," or at any rate "reviled," those who had married the foreign wives, and even "smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair" (ibid. ver. 25). When Eliashib himself, the natural guardian of the temple, disregarding its sacredness, assigned one of the chambers within its precincts to Tobiah the Ammonite, who furnished it and made it into a residence, Nehemiah of his own authority turned all the furniture out of doors (ibid. ver. 8). Strict, zealous, prompt, uncompromising, he would allow no relaxation of the old law, no departure from primitive custom, no consorting with foreigners. Not only did he re-establish the walls of Jerusalem on their ancient foundations, but he built up the state too on the old lines, "supplementing and completing the work of Ezra" and giving it "internal cohesion and permanence."
There was one day in the latter part of his administration which must have been to him a day of exquisite pleasure, and have almost repaid him for all the anguish that he had endured from the perversity of the people and the opposition of the nobles. After holding office for twelve years, he had had occasion to visit the court, either to make some special report, or because "his leave of absence had expired." While there, he had perhaps obtained permission to conduct a ceremony which he must have long had in his mind, but which he may have been afraid to venture on without the king's express sanction. This was the dedication of the wall. On returning to Jerusalem, in Artaxerxes' thirty-third year, B.C. 431, he felt that the time was come to inaugurate his great work with appropriate pomp and circumstance. By his arrangement, "two vast processions passed round the walls, halting at one or another of those venerable landmarks which," twelve years before, "had signalised the various stages of their labour; whose shadows had been their daily and nightly companions for such weary weeks of watching and working. The Levites came up from their country districts, with their fur array of the musical instruments which still bore the name of their royal inventor; the minstrels, too, were summoned from their retreats on the hills of Judah and in the deep valley of the Jordan (?). They all met in the temple court. The blast of the priestly trumpets sounded on one side; the songs of the minstrels were loud in proportion on the other. It is specially mentioned (Nehemiah 12:43) that even the women and children joined in the general acclamation, and 'the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.' Perhaps the circumstance that leaves even a yet deeper impression than this tumultuous triumph is the meeting, which on this day, and this day done, Nehemiah records in his own person, of the two men who in spirit were so closely united himself as heading one procession, and 'Ezra the scribe' as heading the other."
It is impossible to determine the time at which Nehemiah ceased to be governor of Judaea, or to say whether he was recalled, or died at his post. We may gather from his last chapter that, at the time when he wrote it, he still retained his office;but, as we have seen that he probably completed his "Book" about B.C. 431, or 430, we cannot positively assign a longer duration to his governorship than fourteen or fifteen years. Jewish tradition does not help us in the matter, for Josephus adds nothing to what we know from Scripture, beyond the statement that Nehemiah lived to a good old age.
The character of Nehemiah is sufficiently clear from his writings. "He resembled Ezra in his fiery zeal, in his active spirit of enterprise, and in the piety of his life;" but he was of a bluffer and a fiercer mood; he had less patience with transgressors; he was a man of action rather than a man of thought, and more inclined to use force than persuasion. His practical sagacity and high courage were very markedly shown in the arrangements by which he carded through the rebuilding of the wall, and baulked the cunning plans of the "adversaries." The piety of his heart, his deeply religious spirit, and constant sense of communion with and absolute dependence upon God, are strikingly exhibited, first, in the long prayer recorded in Nehemiah 1:5-11; and secondly, and most remarkably, in what have been called his "interjectional prayers" — those short but moving addresses to Almighty God which occur so frequently in his writings — the instinctive outpouring of a heart deeply moved, but ever resting itself upon God, and looking to God alone for aid in trouble, for the frustration of evil designs, and for final reward and acceptance. At the same time, there is no fanaticism in his religion; while trusting in God for the issue, he omits no necessary precaution. "Nevertheless," he says, "we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night" (Nehemiah 4:9). Nor does he trust to faith done, without works. He is self-denying, hospitable, active in deeds of mercy (Nehemiah 5:8, 14, 17), unresting, indefatigable. Many are the "good deeds" which he does for the house of his God, "and for the offices thereof" (Nehemiah 13:14). And, besides his heavenly, he had an earthly reward. His memory remained fresh for a long term of years in the minds of his countrymen, who "glorified him in theft traditions," and for a time set him even above Ezra. He finds a place, where Ezra has none, in the heroic catalogue of the son of Sirach (Ecclus. 49:13). He was believed in the next age to have rebuilt the temple and the altar (2 Macc. 1:18). It was even reported of him that he founded a library in Jerusalem, collected the acts of the kings, and gathered the holy books into a volume (ibid. 2:13). The place of his death and burial seems to have been unknown. No tomb is spoken of as raised in his honour. Such a memorial was perhaps felt to be unnecessary; for, as Josephus observes, "the wall of Jerusalem constituted his best and most enduring monument."
LITERATURE OF NEHEMIAH.
Bertheau's work on the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther contains the fullest commentary on Nehemiah as yet published. Valuable contributions to the history of the period will be found in Ewald's 'Geschichte Volkes Israel' (vol. 5. of the English translation, by Estlin Carpenter), and in Dean Stanley's 'Lectures on the Jewish Church,' Third Series. The articles on 'Nehemiah' in Kitto's 'Cyclopaedia,' Dr. W. Smith's 'Dictionary of the Bible,' and Winer's 'Realworterbuch' may also be studied with advantage.
ARRANGEMENT OF THE BOOK IN SECTIONS.
The following will be found the most convenient arrangement of Nehemiah: —
Part 1. (Nehemiah 1. - 7.). Nehemiah's account of the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, and of the register which he found of those who had returned with Zerubbabel.
Section 1 (Nehemiah 1, 2.). Introductory. Circumstances under which Nehemiah obtained his commission, and steps which he took preliminary to the building of the wall.
Section 2 (Nehemiah 3.). Commencement of the work. Arrangement of the working parties.
Section 3 (Nehemiah 4.). Open opposition offered to the work by Sanballat and Tobiah, with Nehemiah's counter-arrangements.
Section 4 (Nehemiah 5:1-13). Internal difficulties, and the manner in which Nehemiah overcame them.
Section 5 (Nehemiah 5:14-19). General account of Nehemiah's government.
Section 6 (Nehemiah 6.). Secret proceedings of Sanballat and his friends, with their failure.
Section 7 (Nehemiah 7:1-5). Completion of the work, and arrangements for guarding the gates.
Section 8 (Nehemiah 7:5-73). Register of those who returned with Zerubbabel.
Part II. (Nehemiah 8-10.). Account of the state of religion among the Jews under the administration of Nehemiah.
Section 1 (Nehemiah 8.). Religious instruction of the people by Ezra, and celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Section 2 (Nehemiah 9.). Solemn fast kept, with confession of sin; and voluntary covenant entered into with God by the people, and sealed to by the princes, priests, and Levites.
Section 3 (Nehemiah 10.). Names of those that sealed, and terms of the covenant.
Part III. (Nehemiah 11., 12:1-26). Enlargement of the population of Jerusalem; number of the adult male inhabitants, and names of the chiefs. Various lists of priests and Levites at different periods.
Section 1 (Nehemiah 11:1, 2). Artificial enlargement of the population of Jerusalem.
Section 2 (Nehemiah 11:3-19). Number of the adult male inhabitants, and names of the chiefs.
Section 3 (Nehemiah 11:20-36). Geographic disposition of the rest of the population.
Section 4 (Nehemiah 12:1-9). List of the priestly and Levitical houses which returned with Zerubbabel.
Section 5 (Nehemiah 12:10, 11). List of the high priests from Jeshua to Jaddua.
Section 6 (Nehemiah 12:12-21). List of the heads of the priestly courses under Joiakim.
Section 7 (Nehemiah 12:22-26). List of the chief Levitical houses at this period and afterwards.
Part IV. (Nehemiah 12:27-47, and Nehemiah 13.). Dedication of the wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah and Ezra, with Nehemiah's arrangement of the temple officers, and his efforts for the reform of religion.
Section 1 (Nehemiah 12:27 43). Dedication of the wall.
Section 2 (Nehemiah 12:44-47). Arrangement of the temple officers.
Section 3 (Nehemiah 13.). Religious reforms carried into effect by Nehemiah.
1. SUBJECT OF THE BOOK.
THE Book of Esther relates an episode in Jewish history of intense interest to the entire nation at the time, since it involved the question of its continuance or destruction, but an episode which stood quite separate and distinct from the rest of Jewish history, unconnected with anything that preceded or followed, and which, hut for the institution of the Feast of Purim, might as easily have been forgotten by the people as escaped perils too often are by individuals. The main scene of the narrative is Susa, the Persian capital; the dramatis personae are either Persians or "Jews of the Dispersion." There is no mention, in the whole Book, of Palestine, or Jerusalem, or the temple, or the provisions of the law, nor any allusion to any facts in previous Jewish history, excepting two : —
1. The captivity under Nebuchadnezzar (Esther 2:6).
2. The subsequent dispersion of the Jews over all the various provinces of the Persian empire (Esther 3:8).
Thus the events related belong, primarily, not to the history of the Palestinian Jews, but to that of the "Jews of the Dispersion;" and it is as indicating that those Jews were, no less than their brethren in Palestine, under the Divine care, that the Book appealed to the hearts of the Jewish race generally, and claimed a place in the national collection of sacred writings. The events related may be thus briefly summarised: At a feast held in the palace of Susa in the third year of Ahasuerus, that prince, in the wantonness of power, requires the presence of his queen, Vashti, unveiled (Esther 1:1-11); she refuses (ibid. ver. 12); the king is furious, and his obsequious nobles counsel her divorce, which is forthwith decreed and published to the whole kingdom (ibid. vers. 12-22). Efforts are then made to supply Vashti's place; virgins are collected from all quarters, and the king's choice falls upon Esther, a Jewess, who had been brought up by her cousin Mordecai, a eunuch of the court (Esther 2:1-20). Soon after this, two of the king's chamberlains form a plot to murder him, which is discovered by Mordecai, communicated to the king by Esther, and frustrated by their execution (ibid. vers. 21-23). About this time, Haman, the king's chief minister, being offended by the conduct of Mordecai, who does not pay him due respect, forms the design of exterminating the Jews, and obtains the king's consent to a decree authorising their destruction on a certain day. The day is fixed by Haman through a casting of lots, and is thereby determined to a date nearly twelve months in advance of the time at which the lots are cast (Esther 3.). Mordecai, informed of the impending massacre, requires Esther to intercede for her people; and Esther, though aware that she does so at the peril of her life, consents (ch. 4.). Her plan is to bring the king and Haman together, to denounce him as having sought her life, and so to obtain his disgrace. She invites the two to a banquet; but when her opportunity comes, shrinks from making the disclosure which she had designed, and defers it to the ensuing day, for which she appoints a second banquet (Esther 5:1-8). Haman now, intoxicated with his good fortune, as he deems it, resolves to anticipate the decree, so far as Mordecai is concerned, and to put him to death at once. He constructs a gallows, or erects a cross, in the court of his own house for this purpose (ibid. vers. 9-14), and proposes to hang Mordecai thereon before the second banquet. In the night, however, the king has been sleepless, and having ordered his attendants to read to him out of the Book of the Chronicles, has been reminded of Mordecai's discovery of the conspiracy against his life, and having asked what reward he had received, has been told that "nothing had been done for him" (Esther 6:3). Upon this he has Haman summoned, and compels him to be the instrument of doing Mordecai the highest possible honour (ibid. vers. 4-11). The banquet follows; Esther denounces Haman; the king, angry, but in doubt, quits the apartment; Haman, eagerly imploring Esther's intercession, approaches too near her sacred person; the king returns, and taxing him with rudeness towards the queen, orders him off to instant execution. He is conducted to his own house, and hanged on the cross on which he had intended to hang Mordecai (Esther 7:1-10). The king now puts himself in the hands of Esther and Mordecai, and allows them to take the necessary steps to frustrate Haman's designs against the Jews. As the royal decree cannot be rescinded, it is determined to send out another, allowing the Jews to defend themselves if attacked by their enemies (Esther 8.). This is done, and when the day determined by the lot arrives, a struggle takes place; the Persian authorities are on the side of the Jews, and "help" them (Esther 9:3); the result is, that everywhere the Jews are victorious: at Susa they kill 500 of their enemies, together with the ten sons of Haman; elsewhere they kill 75,000. The king then allows them a second day, — one of vengeance, as it would seem, at Susa, — in which they kill 300 more. The bodies of Haman's ten sons are exposed on gibbets; and the Feast of Purim is instituted and made of perpetual obligation (Esther 9:5-32). With a brief account of Ahasuerus' establishing a new arrangement of the tribute, and of Mordecai's greatness and favour, both with the king and with his own nation, the Book closes (Esther 10.).
2. DATE OF ITS COMPOSITION
In order to determine (approximately) the date of the composition of 'Esther,' it is necessary, in the first place, to decide which of the Persian kings is intended by Ahasuerus. That no king prior to Darius Hystaspis can be meant seems to follow —
1. From the limits assigned to the empire in Esther 1:1, since Darius first extended the Persian dominion over a portion of India; and,
2. From the residence of the court being Susa, which Darius first made the capital. It has been supposed, chiefly from Esther 10:1 ("And the king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the islands of the sea"), that Darius himself is intended. But neither the name nor the character agree; nor was Darius in his third year in a position to give a feast to all the power of Media and Persia at Susa, since he was struggling for his crown, Media was in revolt, and he was himself at Babylon. Artaxerxes Longimanus has also been suggested, partly because the name is given as "Artaxerxes" in the Septuagint, and partly because such was the opinion of Josephus. But here, again, both the name and character are adverse; nor could Haman, in Artaxerxes' twelfth year, have any need of informing him that there was such a people as the Jews with peculiar laws (Esther 3:8), when Artaxerxes had shown himself well acquainted with the Jews and with their law in his seventh (Ezra 7:12-26). A later monarch than Longimanus has not been suggested, and would be incompatible with the genealogy of Mordecai (Esther 2:5, 6); so that the mere process of eliminating impossible kings conducts us to Xerxes, the son of Darius, and father of Longi-manus, as the personage really meant. And here we find, in the first place, that the names are identical, the Hebrew Akhashverosh corresponding letter for letter with the Persian Khshayarsha, which the Greeks turned into Xerxes. Secondly, the resemblance of character is most striking, and is admitted on all hands. Thirdly, the notes of time exactly accord with the chronology of Xerxes' reign. "In the third year of Xerxes" reign was held an assembly at Susa to arrange the Grecian war (Herod., 7:7). In the third year of Ahasuerus was held a great feast and assembly at Shushan the palace (Esther 1:3). In the seventh year of his reign Xerxes returned defeated from Greece, and consoled himself by the pleasures of the harem (Herod., 9:108). In the seventh year of his reign 'fair young virgins were sought' for Ahasuerus (Esther 2:2-15)." We may therefore confidently regard the Ahasuerus of Esther as the well-known invader of Greece and scourger of the Hellespont, who has come down to us in profane history as "Xerxes." With respect to the time of the composition of Esther, it is, in the flint place, clear that when the author writes the reign of Ahasuerus is over. The opening passage distinctly proves this. Now Xerxes died in B.C. 465, and the question therefore is, How long after this date was the Book of Esther written? The opening passage is thought by some to imply that the reign of Ahasuerus was remote, and a recent commentator suggests B.C. 200 as the probable time of writing, but he admits that a century earlier is quite possible. Other critics suggest as early a date as B.C. 450-440, and the arguments which they adduce are weighty. The language of the Book closely resembles that of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which were all written about that time. The minute and particular accounts of many matters which would be known primarily only to Esther and Mordecai, and would certainly not have been written in the "book of the chronicles," as Mordecai's genealogy (Esther 2:5), Esther's messages to Mordecai and Mordecai's to her through Hatach (Esther 4:5-16), the circumstances of the two banquets given by Esther to Ahasuerus and Haman (Esther 5:6-8; 7:2-8), etc., — make it probable that the writer was contemporary with the events narrated, and derived his information from Mordecai or Esther, or both. Further, the individuals who have been mentioned as the writers of the Book — Mordecai himself and the high priest Joiakim — lived about this time. Altogether, it seems most probable that the work was composed about the middle of the fifth century B.C., or a little later, when Xerxes had been dead about twenty years.
Aben-Esra, among Jewish, and Clement of Alexandria, among Christian commentators, assign the Book of Esther to Mordecai. The Rabbi Azarias says that it was written by the high priest Joiakim. Augustine and Isidore make Ezra the author. In the Talmud it is said that the work was composed by "the men of the great synagogue." These conflicting statements neutralise each other, and make it clear that the Jewish Church had no uniform, or even predominant, tradition upon the point. It is against Ezra's authorship that the style is very different from his; against Mordecai's, that the first person is never used, and that Mordecai is spoken of in terms of such high praise. Joiakim can scarcely be supposed sufficiently familiar with Persian customs and localities to have ventured upon the task, much less to have produced a work showing such perfect acquaintance with the machinery of the Persian court, its customs, etiquette, and the like. What is meant by attributing the composition to "the men of the great synagogue" it is hard to say; but certainly it would be difficult to adduce a work more distinctly stamped with the individuality of a single author than the Book of Esther. The result would seem to be that the author is really unknown. He must have been a Jew; he must have been long resident in Persia; and he must have had some special facilities (besides access to the Persian archives) for obtaining exact information on the secret and delicate matters which form an essential part of his history. Probably he was a younger contemporary of Mordecai's, and an intimate acquaintance — one who had watched his career, who admired his talents and his character, and was anxious to preserve them from oblivion. His work was written primarily for the Jews of Persia; but it naturally passed from them to the other "Jews of the Dispersion," and finally reached Jerusalem, where it was adopted into the Canon.
The most notable and the most noted peculiarity of the Book of [Esther is the entire absence from it of the name of God. None of the titles in use among the Jews to express the Supreme Being — neither Elohim, nor Jehovah, nor Shaddai, nor Adonai, nor even any periphrasis for the name — occurs in it from first to last. The idea of God is there; but by a reticence, of which we have no other example in Scripture (for even the shortest psalm has a mention of God at least once), the Divine name is kept back, unuttered by the speakers, unwritten by the author, merged in the profoundest silence, totally absent from the whole ten chapters. It has been suggested that this absence arose from that increasing scruple against using the Divine name which characterised the period between Malachi and John the Baptist, which led to the substitution of "Adonai" for "Jehovah" in the reading of the Scriptures, and to the absolute prohibition of the pronunciation of the "Tetragrammaton" by any one but the high priest, or by him excepting in a whisper. But the date of 'Esther' is too early for this explanation to merit acceptance. Rather we must attribute the reticence either to an "instinctive adoption of the fashion of the Persian court, or to a shrinking from irreverence on the part of the writer, who may have viewed it as irreverent to introduce the name of God without necessity into a history which was addressed as much to Persians as to Jews, and was not so much intended for sacred history as for secular. "Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus inciderit" is a wholesome rule; and as the deliverance of the Jews from Haman's machinations was brought about by secondary causes without overt Divine interference, there was no necessity to bring the First Cause upon the scene at all. Whether the "Book" was to be accepted into the Canon, notwithstanding the absence of the Divine name, was a point which the Jewish Church no doubt seriously considered, and which we may believe to have been determined, under Divine guidance, by Malachi. The Book was received, and we can see that it was well that it was received. "It is expedient for us that there should be one Book which omits the name of God altogether, to prevent us from attaching to the mere name a reverence which belongs only to the reality. It is well that God should have vindicated as his own a mere piece of honest, plain, straightforward, secular history, written by a God-fearing person, and the chief actors in which were God-fearing persons, that so we may feel that history itself is God's, and a true record of it a godly work — a work which he will accept and approve, whether or no he be explicitly referred to in it, whether or no it be made a vehicle of direct religious instruction, whether or no the characters held up for approval have the sacred name upon their lips, if only they have it in their hearts. For, be it remarked, not merely is the name of God absent from 'Esther,' but direct religious teaching is also wholly absent from it. Even prayer is not mentioned; Mordecai and Esther fast (Esther 4:1, 16), but it is not said that they pray. They exhibit a genuine patriotism, a lofty unselfishness, a readiness to dare all for the right; but the source of their moral strength is not made apparent. When Mordecai says to Esther, "If thou boldest thy peace, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" he approaches close to the doctrines of God's special providence in the apparent accidents of life, of the special promises of continuance made to the Jewish people, and of the visitation of sin not only upon the sinner, but upon the family of the sinner — he does not, however, enunciate any one of them. When Esther consents to risk her life, with the touching words, "If I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16); and again when she says, "How can I endure to see the evil that shall come upon my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?" (Esther 8:6), she speaks as only a religiously-minded person would be likely to speak; but she withholds all mention of the motives which actuate her, and leaves them to be conjectured. The absence of any mention of Palestine, or Jerusalem, or the temple, or the law, is also a noticeable feature of the Book, though one of far less difficulty and far less practical moment than the peculiarity which we have been considering. The writer belongs to the Jews of the Dispersion his special interest is with them; and though warmly attached to his nation, he is devoid of that affection for localities which characterised the Jews generally. He is, moreover, so far cosmopolitan as to shrink from utterances which would stamp him as a provincial, and be either unintelligible to the Persians, for whom he certainly writes almost as much as for the Jews, or even displeasing to them. The facts of his narrative do not call for any mention of peculiar Jewish institutions (excepting that of the Feast of Purim), and he is thus able to avoid obtruding on his Persian readers peculiarities with which they would have no sympathy, or practices to which they would have felt objection. There is nothing that can well be called peculiar in the style of 'Esther,' or in the form of the narrative. Both are characterised by simplicity. The narrative is very inartificial, following a strictly chronological order, eschewing digressions, and of a single uniform tenor. The style has been called "remarkably chaste and simple." It is certainly simple, presenting few difficulties of construction, and scarcely any ambiguities; but its purity may be questioned, at any rate, so far as the vocabulary is concerned, since that is largely impregnated with a Persian element, and contains also terms which belong properly to the later Hebrew, or Aramaic. The tone of the narrative is generally grave and dignified; in places it is even pathetic; but for the most part it interests more than it excites us. Character is well portrayed; the descriptions are graphic, and occasionally very elaborate. Altogether, the work is one of considerable literary merit, and, as a picture of court life in Persia under the Achaemenian dynasty, is of the highest historical value, being quite without a parallel
5. HISTORICAL TRUTH OF THE NARRATIVE.
It has been said that the narrative of Esther "consists of a long string of historical difficulties and improbabilities, and contains a number of errors in regard to Persian customs." One foreign critic calls it "a poem," and seems to regard it as based on a very slight foundation of fact. Another reserves his opinion on the subject of its authenticity, and "waits to see whether any documents are hereafter discovered which will confirm and elucidate this isolated court story, with all its various details, and, if so, to what extent." The Jews, however, have always regarded it as a true history, uniting it with Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah; and even holding it in peculiar esteem, as "more precious than Prophets, or Proverbs, or Psalms," and as doomed to "outlast all the Hebrew Scriptures except the Pentateuch." Nor does there seem to be any real ground for calling the historical character of the Book in question. The supposed "mistakes" with respect to Persian customs are wholly unproved; the "historical difficulties and improbabilities" disappear upon examination, or even transform themselves into historical coincidences, when the idiosyncrasy of Xerxes is taken into account. The latest critic is struck, not with "difficulties" or with "mistakes" in the narrative, but with the fact that the whole of it is "thoroughly characteristic," all the various scenes being "full of the local genius of the empire, as we know it alike through the accounts of the earliest Greek travellers and the latest English investigaters." The accord acknowledged in this sentence is indeed most striking; the suitability of all the main facts related to the personal character of Xerxes cannot be disputed; the notes of time fit in with what we know of his reign exactly; it is quite inconceivable that a poet, or a romancer, writing 150 or 200 years after the events (which is the hypothesis of modern sceptical critics), should have been at once so full, so graphic, and so correct. We are, therefore, thrown back upon the opposite theory, that the writer was a contemporary, that he was familiar with the Persian court under Xerxes, and that the harmony observable between his narrative and all that we otherwise know of the time is to be referred to the unity and congruity of truth.
Τῷ ἀληθεῖ πα
ρχοντα τῷ δε
ς. A historical romancer necessarily involves himself in discrepancies and contradictions; the truthful narrator has nothing of this kind to fear, since with every statement that is true all the facts of the ease must harmonise.
LITERATURE OF ESTHER.
There are extant three Targums, or Jewish comments, upon Esther, but they are neither ancient nor of much value. Carpzov, in 1721, wrote an interesting 'Introduction' to it. Fritzsche, early in the present century, devoted an entire work to the subject, which he entitled 'Zusatze zum Buche Esther;' and Baumgarten followed his example in 1839, when he published his tractate 'De fide Libri Estherae.' Recently Bertheau has contributed a comment on Esther to the 'Exegetisches Handbuch zum Alten Testament,' published at Leipsic by S. Hirzel. Though far from faultless, it is upon the whole the best special work on the subject. Two important articles on 'Esther' and 'the Book of Esther' were contributed to Dr. Smith's 'Dictionary of the Bible,' in 1860, by the present Bishop of Bath and Wells.
ARRANGEMENT OF THE BOOK IN SECTIONS.
The Book of Esther is a continuous narrative, with no marked divisions, and is somewhat difficult to divide even into sections. The following arrangement, which is nearly that of Bertheau, will be followed in the present comment.
Section 1 (Esther 1.). The great feast of King Ahasuerus at Susa, with the disgrace of Vashti.
Section 2 (Esther 2:1-18). The quest for maidens, and the choice of Esther to be queen in Vashti's place.
Section 3 (Esther 2:19-23). Mordecai's discovery of a plot against Ahasuerus' life.
Section 4 (Esther 3:1-6). Mordecai, by want of respect, offends Haman, Ahasuerus' chief minister. Haman, in revenge, resolves to destroy the nation of the Jews.
Section 5 (Esther 3:7). Haman casts lots to obtain a lucky day for his enterprise: the lot falls on a day in the month Adar, the last in the year.
Section 6 (Esther 3:8-15). Haman persuades Ahasuerus to publish a decree commanding the destruction of all the Jews in his kingdom on the ensuing 13th of Adar.
Section 7 (Esther 4:1-3). Grief of Mordecai and general mourning of the Jews on receiving the intelligence.
Section 8 (Esther 4:4-17). Grief of Esther; her communications with Mordecai; she consents to risk making, uninvited, an appeal to the king.
Section 9 (Esther 5:1-8). Ahasuerus receiving Esther favourably, she invites him and Haman to a banquet, at which, being permitted to make a request, she contents herself with inviting them both to another banquet.
Section 10 (Esther 5:9-14). Haman, exulting at these signs of royal favour, is the more exasperated by Mordecai's contempt. At the bidding of his wife he resolves to impale Mordecai, and causes a lofty cross to be erected for the purpose.
Section 11 (Esther 6:1-11). Ahasuerus, being wakeful during the night, has the book of the chronicles read to him, and finds that Mordecai has received no reward. He makes Haman suggest the fitting reward for one whom the king delights to honour, and then deputes him to confer it on Mordecai.
Section 12 (Esther 6:12-14). Despondency of Haman, his wife, and friends, at this turn in his fortunes.
Section 13 (Esther 7.). At the second banquet, Esther denounces Haman, and the king condemns him to be impaled on the cross prepared for Mordecai.
Section 14 (Esther 8:1, 2). Haman's house given to Esther, and the royal signet made over to Mordecai.
Section 15 (Esther 8:3-14). At Esther's request, Ahasuerus sanctions the issue of a second decree, permitting the Jews to resist all who attack them, to kill them in their own defence, and to take possession of their goods.
Section 16 (Esther 8:15-17). Mordecai's honour and the Jews' joy.
Section 17 (Esther 9:1-16). Result of the second edict. The Jews resist their enemies, and effect a great slaughter of them, but do not lay hand upon their goods.
Section 18 (Esther 9:17-32). Festival held by the Jews, and institution of the Feast of Purim.
Section 19 (Esther 10.). Conclusion. Greatness of Ahasuerus and of Mordecai.