The book of Esther teaches indirectly rather than directly four lessons: (1) Maintaining community and religious identity in foreign territory is a tricky but terribly important task. (2) Through wisdom, wit, and courage, people can live productively in a foreign land, even when subject to the whims of a foreign power. (3) Even when God remains hidden, unnamed, and seemingly absent, as in the book of Esther, one can detect the presence of the divine in favorable coincidences and in the bravery of leaders who step up when needed. (4) All of this is taught through irony and humor, which provides the book’s final lesson: laughter gives life.
The book of Esther is best read as a satiric melodrama to be recited or dramatized each year during the Jewish festival of Purim, which this book both establishes and celebrates. The story is filled with entertaining reversals, ironies, parodies of the great Persian court, and exaggerations that invite the reader to cheer on the heroes Esther and Mordecai, to laugh at the foolish king Ahasuerus, and to boo the wicked villain Haman.
Throughout the Old Testament and notably in the intertestamental period, named women emerge as heroines who save their families and/or the Jewish people. Among these women are Tamar, Deborah and Jael, Ruth and Naomi, Susanna, Judith, and here Esther. Often these stories both make reference to previous stories of women and mark their own telling with qualities uniquely needed for the time in which the story takes place. Esther is like Deborah and Judith, who both take on a leadership role when needed by their people. Esther, frequently referred to in the book as queen, takes on the mantle of leadership at the turning point in the book in 4:12-16. Through her courage and willingness to risk, her adaptation to her circumstances, her single-mindedness, and her grasp of leadership once given to her, Esther saves both her family and her people.