The Book of Esther begins by answering the question “when?” and partially answers “who?” with the opening words, “Now in the days of Ahasuerus . . .” (Esther 1:1a).
The following is an excerpt from Ordinary Girl, Extraordinary Purpose – Introduction: Background to the Book of Esther
The Book of Esther could have just as easily begun with the phrase, “Once upon a time.” And that time was during the days of Ahasuerus (the Hebrew form of his Persian name, Khshayarsha). Ahasuerus was a title, which meant Prince, Head, or Chief. He is more commonly known by the Greek version of his name, Xerxes (pronounced ZURK-seez), which means, “ruler over heroes.” This is Xerxes I, also known as Xerxes the Great.
The Bible begins the story of Esther during the “third year of his reign,” (Esther 1:3), which sets the beginning of the book in 483 B.C. This was just over 100 years after Nebuchadnezzar took the Jews into captivity. (See 2 Kings 25). It was 54 years after Zerubbabel led the first remnant of exiles back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:1-2), and 25 years before Ezra led the second group (Ezra 7).
The Book of Esther compliments Ezra and Nehemiah, which chronicle the events of those exiles who returned to Jerusalem. Esther is the only book of the Bible that records the lives of those who remained behind.
The time of Xerxes I was a fascinating era. He reigned over Persia from 486-465 B.C. During his lifetime, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, developed his Pythagorean Theorem, which is still used in Trigonometry today.
Three other well-known philosophers were contemporaries of Xerxes I – Socrates, Buddha, and Confucius. Also, Sun Tzu completed his The Art of War shortly before Xerxes took the throne.
Out of the many babies born during this period, one of them was a child named Hippocrates, who would one day become known as “The Father of Modern Medicine.” The Greeks were gaining recognition for their plays, and an obscure little republic had recently been founded. It was called Rome.
Besides being an era of history that still impacts our lives today, this period is well documented by the meticulous chronicles of many kingdoms. These historical records confirm the dates and events recorded in the Bible. A helpful source when studying the Book of Esther, especially concerning the Persian interactions with Greece, is The Histories by the Greek historian, Herodotus, born just ten years after the death of Xerxes I.
Biblical events surrounding the life and times of Xerxes I include the conclusion of the 70-year period of Jewish captivity by the Babylonians. The end of the captivity took place a generation before Esther, when God “moved the heart of Cyrus” (Ezra 1:1) to decree that God’s people could return to the homeland.
You may have known that Cyrus the Great had been prophesied by name 150 years before his birth by the prophet Isaiah (read Isaiah 42, 44, and 45). An old preacher’s joke states that when it was pointed out to Cyrus that God Himself had named him to be the one to release the Jews, he was excited to have been personally chosen by the Lord, and said, “If God chose me to release the Jews, well then, I’ll do it!” And he did.
Cyrus ensured everything that Nebuchadnezzar had removed from the Temple of God was given back to those returning to Jerusalem, so those items could be used in the new house of worship.
A few prophets were active around this time. The first six chapters of Ezra tell about Zerubbabel, a political leader, who led the first group of exiles back to Jerusalem. The Babylonians had reduced the city to a pile of rubble. That group began the construction of the Temple, as Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed.
Soon, the people became distracted and discouraged at the daunting task before them. The prophet Zechariah offered comfort for the people with God’s message, “Don’t be afraid” (Zechariah 8). But, the prophet Haggai relayed God’s displeasure that those who returned had quickly built themselves fine homes, while the Lord’s house remained in shambles. The people rallied, and the Temple construction was completed and dedicated in around 515 B.C.
At the end of Xerxes’ reign, Ezra led another remnant of the Jews back to the Promised Land (Ezra 7-10). The next generation would bring Nehemiah, whose leadership united the Jews to work together, finishing the city wall in a matter of weeks. Malachi would come later, and, following his message, God would remain silent for about 400 years.
God’s silence can be as powerful as His voice, as is evident in the Book of Esther. He is quiet throughout the story. In fact, the Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible in which the name of God never appears. Yet, His hand is seen throughout the entire story.
The main theme of the book is “God Cares What Happens to Me.” And the same God who cared about Esther, still cares about us today – no matter what situation we may be in.
(Note: The book text of Ordinary Girl, Extraordinary Purpose, contains footnote references for the above information.)