So, I forgot to reserve a week for Purim, so instead, I decided to just make a bonus post to outline some of my thoughts on the book of Esther. Esther is probably one of my favorite books. In my opinion, it's possibly the first satire ever written. It has a reasonably good story. And possibly to the chagrin of at least one ancient Jewish community, it makes no mention of God or anything divine. In this post, I'll lay out some of my thoughts on Esther, some of the historical background, and I'll propose my own theory that the original story was probably completely unrelated to Judaism at all.
Three Levels of Irony
There is actually multiple levels of irony in Esther, which is one of the reasons I like the book so much. The first level is the superficial level of irony present in the story itself. Namely, the king of Persia, Ahashverosh, is depicted as having no ability to make decisions on his own. He in fact, makes only one decision in the story. At the very beginning, he holds a party. All the other decisions he makes are prompted by advisors and Esther. His advisors tell him to kill Vashti for insubordination. His advisors tell him to invite a bunch of virgins to the palace for one night stands in order to find a replacement queen. Haman (his chief advisor) tells him to kill the Jews, and also suggests, ironically, to honor Mordechai. Esther advises him to not kill the Jews. Ahashverosh, is the most powerful king in the known world, and he's depicted as completely useless. That's irony level one.
The second irony level is found in the names of the two protagonists in the story, Mordechai and Esther. These are no other than the names of the two chief Babylonian deities, Marduk and Ishtar. Marduk being the symbol of Babylonia itself, and Ishtar being the prime female deity, worshiped in many lands (Greek Astarte for example). The irony here is a triumph over Babylon over Persia who recently captured it. In other words, even though Persia is the ruler of the world, "from India to Ethiopia," it is the Babylonian deities that are pulling the strings.
The third level of irony is the fact that the Babylonian deities are depicted as Jews. This leads to two humorous ironies, the first is that Mordechai and Esther are two of the most prototypical Jewish names, and they're names of the deities worshiped by the culture that destroyed the kingdom of Judah! The second irony is that the great Babylonian deities, now worshiped by no-one, only live on because they were depicted as folk heroes of one of their conquered nations.
Esther is actually one of the easier books to place historically. Ahashverosh is almost definitely Xerxes I who ruled from about 485 to 465 BCE. Xerxes is the Greek name, and Ahashverosh is actually the Babylonian name. Xerxes I is chosen, as opposed to later kings with that name because he actually did rule over a kingdom that stretched from India to Ethiopia. Later the Persians would lose a lot of those lands to Alexander the Great's conquests.
There are also other features of the story that are reminiscent of Xerxes. In the story, Mordechai foils a plot by two eunuch guards to kill Ahashverosh. Xerxes was actually assassinated with the help of a eunuch. Also, Ahashverosh wants to kill the people of Mordechai, depicted as Jews in the story. One of Xerxes' more notorious actions was to melt down a statue of Marduk in Babylon, greatly angering the Babylonians.
These ideas lead to one possible origin for the story which is the story was originally Babylonian propaganda. In this case, the identification of Mordechai and Esther with Judaism would have been added later by people (Jews) who co-opted the story. It should be noted that the motif of a foreign king that wants to wipe out the Jewish population because they refuse to bow down to the king appears elsewhere in Tanach, namely the book of Daniel, chapter 3.
A Modified Tale
Esther is really one of the odder inclusions in the Tanach for many reasons. As mentioned above, it has no mention of God, or really any theological message at all. Also, it seems that it wasn't considered canon by other groups. For example, Esther is the only book not represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Other groups did include Esther but were apparently put off by the lack of theological message. We know this because the Septuagint version of Esther differs significantly. The only real "story" difference is a dream at the beginning, that Mordechai has of two intertwined serpents. The obvious guess is that it's describing the wars between Persia and the Greeks, although we have no idea how recent this addition was. Another difference is the inclusion of the letters that the king sends out, both to kill the Jews and to not kill them. However, there are also changes that are theological in nature. God's name is added in several places. Also, both Mordechai and Esther give long drawn out speeches in which they ask for God's help several times.
The reasons for these additions, and it really seems like they are additions, is that the Egyptian community that authored the Septuagint were unhappy with the lack of divine elements, so they added their own. While the Masoretic text used today does not have any mention of God, Rabbis are very likely to point out stuff like it must all be God's doing. In my opinion, if any deities are involved in this tale, it's not the Jewish God, but it's the Babylonian ones.