The book of Esther tells the story of the Persian queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, who foil the plot of Haman, a wicked Persian courtier, to exterminate the Jews. Haman is hanged on the very scaffold where he intended to hang Mordechai, and Mordechai replaces him as an adviser of the Persian king.
The book, written originally in biblical Hebrew, survives in various forms. The differences among these forms determine the many afterlives that the book has enjoyed. The date of the original form of the book is uncertain.
The Jewish book of Esther is best known from the liturgy. The scroll (Hebrew: megillah) of Esther is read on the feast of Purim, the origins of which are commemorated in the book.
Esther is grouped in the Jewish Bible with other festival scrolls, the Five Megilloth. Purim is an early spring feast associated with revelry and even drinking. Its ultimate origins are Mesopotamian or perhaps Iranian.
Esther tells the story of the Jewish form of the feast: Jews commemorate the success of Esther and Mordechai in halting Haman’s wicked plans for Jewish genocide, an echo of the genocide planned in Exodus. Esther has also served as a talisman for the historically large community of Iranian Jews, who call themselves "Esther's children".
The Protestant book of Esther is identical to the Jewish version except in being categorized as a historical book, put in sequence with Joshua, Judges, and others as describing the history of God's chosen people. Much Protestant exegesis and scholarship has focused on Esther as a historical text.
To be sure, Jews through the ages have thought of Esther as a genuine historical figure but with much less urgency than most Christian students of scripture. Protestant interpreters were also influenced by the identification of the Persian king Ahasuerus as one of the historical rulers called Artaxerxes.
The Catholic–Orthodox book of Esther is the result of another facet of the early Greek translation. The Hebrew text of Esther, and thus the Jewish and Protestant versions, do not mention the name of God at all, although the story as it unfolds is clearly overshadowed by divine providence.
The Greek translators remedied this supposed deficiency by inserting two long prayers (one spoken by Mordechai, the other by Esther), along with a variety of other elements.
These passages, called the "Additions to Esther", are canonical parts of scripture for Catholics and Orthodox; they are among the Apocrypha of Protestant Bible translations.
The only portions of Esther that contributed to Catholic and Orthodox liturgies are the two prayers. Traditional Catholic-Orthodox interpretation has also taken Esther as a historical book.
The literary character of the book has been emphasized by modern biblical scholarship: The book is a story explaining how Jews in a non-Jewish world can be successful and protect themselves.
It has some historical basis in that Jews lived all over the Persian Empire, but there is no evidence for a king named Ahasuerus, no Jew ever rose to the status Mordechai attains of controlling the empire, and no Jew ever became the queen of Persia.