Xerxes I, whom the Bible names Ahasuerus, chose Esther to be his queen in about 482 BC (Est. 2:15–18). Yet, because there are no extrabiblical references to Esther, many people have questioned the historicity of her story. They also allege that the style of writing—the book of Esther reads like a short novel—means that the story of Esther is merely a fable, lacking historical basis.
When we look at the book of Esther, however, it is clear that the author intends us to read it as historical narrative, for it uses many of the storytelling conventions of the other Old Testament Historical Books. Furthermore, while we have not yet found extrabiblical evidence corroborating the Esther story, what we do know about Xerxes and the Persian Empire at the time fits very well with how the author of Esther describes events. It is also a mistake to think that we must have extrabiblical evidence of biblical events to believe that they happened. The Bible, after all, is as much a historical source as other ancient texts. Approaching it as if it is less reliable than other sources says more about the bias of the critic than it does about the actual trustworthiness of the Scriptures.
With respect to the historical context, we know that while Persian emperors were disposed to give their subjects freedom to practice their religion and follow their cultural traditions, they were also quick to punish those who were suspected of sedition. Xerxes and other emperors were willing to destroy entire cities or massacre whole populations, so there is no difficulty in believing that Xerxes—Ahasuerus—could be persuaded to give Haman the authority to destroy the Jews if he thought they might revolt (Est. 3).
Haman the Agagite was a petty man who wanted to destroy the Jews merely because he did not get the respect from one Jew—Mordecai—that he thought he deserved (vv. 1–6). But we should not overlook Mordecai’s apparent pettiness as well. We are not told why Mordecai refused to bow to Haman. From all we know, he had no principled reason. But his refusal to pay honor was no minor faux pas, for it put his fellow Jews in mortal danger.
Our failure to show honor will likely not put anyone’s life at risk. Still, just as Mordecai’s failure to show honor created greater difficulties for him and for others, our failure to show honor can also cause unnecessary problems. There is wisdom, therefore, in giving honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7).