🔼The name Esther: Summary
- Star, Myrtle
- From the Greco-Persian word for star or the Median word for myrtle.
🔼The name Esther in the Bible
The name Esther is assigned only once in the Bible. Esther is the Persian name of a Hebrew girl named Hadassah (means myrtle), who was able to avert the genocide of the Hebrews during the time of the Babylonian exile (see the Book of Esther). Her story plays between the two waves of return to Jerusalem but her bravery is still celebrated every year during the feast of Purim (Esther 9:26).
Esther was a daughter of a man named Abihail, who was the uncle of Mordecai, who raised her (Esther 2:7, 2:15, 9:29), and who was instrumental in preventing and avenging the planned genocide of the Jews, and who was subsequently promoted to a position that was second only to the king (Esther 10:3).
Whether or not the Book of Esther was based on an actual Jewish queen of Persia isn't clear, or perhaps even relevant. The literary character of Esther mostly serves to depict the Jewish wisdom elite that operated with increasing success and influence in Persia.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Esther
The name Esther obviously stems from the same Proto-Indo-European root that gave us our English word "star" and the Greek equivalent αστηρ (aster):
The noun αστηρ (aster) means star. It ultimately derives from the widely attested and ancient Proto-Indo-European root "hehs-", meaning to burn, plus the particle of agency "-ter". This noun's Hebrew equivalent, namely מאור (ma'or), likewise consists of the particle of agency, namely מ (ma) plus the verb אור ('or), to shine.
The ancients were well aware of the fractal nature of creation, and in the Bible the word "star" refers to any kind of large accumulation of loose elements, within whose common center certain combinations of those elements are forged: from physical stars in which the elements are forged from hydrogen, to language basins in which the concerns of individual humans are merged into discrete words, to societal centers of wisdom in which individuals are combined into commercial companies and schools of thought.
More specifically, the name Esther probably stems from the Persian expression of this very old PIE root meaning star, namely setareh, which is conveniently similar to the Median word astra, meaning myrtle, which is a plant with tiny flowers like stars in the night sky.
The name Esther was probably given to Hadassah when she entered the court of the Persian king (compare Daniel and his friends) and as such she was known by the people. Note that the name Esther is closely related to the name Ishtar (or Ashtoreth in Hebrew), which belonged to Babylon's primary female deity. The name of Esther's uncle Mordecai is closely akin to Marduk , the patron god of the city of Babylon.
The story of Esther obviously has a double bottom; it suggests that the Hebrews figured that the Babylonian reality model greatly favored the world view of the Jews. In the Book of Esther, the Babylonian gods (or rather: the people who serve them) force their Babylonian subjects to accept and appreciate Hebrew theology, and weed out the elements who aggress it.
But to a Hebrew audience the name Esther, the way it was written, had far more meaning than simply the word "star" in the language of their abductors.
🔼Beyond the obvious
The name Esther may have reminded of a compound of אסון ('ason), meaning evil, harm, from the assumed root אסה ('sh), plus the word תר (tor) meaning a circle or plait or תר (tor) meaning dove; both from the verb תור (tur), to explore or survey. In that way the foreign name Esther would have looked to mean She Searches Out Evil to a Hebrew audience.
Then there is the word אסר (asar), meaning to tie, bind, gird, with among its derivatives אסור (esur) meaning bond, band, and אסר (issar), binding obligation (see our article on the name Masoretes).
And finally we list the root סתר (satar), hide or conceal, with among its derivatives סתר (seter) and סתרה (sitra) both meaning hiding place, and מסתר (mistar) hiding place. That way the name Esther would have sounded like I Am A Hiding Place or I Am Hidden. In fact, five times the form אסתר occurs in the Bible with meanings that have to do with to hide: Genesis 4:14, Job 13:20, Psalm 55:12, Ezekiel 39:23 and 39:24.
Stars play a major role in the Bible. Astrologists agree with the Bible that stars were created to serve as signs (Genesis 1:14), but nowhere does the Bible suggest that stars influence people beyond their signature nature. God promises Abraham that his offspring would be like the stars (Genesis 15:5) and Daniel reports that those who lead the many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever (12:3).
Paul explains that Abraham's offspring is Christ and whoever is in Christ (Galatians 3:29), and when the magi come to look for the newborn Christ and say that they saw his star in the east (Matthew 2:2), they might have simply referred to the Book of Esther and the other Scriptures that Israel left them after they went back to Canaan: by saying "We read your story and understood it".