As one of the most prominent scholars and theologians of the Massachusetts Bay colony, Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was the author of some 469 books. Among them was Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, or, The Character and Happiness of a Virtuous Woman: in a Discourse Which Directs the Female-Sex how to Express the Fear of God in Every Age and State of Their Life and Obtain Both Temporal and Eternal Blessedness. Stuart Halpern considers Mather’s use of the eponymous heroine of the book of Esther, a book often neglected by Christians:
In Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, Mather . . . brings up Esther multiple times. The first is in praise of the women of his era, whose “beautiful countenance” does not preclude their “good understanding.” . . . Mather then invokes Esther as a paradigm for women, who should demonstrate resolve and integrity in the face of suspicious husbands, refusing to upset the patriarchal order.
And yet, Mather saw in the biblical Esther a woman of independent action to be admired. . . . She is a “good conqueror” who obeys rules but is spiritually independent of her husband [King Ahasuerus], providing him with salvation. Looking past figures in the Christian tradition including Mary, Mather offered his fellow Puritans a heroine from the Hebrew Bible who modeled a willingness to stay faithful unto death, to overcome challenges and adversity, and to provide salvation for others.
Ornaments was not the last time Mather would meditate on Esther. His magnum opus, Biblia Americana, the first biblical commentary written in America, . . . recapped the story and provided the scholarly interpretations current in Mather’s time. In it, Mather cites, among his many sources, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, [the midrashic works] M’khilta, Pirkey d’Rabbi Eliezer, and Seder Olam Rabbah, [the ancient Aramaic translation of] Onkelos, the Zohar, and [the medieval commentaries of] Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra, David Kimḥi, Moses Naḥmanides, Moses of Coucy, Levi Gersonides, Baḥya ben Asher, Obadiah Seforno, and Isaac Abravanel, remarking that “the writings of the rabbins [sic] are often very helpful to us.” . . . Strikingly, however, very little [of Mather’s commentary] centered on Esther herself.
This interpretation of Esther and the legacy of her actions, however, misses the true significance of her story. When Esther is called upon by Mordechai, it is not, as Mather offers in his Ornaments of the Daughters of Zion, to prevent the destruction of her husband but to risk everything to provide salvation for her nation.