The Next Faithful Step
Divine and Human Initiative in Esther
The Book of Esther has proved to be one of the most popular of the OT books. Its lively story of the reversal of fortunes of the Jewish people in exile never fails to entertain. The triumph of Mordecai the underdog, and the decisive role played by Esther the Queen, have found particular resonance in modern audiences. It is often a surprise for many to hear, then, that the name of God does actually not appear in the book, and that some have cast this as simply a secular tale.1 In fact the story prompts us to consider its particular take on the interplay of divine and human responsibility.
Readers have long noted that the book of Esther lacks specific references to Jewish beliefs and practices. If God is not named, neither are other elements that seem central to Israelite religious identity: faith, covenant, obedience, the Temple, the Law, and so forth. Nor is there great reason to see Esther and Mordecai as paragons of the faith; their actions have much more to do with reaction and accommodation to the Gentile environment than with promoting the practices of Judaism (despite the results reported in 8:19!). Faith is not given as a motive, for instance, for Esther’s diligent compliance in the national “beauty pageant” (2:8, 15), and for Mordecai’s attention to her success (2:10); in fact no motive at all is given. Even the early rabbis showed some embarrassment about all of this, in their disagreement about the book’s place in the canon.2
While God seems to be ignored, humans on the other hand accomplish a great deal with wise and energetic action. Mordecai is an exemplar of wisdom translated into action, as he hovers over Esther in her transition to palace life (2:11), hears and reports a plot against the king (2:22-23), and mobilizes a response to Haman’s decree (4:1-8; 15-17). It is action that he also urges on Esther, and which transforms Esther from a paragon of passivity to a leader of the community nd of the kingdom (4:15-16; 5:5; 7:1-6; 9:29). It is this aspect of the book that has convinced some that it is best seen simply as a secular tale of romance and nationalism.3
On the other hand it is not an accident that this has been read as a religious story from earliest times.4 There are clues in the text that point to a firm understanding that the God of Israel stands behind the story. The passive verb that describes Esther’s being “taken into” the palace for the contest, obscuring any motive on her part, has its echo two verses earlier in the descriptions of the Jewish captives “taken into exile from Jerusalem;” these may be heard as instances of the “divine passive” that describes an action of God indirectly. Another striking example comes at the hinge of the story, as Mordecai urges Esther to act: “If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:14). Mordecai seems to imply that the God of the Jews will relieve and deliver, just as God has brought Esther into royal dignity.
Similarly, elsewhere just the mention of Judaism seems to require the reader to infer much about the Jewish God. Early in the story Mordecai refuses to “bow down or do obeisance” to Haman; this the incident will ultimately place the entire Jewish population in danger of their lives. His action remains virtually unexplained in the text, not really even by the reason Mordecai gives, “that he was a Jew” (3:2, 4). Nevertheless the echo of the first two Commandments (Exod. 20:3-7) has seemed irresistible to many readers—Mordecai has avoided forbidden idolatry—even though the story does not describe Haman as arrogating divine status. So this pivotal decision is either rooted in theology, or no explanation is given at all.5 Later Haman’s wife Zeresh and his friends warn him that a plot against Mordecai may fail for the simple reason that he is Jewish (6:13). Richard Bauckham’s point is well-taken, that “it is highly improbable that any ancient Jewish reader could have read this story… without discerning in it the purpose and power of God to preserve and deliver his own people.”6
Perhaps the clearest indication of theological interest is the fact that this story serves to establish and promote a day of Jewish worship, namely, Purim.
Still, the book maintains a remarkably consistent silence about God, and an ambiguity about whether God is really behind human events or not. The most theological affirmation of the story, Mordecai’s exhortation of Esther, is far from confident: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come into royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:15). The many coincidences that make up the plot—the timely elevation of a Jewish queen; Mordecai’s discovery of the conspiracy; the king’s insomnia and choice or reading material; etc.—are never explained as providence, though each is providential. “Coincidences may reveal the hand of God, but, once again, humans cannot now for sure.”7 The resulting impression is a book of Scripture in which the theology is there, but veiled.
Was this intentional? An answer to that question leads to the murky problems of the source and writing of Esther. Was it written to promote or explain Purim? Was it written to introduce a Babylonian feast into Judaism?8 Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion is Jon Levenson’s, that “the Book of Esther can be read as the story of the transformation of the exile into the Diaspora;”9 that is, in Esther we have a document from one of the first Jewish communities that was feeling the force of permanent residence in another land. In such a context the writer may have had reason to publish a story whose language about the God of Israel would have been clearer to the community of faith than to the host society. In our day this is sometimes cast as the difference between using “thick” (more explicit) language of faith in public contexts in contrast to “thin” (less explicit) language. For instance, if called on to open a city council meeting with prayer, do we use generic “God” language, or do we pray “in the name of Jesus Christ”? Esther may represent the choice to refrain from flaunting God’s electing choice of Israel at a time when the surrounding culture was newly open to this community in their midst.
At the same time, Esther offers a distinct understanding of the relation between God’s action and human obedience. Esther and Mordecai act on faith without full confidence that they know will of God; there is no prophet to say, “The Lord is indeed going out before you!” (Judges 4:14). For several writers reflecting on Esther’s significance for us today, this is a distinct advantage. As Sidnie White Crawford puts it, “This is certainly theologically ambiguous, but it corresponds with the modern believer’s daily struggle to discern the will of God.”10 Michael V. Fox’s words are frequently quoted: “The willingness to face history with an openness to the possibility of providence—even when history seems to weigh against its likelihood—this is a stance of profound faith.”11 Jon Levenson pushes his appreciation even further: “It is, I submit, a profounder and more realistic stance of faith than that of most of the biblical tradition.”12 Be that as it may, Esther remains a testimony to faith, and not, as we may tend to hear it today, as faith in faith itself, but rather faith in a God whose faithfulness is sure whatever circumstances may prevail.