The book of Esther is an endlessly fascinating book for so many reasons. First of all, there is no mention of God – a bit off brand for a book known for being inspired by God.
Secondly, there is no mention of anything religious – there’s no prayer, no Jerusalem, no piety and no acknowledgment of the Covenant. It is entirely secular. In its ancient context, it would have been quite the task for an author to remove any and all religious language. By that token, we can assume that it must been written to be intentionally secular – we’re meant to be shocked by the hiddenness of God.
The narrator seems to want to startle us in several ways, but our tendency to cling to complacency has turned us into a somewhat difficult audience. We would rather re-interpret the text than be unsettled by it. Many readers of Esther have twisted it into being a romance that begins with a beauty pageant and teaches the virtues of feminine submission. Some films have even twisted the story to end happily, instead of portraying the massacre we find in the final three chapters – and who can blame them? Ending with a massacre isn’t a good look for anyone.
If we had it our way, we’d rather have Esther be like Daniel or Joseph. In fact, these stories are similar. Esther, Daniel, and Joseph are all living outside of Jerusalem under the regime of an oppressive empire. But unlike Esther, Joseph and Daniel are praised for their unwillingness to assimilate, and that is most assuredly NOT the case in Esther. We have no evidence in Esther that she hesitates to assimilate – she eats the King’s food. She marries a gentile. She doesn’t even seem to know about Passover.
We also know that during the reign of King Xerxes, the Jews had been given permission and the funds to return to Jerusalem, but several chose not to.
They chose to stay in exile, because it was preferable to returning to a home they no longer knew.
When we take a deeper look, Esther appears not to be a story about how love conquers all – it seems, instead, that is actually a story about violence, vanity, power, and impurity. If this is the case, why is this story in our bible?
The nature of Esther’s presence in the Bible has been a source of controversy for the entirety of church history. The version in the Catholic bible is quite different from the one in the Protestant bible (the Catholic version adds 107 verses in order to weave God into the story). In the Protestant canon, Esther is located between Nehemiah and Job, but in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanak) it’s located between Ecclesiastes and Daniel.
If you consider Esther with Job, we may be forced to ask if Esther isn’t about the conundrum of good things happening to bad people. If we read it with Ecclesiastes, we might consider Esther to be an an ode to the life of eating and drinking in merriment, for tomorrow we die!
When we consider that each of the Reformers AND the Council of Nicea (among many others) tried to have Esther completely removed from the Canon – we must ask the question: how has this book survived? If it doesn’t contain the holy name of God, why should it be regarded as God-breathed scripture?
Some have noted that in Deut. 31:15-18, there’s a verb (translated as ‘hide my face’) that sounds like the Hebrew word for Esther. Perhaps Esther is about the hiddenness of God.
Perhaps Esther is about how God doesn’t actually abandon his people, even if he does indeed go into hiding – behind the scenes. Has God gone incognito? Is he playing the long game with an alias?
The author of Esther never answers that question. He leaves the questions open – and so the book unsettles us. Is it the story of a faithful God to an unfaithful people? Or is it just the story of a people so wounded by the silence of God that they begin to just believe in themselves?
What has your experience with the book of Esther been? Have you encountered studies or films that tried to place God into the story where the text itself refuses to do so?
Have you ever ‘ventured’ east? Away from your faith and into an unknown land? Was God’s face hidden from you?
How do you discern the difference between the invisible hand of God and mere coincidences?
Have you ever had to work in an environment where you were ‘incognito’ for Jesus? Not permitted to talk about your faith but believing you were doing the Lord’s work regardless?