November 22, 2017

Esther, Part 2: Theology, Purpose, and Problems

Layton Talbert

FrontLine • November/December 2007

At a Glance:
Ezra Part 1Ezra Part 2Nehemiah Part 1Nehemiah Part 2 ♦ Esther Part 1

The Book of Esther is a classic of dramatic narrative laced with practical and theological implications, all the more subtle and insightful due to the book’s most outstanding idiosyncrasy: it never directly mentions God. The previous column surveyed the book’s background, structure, and thematic elements. This column will explore Esther’s theological message, function, and difficulties.

Theology in Esther

How can a book that never mentions God communicate any theology? Quite easily, really. The theme of Esther revolves around God’s providential protection of Esther’s people because they are, despite all their flaws and failures, His people. He has sworn to do certain things in and with and for and through them. In reality, Esther chronicles a threat not only to the Jewish people but to all mankind: destroy the Jews and you destroy God’s promised Messiah. The eradication of the Jew has not merely international but universal, cosmic consequences; repeated historical efforts to do so should, therefore, be unsurprising. Esther exhibits the mutual gravitational pull of divine sovereignty and human responsibility orbiting tightly around each other.

Human Responsibility

“Surely the Lord is in this place,” said Jacob, “and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16). Esther’s trademark is not the absence of God but the nonmention of God. The two are not the same. And that is the whole point. This literary feature plays out as a two-edged paradox.

The nonmention of God highlights human responsibility. Human activity is exclusively in view because humans are the only ones whose actions the narrator shows us. As far as we can see, everything seems to depend on the actions and reactions of women and men.

The nonmention of God underscores divine activity. When a narrative identifies surprising and unlikely events—such as the parting of the Red Sea or the fall of Jericho—as direct divine intervention, the reader is impressed. But when the narrator, in relating surprising or unlikely events, keeps God hidden from view, the reader is compelled to conclude, “That had to be God!” What is not obvious on the surface is nevertheless undeniable. As J. Sidlow Baxter observes, “This mysterious reality which we call providence, this sovereign manipulation of all the ordinary, non-miraculous doings which make up the ordinary ongoing of human affairs, so as to bring about, by natural processes, those results which are divinely predetermined, is the mightiest of all miracles.”

Divine Providence

Just because the narrator doesn’t name God, however, does not mean that he does not make reference (however veiled) to God. Such references are as clear yet easy to miss as the nose beneath your eyes.

Implicit references. The narrator cites several comments from the mouths of the actors that subtly imply a consciousness of divine presence and activity.

4:13, 14—Mordecai’s statement of the consequences if Esther refuses to intervene are theologically pregnant: (a) deliverance will come “from another place,” (b) retribution would be certain (“thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed”), and (c) E sther would be missing the duty commensurate with her coincidental opportunity (“thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this”).

4:15–17—The three-day communal fast is a veiled implication of appeal to God. Prayer is not mentioned; but fasting alone would be an absurd preparation for this incident. The narrator does not say that they did not pray; he merely does not say that they did. But the implication is irresistible.

6:13—Haman’s wife and friends sense that since Mordecai is “of the seed of the Jews,” Haman’s initial humiliation before Mordecai could only foreshadow his ultimate overthrow—a tacit recognition of the reality of the God of the Jews.

8:17; 9:2, 3—Some see a “hidden theology” (Meinhold) in the phrases “the fear of the Jews” and “the fear of Mordecai” (cf. Gen. 31:42). These veiled statements are “indirect references to Yahweh’s intervention in history on behalf of His people” (Sandra Beth Berg). The “fear” on the part of the heathen who witnessed this plot reversal resulted in many of them converting to Judaism.

“Chance” references. Esther is replete with unexpected, but perfectly timed, interconnected events that are inexplicable apart from divine orchestration. The plot is punctuated with defining incidents that steer the course and affect the outcome of the story. Here are a few examples (see Talbert, Not by Chance, chapter 8 for more detail): the unexplained disobedience of Vashti and her deposal; the unexpected accession of a Jewess to the Persian throne; the chance discovery by Mordecai of an assassination plot against the king, coupled with the fact that his deed is recorded but not immediately rewarded; the baffling promotion of an arrogant prince; the propitious determination of a lot-casting; the tenuous confrontation between Mordecai and Esther; the uncertain decision of the king to receive Esther; the unpredictable insomnia of the king; the fortuitous selection by the court reader; the opportune arrival of Haman; the timely reversal of Haman’s plot; and the curious naming of a memorial holiday. The ultimate symbol of “chance” in the book is the lot (purim) cast by Haman. Is it not odd that the Jewish feast originating from these events is named after that insignificant detail? Why the Feast of Purim of all things? Why not the Feast of Deliverance or the Feast of Esther? The inconsequential symbol of apparent randomness (purim) is transmogrified into the ultimate “antichance” symbol. The story of Esther illustrates what the naming of the Feast of Purim commemorates—that the heathen’s chance is the believer’s providence. Proverbs 16:9 and 33 could not find their way into a more apropos context.

Purpose of Esther

The historical purpose of Esther is to recount the events that led to the Feast of Purim (9:20–32). But what would be the purpose of a book in the Bible that records the deliverance of God’s people from destruction through a series of “chance” events, yet never mentions God? That suggests the theological purpose—to highlight God’s providence in ruling and overruling in human affairs, and to demonstrate His protective care for His people and His purposes. This is accomplished by two paradoxical but complementary implications of the nonmention of God: the necessity of responsible human activity coupled with the reality of interventional divine activity.

Problems in Esther

Most Christians have wrestled with the apparent implications of some of the situations that surface in the story of Esther. All we can do is examine the data in the story. The story has its own agenda, which does not include answering all our curiosities. In some cases where the data we possess simply do not yield a definitive answer, wisdom stifles speculation and modesty forbids dogmatism.

Was Vashti justified in refusing Xerxes? Should she be viewed as insubordinate or morally principled? The story is not interested in answering that question. Beyond 1:11, the narrative offers no comment on the nature of Xerxes’ request or of Vashti’s refusal. In the unfolding of the story, it does not matter whether Xerxes or Vashti was in the right. In narrative terms, Vashti is merely an agent whose actions, right or wrong, facilitate the outworking of God’s purposes. The narrator’s extended attention to the “fallout” (1:13–22) may seem to suggest that Vashti’s refusal was unwarranted (rather than that Xerxes’ request was unseemly). But it was not important enough to the narrator’s purpose to clarify, for whom it is just one more human incident that God orchestrates into His larger purposes.

Was Esther immoral? The text is discreet and avoids any direct or unambiguous statement. For example, when Esther “[went] in unto the king” (2:13, 15) the phrase used is the same construction for Abraham going in to Hagar (Gen. 16:4), but it is also the identical construction for Moses and Aaron going in to Pharaoh (Exod. 7:10). Again, each virgin went in at evening and returned the next morning (2:14); yet apparently the same women continue to be referred to as “virgins” even afterwards (2:19). Assuming the worst, one might liken it to the royal harems of Judah (including David’s). The cultural milieu may not justify the harems in Judah or Persia, but it does at least help explain the phenomenon. Nevertheless, it seems unnecessary and unwise to go dogmatically where the text does not go unambiguously. One might read “between the lines” that she “slept” with the king, but between the lines is the only place one can find it. One may wish to argue that it’s obvious to anyone who is not naïve. Others are inclined, in the absence of unequivocal data, to grant the benefit of any doubt (“to the pure all things are pure” and “love thinketh no evil”). The language of 2:16–18 conveys an air of innocence and even admiration; that a sexual encounter may have ensued with other women does not, in any case, demand that it did with Esther.

Should Mordecai and Esther have been in Persia in the first place? Some have argued that they were living in disobedience to be in Persia at all. Some even suggest that is why God is not mentioned in the book. Such blame, however, is unjustified. Esther was in Persia because she was born there long after the original return; one could not pick up and make the arduous and dangerous four-to-six-month trek whenever he pleased. Moreover, Ezra 1:4, 5 indicates that the Lord did not “stir” everyone to return; many remained behind without blame, though they were expected to help finance the venture. God preserved the lives of those who had returned to Jerusalem through the presence and providential placement of principled people who had remained behind. (The Lord later similarly used two other Jews living in Persia: Ezra did not return to Judah until he was old enough to have acquired the reputation of an expert scribe and to be commissioned and sent by King Artaxerxes; Nehemiah was also commissioned by Artaxerxes to be governor of Judah, but not before he lived in Persia long enough to rise to the highly trusted position of the king’s personal butler.) In addition, Haman’s genocidal plot threatened all Jews who lived throughout all the king’s provinces (3:13; 8:5), including Judah. The narrative of Esther and Mordecai is a positive one; they are the human heroes of the story.

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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