In recent days I have spent a good amount of time studying the Book of Esther and I have fallen in love with this amazing book once again. It is regularly treated like the annoying younger sibling who constantly tags along when we want to hang out with our friends. Regrettably, the value and even the canonicity of Esther is regularly called into question. According to Karen Jobes, not one commentary was written on Esther during the first seven centuries of the Christian church. Some biblical interpreters, like Martin Luther, wish out loud that the book had not come to us at all. John Calvin himself did not write a commentary on Esther nor apparently did he ever preach from it. I wonder how often the book is preached from pulpits today.
Perhaps the neglect is somewhat understandable. After all, the book presents significant problem in the fact that he God is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in its story. The divine name (YHWH) does not occur, nor does the Hebrew word for God ’elohim, nor do any other names of God. He is not addressed formally in prayers, praise, or dedications. In fact, there are no prayers in the book of Esther at all (though, to be sure, there is a fast in Est. 4:16). The absence of God is even more glaring when we examine other ancient versions of this book. The version that we have in our English Bibles is based upon the Hebrew text of Esther found in the Masoretic Text (MT). There are, however, Greek versions of this book, in which God is not only mentioned by name but is directly involved as an active participant.
So why is explicit mention of God noticeably absent from our canonized version of the book? Why is God incognito?
The answer to that question can be illusive. Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that the narrative takes place in foreign land, a Persian urban center, and not in the normal dwelling place of God in the temple, in Jerusalem. Perhaps, the establishment of Purim as a new Jewish festival cannot be too closely associated with God since Purim is not regulated in the legal texts of the Old Testament? We cannot be too confident in any answer since all are highly speculative. We can, however, safely assume that any Jewish text, even one that does not mention God overtly, in the post-exilic era would have some theological significance. For a people living during this period of restoration, who were so cognizant of the Lord and His covenantal promises (Chronicles) and concerned with a return to Mosaic orthodoxy and orthopraxy (Ezra/Nehemiah), to adopt a literary work that did not have some theological significance strains credulity.
Consider also the events in the book. The Jewish people are threatened with genocide due to the manipulative deceit of Haman, "the enemy of the Jews" (Est. 3:10; 9:24). Had Haman's malicious plan succeeded, the theological, not to mention human, impact would have been catastrophic. Recall that since the days of the garden, the Lord promised that a "seed of the woman" would come to crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). The history of salvation traces the line of that seed through the line of Seth (Gen. 5:3), Noah (Gen. 5:28-29), Abraham (Gen. 15:3-5), and the Judean king David (2 Sam. 7:12). Simply put, the blessed "seed of the woman" would come through the line of the Jews. If there are no Jews, then the line of descendents would be cut off. If that line is cut off, then there is no "seed of the woman," no coming son of Abraham, no future son of David. No Messiah, no Jesus! If there was ever a time for the Lord to be directly involved in the affairs of His people, it is now. Yet, He is never mentioned!
We expect God to be mentioned constantly and persistently, but he never is. Given the significance of the narrative in the history of salvation, the need for the presence of God and reminders that He is in divine control of matters is overwhelming. Too much is at stake. The author of the Book of Esther easily could have written a literary work where direct references to God can be found in every sentence on every page in abundance, or the author could take the radically opposite approach to communicate the exact same message—which is what we have here. We expect God to be actively and explicitly involved in the account, which is what makes the author’s silence in this regard so loud, so deafening. The expected theological bomb-blast is heard in its overwhelming, unexpected silence. In other words, the author of Esther creates an awe-inspiring sense of the presence of God by not mentioning the overt presence of God at all.
This may also be the reason for the name of the Jewish heroine, Esther. Some have suggested that the name "Esther" (whose Hebrew name is Hadaasah) is based on the Persian word for "star" or possibly (though unlikely) the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. Consider another alternative, one made by my dear friend Stephen Fix in his personal studies of the book. The Hebrew consonants for "Esther" ʾstr are the same consonants as a Hebrew verb form which means “I am hiding” (for you students of Hebrew, it’s the first person common singular of the imperfect form, niphal stem, see Gen 4:14; Job 13:20). Thus it is possible that the name “Esther” creates a double entendre for the verb "I am hiding." If this is so, God is implicitly saying to the readers, "I know it may be hard not to read about me in a direct and obvious way, but do not be discouraged. I would not leave you at a time when you need me the most. I am still here, orchestrating all these events for the good of my people."
Read this way, the Book of Esther has more in common with the life of Christians today than any other book of the Bible. After all, we do not live in a day when God brings fresh manna that falls from the heavens (Exod 16) or supernaturally provides life-giving water from a rock (Exod 17). We don't see the dividing of large bodies of waters (Gen 1; Exod 14; Josh 3; 2 Kings 2) nor do we see the Lord riding on a glory-chariot (Ezek 1). Although our day is without these extraordinary visuals of God's presence, we should not be discouraged. The absence of any direct reference to God does not equal a true theological absence of God. The Lord works in the life of His people in subtle yet still powerful ways. It is more like the days of Esther. He is there. He is always there, even if we don't see Him. During those times in life when it is difficult to discern the presence of God and thus we wonder about His providence in our lives, remember the Book of Esther and remember what it teaches us—He is there, He is always there, and He is always working for our well being, even if you can't see Him.
As I ponder Esther, I am reminded of another time in the history of salvation when God seemed absent. Like Esther, we would have expected the complete opposite. When God’s only begotten Son hung innocently on the cross, he was silent. Was He present? Absolutely!
Just as foolish as it would be to say that God was not there at the cross of Christ, so it would be to say that God was not there with His people in the book of Esther. God was silent in both times….a silence so loud, it was deafening. But God was actively involved and faithfully working for the redemption of His people. For this reason, not only is this book meaningful for the Jews as it describes their preservation (thus the Jewish philosopher Maimonides ranks it equal to the Pentateuch), so it is meaningful for Christians as it describes the providence of God in preserving an ethnic line that would ultimately give birth to the Savior of the world.
I thank God for the Book of Esther because it reminds me that He is constantly behind the scenes in every aspect of every day of my life, even when I can't tell that He is there. And He is working for my good.
Peter Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.