"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hide and Seek in the Book of Esther

Even though there is no mention of God or religious institutions in Esther, except for fasting, several assertions can be made about a theology of the Book. Most discussions of Esther place God’s Providence at the heart of the Book. Esther and Mordecai are God fearing individuals who find themselves in a foreign land, rise to positions of great power, and the resulting influence is greatly beneficial to their people (much like the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-48). A focus on God’s providential oversight of these events, rather than on His obvious, spectacular intervention, is the norm in these stories (Joseph, Esther and Mordecai). God’s presence, though hidden, is alluded to in the act of fasting because of the crisis at hand (4:3, 16-17). In the Old Testament, fasting is usually connected with praying, with the purpose of moving God to act. We also read the assurance of Haman’s wife and friends that he could not prevail against a Jew (6:13), a reference to the history of the Jews and God’s providential purposes for them as His people. Perhaps the most direct statement of God’s providence is seen in Mordecai’s statement to Esther in 4:14a, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place.”

Theological views of Esther also lead to observations about God’s hiddenness. Esther is one of only two books in the Bible that does not mention God openly, the other being Song of Songs. Nor does it mention the Temple, the covenant, the law, prayer, or other institutions central to Israel’s religious practices. Many explanations have been offered about these omissions, including the theory that God remained aloof from the story because of displeasure with some of the actions of the characters (deception, Esther’s willingness to lose her virginity to become wife to a Gentile king, Mordecai’s pride in not bowing to Haman). One logical conclusion to be drawn from God’s apparent absence is the importance of human action. The characters, faced with a crisis, do not sit idly by, waiting for a sign from God, or a dramatic miracle from God. The best solution to God’s apparent absence from the Book would seem to be that the author is being intentionally vague about God’s presence, veering away from it abruptly at times. In so doing, the author seems to be suggesting that God is indeed involved with the events of the story (providence), and on the other hand, that this involvement is sometimes difficult to see (God’s hiddenness). While the author and his readers rationally know that God is always present and in control, the experiences of life show that the specific manifestations of His presence are not always so clear. Therefore, we can discern a carefully crafted indeterminacy, which is a part of the message of the Book. From human viewpoint, we are given the impression that people are in control of human history and events. Only by looking deeper can the spiritual man discern the presence and providence of a sometimes “hidden” God. This indeterminacy is not to be confused with unbelief. When we scrutinize Esther for signs of God, we are doing exactly what the author wanted us to do. By extension, the author is telling us we must sometimes look for God in our own lives in just the same way.

Another significant motif in Esther is that of royalty. The story takes place in a royal setting, Esther is a royal figure who exercises royal power and influence in the story, leading to the ultimate deliverance of the Jews. Less obvious are the significant references to Mordecai as a royal figure. He is honored with royal robes and a royal procession (6:7-11); he is given the king’s signet ring, a sign of royalty (8:2); he is invested in royal power and exercises it in making decrees (9:20-23); and ultimately he is raised to a position second only to the king in royalty (10:1-3). Mordecai’s ancestry is traced in 2:5 to names in the lineage of Saul (Kish and Shimei). This motif may have been a way of assuring the Jews that royalty still had some significance for them as God was able to raise up Jews to places of influence, even in exile. In connection with this motif, is that of festival and feasting. Mordicai inaugurates the Festival of Purim as a celebration of the way the Jews were delivered at the time. Multiple feasts are mentioned in the book, and the entire Book of Esther deals with the Festival of Purim directly or indirectly. The careful written instructions for the generous Festival elevate Esther to Talmudic status to the level of the Torah, since these are the only two portions of scripture giving specific instructions for Biblical festivals. It may be concluded, then, that though God may be “hidden” in the Book of Esther, to the discerning eye, his presence is clear.

Implications for today are also clear. As people of faith, we move through our lives, doing our best at any given moment, based on our limited knowledge and insights. To the outside observer (as to the "reporter" of the events in Esther) God may not be obvious. As we lean into Him, however, his presence is (ususally) known to us, though his specific revelation and guidance may not be. At the end of the day, as events grow more distant, we gain a little perspective and make some educated guesses about God's hand in the ordinary and extraordinary events of our lives.

As we view human history unfolding, God is rarely mentioned these days, at least in mainstream media. The world sees people as the center of the universe and as the masters of the planet. To the person of faith, there is always the backdrop of God laughing from his throne. In all our pompous posing, I suspect human exploits may be, more often than not, a comedy of errors when viewed from the throne room of God. He is not surprised or befuddled by the things men do. His plan will have its inevitable way even as men exercise free will (a mystery). And that is very good news for those who call him Father.

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