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‘Secular’ Neglect, Salvation Anyway:

Esther 5:9–8:14 and the Theology of the Book of Esther

By Wesley Hill

In my work as a New Testament professor, I regularly introduce students to the Jewish diaspora — the post-exilic life of the people of Israel outside their ancestral home in Palestine. I encourage them to try to identify the burning questions that would have arisen for Jews determined to keep the commandments of the Torah in a place like Susa in modern-day Iran, after the Persians took control of Babylon: How far would they go in assimilating to the cultural expectations in their foreign setting? How much would they be willing to adjust and accommodate their habits and traditions to fit in among their neighbors? To what degree would they try to maintain a distinct identity? How much compromise would they attempt while endeavoring to stay true to their way of life?

Although I recommend that my students read Chaim Potok’s wonderful novels about 20th-century characters in Brooklyn to get a feel for how these questions have never really gone away for Jews, I could just as easily travel the other direction in time and encourage them to read the Joseph cycle in Genesis 37-50, the episodes in Daniel when Jewish exiles stick to their guns in the face of pressure to assimilate (see Dan. 1:8-21; 3:1-30; 6:1-28), and the story of Esther. These are all stories that pose the same challenge: What does it look like to be faithful in places where no one understands you, where you have little to no external support for the life you believe you’re called to lead?

Esther is one of the selections for this year’s Good Book Club, a time when a lot of us in the Episcopal Church try to read the same parts of the Bible together and talk about them with each other. At this point, we’ve arrived at the book’s central section, 5:9–8:14. If you’ve kept up, you’ll know by now how different Esther feels from most other parts of the Old Testament. It reads more like a novel, fable, or romantic adventure than a dry chronicle of military conquests or dynastic transitions. And like a novel, it doesn’t neatly deliver a moral lesson. The Harvard scholar Jon Levenson is right:

The book of Esther is so entertaining, so comical, and so subtle that to speak of its “message” can be profoundly misleading. Like all great literature, it demands at least that the term be in the plural: A book whose structure is amenable to many angles of vision surely has more than one message.

Even so, there are enough oddities in the book that make you want to read closely to ensure you aren’t missing the way artistic narrative can also be the vehicle of profound theological proclamation.

In his short, provocative book Esther and Her Elusive God, John Anthony Dunne rejects most of the usual interpretations of Esther: that it is mainly about heroic the Israelites’ faithfulness and God’s consequent (though hidden) protection of them from annihilation. Dunne points out that Esther, the book’s protagonist, and Mordecai, her cousin, aren’t really depicted as conscientious observers of the Torah. Many readers have noticed their lack of prayer to God (or any mention of God in the book at all, for that matter); the complete absence of any longing for home, for Zion and a rebuilt temple and freedom from Gentile domination; and — at an absolutely crucial juncture (3:13), when they are facing the imminent prospect of genocide — the neglect of the Passover, the keeping of which would have allowed the Jews to beg God to show up again with the Exodus mercy and might he’d exercised before. Dunne concludes: “we have no reason to assume Esther or Mordecai have much faith at all”; “the people of God portrayed in Esther appear to have experienced a decline in faith and religious adherence to the God of their ancestors.”

If Dunne is right about all this, then it may be that we need to rethink the implicit theology many of us think we’ve discovered in Esther. Although God is never named and only, maybe, in a couple of spots alluded to (4:13-14; 6:13), most religious readers have wanted to detect a subtle, under-the-radar providential orchestrating of events, so that behind Esther’s achievement in rescuing her people lies the quiet but no less effective fidelity of God to Israel. I feel sure that that impulse isn’t wrongheaded. But maybe it doesn’t go far enough.

It could be that what we have in Esther isn’t just a theology of divine providence and protection but also something like a doctrine of “the justification of the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5), God’s commitment to stand by God’s people when they’re at their covenant-keeping worst and see them through anyway. In this way, there may be more theology, not less, in what Dunne calls this most “secular” of biblical books. God not only intervenes; God intervenes precisely at the point when no human virtue or piety would compel him to do so, where the only hope is the sheer divine intention to bless, save, and protect, regardless of whether it’s acknowledged by the saved ones at all.

Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, has said provocatively that the Book of Esther “provides the most explicit foreshadowing of Christ in the whole of the Old Testament.” That may be a bit of homiletical exaggeration, but then again it may not. If Jesus the Jew isn’t just the human one who stands in the breach to rescue his people Israel and the rest of the nations from certain destruction — if he is also the embodiment of God’s own faithfulness despite all human indifference and rejection — then Esther may be one of the best windows onto the meaning of the gospel that we have.

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