March 11, 2023

Esther for Grown-ups

Between providence and divine silence

John K. McVay

Despots and dictators are concerned about their personal safety and guard it elaborately. Elite troops, with personal, sworn loyalty to the ruler, guard the throne. Royal taste testers sample meals. Meticulous procedures and regulations insulate, isolate, and protect.

The Persian law guaranteeing the king’s safety is as stark as it is effective—anyone who approaches the king uninvited will die at the hands of those elite troops. No exceptions. Inescapable. Automatic. It will happen every time.

Only the king himself can halt the inevitable execution.

Queen Esther courageously affirms: “‘I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish’” (Esther 4:16).1 This time, though, she does not have 12 months to prepare (Esther 2:12). She and her court have just three days to get ready (Esther 4:16). But you can imagine that when she steps out of her palace and sweeps toward the king’s throne room, she is at her alluring best.

* * *

Someone has written, “For heightened action the story [of Esther] is perhaps unsurpassed within the pages of the Bible.”2 For all its action-packed attractiveness, the story of Esther is troubling. There’s a lot to wince and squirm at here. Some of the discomfort comes from what is absent: God is nowhere mentioned and, while there is a lot of “fasting and weeping and lamenting” and “sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3), no one prays. Much of the discomfort, though, comes from what is present, especially the vindictive slaughtering by the Jews after they are saved (Esther 9).

Given our own squeamishness about the book, it’s no surprise that Esther has been revised down through the ages. Well after the time frame of the Old Testament story of Esther, six additions were made to the book. Totaling 107 verses, these additions appear in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) and are accepted as inspired by many Christians.

It is not difficult to see why the additions were made. One addition describes Esther at prayer:

“Queen Esther, in the grip of mortal anxiety, sought refuge in the Lord. . . . Then she prayed to the Lord God of Israel. . . . ‘Do not yield your scepter, Lord, to gods that have no real existence. . . . You know all things; you know that I hate the splendor of the heathen; I abhor the bed of the uncircumcised or of any Gentile . . . I, your servant, have not eaten at Haman’s table, nor have I graced a banquet of the king nor touched the wine of his drink-offerings’ ” (Esther 14:1-17, REB).3

With that sample in view, it seems likely that the additions were included to reassure readers that, first, God is indeed alive, well, and active in the story; and, second, the heroes, Esther and Mordecai, are indeed praying, faithful, law-observant Jews of high moral and spiritual caliber.

Two Views of Esther the Book

Do we need to rewrite Esther to make it acceptable? Two views of the book as it stands have developed: (1) it is what it is—a godless, pagan composition—and we have to try to make sense of it as such; (2) it is what it isn’t—hiddenness and disguise are key to this complex, sophisticated composition.

Esther is indeed a sophisticated composition that is structured very carefully. One example? There are two halves to the story that carefully mirror each other. To hide the presence of God could be another example of careful rhetoric. On the surface, God is not mentioned or acknowledged. Beneath the surface, God is everywhere witnessed and celebrated as the true hero of the work.

What evidence is there that the author is purposefully concealing God’s presence? The story reflects earlier Bible stories in a detailed way, especially the story of Joseph. To cite just a few parallels between the two stories:

Both Joseph and Esther are away from home involuntarily, sold into slavery (see Esther 7:4).

The physical attractiveness of the hero is important to each story.

Both stories feature a royal banquet in which guests do not know the true identity of the host.

The turning point of each story involves remembering a Hebrew during a difficult or sleepless night.

The Esther story “alludes and points back to Joseph’s story,” suggesting “that God is in fact very much involved in the events, even if he is not directly mentioned.”4

In addition, in spite of the fact that God is nowhere explicitly mentioned, the story reveals events that are obviously planned to occur just as they do. Mordecai just happens to overhear a conversation between two would-be assassins. Haman plans the death of Mordecai, scheduling his request to the king the next day. That very night, the king experiences sleeplessness, and requests that the royal chronicles be read. The scribe just happens to read the story of Mordecai’s loyalty in revealing the assassination plans. Haman just happens to arrive at court at the moment the king is pondering how to honor Mordecai.

The evidence mounts that the providence of God is at work. But why? Why would the author of Esther conceal the presence of God? Here is an intriguing answer: The author draws readers into the story, inviting them to experience what providence feels like (rather than instructing them that it is at work). The evidence of God’s providence is so detailed and cumulative that it drives the reader to the unspoken conclusion that God is active to save His people.

Three Thoughts about Esther the Book

So what can we learn from the story as grown-up disciples of Jesus? What advice might we offer one another about reading and applying the lessons of Esther today?

1. Esther and the Jews 

First, we should attend carefully to when we are reading the story, nearly 80 years after a central, horrific, historical event—Hitler’s genocide of 6 million Jews. Esther tells the story of a genocide of Jews averted. Just a few decades ago, Haman’s failed attempts turned to the terror of actual, mass executions. We cannot forget that we now read Esther under the dark cloud of the Holocaust.5

Why not gather your family or a group of friends and visit one of the world’s Holocaust museums and a memorial to it? Why not visit a local Jewish synagogue and participate in the Purim celebration? As the story of Esther is read, take part in the hissing and noisemaking every time Haman’s name is spoken. If you do, you will never read the book of Esther quite the same again.

2. Esther and Us

A second insight is about Esther and us. Esther disturbs our idealism, our dreams of a perfect people of God, untouched by the world around them and bearing clear, straightforward witness to the truth. It presents us, instead, with heroes who seem rather deeply embedded—marinated, even—in the pagan world around them. Their Persiannames echo the pagan, polytheistic culture: “Esther” evokes the name of the Persian goddess “Ishtar” and “Mordecai” the name of the Persian god “Marduk.” They do not seem invested in forthright witness to their pagan neighbors. Instead, Mordecai “commands” Esther not to reveal her identity as a monotheist Jew, and she obeys (Esther 2:10). Why can’t Esther and Mordecai be more like Joseph and Daniel?

As we read the story, Mordecai and Esther seem more willing to go along with the whole scandalous, massive, recruit-a-new-queen-for-the-king sex-trafficking operation than we would like. Moreover, Mordecai serves as a member of the court of Xerxes I, a studiously loyal factotum of a perverted, immoral, pagan emperor. And Esther is that emperor’s queen!

We must recall, though, that this is a story of God’s people in the diaspora, the dispersion of Jews throughout the world following the exile, who are trying to figure out how to make their way in a world opposed to God and the ways of God. By our assessment, they are not doing so well at it.

Perhaps it’s just here that we find a most powerful gospel message in Esther: Esther’s characters are not squeaky-clean ones operating in a morally antiseptic world. And neither are we. If God used them, flaws and all, He can use us, flaws and all! As Rahel Wells puts it: “Ultimately, God is able to use fallen and faulty people to His glory. For readers today, this should be very comforting. God is able to use imperfect human agents.”6

3. Esther and Jesus

A third and final insight is about Esther and Jesus. The identities of the protagonist and the villain in the story may seem random and unimportant. The protagonist is introduced as “Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjamite” (Esther 2:5), which means he is related to King Saul, Israel’s first king. The villain is identified as “Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha” (Esther 3:1), which means he is related to the Amalekite king Agag. Neither Mordecai or Haman is Persian. Both are immigrants.

Their stories entwine in an ancient hatred: King Saul, Mordecai’s ancestor, disobeyed the counsel of prophet Samuel and spared the Amalekite king Agag (1 Sam. 15), though Samuel himself eventually slays Agag. The seemingly random introductions induct us into “an epic conclusion to the age-old contest between the descendants of Saul and Agag, between the nations of Israel and Amalek.”7 This is not an isolated, disconnected happenstance, but a powerful, evocative vignette in a long-running conflict. While Kishites and Agagites are hard to find these days, “the book of Esther portrays a battle between good and evil, which is a microcosm of the great controversy between Christ and Satan.”8

So how might the story of Esther refract the story of Jesus?

* * *

All alone, she is ravishingly beautiful, a wave of the most aromatic and seductive fragrances on the planet preceding her. This youthful queen, who “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” (Esther 2:7), approaches the outer ring of guards. She acknowledges them with a slight nod of her beautifully sculpted chin.

Though momentarily bewildered, the walkie--talkies crackle to life, and the assassination threat is announced. The whole detailed security apparatus around the Persian emperor snaps to attention. The execution squad begins to close in on the threat.

She approaches the king, exuding her submission to her monarch, bowing, curtsying in her carefully choreographed advance. The determined death squad slow their pace, glancing at each other with raised eyebrows and lowered swords. The king, instantly . . . distracted . . . from all other business, quickly extends his golden, jewel-encrusted scepter to his gorgeous queen.

* * *

When, centuries later, Paul describes the work of High Priest Jesus in Ephesians 2:18, he uses a term that takes us back to the court of the Medes and Persians. Anyone wishing for “access” (prosagōgē) to a Persian monarch had to request it through credentialed friends who could grant it. Paul writes: “For through him [Jesus] we both [Jewish and Gentile believers] have access (prosagōgē) in one Spirit to the Father.”

Jesus enters the court of the King to intercede for His people. Through Him, in Him, by Him, we have access to the Emperor of the cosmos. When Esther sweeps her way toward Xerxes I, the courageous, beautiful Jewish-Persian queen offers an image, however dim and oblique it may be, of the grandest story of all, the intercession of Jesus before the Father:

“‘Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish’” (Esther 4:16); “For through him [Jesus] we both [Jewish and Gentile believers] have access (prosagōgē) in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18).

1 Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.

2 “Esther, Book of,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), pp. 246, 247.

3 Texts credited to REB are from The Revised English Bible. Copyright © Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1989. Reprinted by permission.

4 See Adam Garfinkle, “Joseph and Esther: Some Parallels and a New Midrash,” Conservative Judaism 65, no. 1-2 (2013-2014): 95-106.

5 See Julie Gaines Walton, “ ‘And All Who Joined Them’: A Faithful Christian Reading of Esther in a Post-Shoah World,” Review & Expositor 118, no. 2 (May 1, 2021): 209-213.

6 A. Rahel Wells, “Esther,” in Andrews Bible Commentary: Old Testament, ed. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez et al. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2020), p. 604.

7 Katie Benjamin, “The Book of Esther and God Hidden and Revealed,” Lutheran Forum, Fall 2014, p. 10.8 Wells; cf. Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), pp. 605, 606.