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Translated by wordport from nota bene ver. 4 document esth.nid
ESTHER, THEOLOGY OF.
In a strict sense, there is no "theology" (i.e., "study of God") in Esther, since God is
not mentioned in the book. In addition, there is no reference to religious institutions or
practices (except fasting), making the task of adducing a "theology" of the book doubly
A. Historical Context
. The events in the book of Esther take place in Persia,
during the reign of Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.), known in Esther as "Ahasuerus" (the LXX
incorrectly identifies Ahasuerus as "Artaxerxes"). Xerxes was an ambitious, ruthless,
intolerant ruler, administrator over a vast empire, a brilliant warrior (although defeated by
the Greeks in 479 B.C., marking the beginning of the end of the Persian empire), and a
jealous lover, according to Herodotus (Histories, Books 7-9) and others (including the
The story in Esther is of Jews who had not returned to their homeland, but rather
who were living settled lives in a foreign land, where their ancestors had been taken
generations earlier. The historicity of the book often has been questioned (Paton, 64-77;
Moore, xxxiv-xlvii), but it has been ably defended, as well (Wright; Shea; cf. also Gordis,
B. Literary Analysis
. The literary history of the story of Esther is complex (see
Clines, Scroll). Yet, the simple story in the MT is a well-told tale. It concerns the
fortunes of the Jews under Persian rule, particularly as embodied in the fortunes and
actions of two Jews. The story begins with Esther, a beautiful Jewish girl, rising to a
position as queen, and Mordechai, her cousin and adoptive father, informing the king,
through Esther, of a plot against his life (chaps 1-2). Mordechai, however, runs afoul of
Haman, a high official, and Haman's revenge is to order the extermination of all Jews
(chap 3). When Mordechai appeals to Esther to intervene on the Jews' behalf, she does so
successfully: Haman's plot against the Jews is exposed, and the king is favorably disposed
toward the Jews because of his love for Esther and his appreciation for Mordechai's
David M. Howard, Jr. -- Esther -- Page 2 of 8.
earlier role in saving him. Haman then is hanged on gallows he had prepared for
Mordechai (chaps 4-7). Mordechai then is exalted in Haman's stead, a decree is issued
counteracting Haman's decree, and the Jews defend themselves well against their
attackers (chaps 8-9). The book ends with instructions for the festival of Purim, which
commemorates their deliverance, and with the exaltation of Mordechai (chaps 9-10).
The story of Esther is built predominantly upon action, not character development
or theological reflection. A major feature of the story is the motif of reversal of fortunes
(Berg, 103-13; Fox, "Structure"). By the end of the book, Mordechai, Esther, and the
Jews all have been exalted and delivered from their enemies through dramatic turns of
. An important motif that emerges from the book is the nature and
significance of the festival of "Purim" ("lots") (Berg, 31-57). The lottery itself is not a
major component of the book, but it is a part of the reversal motif (cf. 3:7; 9:26), and one
of the book's appendices (9:20-32) gives formal instruction for the festival's celebration
(B. S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 603-5).
Another significant motif is that of royalty (Berg, 59-72). The story unfolds in a
royal setting, and Esther -- and even Mordechai (cf. 6:7-11; 10:1-3) -- are royal figures.
A message here was that the Jews could flourish even in a foreign land and (more subtly)
that their hopes for their own monarchy should not be entirely abandoned.
The absence of any direct or indirect reference to God in the book is the key issue,
however, in any consideration of its overall message or purpose. That God has been kept
out of the book deliberately -- rather than incidentally, as in the Song of Songs, the only
other OT book that does not mention God -- is clear, since there are numerous occasions
where the author easily could have mentioned God, but chose not to, such as the
occasions of fasting (4:3, 16), the assurance of Haman's wife and friends that he could not
prevail against a Jew (6:13), or Mordechai's statement about deliverance arising for the
David M. Howard, Jr. -- Esther -- Page 3 of 8.
Jews from one source or another (6:13-14). The author also could easily have mentioned
God as being behind any of the numerous "coincidences" in the book, such as a Jewish
girl's being in the right place at the right time to help her people, the king's sleeplessness
on precisely the night preceding Esther's request for help (chap 6), or Haman's presence in
the king's courts when the king wanted to honor Mordechai (chap 6).
To say that the author deliberately suppressed reference to God is not to say that
s/he did not believe in God, however, nor in God's controlling influence in the world.1
Indeed, God's providential care of his people certainly is one of the major themes of the
book. The book was not written in a vacuum; it was written for and about a people
whose God constantly and actively had interceded on their behalf over the centuries.
For example, what was the purpose of the Jews' fasting (4:3, 16) if not to move God
to act? What did Haman's wife and friends express (6:13) if not a knowledge of Israel's
past history and the ultimate triumph of the Jews' cause, through their God? And, what
did Mordechai's statement mean (4:13-14) if not that he believed in the certainty of
deliverance for the Jews, a deliverance which ultimately comes from God, regardless of
the immediate source?2 The book's readers also could not have failed to detect God's
presence behind the numerous timely, and dramatic "coincidences" in the book. These
reflect the ordering of events by the God who had done so countless times before. Even
1. The Masoretes, using various methods, identified several
acrostics in the book that contain the consonants of God's name, "YHWH"(Paton, 8). While these are almost universally disregarded today, theone at 5:4 -- occurring in the phrase "Let the king and Haman come"(Yäbô' Hammelek We-Hämän) -- at least bears note. It is the moststraightforward acrostic in Hebrew, and comes at a critical juncture inthe story, where the suspense is high concerning Esther's and the Jews'fate. Structurally, it is near the book's exact midpoint (at thebeginning of 5:7). It is easy to imagine that the author is whisperinghere, by this word choice, that God is indeed present (althoughsilently) at this time of crisis.
2. The reference in 4:14 to "another place" refers to another
human agent, not to God (Fox, "Structure," 298, n. 15; Gordis, 360-61,n. 6), but it nevertheless exhibits a strong belief in the ordering ofevents on the Jews' behalf.
David M. Howard, Jr. -- Esther -- Page 4 of 8.
the reversal-of-fortunes motif demonstrates the belief in an ordering of history, since, in
Esther, the reversals always turn out in the Jews' favor. Indeed, even the book's structure
demonstrates this (Fox, "Structure").
To affirm that a major theme of the book is God's providential care for his people is
to give only a partial picture of its theology, however. God's hiddenness is a major
component of the remainder of the picture. This is because providence is important in
many other OT books, as well, and yet they mention God frequently. The deliberate
suppression of reference to God must be an integral component of the theology of Esther.
One logical deduction from God's absence is that human action is important. Time
and again, Esther's and Mordechai's intitiatives are what make the difference for the Jews;
we do not see them passively waiting for signs from God or for God to perform a
Despite many explanations of God's hiddenness in Esther (see Fox, "Religion" 135-
38 and bibliography below), the best solution would seem to be that the author is
intentionally vague about God's presence in events, affirming on the one hand that God
indeed is involved with his people and on the other that perceiving this involvement is
sometimes difficult. While the author and his readers know (rationally) that God is
always present and in control, the experience of life is that the specific manifestations of
his presence are not always so clear. Thus, we can discern a "carefully crafted
indeterminacy" in the book that is an important part of its message. "The story's
indeterminacy conveys the message that the Jews should not lose faith if they, too, are
uncertain about where God is in a crisis" (Fox, "Religion," 146). But, this indeterminacy
is not a sign of unbelief: "If anything is excluded it is disbelief. The author of Esther
would have us hold to confidence even when lacking certainty and an understanding of
David M. Howard, Jr. -- Esther -- Page 5 of 8.
details. When we scrutinize the text of Esther for traces of God's activity, we are doing
what the author made us do" (Fox, "Religion," 146-47).3
D. Canonical Context
. Esther is never cited in the NT (or elsewhere in the OT),
and it is the only OT book not found among the Qumran scrolls. It has occasioned
considerable doubts concerning its canonicity (Moore, Esther, xxi-xxx; Beckwith, 288-
97, 312-17, 322-23; Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 254-56), and inspired strong
reactions, both positive and negative (Anderson; Moore, Esther, xxx-xxxi).
Esther's location in the many texts and lists of the Bible varies greatly (Moore, xxx;
Beckwith, passim). It occurs in the Hebrew canon as the last of the five megillot
("scrolls"), which came to be used liturgically, read at the major festivals. Its appearance
following Lamentations offers hope, since its emphasis is upon celebrations and the
turning of mourning into gladness, a sharp contrast to the gloomy situation depicted in
Lamentations. It immediately precedes Daniel, another book about Jews in a foreign land
who prosper. In the Protestant canon, Esther is the last of the "historical" books,
immediately following Ezra and Nehemiah. It contrasts strikingly with these books, with
their major emphases upon religiosity and God's active presence. Its position is likely due
to similarities in literary genre and post-exilic date among all three books.
In the Greek (LXX) versions, the Hebrew book is supplemented by six major
additions, which serve to give it a religious tone that otherwise is missing. God is
mentioned often, and he is explicitly said to be involved in the events in the book. Prayer
is also a major component of the additions. Among the deutero-canonical works, the
3. Huey's suggestion that the absence of God is due to his
displeasure with the actions of the characters, i.e., that the book isan example of how life should not be lived by God's people, is tooradical. While there are certainly examples of less than exemplarybehavior on the part of various characters, there are too manyindications of God's favor and providential care to apply Huey'ssuggestion consistently to the entire book. Thus, we do better to lookat the signs both of God's presence and his absence.
David M. Howard, Jr. -- Esther -- Page 6 of 8.
book of Judith is the most closely related to Esther, telling the story of Jewish resistance
to a heathen army, but with a more obviously religious outlook.
. B. W. Anderson, "The Place of the Book of Esther in the
Christian Bible," JR, 30, 1950, 32-43; R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the
New Testament Church, 1985; S. B. Berg, The Book of Esther, SBLDS 44, 1979; D. J. A.
Clines, The Esther Scroll, JSOTSS 30, 1984; idem, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, NCBC,
1984; W. Dommershausen, Die Estherrolle: Stil und Ziel einer alttestamentliche Schrift,
1968; M. V. Fox, "The Structure of the Book of Esther," in Isac Leo Seeligman Volume,
ed. A. Rofé and Y. Zakovitch, III, 1983, 291-303; idem, "The Religion of the Book of
Esther," Judaism, 39, 1990, 135-47; G. Gerleman, Esther, BKAT, 1973; R. Gordis,
"Religion, Wisdom and History in the Book of Esther--A New Solution to an Old Crux,"
JBL, 100, 1981, 359-88; E. L. Greenstein, "A Jewish Reading of Esther," in Judaic
Perspectives on Ancient Israel, ed. J. Neusner, B. A. Levine, and E. S. Frerichs, 1987,
225-43; F. B. Huey, "Esther," in Expositor's Bible Commentary, IV, 1988; idem, "Irony
as the Key to Understanding the Book of Esther," Southwestern Journal of Theology, 32,
1990, 36-39; C. F. Keil, "The Book of Esther," in Biblical Commentary on the Old
Testament, 1975 ; J. A. Loader, "Esther as a Novel with Different Levels of
Meaning," ZAW, 90, 1978, 417-21; C. H. Miller, "Esther's Levels of Meaning," ZAW,
92, 1980, 145-48; C. A. Moore, Esther, AB 7B, 1971; idem, ed., Studies in the Book of
Esther, 1982; L. B. Paton, The Book of Esther, ICC, 1908; W. H. Shea, "Esther and
History," AUSS, 14, 1976, 227-46; S. H. Talmon, "Wisdom in the Book of Esther," VT,
13, 1963, 419-55; J. S. Wright, "The Historicity of the Book of Esther," in New
Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. J. B. Payne, 1970, 37-47.
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