During a recent Twitter conversation between Tanya Marlow and Dave Bish about how we read the book of Esther, Dave described it as “a gospel-shaped story laced with bible language”. This is a evocative description and, in the interest of sharing notes, I thought I’d try to explain how I approach this enigmatic book and see the God of grace glorified in its pages.
Over the years Esther has provoked a number of strong reactions, not least because the Hebrew text of the book omits any mention of God. We’ll return to this later, but for now it’s worth noting that the specific name of God, ‘YHWH‘ appears 6828 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, the more general ‘God’ (elohim) appears 2602 times and the word ‘Lord’ (adonai) appears 775 times, many of which are references to God. In addition to this there are countless circumlocutions in the Hebrew text which refer to God and His name by euphemistic words such as ‘name’ or ‘place’. In Esther, not only are YHWH, Elohim and Adonai absent, there is only one possible circumlocution. As we shall see, however, I think it’s an important one.
I’m going to look at three different ways in which people have tried to understand Esther and highlight some of the drawbacks of these methods and then offer what I think is a more helpful way forward as we try to understand, apply and teach this book. The first two approaches are outlined in this post, and I’ll look at the third and at my response tomorrow.
Approach #1) See it as useful, but not scripture.
Now before we dismiss such an approach as crass and heretical, we need to remember that during the formation of the Christian canon, the book of Esther has not always made the cut. In fact, in what is arguably the most important list of canonical books, Esther is relegated as follows:
But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read.
In a similar way, some Jewish communities were also suspicious of Esther. In the Essence community (the first century BC separatist Jewish sect from whom we were bequeathed the Dead Sea Scrolls) there is no mention of Esther, suggesting that they too excluded it for their canon.
Some have also argued that the New Testament writers found themselves in a similar position, as the NT doesn’t seem to quote from Esther. This is a red herring, though, as there are other unquoted Wisdom (and history) books which don’t share the same ignominy as Esther.
So, what do we make of the claim that Esther is useful for instruction, but not scripture? Well, the drawbacks to this approach are fairly obvious, as Esther does appear in the hebrew versions of the Old Testament (which the other books Athanasius mentions do not) and we are not free to pick and choose which books of the Bible we want to include based on their content alone.
So, if Esther is holy scripture, then we need to see it as part of God’s revelation of Himself to his people. Which has led some people to a second approach, which makes it easier to see how to apply Esther, but at the same time it removes and opportunity of discovering what this book is actually about.
Approach #2) Fill in the gaps left by the original author.
As with the first approach, protestants will be quick to dismiss the very idea of adding to the Bible, but a quick look in the Bibles of our fathers will reveal that until 400 years ago the story of Esther had a very different shape.
The variations between the Canonical Esther, and the version found in the Apocrypha can be traced back to Jewish scholars in the first century BC who were having real problems accepting with what they read in the Hebrew text. Here was a book with no mention of God, where Jewish people were depicted defiling themselves, hiding their nationality, unaware of what God was doing and trusting their deliverance to fate. What was needed was a jolly good redrafting, and this is just what happened as the Greek translation of the Old Testament took shape.
The first thing to do was to redress the balance of the language. So the names of God were hastily included. In the few extra chapters the word God (theos) appears 26 times and Lord (kurios – which is what we would expect as a translation of YHWH into Greek) appears 25 times.
More important, though, is the introduction of new content which seeks to justify the actions of the books Jewish protagonists, and to make explicit their faith in God and their expectation that it is He who will deliver them from the ethnic cleansing contrived by Haman.
So as we fill in the ‘gaps’ we have Esther praying for forgiveness for her defilement at the hands of the uncircumcised pagan king and his court:
You have knowledge of all things, and you know that I hate the splendor of the wicked and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised and of any alien. You know my necessity—that I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on days when I appear in public. I abhor it like a filthy rag, and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure. And your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honoured the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations. Your servant has had no joy since the day that I was brought here until now, except in you, O Lord God of Abraham.
Apocryphal Esther 14:15-18 (NRSV)
We have Mordecai seeking to justify himself in prayer, explaining that his refusal to bow to Haman was simple faithfulness to the Law.
You know all things; you know, O Lord, that it was not in insolence or pride or for any love of glory that I did this, and refused to bow down to this proud Haman; for I would have been willing to kiss the soles of his feet to save Israel! But I did this so that I might not set human glory above the glory of God, and I will not bow down to anyone but you, who are my Lord;
Apocryphal Esther 9:12-14 (NRSV)
And in the prologue for the whole book we find the description of a dream in which Mordecai sees quite clearly the source and method of the delivery of the Jews.
Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water; light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour.
Mordecai saw in this dream what God had determined to do, and after he awoke he had it on his mind, seeking all day to understand it in every detail.
Apocryphal Esther 11:10-12 (NRSV)
If you haven’t ever read the apocryphal Esther, then its fascinating to see what else these scholars though was missing.
Now the drawback of such an approach will readily become apparent as we think about how we derive meaning from a text. The Greek version of Esther is more than a translation, it is also an interpretation. Now although we might look at the Hebrew text and come to the same conclusions as those scholars, we might not. The additions drive us to a particular meaning, which is not necessarily there in the original text.
Once this book has been given the airbrush treatment, we can again see Esther and Mordecai in the same light as Ruth and Boaz, as faithful followers of God whose godly example we do well to follow. In doing so we miss the compromise and the ambiguity that characterises these people and this book and we are presented with a trite answer to a profound question which we do well to grapple with “where is God in this book?”
With that question hanging in our minds, I’ll leave approach #3 until tomorrow.