Tracing the Theology of a Book that Never Mentions God
By Karen H. Jobes
The book of Esther does not mention God. It also doesn’t mention the law, the temple, or any of the practices of ancient Israelite religion (with the possible exception of fasting in 4:16). It may, therefore, seem odd to speak of the theology of the book of Esther. Nevertheless, the book of Esther is undeniably in the canon of Scripture of both the synagogue and the church, and therefore, in a sense, God is telling us this story in which he is not explicitly mentioned. Once we understand its theological message, the absence of God is not only appropriate, but is the genius of the book from which flows great hope and encouragement for us today.
GUIDING HISTORY TOWARD REDEMPTION
Christian theology is based on the actions of God in history, as he progressively revealed himself, first through the covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:2–3, 15) and then centuries later ultimately through the incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1:18; Heb 1:1–2).
In the book of Esther, God tells us a story in which he is hidden from view. Through Esther’s story we see a picture of what theologians call the providence of God, meaning that in some inscrutable and invisible way, God is moving all of history toward its final end in Christ through the normal and ordinary course of human life, even without the intervention of a miracle. This is not to say that God does not continue to work miracles; it’s just that miracles are not the normal, ordinary way God engages in human affairs.
We can read the theological message of God’s providence in Esther only by reading the book within its larger context of the biblical canon—and, therefore, within its context in redemptive history. Esther and Mordecai lived in Persia (modern Iran) at a time when God’s relationship with his people had been sorely tested by their idolatrous behavior for which they were sent into exile. Cyrus the Great released them from exile to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1).
Even as the Jews received their freedom, they wondered what it meant for their relationship with God. After all, who was Cyrus, a pagan king, to orchestrate a reprieve from divine punishment? The Jews were no longer in captivity, but were they still in a covenant with God? This was the big question for the exiles returning to Jerusalem, and the biblical books written during this time—Chronicles, Nehemiah, Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah—answer in the affirmative: the covenant remains intact. The book of Esther answers that same question affirmatively for the Jews who did not return, but who continued to live in places other than Israel (that is, in diaspora).
The identification of Haman as an “Agagite” (Esth 3:1) is the clue that links the Jews of the diaspora to the ancient covenant God had made with their ancestors at Sinai. Their deliverance from Haman’s plan reassured them that they were still under God’s covenantal care. A closer look at the Old Testament context helps us understand the connection.
Agag was the pagan king of the Amalekites at the time Saul was the first king of Israel (1 Sam 15). During the exodus led by Moses centuries before, the Amalekites had attacked the Hebrews in an attempt to destroy them before they could reach and settle the land God had promised. Consequently, God promised that he would be at war with the Amalekites from generation to generation until they and their animosity toward Israel were destroyed (Exod 17:8–16; Deut 25:17–19).
Haman’s identity as an “Agagite” suggests the Esther story is another episode of the ancient war between Israel and their perennial enemies, and by every indication it looked like God’s people would be annihilated. Even those who had returned to rebuild Jerusalem were, nevertheless, under Persian rule, and so that remnant was equally at risk of destruction under Haman’s decree, which reached to the furthest ends of the empire. The reversal of destiny that dethroned Haman and empowered Mordecai showed that, despite their sin and their geographical location far from Jerusalem, God’s people living in diaspora were still under God’s promise made to ancient Israel at the birth of their nation. God would guard his people and guide them toward the fulfillment of the covenant in Jesus the Messiah, who would come centuries later.
WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES
Once we recognize the theological significance of the Esther story in its redemptive-historical context, we can reflect on how God fulfilled his covenant promises. Without a temple or a prophet, without a high priest or a burnt offering, without a prayer or a miracle, God providentially worked in a completely pagan world through morally ambiguous people to fulfill his covenant promise.
Consider: Esther came to be queen of Persia because of circumstances beyond her control when Vashti, the pagan queen, defied the king’s request (Esth 1:10–12). The king then gathers all the beautiful, young virgins for a new-queen beauty contest, and Esther is swept into the king’s harem (2:1–8). Esther, unlike Daniel and his friends (Dan 1:8–17), showed no concern for the dietary laws when she was taken into the Persian court. Instead of protesting, she concealed her Jewish identity (Esth 2:10) and played to win the new-queen beauty contest (2:17). When she risked her life by going to the king uninvited, she did so only after Mordecai pointed out that she herself would not escape harm even if she refused to act (4:13). Furthermore, Esther displayed brutality when she asked that the massacre be permitted for yet another day and that the bodies of Haman’s 10 sons be impaled on the city gate (9:13). Esther is not depicted in this story as a chaste and faithful Jewish girl. Yet at her defining moment, Esther chose to identify herself with God’s people (4:15, 16), and that choice that made all the difference.
And Mordecai? It is Mordecai who insisted that Esther conceal her Jewish identity (2:10), even though it meant compromising her faith and violating Torah. And it was Mordecai’s prideful refusal to give Haman the due respect of his office that escalated from a personality conflict into the political incident that jeopardized the entire Jewish race. When Mordecai told Esther that if she didn’t act to save her people she herself would not escape harm, was he threatening to reveal her secret?
The text is strangely silent about the motives and thoughts of Esther and Mordecai. We don’t know what Esther thought about being taken into the king’s harem or why Mordecai refused to bow to Haman. We see in Esther and Mordecai a disquieting moral ambiguity at best. And yet through them God providentially worked his redemptive purposes. Haman, the Agagite, cast dice or lots (Hebrew: purim) to determine the day on which all Jews would be destroyed. But the destiny of God’s people would never be determined by a roll of the dice.
Here we see a true-to-life biblical example of God’s providence precisely because God is absent from the story. Even in the most pagan corner of the world, God is ruling all things toward the fulfillment of his redemptive plan. Even when his own people, like Esther and Mordecai, make decisions based on ambiguous motives at best, or perhaps outright disobedience, God is still providentially working through those very things to fulfill his covenant purposes.
RESTORING THE WORLD TO LIFE
The story of Esther illustrates that human action is essential to divine providence. Yet God’s triumph in history ultimately does not depend on what we do, but on what he does; not on our character, but on his. Therefore, the story of Esther is of great relevance to Christians, particularly Christians living after the end of the apostolic age. For we, like Esther and Mordecai, live in a pagan world facing circumstances largely beyond our control.
Like the Jews of Persia, we have no earthly king, no earthly prophet, and no earthly kingdom. We cannot depend on miracles. Like Esther and Mordecai we face difficult ethical and religious questions in a highly political world that is hostile to our most fundamental Christian convictions. And like Esther and Mordecai, we Christians are a morally ambiguous people at our best. Our motives are mixed; our hearts are not always devoted to covenant obedience. Because of our sin, we are not living in the Lord’s presence in the garden of Eden, but in the exile of history, in a world where God is unseen.
We should expect nothing but death from such a world, but we have seen the ultimate reversal of expected ends in the cross of Jesus Christ. God has guaranteed eternal life through faith in Christ even though we face certain death. He reverses our lot not because of the merit of anything we do, but because of what he has done in Jesus Christ. God is working providentially in the completely secular and ungodly course of human events to save his people against all expectation and to bring all of history to its culmination in Christ.
The theological message of the book of Esther is that God is all-powerfully present even when he seems to be the most conspicuously absent.
This article is based on material found in Karen H. Jobes, NIV Application Commentary: Esther (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 41–49; 233–42.