David G. Firth
Trinity College Bristol
Our daily news feeds are usually filled with bad news stories – wars, explosions, illness, and the impact of economic struggles. In part, this is because bad news tends to happen quickly whereas good news stories (such as medical breakthroughs) tend to emerge only from extended periods of research. But, unless there is a report from a religious affairs correspondent, none of this mentions God. Even a ‘thought for the day’ is sometimes presented by a humanist and if God is mentioned it is not necessarily the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. With the demise of Christendom (though assuredly not of Christianity), God seems to have fallen out of public discourse.
All this can feel uncomfortable for Christians who remember that different time we call Christendom, one where ‘religion’ meant ‘Christianity’. Whether that was ever a good thing is a different matter, but it is a shift where many now look back to a preferred former time. But it is important to stress that this period of Christendom is itself something of a historical anomaly. The people of God have seldom had the sort of power that we saw in Christendom, and Christianity and Christendom are not the same thing.
We need theological resources to help us negotiate the move to the time in which we now live: one in which mention of ‘God’ and Christian faith are not synonymous, or where even the mention of God is deemed inappropriate. Yet, often neglected, in our Old Testament lies the book of Esther, a book which describes life in a time very similar to our own. I do not mean, of course, that it describes a time of globalization or increasing technological innovation that seems to drive us further apart from our communities. But if we think of dominant cultural patterns, we can see that Esther is a book that speaks into a time such as ours.
Why can I claim this? After all, Esther is generally regarded as one of the stranger books in the Old Testament. If we know anything about it, it is probably that it never mentions God and that Esther won a beauty contest to become queen. As it happens, only the first of these is true. If we know a verse from it, perhaps it is when Mordecai encourages Esther to go to the king to speak up for her people, wondering if she has become queen ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:15). Yet, even in Mordecai’s question to Esther and its oblique reference to God we begin to see why Esther might be a crucial resource for us today.
Esther is set in Persia, where the Jews who remained in exile were simply one people among many. Mention of ‘God’ would not usually mean the God of Israel, and neither was there an expectation that Jews might have special dispensation to practise their faith. Indeed, to judge from Esther 3:1-6, there was probably widespread antipathy towards them. We cannot know why God is unmentioned in Esther but perhaps we see a hint here, that mention of God could trigger unneeded opposition. In any case, in the religious pluralism of Persia, numerous gods were available.
But leaving God unmentioned may also reflect the Jewish experience in exile. Unlike the events of the Exodus where God performed mighty signs, the reality for most was that God’s presence was discerned more by looking back and seeing the unobtrusive ways he was at work. In exile, the Jews needed to learn that God’s work and presence was not always (or even often) in the spectacular. Rather, God would show himself present and work through his people as they committed themselves to him. In Esther, the absence of God’s name is not the same as the absence of God.
But if God was present and active without being named, how could this be known? Esther does not offer a list of options we can check but it is clearly a theological work that points to God’s presence. I will explore this in more detail next month, but here simply want to point to the events of Esther 6, which is probably the turning point of the whole book. Before this, Haman had initiated a plot for the destruction of all the Jews in the empire. No one then knew the word ‘genocide’, but this is what was planned. Yet, on the very night that Esther was preparing her second banquet where she would beg for the life of her people, the king was unable to sleep. Indeed, sleep ‘fled from’ him (Esther 6:1). He decided to have some court records read, perhaps hoping they would put him to sleep. Instead, he discovered he had failed to reward Mordecai for saving his life (see Esther 2:19-23). He needed advice. What should he do? It turns out that on that same night, Haman was also up, in his case setting up a gallows pole where he could execute Mordecai. He was first in that morning, wanting to execute Mordecai. Yet before he could ask, the king asked what he should do for someone he wanted to reward. Haman’s vanity meant he thought the king was talking about him, only finding out that he was wrong when told to reward Mordecai (see Esther 6:1-13). Everything needed to happen on that one night, and from that point Haman’s plot began rapidly to unwind.
God is not mentioned, but the only one who could bring all this together was God. As readers go through the book this is one of the key points where things seemingly just come together. But they don’t and, as we read, we realise we need to go back and read again to see how God is present and working. Perhaps many of us can look back on our own experience (both as individuals and in our churches) and see something similar. We realise that God is often present and active in the little things, and only when we see the whole story do we see just how much he is doing.
As we reflect more on how Esther shows God’s work and how that can help us understand our own response to our culture, can I encourage you to read the book? My hope is that we can discover together how the often-hidden God is with us today too.