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  • David Firth

Esther 2 of 3 - Seeing the Hidden God in Esther

In last month’s post, we began to reflect on how seeing God at work in Esther might be an important resource for Christians as we work out our discipleship in what is known as ‘post-Christendom.’ It is important to stress that although this is sometimes referred to as being ‘post-Christian’ these are not the same at all. ‘Post-Christian’ would presume we have moved past a point where Christianity exists or is in any way meaningful. But the fact that we still have many vibrant churches suggests that this is far from the case, and globally Christianity continues to grow. But ‘post-Christendom’ represents a point where Christianity is no longer the religious norm. Within western culture, there was a time when discussion of ‘religion’ would be assumed to mean ‘Christianity’, but this is no longer the case. Within the modern west, Christianity is now seen as one of many religions, none of which is assumed to have more importance than another, even if there is a historical hangover of Christian dominance. As we observed last month, Esther is a book in which the Jewish community now lived as one religion among many rather than, as had been in the case in Jerusalem, the faith that all in that community would hold. 

But there is an immediate problem for most of us when we speak of seeing God (by which I mean Israel’s God, the Lord, now made known to us through Jesus) at work in Esther. Quite simply, God is never mentioned. And even at points where it seems that God must be named, Esther seems almost to go out of its way not to mention him. Nowhere is this more evident than in Esther 4:15-16 where Esther orders Mordecai to arrange a three-day fast among the Jews. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, fasting is routinely linked with prayer. Yet here, we have fasting, but no prayer. Are we to assume prayer? Or is this a community that has lost faith in such religious activities? 

I want to suggest that Esther (both the character and the book in this case) does assume prayer because it continues to assume God is at work. But we need to recognise some wider factors that point us to see how and where God is at work in Esther. So how do we see this? Some people have tried to find God’s name hidden in the Hebrew text, but I confess I find this unpersuasive as I am never quite sure why certain sentences might count and others not. I also think it requires us to look at something other than what the book actually says to find a meaning which is hidden. Where there some things evident to everyone, then these are far more secure points for us to work with. 

So, how do we see God at work in Esther? A key point for us is to remember that Esther must be one of the last books of the Old Testament to have been written. We know this because it describes events well after the exile had ended. As one of the later books, it could be written with awareness of the rest of the Old Testament, or at least most of it. What is striking is that there are numerous places where Esther tells its story in a way that alludes to other parts of the Old Testament, reminding readers who are attentive to its storytelling that it really is part of a much larger story, one that reaches back to at least the events of the exodus. By telling its story in a way that reminds readers of these earlier stories, it encourages them to understand its story as part of this larger story. 

This is an important area of research on the book, so one simple example will have to suffice. We should note the story of how Haman (the book’s villain) determines the date on which he will arrange for the Jews throughout the Persian empire to be killed (Esther 3). Such an attempt echoes Pharaoh’s attempt to kill the Israelites in Exodus 1, something thwarted because of the actions of the resourceful Israelite midwives. A murderous king is prevented from destroying God’s people because his people dare to resist him. Allusions to the exodus are especially notable in Esther 3:12 where we are given the date when the Persian scribes were summoned to write the decree for the destruction of the Jews. Such attention to a particular date might seem excessive until we remember that this is the day of preparation for Passover (Exodus 12:1-6), the festival that celebrated God’s saving of his people from a king who wanted to destroy them. By emphasising this date, Esther asks us to read its story against the background of the Exodus, and to realise that even if the miracles that were part of the original exodus are not present, God is no less active in this story.  

Indeed, as we read Esther closely, we can see many allusions to other parts of the biblical story – there are numerous references to the stories of Saul and David along with other parts of the biblical story. Haman is consistently portrayed as the fool from the book of Proverbs, and the fool is someone who ignores God, someone who assumes that what they can see is enough. We cannot explore these references here, but these are Esther’s key mode of pointing to God and his work. Rather than making direct claims of God’s presence, Esther asks us to think about its story within the wider canon of the Old Testament and what that reveals about God. As Christians, we can extend this into the New Testament. But the basic point remains – Esther is a book which presents God as active in the world, but active in a way that can only be seen and understood when we look for him through the framework provided for us by the Bible. Without that framework, we miss what God is doing and, like Haman, become the fool of the book of Proverbs. But with that framework, one that is best developed through a long and sustained encounter with the Bible, we understand how to see God at work in the world. That is why we must insist that this is post-Christendom – God is still at work, even if too many people now lack the biblical awareness to see how he is working. The task before us is to grow in our understanding of the larger biblical story and so develop the means of seeing God at work, even when so many cannot. It is this which lets us explain the good news of Jesus so much more clearly. And it is this which will help us draw on Esther next month as we think about what it shows us about living in a time such as this. 

David G. Firth 


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