The book of Esther is one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible that never mention God (the other is the Song of Songs). For traditional Jewish commentators, the absence of God’s name did not mean that God was absent from the book. Rather, these readers saw the elaborate string of coincidences that leads to the rescue of the Jews and the destruction of their enemies as evidence of divine providence.
Though this reading may be theologically comforting, it does not address the question of why the Jews who preserved and transmitted this story, and ultimately included it in the canon of sacred scriptures, would have included only one story in which God’s actions were real but hidden. In all the other narratives that made it into the Hebrew Bible, God makes God’s actions known. Even the Greek versions of Esther mention God as an active player in the story. Why, then, would the authors of the Hebrew text of Esther have been shy about giving God a starring role?
Perhaps they were Judean Jews who were critical of Jews who had chosen to remain living in the Diaspora. If so, they might have been asserting that God is absent in the story and that the rescue of the Jews was the result of precarious coincidence, not divine providence.
This reading resonates with other aspects of Esther’s portrait of Jewish life in the Persian Diaspora. In the Hebrew Esther, Diaspora life is the opposite of everything that life in the land of Israel is supposed to be, at least according to the other texts that made it into the Hebrew Bible. According to those other biblical texts, life in the land of Israel is governed by divine law and kingship is serious business. The books of Samuel and Kings narrate deadly battles over royal power in Israel and Judah and claim (not always successfully) that the security of the kingdoms and their leaders depends on the kings’ obedience to God’s will (1Sam 15:10-35, 1Kgs 15:25-30). In the land of Israel, Israelites and Judeans are never mistaken for gentiles, and Israelite and Judean women never marry outsiders. Most importantly, God’s presence and actions are visible throughout the accounts of ancient Israel’s history preserved in the Hebrew Bible.
The authors of Esther created a portrait of Jewish life in the Persian capital that is the (reverse) mirror image of this ideal portrait of life in the land of Israel. In Esther’s Persia, silly kings make silly laws and allow subordinates to make royal decrees. Jewish characters have Persian names and are so well assimilated into Persian society that they can live at court and even enter the king’s harem without being identified as Jews. In this topsy-turvy Diaspora world, God does not act in history on behalf of the Jews. Yes, the Jews win in the end. However, that victory is dependent on a sequence of unlikely coincidences. The book cautions that Diaspora history is controlled by coincidence and caprice, not by the clear and reliable will of God.
Elsie R. Stern
Associate Professor, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Elsie R. Stern is associate professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Her current research focuses on the ways in which scriptural material was transmitted among Jews in antiquity.
An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.
Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.
Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.
Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.
Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.
The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.
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