The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Dec 17, 2015

Rethinking Esther

The discussion below does not question the divine inspiration, the accuracy, or the place in the canon of the book of Esther. Indeed, as Randall Bush points out in his Bulletin for Biblical Research article (vol. 8, 1998), it is a shame that Esther has by-and-large been neglected (click here to read Bush's article). What I'm asking below is not whether Esther belongs in the Bible and in our pulpit, but whether or not it has more in common with Judges than Joshua--i.e., not "look at the awesome faith-filled hero/heroine" but rather "God saving Israel in spite of her disloyalty to the Torah." Much of my thinking in this post was stimulated by the excellent An Old Testament Theology by Bruce Waltke and Charles Yu, though I do not quote or paraphrase from it directly. In addition, I draw some from the fascinating article by Ronald W. Pierce, "The Politics of Esther and Mordecai: Courage or Compromise?" also in Bulletin for Biblical Research vol. 2 (1992). Click here to read Pierce's article.

Without a doubt (lack of direct mention notwithstanding), the hand of God is evident throughout Esther. Bush, in his BBR article puts it best: "The book nonetheless predicates the providence of God, as does the rest of the OT, for the deliverance of the Jews is effected not only by the loyalty of Mordecai and the courage of Esther but also by the series of truly remarkable and dramatic coincidences with which the story abounds" (Bush, 49). 

Yet as to the human protagonists, evangelical Christians generally have a "rosy" view of queen Esther--heroine, faith-filled, persevering in the midst of adversity, savior of her people, etc. Indeed, the courage of both her and Mordecai cannot be disputed. Yet doubts persist, and these doubts persist not because some of us are evil revisionists, asking with forked tongues "Has God really said?" Rather, these doubts persist because of the centrality of the Torah in Old Testament theology. In other words, when Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the king's meat, they do so because of their loyalty to the Torah and the God who wrote it. The problem with Esther, then, is first and foremost that she violates the Torah, and this is the center of the wheel around which the entire plot revolves around.

To be clear, Haman is a villain of horrible proportions (though I doubt he was seeking divine worship when he demanded others bow to him)--seeking the genocide of an entire race puts him on a level with Hitler and other modern tyrants. Furthermore, clearly the Jewish people are the "good guys" [and gals] of the plot--we are meant to root for them, and we rightfully breathe a sigh of relief when they are delivered.

However, this is no different from the book of Judges (it's not as if a reader/listener during the first century AD would be rooting against the people of Israel in Judges!). Yet the protagonists in Judges (with the exception of Deborah), at least those with an extended section, are not role models! (For any pastors reading--please, someday preach the "second half" of the Gideon story; it's just as much inspired as the first half, but greatly neglected). The point, then, is this: the author can make a negative point about the protagonists while still making a positive point about the graciousness of God.

This, indeed, would seem to me what is happening in Esther. As  Pierce states in his BBR article, "It is not the book of Esther that is secular, but its characters" (page 77). That Esther is secular, or at least does not revere the Torah, is seen in the fact that she is violating it by marrying a pagan--remember, this is the very point that was such a big deal at the end of Ezra and Nehemiah! 

It is, of course, possible that Esther was dragged away against her will and had no choice in the matter, in which case she is a victim and blameless in this matter. While this is possible, it does not follow from the tone of the narrative (see Pierce, 83-84). Furthermore, I firmly believe that most pious Jews, men and women, would have said, "It is better to die (and be tortured) than to violate the Torah" (This is the whole point of 4 Maccabees, after all!) I need not point out that "marrying a non-believer" is hardly a minor issue in the Torah (remember: the issue was never inter-racial marriage, but inter-"faith" marriage. I.e., as seen with Moses, Boaz, etc., marrying somebody of a different ethnicity, nationality, or skin color is not a problem if they are a believer in the one true God. Marrying somebody who is not a believer is a huge deal, however).

Consequently, the divinely-inspired point of Esther is not "may our daughters be like that faith-filled heroine [who just so happens to be named after the Babylonian goddess of love, Ishtar]," but rather, "God rescues the Jewish race in spite of their failure to honor him; behold the graciousness of God!" I close with this excellent quote from Pierce:
"Sometimes it is easy to take as normative situations that in fact require immediate and radical change. So it was with the secular direction in which the Jewish people were heading at this time in their history. The events in the Book of Esther are carefully structured so as to communicate not only such a failure on the part of Esther and Mordecai, but also the providential activity meant to shake them from their lethargy and to make them more fully aware of their calling as God's people" (Pierce, 89).


  1. Excellent point, Paul. I concur with your general assessment of Esther and find a similar theme in other OT passages (Genesis 38, for example). Of course, it requires a bit more determination and care to teach the book of Esther to elementary kids in SS if you focus on God's grace in spite of her failure to obey. :-)

  2. God reaches in and uses us, even when we aren't in obedience or the right place, for his purposes and Glory.

    I guess it is easy to see however why the simpler readings take precedence - they are motivational (be like Esther!), and like much out there today, do not dig into the real issues but seek to be pleasing...

  3. I agree, and as further supporting evidence, I found it very interesting that the apocryphal additions to Esther are designed to explain and excuse the sins of Esther and Mordecai. This is what I wrote about it in an eighth-grade Bible textbook for BJU Press, The Story of the Old Testament:

    "Some ancient Jews who read this book saw the same problems. They actually invented extra parts of the story to explain them all (these 107 extra verses can still be found today in Catholic translations of the Bible). In this additional material, Mordecai prays a long prayer in which he insists that he did not refuse to bow to Haman out of arrogance. And Esther prays a long prayer in which she insists that she was forced to do what she did and hated every second of it. Some Jews even said that Esther hid for four years before being caught and put in the king’s harem!

    "But it’s obvious that these additions would not have been considered necessary if the text of Scripture as it stands didn’t leave these questions open. The Bible doesn’t say whether or not Esther went willingly into the king’s harem, but it shows that when she got there she cooperated with the eunuch in charge.

    "And Esther’s and Mordecai’s flaws shouldn’t surprise us. Scrip- ture is not the story of what good people are doing to become even better and fix their problems; it is the story of what God is doing to redeem people who are so fallen that their fixes only make things worse.

    "Esther and Mordecai unquestionably did some good things in the story. Esther showed wisdom, tact, and courage on more than one occasion. She was willing to die for her people. Mor- decai had similar qualities. We should praise them for the good they did—and not excuse them for the bad."