Esther: The Hidden Hand of God

The Book of Esther is an intriguing work in the Old Testament canon. It is known for its ironic narrative and theological subtlety. The name of God is not mentioned in the entire book, an omission that has caused debate about its place in Holy Scripture. In my view, the absence of the divine name is deeply theological. It is not a mistake nor an indicator of non-inspiration. The author is brilliantly capturing the experience of the Israelites in exile and captivity. The absence of God’s name in the book correlates to the experience of God’s absence in their lives.

Ganae Romulus in his work on Theological Themes in the Book of Esther elaborates this point.

“The deliberate omission of God’s name is meant to emphasize that the Diaspora represents a universe situated outside the “borders” of the will of God, since the Jews who refused repatriation after the edict of Cyrus the Great have stepped out of the plan God had for the land of Israel. At the same time, the absence of God’s name in the Book of Esther construes the Diaspora as a space devoid of the direct presence of God.”

DJ Clines makes a similar point as he speaks to the literary skill of Esther’s author.

“The absence of God in Esther is a message in itself. The non-mention of the divine name acts as a literary device. It tells the readers that God is absent in a very overt way. It expresses the hiddenness of God in the midst of diasporic existence but recognizes that God is somehow still present even in his confusing absence. This is the fulcrum of hope for those in exile. God is never fully absent. Yahweh is “experienced” in his absence. His activity, or lack thereof, in the events of exile is still a part of his presence with the community of faith. Even if he is not near in immediate experience he is always in the background and his presence is experienced in less obvious, though still discernable, ways.”

The irony of God’s presence in his absence is a key contribution of Esther. This tension is also packs pastoral punch. Where is God? This is not an abnormal question for the Christian. When one looks around many times it appears that the earth is void of God’s presence. It is comforting to know that God’s sovereignty and immediate presence is often discernible in the most unlikely ways and places. In Esther it is his work behind the scenes and in the circumstances.

Romulus points out the presence and sovereignty of God in the subtleties of the narrative.

“The presence of God in the Book of Esther is manifested by the providential survival of the Jewish people, which Haman wanted to annihilate. Even if God is not mentioned, given the context of the intrinsic link between God and the Jewish people (Est. 2.5, 5.13, 6.13, 9.29, 9.31, 10.3), He is alongside his people anywhere, even in the Diaspora (Est. 9). As we know, survival is due to a providential change in the situation, despite the fact that the fate of the people seems to be permanently sealed (Est. 3.7-15, 8.8, 17, 9.1-2).”

DJ Clines comments are insightful in this same vein.

“Whether it is the vacancy for a queen at the Persian court, the accession of a Jewish queen, Mordecai s discovery of the plot, Esther’s favorable reception by the king, the king’s insomnia, Haman’s early arrival at the palace or even his reckless plea for mercy at Esther’s feet, the chance occurrences have a cumulative effect. Each of these incidents regarded by itself might well appear to be the result of chance, and to have no bearing whatsoever upon the success of the great plot. But, taken together, the element of chance disappears; they all converge upon one point; one supplements the other. The whole course of events is shaped by the guiding hand of the Great Unnamed.”

John Kendall parses out the “chance occurences” in his Esther: Preaching the hidden God from a Neglected Text.

  • Vashti’s deposition which leads to Esther’s unsought rise to a key position (1:9-2: 18);
  • Mordecai ‘s discovery of a plot against the king yet his loyalty going unrewarded (2: 19-23, cf 6: 1-3);
  • Haman’s casting of lots and sending of the fateful edict was on 13 Nisan (3:7,12). The fact that this ‘just happens’ to be the day before Passover raises the question as to whether the Jews can again be delivered as they had been one thousand years earlier;
  • The king’s unlikely (cf 4: 10, 11) receiving of Esther and his willingness to grant her request (5:1-3);
  • Haman’s unwitting preparation of the gallows for his own death (5:14, cf7:9, 10);
  • The king’s insomnia at the crucial moment and his ‘chance’ discovery that Mordecai has gone unrewarded (6:1-3). Notice that at this point there is no further room for merely human initiative. Haman intends to arrange Mordecai ‘s death in the morning so that he might attend Esther’s banquet in a happy mood (5:14). Short of divine intervention, Esther’s plan will be too late to save Mordecai;
  • The presence of Haman at that key moment and his comic misunderstanding that makes him both the author and executive of Mordecai’s exaltation and his own humiliation (6:4-14); h) the king’s return to the room just as Haman falls on Esther in supplication. Haman’s apparent violation of the queen’s virtue seals his fate (7:7,8). Events have been such that Haman has unwittingly threatened the life of the king’s servant, Mordecai, together with that of the queen. From Xerxes’ viewpoint this can be nothing less than an assault on his own honour and royal dignity. Perhaps then, it is no mere etymological coincidence that while the Persian name given to Haddassah (2:7) may derive from the Persian word for ‘star’ or from ‘Ishtar’ a deity, when written (as originally) in unpointed Hebrew text, Esther’s name has exactly the same form as the verb, literally translated, ‘I will hide myself’.B This not only fits Esther’s role (1:10,20) but may indeed point beyond itself to the hidden, sovereign God.

Clines argues that the irony of God’s absence and the compounded effect of chance circumstances has an interesting effect on the narrative reader.

“The greater the number of ‘coincidences’ necessary for the salvation of the Jewish people, and the more implausible they seem, the more directly the role of God is pointed to. God, as a character of the story, becomes more conspicuous the more He is absent.”

The message of this book is important when we struggle with the question of God’s presence. A few posts back we talked about the way that the doctrine of indwelling helps us with this question. This narrative points us to the sovereignty of God and his work through the mundane circumstances of everyday existence.

Lee Beach in his Preaching Subversively: The Book of Esther as a Homiletical Model nicely sums up the point of this post. God is quite present when we experience him as most absent.

“The silence about God is quite deliberate, not to make the point that He is inactive in human situations, but on the contrary, that He is hidden behind all events…the story can become, therefore, a powerful statement about the reality of God in a world from which He appears to be absent…the style in which Esther is written acknowledges the fact that there is often, or usually, no obvious sign that God is at work in the world. But the whole series of coincidences in the book is made to show very clearly that nevertheless, natural explanations are never enough. There is a purposefulness behind events which the pagan acknowledges by his recourse to lots, but which the godly know belongs to the nature of their Creator and Redeemer”.

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