Theological Themes in Esther
Ambiguity of violence
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Book of Esther is the excessive retributive violence apparent in the end when the Jewish people destroy all of the enemies who intended to destroy them, and then they rejoice. One can read this theme as part of the exaggeration of the book, never intended to be taken literally, a theme that provides hope to an often-oppressed people in the language of satire and fantasy. Or one can note that when the reader comes to celebrate the very violence feared from the enemy, then the finger is ironically pointed back at the reader.
Community and accommodation
The Book of Esther subtly shows how one might live and form community when living under a foreign power. Esther and Mordecai work for the best interests of the foreign king until such interests come into conflict with the needs and concerns of their community. They then risk everything for the good of the community.
The cost of discipleship
Discipleship always carries with it a degree of risk. This reality is highlighted by Esther’s act of bravery in standing in defense of her people and risking the consequences of the king’s displeasure. “If I perish, I perish” (4:16) is not a far cry from taking up one’s cross.
God as both absent and present
For many, the most notable issue for the Book of Esther is that God is never mentioned (except in the Greek “Additions to Esther” found in the Apocrypha refers to a collection of writings that, in the judgment of a particular group, are not to be considered as part of the established, authoritative books of the Bible. Several books that Protestants consider apocryphal, such as Judith and Bel and the Dragon, appear… More). But the hidden God can be intuited as present and active in various details of the book: in the coincidences, as highlighted in the name of the Purim (“lots”) holiday; in the lamenting and fasting; in the reversals; in the presence and leadership of Mordecai and Esther; and even in the misconception of Haman’s plea (Esther 7:7-8). Detecting God when God is seemingly absent is one way for a people without power to live faithfully in the midst of a foreign culture.
Faithfulness of God
God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther. Nevertheless, the work of God may be discerned, for those who wish to see it, in the coincidences of the story, in the certainty of Mordecai that help will arise for the Jews “from another quarter” (4:14) should Esther refuse to help, and in the certainty of Haman’s friends and his wife Zeresh that he will surely fall before Mordecai the Jew (6:13). In fact, rabbinical literature considers “another quarter” to be a reference to God.
The seemingly inevitable outcome that the Jews will survive and that their enemies will be defeated brings to mind God’s promise to Abram/Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
In a larger sense, even outside the details of the story of Esther, the survival of the Jewish people continues to testify to the faithfulness of God. The Persian Empire is no more. The The region we today call Palestine and Israel was under Roman rule during the time of Jesus and the early church. The Roman Empire was in its ascendancy during the first century, making it the most powerful political and military force on earth. More is no more. The Third Reich is no more. But the Jewish people survive and thrive, and that sheer historical fact is enough to make one ponder the miraculous faithfulness of God.
Humor in the face of fear
One of the complex challenges of reading the Book of Esther is how to find meaning in, with, and under the humor and exaggeration found throughout the book. Everything in the book is writ large: the palace trappings are overly pompous; the feasting takes place over exaggerated spans of times; the king’s law is both unassailable and changeable; the good folks are very good and the bad are very bad; and even the violence is over the top. (The gallows built for Mordecai on which Haman is hanged are 75 feet tall!) Such satire can be uplifting to folks who live in fear that those in power might turn against them, showing that laughter in the face of fear offers subtle encouragement, helps to form community, and gives courage to face an unknown future.
The sin of antisemitism
Haman, “the enemy of the Jews” (3:10), persuades King Ahasuerus to issue a decree for the destruction of all the Jews in the Persian Empire. He does so by saying to the king, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them” (3:8).
Haman’s accusation that the Jews are strange, that they set themselves apart, and that they are disloyal to the king echoes down through the centuries in antisemitic tropes. To the church’s shame, those antisemitic tropes have too often been propagated by the church and its leaders. Haman’s plan “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day…and to plunder their goods” (3:13) does not, in the end, come to fruition in the book of Esther. Such language may have been meant as hyperbolic, ludicrous, much like the 180-day feast of chapter one or the 75-foot gallows of chapter five. But the threat does not sound as far-fetched to us, who have the hindsight of history. Latter-day Hamans in the centuries after Esther became increasingly brutal and murderous. Haman’s lies about the Jews were echoed over and over again – from persecutions of the Jews under the Romans, through blood libels in Christian Europe and the antisemitic writings of Martin Luther and others, through Russian pogroms and mass expulsions of Jews in Europe and the Middle East – until those lies lead eventually to the Final Solution of the Third Reich.
That sin of antisemitism and the violence that it engendered is a historical fact for which the church continues to Repentance is a central biblical teaching. All people are sinful and God desires that all people repent of their sins. The Hebrew word for repent means to “turn away” from sin. The Greek word for repentance means to “change on’e mind,” more specifically, it means… More. For one example of such public repentance, see “A Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community.”
Unrestrained use and abuse of power
Unrestrained power can be dangerous, particularly when combined with ignorance and discrimination. The book of Esther unmasks this reality and describes in exaggerated detail the dangers of such power. Ahasuerus is depicted as a buffoon who cannot make his own decisions. Nevertheless, he is king of the largest empire the world had ever seen, a king with absolute power. Absolute power combined with foolishness and indecision spells trouble for those on the margins of society, including his Jewish subjects.