by Luke Wayne
The Book of Esther, though divinely inspired scripture, doesn't mention God by any name or title. Indeed, there is no direct reference to God at all. This has led some modern scholars to claim that the book was originally intended as a purely secular history. Later apocryphal additions were made to a Greek version of the text which added overt references to God in various places (these were later incorporated into the Roman Catholic Canon.) This perhaps shows that, in certain ancient Jewish communities, there were also concerns about the lack of explicit references to God. Scholars have suggested that this may also be the reason that there is no copy or even mention of the Book of Esther among the Dead Sea Scrolls and why the Qumran community does not appear to have celebrated the festival of "Purim" established in Esther. It seems that many throughout history, and certainly some today, have been troubled by this apparent absence of God in a biblical narrative.
All such concerns, however, actually miss the point of the book! The author carefully crafts his historical narrative in such a way that God is not directly mentioned, and yet His involvement is quite obvious to the reader throughout. He does so specifically and intentionally to deal with God's hiddenness yet continued care of His people while they were cast from His presence in the exile. When the temple was destroyed, and God's people were dispersed, and under His wrath, many felt abandoned and alone. God seemed absent. He seemed hidden. They felt cut off, not merely from their homeland, but from God Himself. The Book of Esther embodies that hiddenness while showing that, in fact, God was still there protecting and preserving His people. God may have been chastising them, but He had not abandoned them. John Wesley rightly wrote:
“The name of God is not found in this book: but the finger of God is, directing so many minute events for the deliverance of his people,”1
Using a word play with the name "Esther" and the Hebrew word for "hide" (astir), the Talmud connects the narrative of Esther to the prophecy in Deuteronomy:2
"But I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they will do, for they will turn to other gods," (Deuteronomy 31:18).
When the people went into exile, God hid Himself from them. They had to feel His absence. Yet, God had not truly abandoned His people. He was still faithful to all His promises, and thus He was preserving them even when they could not see it. We read, for example, of Mordecai warning Esther:
"For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14).
The certainty that the deliverance for the Jews will come no matter what Esther does and the suggestion that Esther attained her royal position for a specific purpose is obviously referring to God's providential hand at work. Yet, in reporting these events, the author goes out of his way to avoid actually mentioning God. Esther then replies to Mordecai:
"Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish," (Esther 4:16).
Esther asking the Jews to "fast for her," before she takes this great risk is clearly a request for intercession in the hope of divine favor. The earliest Christian readers certainly perceived this, writing things like:
“Esther also, being perfect in faith, exposed herself to no less danger, in order to deliver the twelve tribes of Israel from impending destruction. For with fasting and humiliation she entreated the everlasting God, who seeth all things; and He, perceiving the humility of her spirit, delivered the people for whose sake she had encountered peril,” (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 55).3
Esther and the Jews of Susa were appealing to God in hopes that He would intervene and grant her favor before the king. Yet, in telling of these events, the author avoids directly mentioning God or even using the word "prayer" which would be an explicit reference to God. The author isn't telling a narrative that happens to exclude any reference to God. He is going out of his way to avoid mentioning God even when he is plainly talking about God. The same idea runs through the entire narrative, in which everything is orchestrated by events beyond any human control in such a way to ensure that the Jews are delivered and their enemies punished. The author records the events in such a way that God's presence in the history reported could scarcely be more obvious to the reader, and yet one is also confronted with God's strange and haunting absence from the actual text. In this way, the author conveys his powerful point. God hid Himself from His people in their time of exile, but God did not forsake them. God is still faithful to His covenant, and in His secret providence, He was protecting them and prospering them even while He was punishing them and correcting them for their sins against Him.