When the Bible makes us uncomfortable: a refreshing take on the story of Esther

If someone asked you, perhaps over coffee, to summarize the Bible in one phrase or sentence, what would you say?… Once you have thought of a good summary sentence or phrase for the Bible as a whole, try to apply it to each of the books of the Bible individually… Whatever you chose, how does it fit with the story of Esther? Does it work? -Esther and Her Elusive God, p. 95

Let’s face it: when attempting to characterize the Bible’s grand narrative, and especially its theology, Esther is probably one of the last books ever cited. Even then, it’s typically with caveat and hesitation. In fact, Esther completely escaped the interest of New Testament authors, as well as early church fathers, who otherwise alluded generously to the Hebrew Bible. It is safe to say that the story, though well known, has played little role in shaping biblical studies over the past two millennia.

The main reason for the neglect, of course, is the narrative’s overtly secular nature. It is unclear to what extent God is involved in the course of events, let alone the lives of the individual characters. This absence of God stands firmly in contrast, for example, to the Exodus narrative or the tale of Daniel in the lion’s den. So what is a book like this doing in our Bibles?

Last week, I sat down with author John Anthony Dunne, who is currently pursuing his doctoral degree at St. Andrews University under Dr. N.T. Wright, to discuss his book Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture. What began for John as a pondering in a graduate course became a series of blog posts and eventually a full-scale publication. In the book, he argues foremost that Esther does deserve a place in our canon, but that we need not “religionize” the text, as is so often done to make it palatable to readers of faith. His arguments are both concise and thorough, and the book is guaranteed to surprise and challenge you along the way. Though he is critical of traditional approaches to the narrative (captured well by modern film adaptations), what he offers in place makes the book a most fascinating read that is worth every penny.

Over the course of this interview, I found that the issues addressed by John in his book apply to far more than just one story in the Bible. In fact, the textual and interpretive histories of Esther teach us an important lesson about the complexities of holy tradition, and how sacred texts have historically been received and reshaped in the life of the church. I hope that you will agree!

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EstherBookCoverFirst, let’s run briefly through the story of Esther. I am mainly interested in what you deem the most important aspects of the narrative and why you term it a ‘secular story’.

Esther is the story of a young Jewish girl living in Susa, Persia with her cousin Mordecai (her parents are apparently dead, so Mordecai was taking care of her). They are living in a time when Persia ruled the world, some time after the Babylonian exile. In fact, the background of the exile is present in that the names of the protagonists are theonyms for the Babylonian gods Marduk (Mordecai) and Ishtar (Esther). When the Persians took over, after the Babylonians, they allowed the Jews to return to their land and live by their own customs and laws. Israel was thus a vassal state that could rebuild the temple and resume their ancient customs, but some Jews remained in diaspora, and that’s the story of Esther and Mordecai.

The book opens with a Persian king who is oddly unpredictable—a fickle buffoon. His title in Hebrew (Achash Verovosh / אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ / Ahasuerus) means something like “King Headache”. In the story’s opening, Ahasuerus wants to bring out his wife (Vashti) and display her for all the people at this lavish party that he’s throwing (he’s more like a frat boy than a king). But his wife refuses, so he intends to get rid of her. In response, his courtiers decide to bring all the women before him to decide who’s going to replace her, including Esther, who goes to participate in this royal ‘beauty pageant’, like a game of “The Bachelor”. Esther wins, being most pleasing to the king (the text seems to imply some sort of sexual competition), and she becomes queen.

Was Esther only competing for the title reluctantly? This act seems to contradict the character of a pious Jew, so maybe it was for a greater good?

Often its understood that Esther became queen in order to save her people, but actually there is no problem/conflict at this point in the narrative. In the next chapter, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman (a right hand man to the king). Most people assume that his refusal is on religious grounds, but it stems rather from a long standing feud between their two ancestral lines. Mordecai was a descendant of Saul, and Haman was an Agagite. In 1 Samuel 15, there is an infamous showdown between Saul and Agag, in which Saul was to destroy all the Amalekites, their property and plunder. The conflict and disrespect between Mordecai and Haman, therefore, is not religiously motivated, but tribally so. In any case, this angers Haman, so that he commits to destroying all of the Jews. To determine the day on which this should take place, he casts lots (Hb: Pur, hence the name of the festival Purim). The king accepts the proposal and puts it into law, which is pronounced throughout the kingdom.

Of course, this worries the Jews, who plead with Esther to go before the king, given her new royal status. Here in Esther 4:14, Mordecai says, “But if you remain silent, relief and deliverance will rise 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?” One of the things I argue in the book is that this should be rendered as a rhetorical question: “If you remain silent, will relief and deliverance rise from another place?” Otherwise, his certainty is rather odd. Why would deliverance come from elsewhere if Esther remains silent, yet she and her household will still perish? Actually, I equate his words here with those of Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi (“Help me, Obi-Wan…You’re my only hope!”). The motivation for leaving it a statement is to paint God into the picture, as though Mordecai is confident that God will help them in any case.

So at this point, Esther concedes to Mordecai’s request, but first she fasts and asks her servants to do the same. Is this not an act of faith?

Before going to the king, Esther has a fast with her handmaidens, which many assume is a sort of religious fast, but I don’t think it is. There’s no mention of prayer or religious motivation, and the handmaidens are surely not Jewish. So it’s clearly a cultural thing; fasting, in this case, is preparation for her inevitable death when she goes to the king unsummoned. It’s much like Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11-12), where Jephthah inadvertently offers his daughter as sacrifice, who then asks to go out to the hills to mourn her coming death.

Despite the danger, Esther goes to the king, who just happens not to be angry with her. So she is able to buy some time by inviting the king to a series of banquets. Interestingly, between the banquets, the king has trouble sleeping and just happens to have the court history read to him, from which he learns of Mordecai thwarting a plot to kill him. Desiring to reward Mordecai, the king asks Haman (who at this point was planning to impale Mordecai publicly): “What shall we do for the one the king wants to honor?” Of course, Haman presumptuously assumes the king is referencing him, so he speaks of elaborate robes, a parade, etc. But in an ironic twist, the king commands Haman to do all he described for Mordecai instead. So Haman is both humbled and embarrassed, and in the end, he is impaled on the very spears that were intended for Mordecai.

In the narrative’s close, the diasporan Jews come out victorious, but at great expense to the Persians. Does the story critique the Persians, therefore, while praising the Jewish people for killing them?

Well, there is an interesting role reversal here. The decree against the Jews was still outstanding and couldn’t be revoked (no Persian law could). So rather than revoking the law, and at the request of Mordecai and Esther, the king allows all Jews to defend themselves and kill those who would still attack them. In other words, the persecuted have become the persecutors. Mordecai and Esther and all the Jews have actually become like Haman, and they kill 75,810 Persians. So what appears to be a victory for the Jews ironically depicts a dreary role reversal.

In fact, there is a refrain near the end of the book that echoes 1 Samuel 15 (which we’ve already seen is an important background to this text), as we are told the Jews do not touch the plunder of the Persians, much like Saul in his conflict with Agag. But in 1 Samuel 15, Saul forsook the command and took the plunder anyway. Some have read the refrain in Esther to imply that the Jews are undoing the problem of Saul by not touching the plunder. If that were the case, however, they would have destroyed the plunder completely. Furthermore, we’re told that Esther and Mordecai took the entire estate of Haman and his family, who are the only Amalekites explicitly mentioned in the story. Therefore, rather than undoing the problem of Saul, the protagonists in the Book of Esther actually repeat his great sin.

Would you call Esther a role model for faithfulness?

I would say that I don’t think Esther is the role model that we often think of her as. It’s difficult to answer, because it seems like we don’t have a whole lot of wonderful paradigms of good women of faith in the Bible—we have just a handful. This is unfortunate, because I feel a sense of taking away one of those pinnacle female representations of faith by saying I don’t think it’s a good way to view the story. Sadly, Esther is only one of two women with biblical books named after them (Ruth being the other). So in response, I like to point to truly great women in the Bible (e.g. Deborah, Priscilla, Phoebe, Cloe, Junia, Mary, Martha, and others). Although I don’t regard Esther as such a role model, it’s a tricky thing to just say it flatly.

When do you think Esther was written, and by whom? Does this impact how we approach the story?

Most likely, the book was written in the late Persian or the early Greek period (4th-3rd century BCE). There does seem to be a familiarity with some Persian customs, for example. But I don’t think the compositional date really matters in terms of how we read the story. Regarding the author, I would just say ‘an anonymous Jew’—we don’t really know. Probably, it was someone within the diaspora, outside the land of Israel.

Before I read your book, I wanted to reread Esther, but I was somewhat surprised to learn just how much the story varies even between Christian Bibles. Fortunately, you discussed this at length in the book—can you summarize that here?

So far as I’ve been talking about the Book of Esther, I’ve been referring to the Hebrew version (which appears in Protestant Bibles). That version was translated into Greek early on, however, and appears in the Septuagint. What’s interesting is that the Greek version includes 6 major additions, and these additions change a lot of the story. In my book, I call this “The Cover-Up”, as a play on the makeup in Esther’s beauty pageant. The idea is that the Septuagint version applies cosmetics to the story of Esther, attempting to clarify some of the details, especially the motivations of the characters: why was Esther doing this, what was the extent of her involvement in the pageant, what was her devotional life during her trials…

So they made it a religious text?

Yes, they made it a very religious text. What’s interesting too is that this isn’t the only Greek version that we have. Another, called the Alpha Text (for which we have only 4 manuscripts) complicates the issue further, because although it’s very similar to the Septuagint, there are additional differences. In any case, these variant Greek texts actually cause us to rethink the Hebrew version and whether it may have been an expansion of an even earlier base text. Most reconstructions suggest that this is the case: the original story was expanded one way, providing us with the Hebrew Masoretic text, and another way, providing us with the received Alpha Text and Septuagint. I discuss this in the book, without trying to solve it completely. My main goal is to demonstrate at least that the original story did not contain the religious imagery found in the Greek versions.

You mention that Esther has played little role in shaping the theological history of the church, but you also discuss numerous adaptations of the story into film and novel within the last decades. Is this modern interest only a recent development?

Esther became part of the Christian canon at the end of the 4th century, but only in the Greek version (remember, the Septuagint was essentially the Christian Old Testament). In addition to being accepted fairly late, we don’t even have a commentary on it until about the 9th century. So there wasn’t much in the way of Christian interest for most of church history. On the Jewish side, however, there was a lot of interest in Esther, particularly because it represents diaspora life. Following the Holocaust, Esther became a massively important book for Jewish people.

At the end of the Reformation, Protestants made the argument that the Old Testament should mimic the Jewish canon, and so they rejected the Greek versions in favor of the Hebrew original. It’s interesting, then, that when books/movies adapt the story of Esther, they are surprisingly more consistent with the Greek versions (with explicitly religious imagery), despite that ostensibly, they’re only retelling the Hebrew story. Some of these popular books, plays, movies show awareness of the Greek version, but many don’t. Yet somehow, they apply similar moves and similar adjustments to the story in the same places as the Greek translators once did. It’s almost like we have responded to the story very consistently since it was written—that is, the Hebrew story somehow became offensive or difficult for us, and so we committed to change it.

You mentioned a lot of mixed reception of Esther by both Jews and Christians. Specifically, Athanasius did not include it in his famous list of OT books, Calvin didn’t include it in his commentaries, and Luther wished it never existed. Why the hesitancy?

I think the hesitancy begins with the fact that Esther is an incredibly subtle book. In a lot of Hebrew narrative, you’ll have these stretches where you don’t really get explicit evaluation from the author to describe what you’re reading. The author may not tell you what’s going on in the character’s head and attribute motivations—it’s merely narrative without commentary. So the idea is, readers must themselves recognize “Oh, that wasn’t very good to do” or “That was valiant”. It’s a narrative strategy by the author to leave the story ambiguous without evaluation.

In this case, we don’t even get an evaluation of the negative things in the book. For example, we’re never told explicitly if Haman was doing good or evil; it must be recognized by the reader.

On the surface, though, Esther is a story of how the persecuted become persecutors. I think that perhaps that’s what Luther and others saw, recognizing that it doesn’t appear to fit with the biblical message. And in a lot of ways, it doesn’t fit, because the author is being subtly critical. But that’s the difference, and I think its subtlety is lost on a lot of readers.

Should the complicated canonical status and compositional history of Esther concern Christians (or Jews, for that matter), who typically assume that we at least know what the Bible is, meaning which books are in it and what the text is?

Well, I don’t think it should be a worrisome thing that texts are received by communities and shaped by them, or that adjustments/redaction take place. Editing and redaction are just facts of how texts are preserved by a community that’s transmitting and transcribing them. But also it includes various interpretations, as people are thinking “What does this story mean?”, and those interpretations sometimes come into the text. So it is good to think about the text as a tradition, as part of the preservation process, which reflects interpretations along the way. To say, for instance, that God is involved in the authorial process, so long as the author’s pen is to the parchment, but that God is no longer involved once the pen hits the desk—it implies that somehow the text’s history is irrelevant.

Given what we find in Esther (and other books), it seems that Jewish scribes were comfortable altering their written traditions. This is somewhat contrary to the commonly supposed scenario in which the Hebrew Bible was copied meticulously, letter by letter, once it was originally drafted. Which is the case?

It’s definitely not the case that there were never any alterations. In the process of transmitting the text, there are certainly going to be all sorts of minor errors here and there (spelling errors, etc.). In terms of these more significant adjustments, however, I think a lot of the misconception has to do with our post-Enlightenment sense of history, in preserving precisely what someone said or painted or did. But I think for them (ancient Jewish scribes), and I’ve heard it said before, that there was no such thing as mere copying or merely rewriting something. Instead, copying or writing something included a kind of faithful involvement with that text, which could include some kind of interpretive asides or clarifications, because they would see themselves as being faithful to the text in this way.

In Genesis and elsewhere, we find Babylonian stories that seem to have been retold, if not adapted to a Jewish theological context. Could this be an analog to how scribes involved themselves with the story of Esther? Does it help us understand, for example, how later (perhaps Alexandrian) Jewish scribes adapted an earlier Hebrew text? Or was that something else entirely?

I’m not sure, because with Esther, we have Jewish people interpreting a Jewish story and clarifying what seems to be missing, whereas with Gilgamesh or Atrahasis or Enuma Elish, you could have all sorts of things going on. For instance, the sun is nothing fancy, like a special deity; it’s just something God made. So there could be some kind of polemical twist to it, in the case of Genesis. But I think the nature of interaction is different with the traditions of Esther.

Most Christians (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) have canonized the “religious” version of Esther, but not Protestants. To whom specifically did you write the book?

When I wrote this book, it was to address what I perceived to be a uniquely Protestant problem, because they have canonized this story that frankly does not look like something you’d find in a Bible. Many are still left with the question, “What do we do with it?” Of course, that’s not to exclude other traditions from reading my book, but it has an obviously Protestant angle to it. Also, this is a problem that most Protestants don’t even recognize as a problem, so perhaps I’m calling that to their attention.

On that note, what would you say to Catholic or Orthodox readers, who are inclined to agree with your scholarly analysis, but now find themselves in conflict with their own canon?

Well, I think it would be a little difficult for me to step out of my own shoes and address that fairly, but I would reiterate that I view this as a Protestant problem. So perhaps I would say, “Well, you guys are off the hook!” I guess a person from any faith tradition could agree with me on the reconstruction of the text and my approach to that ‘secular’ original, saying “Yeah, that’s a good way of reading the Hebrew text. I just think that God was involved in the process by which the Greek version has been received into the church.” In other words, I don’t think Catholics and Orthodox Christians really have to worry about the issue, except out of curiosity, whereas Protestants have to wrestle with it.

And presumably, many of them aren’t, because the popular renditions that we keep on making follow similar patterns of redaction and religious adaptation!

I really like the link you draw between Esther/Mordecai and Ishtar/Marduk. Obviously, the etymological link was intentional on the part of the author. What does this tell us about the historicity of the narrative, if the two main characters—even in their names—are meant to caricature the ‘assimilated Jew’ in diaspora, or even particular attitudes toward ancient tradition?

I specifically shy away from the historical question in the book. People have argued that it’s a novel or a comedy, for example, and there are many elements that have been exaggerated. These exaggerations might hint for us, “Well, maybe the genre isn’t history?”, rather than saying “This is just bad history”.

Whereas I’m comfortable with the idea of Esther as a story/novel rather than history, I’m not sure what to make of its genre, so I leave it as an open question. If its genre is not history, of course, there’s no point in trying to deal with historical ‘inaccuracies’. Like you said, bringing in Ishtar and Marduk, the protagonists could represent or caricature these Babylonian deities. In fact, Esther does appear to be a sort of Ishtar figure. Ishtar was the goddess of love and war, and what is Esther in this story, if not the goddess of love and war? So it seems this characterization might lend itself toward an ahistorical position. On the other hand, if it is history, then it is history in the form of a well crafted narrative. It’s simply a very good story.

Esther is famously the only book in the Bible with no explicit mention of God. To what extent is God present in the story, in the mind of the author?

One of the ways, I think, for sure is that the author is telling this story as a faithful Jew, in such a way that he is subtly critical of what he is describing. The absence of any explicit reference to God highlights the secularity of the characters. Where we see the author being coy is how God seems to be standing behind a lot of the interesting twists in the story. For instance, in Esther 6, the king can’t sleep and just happens to be read the story of Mordecai. Everything about it has this *wink wink* vibe for a person of faith.

There are several implicit references to the Passover season, so a faithful reader would be inclined to think “Ah, now the God of the Exodus is about to act”. Yet the characters are not thinking along these lines—not praying before battle, not celebrating Passover, etc.. In any case, I think the author is trying to show how even when God’s people are unfaithful, even to the extent of being ignorant of his activity and traditions, he is still eager to save them. Originally, I wanted to subtitle the book “A Biblical Theology of God’s Faithfulness” to press that point, but it sounded too much like every other book you might have read about Esther, whereas what needed to be highlighted was how these characters are completely unaware of that faithfulness.

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My deepest thanks to John Dunne for sharing his thoughts and enduring the long interview! If you’d like to engage the entirety of his arguments, please don’t hesitate to pick up a copy of the book.

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