ESTHER THEOLOGICAL THEMES

Carol Bechtel identifies three Theological Themes in the Book of Esther.

  1. The Importance of Proportion.

In the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, certain Psalms – it is a healthy sense of proportion that distinguishes the wise from the foolish. Shemarayahu Talmon has argued that Esther is a Wisdom tale. This is to take the argument too far. However, the importance of proportion is reflected prominently throughout the book. Ahasuerus and Haman often display a shocking lack of proportion. There are stupendous feasts and displays of pomp, decisions that affect the whole empire are made in an off-hand way and the royal signet ring is passed around without due recognition of the power it gives the wearer. But if Ahasuerus acts because he does not think deeply about things, Haman has a gift for disproportion worthy of a scheming despot. In contrast to these, Esther emerges as the epitome of proportion. Mordecai, although viewed by Jews as the hero, is less easy to grade.

Esther and Haman are clear counterparts. Mordecai and Ahasuerus are a less easy match but there are similarities. Ahasuerus does not mean any real evil but he leaves himself open to be manipulated by Haman. Mordecai does not intend to doom his own people to death but because of his relationship with Haman, this is the result.

Carey Moore represents a long tradition of commentators when he claims “between Mordecai and Esther the greater hero in the Hebrew is Mordecai who supplied the brains while Esther simply followed his instructions.”

Carol Bechtel strongly disagrees with this: “it is Mordecai who – however unwittingly – gets the people of God into this mess. It is left to Esther – with a lot of help from God and a little help from Mordecai – to get them out.”

  1. The Challenge of Living a Faithful Life in an Unfaithful Culture.

It is one thing to live a life faithful to God when one is surrounded by a culture that supports such efforts. It is quite different to live a faithful life in an indifferent or hostile situation. Sidnie Ann White writes: “the tale clearly is meant to entertain… it has a didactic purpose as well,” namely, “to teach Jews how to live a productive life in the Diaspora”.

The one unalterable fact of life for the Jews in the Book of Esther is limited power.

But the Jews are not the only ones with limited power.

There is Queen Vashti. She is a fascinating character. Ahasuerus and Vashti are like two immovable forces that clash – and there can be only one winner. Her resistance to Ahasuerus is an important foil for Esther’s progress. Esther opts, in contrast, for critical compromise. Mordecai’s actions can veer between those of Vashti and Esther.

The Eunuchs are often overlooked in Esther. Most of the interventions by eunuchs are positive such as Hegai’s favour and advice or Harbona’s timely suggestion. There is one negative intervention and that is Bigthan and Teresh’s foiled assassination attempt. Bigthan and Teresh, choose open rebellion and, like Vashti, pay dearly for it. Hegai and Harbona get what they want by being patient and waiting for the right moment.

And then there is God. His name is never mentioned. This fact as Carey Moore notes caused Esther some difficulty in being accepted into the Christian Canon of Scripture. Carol Bechtel writes: “In a manner quite similar to the stories of Joseph and Ruth, God’s presence also is felt in the book’s ‘coincidences’.” “All of this is to say that God is very much a character in this book, though one who evidently prefers to remain anonymous”.

Like the Jews, the women, and the eunuchs in the Book of Esther, we must make difficult decisions about whether to adopt, reject or adapt to our situation.
Yet God is with us in the midst of that struggle. We may wish at times God’s presence and power were a little more obvious. Carol Bechtel.
  1. The Power of the Written Word.

Seen from a slightly different angle, the Book of Esther could also be considered an extended meditation on the power of the written word.

There are, at least, sixty-three references to writing or written texts.

Haman’s whole strategy revolves around the relationship between the written and the oral word. He is often ambiguous when he speaks with Ahasuerus but there is no ambiguity in the decrees he drafts.

The King keeps his own book of days and he has his royal annals read out to him when he cannot sleep. He was “sleepless in Susa” when Mordecai’ part in the foiled assassination is read out. Written texts lose their power when they remain unread.

That is why Jews take the Book of Esther to heart at Purim in accordance with the two sets of letters sent out in Chapter 9.

That an extended meditation on the power of the written word – and the importance of reading it – should arise at this this period is not surprising. This was a time when the people of God sought to collect and edit what would become Scripture, and to redefine themselves as “a people of the book”.

What is surprising is that Christians should be so little interested and engaged. R. Plunkett in a private communication wrote: “every text is a dead letter unless the writer and the reader collaborate to keep it alive”. As long as Esther’s word goes unread, its truth will lie buried.

Patricia Tull makes the interesting point that in the Old Testament, “heroes” are usually presented as complex and morally ambiguous personalities. We just have to consider David to appreciate this. Mordecai, I suggest, may be rather similar to these complex “heroes”.

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