The Book of Esther

Background

There may be a good reason why Esther is the only book in the Bible that does not explicitly mention God. If Israel failed to keep the Mosaic covenant, God said (or threatened) that one consequence would be that that He would hide his presence, or ‘face’, from them (Deuteronomy 31:17-18; Isaiah 59:2). According to the Moody Study Bible (2014:682), this theme of God hiding His “presence” can be seen in the ‘unmistakable similarity between the name of the book’s central protagonist — ‘ester (“Esther”) — and the phrase by which God expressed His threat — ‘astir (“I will hide”; Dt 31:18; cf. Ezk 39:23-24). Moreover, the Hebrew consonants of these two terms makes them almost identical, as the name “Esther” was ‘str and the phrase “I will hide”, ‘styr. This similarity, as a reminder that God (both in name and in deed) is meant to be hidden in the book, was recognised and affirmed early in Jewish interpretive history, as attested in the Babylonian Talmud Chullin 139b’. Israel had failed to keep the Mosaic covenant, resulting in the Babylonian captivity, but thereafter many Jews chose not to return to their land. God was hiding His presence or face in the Book of Esther, but His faithfulness to his unconditional promises, specifically those of the Abrahamic covenant, is plain for all to see.

Author and Date

Some people think that Mordecai is the author of the Book of Esther, but the ‘highly commendatory way in which he is presented (cf. 6:11; 8:15; 9:4; 10:3) makes this hardly likely’ (Merrill 2011:357). The writer seems to distinguish himself from Mordecai in 9:20, 23. ‘The idea that the writer was Esther has not found support mainly because female writers were uncommon in ancient patriarchal societies such as Israel’ (Constable 2017:1). We know that the Holy Spirit inspired this book, but the human author remains unknown. What is certain, however, is that the human author was familiar with the Persian culture and literature (2:23; 10:2) and wrote as if he was an eyewitness of the events (Constable 2017:1). The last historical events of the book (9:27-28; cf. 3:7) can be dated since the Jews defended themselves and instituted the Feast of Purim in 473 B.C. The Book of Esther was probably written shortly thereafter, in about 470 B.C.

Literary Artistry and Structure

The Book of Esther is a narrative that vividly describes actual historical events. ‘It is a short story or novella, a description that in no way undercuts its facticity or historicity’ (Merrill 2011:356). The exposition of the plot of the drama explains how Esther became queen in place of Vashti. Shortly thereafter, Mordecai uncovers a plot to murder the king — an event initially almost forgotten — and then Haman devises a plot to exterminate the Jews. This challenge results in Esther risking her life to save her fellow-Jews. The turning point comes one night when the king could not sleep. As the first of many ironic reversals, Haman loses his life the very next day but Mordecai is honoured for uncovering the assassination plot. The evil plan to exterminate the Jews is countered. The book starts with a feast in a Persian capital city, a feast that did not end so well, but the book of Esther ends with the commemoration of the joyous Feast of Purim that is kept to this day by Jews all over the world. Just like the Book of Ruth, the Book of Esther is a beautiful short but true story. While admitting that sections E and E’ (see below) may be weak matches, the following chiastic structure of Dorsey (1999:163) can be commended:

A The king’s proud feast (deposes Vashti, letters sent throughout empire) 1:1-22
B Esther becomes queen (king gives feast in her honour, gives gifts) 2:1-18
    C King’s life is saved (those plotting to kill are hanged) 2:19-23
      D Haman’s plot 3:1-4:3
        E Mordecai learns of plot; Esther to risk all 4:4-17
          F Esther invites king and Haman to 1st banquet 5:1-14
            G Turning point, ironic reversals follow 6:1-14
          F’ Esther invites king and Haman to 2nd banquet 7:1-10
        E’ Esther given Haman’s estate and Mordecai promoted 8:1-2
      D’ Haman’s plot foiled 8:3-17
    C’ Jews’ lives are saved (those plotting to kill are killed) 9:1-10
B’ Esther wins 2nd day for Jews in Susa (another feast day, giving of gifts) 9:11-19
A’ Jews’ Feast of Purim (promotes Mordecai, letters sent throughout empire) 9:20-10:3

Purpose

It is true that the sovereign God is working providentially behind the seen (or scenes) to work out all things for good for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). But as per the Moody Study Bible (2014:681), the goal of Esther may be to express the faithfulness of God — ‘all the more so, since the beneficiaries of His faithfulness, Israel, are in the land of their exile on account of their sins. God is faithful in upholding His unconditional covenant with Abraham (Gn 12:1-3; Jr 31:36; Zch 3:9; 12:10) and to “all families of the earth” (Gn 12:3; Gl 3:8). The latter is seen in the mass conversion by Gentiles from multiple ethnicities in Esther 8:17’. Rossow (1987:229-230) highlights another purpose: ‘I would submit that the Book of Esther suggests even more than the providence of God that has traditionally been discovered in it. It pays tribute to the symmetry of His nature and to the artistry of His actions. …The symmetry and the design of the Book of Esther are those of the divine Author, not of the human author. Thus God is a God of design, of symmetry. …As much as (or more than) any other book of the Bible, the Book of Esther brings this attribute of God to our attention’.

Shadows and Substance

If the Book of Ether is a book in which God hides His presence or face and yet is fully active behind the scenes (or the ‘seen’), then one can probably expect various typological connections. If all of Scripture teaches about Christ (Luke 24:27), then it is reasonable to expect such connections, even if they are indirect. Moreover, Colossians 2:16-17 teaches that Israel’s holy days — and this includes the Feast of Purim — are shadows that point to the substance which belongs to Christ. We are not focusing now on parallels between other times when Israel was outside of their land, like when Joseph was used by God to intervene for Israel (Genesis 37-50), or Israel’s exodus and deliverance from Egypt compared to Esther’s interventions on behalf of the nation. Instead, in an insightful article, Wechsler (1997:284) highlighted the following shadow-substance comparison between Esther and Christ:

Shadow Substance
Esther's three-day period of fasting began during the daylight hours of Nisan 14, the first day of Passover.Jesus' three-day period of death began sometime around three o'clock during the daylight hours of Nisan 14, the first day of Passover.
Fasting in general, and thus the fast undertaken by Esther, is identified in Scripture with "humiliation" or "affliction," and inasmuch as her mourning (and a change into mourning garments) was involved, the fast may also represent her temporary "state of death."Jesus' three-day period of physical death (initiated by the cross, Phil. 2:8) is identified in Scripture as the period of His "humiliation" or "affliction" (ταπείνωσις).
Esther's period of ταπείνωση ended on the third day, Nisan 16 (Esth. 5:1).Jesus' period of ταπείνωση ended on the third day, Nisan 16 (Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4).
On concluding her fast (i.e., after arising from her symbolic state of death) but before her self-presentation to the king, Esther was clothed in royalty (Esth. 5:1).At the end of his three-day period of death, but before His self-presentation to God the Father in heaven, Jesus was resurrected "in glory" (εν δόξη, 1 Cor. 15:20, 43).
Esther presented herself, on the basis of her fast (Esth. 4:16), before the king, who then accepted her into his presence (5:2).Jesus, on the basis of His atoning sacrifice and death (Heb. 2:9-10, 14), entered into the Father's presence in the true holy of holies in heaven (9:12, 24), and was accepted into His presence to sit at "the right hand of God" (10:12; 12:2).
The result of Esther's acceptance by the king was the salvation of her people, of which salvation Gentiles also took part (Esth. 8:17).The result of Jesus' acceptance by the Father is the salvation of His people (i.e., "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," Matt. 15:24), that is, Jews who are circumcised not only physically but also spiritually through faith in Him (Rom. 2:28-29). Gentiles may also take part in this salvation through initiation (by spiritual circumcision, Col. 2:11) into the community of faith (Acts 11:18; Gal. 3:8).

Source: Wechsler, M.G., 1997, ‘Shadow and fulfillment in the book of Esther’, Bibliotheca Sacra 154(625), 275-284.

Conclusion

Although some critics want to do it, there is no reason whatsoever to exclude the Book of Esther from the Scriptures. In fact, there is significant danger for those who want to tamper with God’s Word (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18-19). The Book of Esther teaches the faithfulness of God who, while hiding His presence or face from the Jews because they failed to keep the Mosaic covenant, still works behind the seen to fulfil His unconditional promises. God is working for the benefit of the Jew first but also for the Gentile (Esther 8:17; 9:24-26). You see this in the shadows of the Book of Esther which point to the substance which belongs to, or is, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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Sources:

Constable, T.L., 2017, Notes on Esther, 2017 edition.

Dorsey, D.A., 1999, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A commentary on Genesis-Malachi, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

Merrill, E.H., 2011, ‘The Book of Esther’, in E.H. Merrill, M.F. Rooker & M.A. Grisanti, The World and the Word, pp. 354-360, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville.

Multiple Faculty Contributors, ‘Esther’, in M. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (eds.), The Moody Bible Commentary, pp. 681-693, Moody Publishers, Chicago.

Rossow, F.C., 1987, ‘Literary artistry in the Book of Esther and its theological significance’, Concordia Journal 13(3), 219-233.

Wechsler, M.G., 1997, ‘Shadow and fulfillment in the book of Esther’, Bibliotheca Sacra 154(625), 275-284.

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