Esther & Covenant?
[Update (2/14/2014)—My new book Esther and Her Elusive God: How A Secular Story Functions As Scripture is now available. My posts on this site represent stages in the development of my thinking about Esther. For the full argument check out the book].
Over the last two weeks I’ve discussed the enigmatic nature of the book of Esther. Initially, I focused on the fact that Esther has been handed down to us within the canon of Christian scripture (see my post: Esther & Canon?). Then I addressed how the book of Esther actually fits in the canon; arguing that the story should be read as a tale of compromise (see my post: Esther & Compromise?). The present post is a continuation of my former posts, but here I want to address whether or not there is any religious pulse among God’s people in Esther. In other words, is there any evidence that Esther, or Mordechai, or any of the other Jews in the story are keeping the covenant? I will look at four possible places where covenantal aspects could be suggested.
The first issue is fasting. After Haman’s plot is made known, the Jews fast in 4.3 and Esther calls a fast for herself in 4.16 before she approaches the King about the issue. Many might point to fasting as a religious symbol; abstaining from food as part of a petition of the deity. Yet intriguingly there are no references to prayer in this context or anywhere else in the rest of the book. Thus it is at least likely that fasting need not be understood as religious here. Rather it demonstrates the severity of the situation and could more likely be associated with lament (note Mordechai’s actions in Esther 4.1). In light of the following arguments, the non-religious nature of fasting in this context becomes even more likely.
2) Mordechai’s Refusal To Bow To Haman
The second issue is Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman in 3.1-6. It is easy to assume that this action is rooted in Mordechai’s conviction that there is only one God and he alone deserves exclusive reverence. However, the political nature of this event must not be missed. The narrator of this story is keen to inform us that Mordechai is a Benjaminite (Esther 2.5) and Haman is an Agagite (Esther 3.1, 10; 8.3, 5; 9.24). These are not merely narratival asides, rather these descriptions explain the reason for the hostility between the two in the story. This is especially true with regard to Haman: why does the narrator care to remind us that Haman is an Agagite over and over again? This point serves to inform us of deep prejudices due to the ancestral feud between Saul and King Agag (1 Sam 15.1-35). Thus, the reason why Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman is not for pious reasons. It is partially explained by the ancestral feud, but additionally the context provides another reason: since Mordecai was the one who noticed the plot by Bightan and Teresh to kill the king (Esther 2.21) that eventually led to the promotion of Haman (Esther 3.1), Mordecai was likely jealous that he himself had not been promoted. What we have in this episode is an issue of respect, not piety.
3) The Festival of Purim
The third issue is the Festival of Purim. Of course, the entire book of Esther is meant to explain the background of the festival of Purim, so it could be argued that in fact we have evidence of the liturgical life of Israel in this book. However, Purim is arguably the most secular festival of all within Israel’s calendar. As the Talmud records, “A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.'” (Meg. 7b).
4) “From Another Place”
The last issue, and the most important, is the reference to “Another Place” in Esther 4.13-14. In this context Mordechai has just learned of Haman’s plot and is imploring Esther to beseech the King. Esther reminds Mordechai that death will come to anyone who enters the presence of the King unsummoned (Esther 4.11). After this Mordechai reminds Esther that since this plot is directed towards the Jews she is included in this plight as well (Esther 4.13). What Mordechai says next in verse 14 is crucial for this whole discussion. Here is how it reads in the ESV:
“For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4.14)
Many look to “another place” (ממקום אחר) as a veiled reference to God. Yet Mordechai’s words are most likely not a promise but a question: “if you keep silent at this time will relief and deliverance rise for the Jews from another place?”. Taking the text this way demonstrates that rather than expressing faith in God’s sovereignty to deliver his people whether Esther chooses to act at this moment or not, Mordechai is threatening Esther by implicitly denying that deliverance could come from any other agent. Unless this reading is correct, there is a major problem with the very next line from Mordecai, which states, “you and your father’s house will be destroyed.” Since Mordecai is all that remains from Esther’s father’s house (cf. Esther 2.7, 15, 20; 8.1), this sentence would mean that Esther and Mordecai will die if Esther keeps quiet, yet deliverance will come the Jews from another place. This, of course, does not make good sense. Yet, if we take Mordecai’s words to be a rhetorical question implying a negative answer, then the death of Esther and her father’s house (i.e. Mordecai) is dependent on Esther’s inactivity . This keeps the imminent problem in view without imposing an additional threat.