The story of Esther, where sacred and secular history meetWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Poor Esther. She may have risen from humble roots to become queen of one of the greatest empires in history. She may have saved the entire Jewish people from extermination at the hands of a powerful despot bent on genocide. And yet, her story’s place in the canon of Scripture has been questioned more than any other by Christian and Jewish scholars, as well as by skeptics to whom it presumably shouldn’t matter.
There are reasons for this, of course. The book of Esther never once mentions God. It doesn’t use religious language or imagery, nor does it offer any theological comment on the events it records. Instead, it focuses on the courage and ingenuity (and sometimes fallible motives) of Esther and her cousin Mordecai as they effect the rescue of their people.
But there’s another reason Esther often gets the short end of the canonical stick. As a rule, a lot of Christians as well as Jews (plus some of those curiously interested skeptics) like to divide history into two categories, sacred and secular. Events recorded in the Bible are sacred history, and those outside, secular history.
The story of Esther, however, doesn’t fit too neatly into that paradigm. It straddles the categories, blurs the lines between them. In fact, it suggests that the categories don’t exist at all, that there’s only one history – and that God is sovereign over it.
Esther and the unseen hand of God
Esther takes place during the Jewish exile, roughly halfway between the earlier return of the Jews under Zerubbabel and the later returns under Ezra and Nehemiah. Persia has replaced Babylon as the chief imperial superpower of the ancient world. The Persian king, Ahasuerus, is on the hunt for a new wife and institutes a nationwide search for pretty young women to fill his harem. Esther, a young Jewish woman living in the Persian capital of Susa, is culled in the search, catches the king’s eye, and is chosen as the new queen.
In the meantime, her older cousin (and surrogate father) Mordecai sticks close to the royal palace to watch over Esther. He instructs his cousin to tell no one she’s Jewish, not even her new husband the king. Mordecai also uncovers a plot to assassinate Ahasuerus, which brings him to the attention of the king’s viceroy, Haman. As a Jew, Mordecai refuses to bow down and pay homage to Haman. In response, the enraged royal official persuades the king to allow him to issue an edict calling for the execution of all Jews within the empire.
After some urging from Mordecai, Esther undertakes the risky venture of using her position as queen to save her people. She asks the king to invite Haman to a pair of private dinner parties on successive nights. Between the two parties, the king has insomnia and asks for the royal records to be read to him, from which he discovers Mordecai’s role in saving his life earlier. At the second party, Esther reveals her Jewish roots and denounces Haman for his genocidal plot against her people. In his fury, Ahasuerus orders Haman to be hanged, gives all his holdings to Esther and his office of viceroy to Mordecai.
Esther and Mordecai then issue another edict allowing the Jews throughout the empire to arm and defend themselves against those who were going to kill them. The Jewish people are thus saved, and Esther and Mordecai institute the feast of Purim to commemorate the occasion.
The entire account makes no mention of divine agency, highlighting instead the heroism of Esther and Mordecai, as well as the ethnic (rather than religious) solidarity of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, with its dramatic reversals, apparent coincidences and perfectly timed events, it’s not hard to see a divine hand operating behind the scenes. It’s this subtext that earns Esther its place in the canon of Scripture: God not only works through direct miraculous intervention, but also indirectly through regular human affairs.
Esther gets a makeover
During her time in the harem of Ahasuerus, Esther was given a year-long spa treatment, a beauty regimen to make her presentable before the king. In similar fashion, her entire story was given a theological makeover, about two or three hundred years after the fact. An unknown Hellenistic Jewish author (or group of authors) apparently felt the book wasn’t spiritual enough. To that end, they wrote some additions in Greek to the original Hebrew text of Esther, to church it up a bit. They put prayers in the mouths of Mordecai and Esther, and also added numerous direct references to God working through the events of the book.
These additions to Esther can be found in the Apocrypha, the collection of intertestamental writings appended to certain translations of the Bible. However, from the earliest times, the majority of Jewish and Christian scholars have recognized these amendments for what they are, the work of a later hand with a specific agenda in view, and not an integral part of the original inspired text of Esther.
While the motive behind such a revisionist enterprise may be understandable, it is in fact self-defeating. In trying to spiritualize Esther, it only serves to undercut the story’s underlying message: God works through any and all means, both ordinary and extraordinary. He doesn’t require human intervention to make His activities appear more holy.
Esther and the ancient Greeks
Esther herself had nothing to do with the ancient Greeks, but her royal husband Ahasuerus – better known outside the Bible as Xerxes I – was a different story altogether. Xerxes ruled the Achaemenid Persian Empire at its greatest extent, stretching from India across Central Asia, up into Eastern Europe around the Black Sea, down through the Levant and into North Africa along the Nile. It was one of the largest contiguous land empires in history, certainly the largest by far up to that time. And Xerxes was looking to expand it by adding Greece to his huge collection of 127 conquered provinces.
The Greeks, however, had different ideas. A small Greek contingent led by the Spartans held off the massive Persian army at Thermopylae, inflicting disproportionately heavy losses before succumbing to the weight of numbers. In so doing, they indirectly bought the Athenians and their allies more time to retreat and avoid annihilation, before they managed to regroup and destroy the Persian navy at Salamis, and then the Persian army at Plataea. Having suffered the worst reversal in his expansionist career, Xerxes retreated to Persia, angry and sullen.
It is against this backdrop that the story of Esther unfolds. The Greek historian Herodotus, the primary ancient source for the Greco-Persian Wars, offers some fascinating contrasts and parallels to the account in Esther. He claims, for instance, that it was Xerxes’ humiliation at the hands of the Greeks that drove him to instigate his infamous harem search.
In any case, the extra-Biblical events surrounding Esther form one of the most decisive turning points in history. Without the Greek triumph, Western civilization as we know it would likely not exist. While Persia continued to flourish in Xerxes’ (and Esther’s) lifetime, his defeat by the Greeks was a watershed moment. From that point on, the Achaemenid Empire began its slow decline over the next 150 years, before finally being conquered by Alexander the Great. Although short-lived, Alexander’s empire was even larger than Persia at its greatest extent. It introduced Greek culture, ideas and language to much of the ancient world, creating the foundation for the eventual spread of the Gospel to the farthest corners of the Roman Empire and beyond.
Esther saves (more than) the day
Much like the victory of the Greeks over Xerxes, Esther’s courageous and persuasive influence over the king constitutes a major historical turning point. She did indeed save the Jewish people from wholesale extermination, thereby allowing many of them to return to the land of Judah a generation later, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah.
But she accomplished far more than that. Through her actions, she not only preserved the Jewish nation in general. She also preserved the royal line in particular, from whom the Messiah would come. From a human perspective, she made it possible for Jesus to enter the world nearly five centuries later and save His people from their sins. And she did it all without any apparent regard for Jerusalem or the temple or fulfilled prophecy, or in fact for any consideration beyond the immediate need to rescue herself and her people from destruction.
This has made more than a few Jews and Christians uncomfortable through the ages. Some have tried to spiritualize her story, putting prayers in her mouth that she likely never spoke. Others have condemned her (and Mordecai) for their assimilation of Persian culture, their reluctance to declare their Jewish faith, and their sketchy motives which at times bordered on vindictiveness.
All of that aside, the story of Esther is a dramatic testimony to the fact that God uses real, complex individuals in non-religious contexts to accomplish His purposes, with no spiritual spin required. Taken together, the Scriptural record of Esther and its historical backdrop provide a pair of narrative stepping stones for God’s plan to bring His Son into the world and to spread the good news about Him.
Due to its style and content, Esther forms a bridge between so-called secular and sacred history. It stands at the crossroads between God’s explicit acts recorded in Scripture and His implicit acts through human affairs and world events. It smudges the boundaries between the two, and in fact obliterates them. Esther’s unique rhetorical voice not only persuades her husband of the rightness of her cause. It also persuades her readers that history is cut from one cloth, shaped and woven by God to accomplish his perfect will in the real world of women and men, for their good and His glory.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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