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Yesterday marked the Jewish holiday of Purim, when Jews gather together for festive meals and merriment, exchange gifts, and most centrally, assemble in synagogue for mirthful public readings of the Book of Esther—all in celebration of the salvation recounted therein. A quick synopsis of the somewhat elliptical storyline: Ahaseurus, the king of Persia, is convinced by his advisor Haman to issue an edict licensing the mass slaughter of all the kingdom’s Jews. Meanwhile and unrelatedly, Esther the Jewess has been chosen as Ahaseurus’s queen, and her guardian Mordechai has won the king’s favor by foiling an assassination plot. Together, the two manage to leverage their positions in engineering a reversal of the king’s edict; the Jews are saved from slaughter, wicked Haman is hanged, and the people rejoiced.
Esther is a remarkable book in the context of Scripture, precisely because it hardly seems scriptural—there are no overtly religious themes, no miracles, sermons, or prayers. God's name is not mentioned even once in all of Esther, the only book in the Bible of which this is true. And indeed, Esther’s status as part of the biblical canon was still being debated by the Talmudic rabbis as late as the 4th century a.d.—the better part of a millennium after its composition.
And yet, the Book of Esther is in the end a member in good standing of the biblical canon, a fact which demands interpretation. Moreover, consider the following rabbinic tradition recorded by Maimonides:
All prophetic books and sacred writings will be nullified during the days of the Messiah except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist just like the five books of the Torah and the laws of the Oral Torah that will never cease. Although ancient troubles will be remembered no longer…the days of Purim will not be abolished, as it is written: “These days of Purim shall never be repealed among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never cease from their descendants” (Esther 9:28).
Apparently, Esther is not only a legitimate part of Scripture, but is an essential, core element thereof, such that when all other books are abolished it alone will maintain its sacred status. Why is this book different from all other books?
The world of the Hebrew Bible is one where God is openly engaged and entangled in the affairs of men. Good behavior is rewarded and wickedness punished, and it is the dynamics of divine covenantal interaction, faithfully conveyed to God’s people by the appointed prophet, which serve as the standard frame for historical interpretation. Faced with crisis physical or spiritual, the people could always reliably turn to the prophet for divine guidance and support.
The events of Esther, however, transpire during the waning twilight of the prophetic period, when the freshly exiled people of Israel first confronted the stark reality of life without God’s voice. Many, to be sure, despaired—“God has abandoned me” says Zion in Isaiah 49—but those with sufficient faith and courage rose to the challenge of making sense of covenantal history in a world to which God’s face was hidden. With the looming threat of extermination, rather than passively await a miracle the people rose to engineer their own salvation. No plagues, no splitting seas, no fire from on high, and no oracular voice; Esther and Mordechai had on hand only the gritty implements of provincial politics and a steady faith in God’s unfailing providence.
The story’s climax finds Queen Esther in a nervously indecisive state: She understands the necessity of interceding with the king, but fears doing so, because entering the king’s inner court without invitation was an offense punishable by death; securing only a mere chance at salvation meant subjecting her life to the roulette wheel of the king’s whim. It is Mordechai’s pointed and powerful words that provide the requisite resolve:
If you remain quiet now, relief and deliverance for the Jews will come from elsewhere, and you and your father’s house shall perish. And who knows if it was not for just such a time as this that you became queen? (Esther 4:14)
Mordechai does not offer a confident forecast or any assurance of success, but only the simple imperative of covenantal fidelity; Esther’s choice was between commitment to God and his people through thick and thin, or else allowing her and her family’s identity to dissipate quietly into the anonymous winds of history. Lacking the light of prophecy, all Mordechai could muster in regard the particulars was a cautious “who knows.” But of the basic reality of God’s enduring promise he was quite sure, and it was that faith which he communicated to Esther and which ultimately flowered into salvation.
The Book of Esther, then, is indeed exceptional in the context of Scripture, but exceptional in a way that proves the rule: In the waning twilight of the prophetic age, God’s presence and governance would no longer be transparent to the eye, but they are no less real for the wear. Readily apparent or not, the core import of the Hebrew Bible–God’s covenant with Israel–lives on uncompromised.
Alex Ozar is a junior fellow of First Things.
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