Esther is a book of the Bible that does not refer to God explicitly even once. On the surface, it is a story about political intrigue, sex, and violence. Yet the rabbis of the Talmud lavish praise on this work, asserting that there are two portions of Scripture that would never cease to be relevant to mankind: the books of Moses and the Book of Esther. And while they taught that the other parts of the Bible could bring an understanding of piety, wisdom, consolation, and greatness, it was only the Book of Esther that they thought offered the key to the miraculous.
How can a work in which God is not mentioned, and in which every turn of its dense plot is the result of human decision and human action, hold the key to understanding the miraculous? This is not merely an exegetical or theological question. Contemporary readers need to reckon with the miraculous character of the Book of Esther, for it illuminates the possibilities and limits of political action, possibilities and limits we too often neglect.
The basic outline of the Esther story is familiar. It takes place in the court of Ahashverosh, king of Persia (apparently Xerxes I, who ruled Persia from 486 to 465 bc). Fearing for his safety after a failed attempt on his life, the king appoints a Hitler-like adviser, Haman, to be prime minister, and orders all of Persia to prostrate itself before his absolute rule. When a Jewish official, Mordechai, refuses to accept this decision, Haman persuades the king to exterminate all the Jews of the empire.
What can a scattered and apparently powerless people do in the face of such evil? The Bible offers us an answer in the story of Esther, Mordechai’s orphaned cousin, whom he has raised from childhood. Mordechai teaches Esther how to win favor in the court, and, with determination and skill, she succeeds in gaining the attention of the king and becoming queen of Persia. But when the decree to murder her people is announced, Esther faces a bone-chilling demand from her cousin Mordechai: He tells her that she must go in to Ahashverosh and demand that he repeal his bloodthirsty policy against the Jews.
Esther is no fool, and she knows that, despite being queen, her leverage is limited. She is well-liked by the king, but a direct assault on a decree that has already been issued means pitting her own untried credibility in matters of policy against the settled opinion of both the king and his prime minister. Moreover, she has not been called to see Ahashverosh for a month, and to approach him unbidden is a crime whose punishment is death—unless the king chooses to forgive her unsolicited approach. Finally, it is impossible to guess how the king will react upon discovering that his queen is a Jew. (She is known by the Persian name of Esther, meaning “star,” having kept her Hebrew name, Hadasa, secret). But realizing that she has no choice, Esther asks Mordechai and the Jews of the capital to fast for her for the next three days. “Then I will go in to the king, though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (4:16).
Other than fasting, what does Esther do over these next three days? The Septuagint includes a prayer of Esther’s that does not appear in the Hebrew Bible (it appears in some Christian Bibles), and it is likely that she did pray for her life and for her people. But Esther also spends these days working out a plan for how she can use Ahashverosh’s fear of conspiracies and his attachment to her to drive a wedge between the king and his anti-Semitic prime minister.
On the third day, looking haggard and pale from fasting, she approaches the king. His pity and concern aroused, Ahashverosh permits her to approach him and asks what he can do to help her. Esther responds with an unusual request: “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet that I have prepared for him” (5:4).
Behind a superficial innocence, Esther’s intention is to make a highly unusual, even disturbing request: For why should the queen, who has not had the benefit of seeing her husband for a month, wish to invite him to a cozy, romantic dinner for three? Moreover, she invites “the king and Haman to the banquet she has prepared for him.” Which of her guests is the “him”? Him whom?
Within hours, the three of them are together, the king again inquiring as to what he can do for Esther. Has Ahashverosh understood the implications of what the queen has said to him, of the event taking place before his eyes? He shows no signs of having understood anything. He just sits there drinking, laughing, opining, as though all is well. When the moment comes, and the fate of her stratagem and her people hangs in the balance, Esther feels she cannot risk the next step. The vizier’s favor with the king is still as it was, far too great for her to move against him. She determines to try again to arouse the king’s suspicions. Another banquet, the same message, this time with one measure less subtlety: “Let the king and Haman come to the banquet I will prepare for them” (5:7).
For them, for them.
This bizarre locution of the queen’s is not lost on Haman, who immediately feels the power of the wine, the power of the queen’s words. Drunk on what she has said, he immediately runs to his friends and preens: “Even Esther the queen brought no one with the king to the banquet she had prepared other than myself, and tomorrow, too, I am invited to her, along with the king” (5:12). But will the king perceive the threat against him that Esther has contrived? Either the night will do its work, or she will have to confront Haman as he is, standing against her with the full backing of the king and all the might of the empire still tightly in his hands.
Then it happens: “That night the king could not sleep” (6:1). As he lies in bed, turning the day’s events over in his mind, the queen’s provocation finally finds its mark. What was the purpose of the banquet? Why had she so desired the presence of the prime minister? Had she indeed said, as he remembered, that the banquet was intended to honor both of them? If she so much wanted to see the prime minister, perhaps she had an interest in him—or he in her. And if this was the case, perhaps here was another conspiracy on his life? Could this be the purpose of the banquet? But Haman would never dream of taking the place of his king, who had raised him to such prominence. Or would he?
He orders that his servants bring the chronicles to be read in the hope of finding some hint of Haman’s treachery against him, some hint of someone who can protect him. They begin to read, returning to the attempt on his life that triggered Haman’s installation: “There it was found how Mordechai had denounced Bigtana and Teresh, two of the king’s chamberlains of the guardians of the threshold, who had plotted to lay their hands on Ahashverosh the king. The king said: ‘What honor or promotion has been conferred upon Mordechai for this?’ And the king’s youths, who attended him, replied: ‘Not a thing has been done for him’” (6:2–3).
In reviewing the events leading to Haman’s rise, the king begins to piece together the case against the vizier. Was it not Haman who had informed him that it was “of no benefit for the king to keep the Jews” (3:8), when here it was written that the Jew had in fact been responsible for saving his life? Perhaps Haman had even been involved in the plot that the Jews had succeeded in foiling? And then there is Haman’s bizarre mania for control, which was what had led Ahashverosh to elevate him in the first place—but which has now empowered Haman to lay a hand on his signet, and on his banquets with his wife, and on who knows what else.
With the dawn, Haman, who has again been provoked by Mordechai, appears before the king with the intention of having the Jew executed. But while Haman seeks to consolidate his own power, the king has shifted into a contrary frame of mind, and is weighing whether the prime minister would not benefit from being taken down a notch or two. The king’s agenda is no longer Haman’s, and he now moves to humiliate Haman by having him publicly proclaim Mordechai’s loyalty in the streets of the city. Power is shifting.
Haman is brought to the queen’s second banquet, and there the king for the third time asks his queen what he can do for her. This time, there is no hesitation in the queen’s voice. She makes her appeal in words she has rehearsed a hundred times: “If I have found favor in your eyes, my king, and if it please the king, let my life be given to me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be annihilated, to be killed and to be destroyed. Had we been sold as slaves and serving women, I would have remained silent, for this suffering would not have been worth the injury to the king.”
Ahashverosh asks: “Who is it, and which is he, who has inclined his heart to do so?”
To which Esther answers: “A tormentor and an enemy—this evil Haman!” (7.3–6)
Ahashverosh seethes, the temperature rises. Livid, he storms out into the garden. He has lost all control of the situation. His wife, it transpires, is a Jewess. And Haman—did he know this?—has tried to murder her. How can he rule now? Whom is he to rely on? Surely the prime minister is dangerous, is insane. In his lust to rule, he would murder the queen.
The king, obsessed with the need to “rule in his own house” (1:22) has discovered that he has again lost control of his wife, this time to his own prime minister. Esther’s stratagem, her arousal of the king’s jealousy and suspicions, has therefore brought appearances into line with the truth. True, Haman’s was not a sexual assault on the queen. But it was close enough, for in his decree against the Jews, Haman has reached into the palace itself to lay claim to the life of the king’s own wife.
And now the king understands this as well. As he returns from the garden, he is confronted with a scene that dramatizes Haman’s usurpation of the king’s prerogatives. “The king returned from the palace garden . . . and found Haman fallen upon the divan on which Esther lay. And the king said: ‘And would he even conquer the queen with me in the house?’” (7:8)
In what follows, Esther uses the sudden political shift in her favor to bring about Haman’s execution and to have Mordechai appointed prime minister. After two more months of excruciating uncertainty, she is at last able to persuade Ahashverosh to empower the Jews to organize and defend themselves against the approaching decree of annihilation, which has not been rescinded. Finally, on the day that Haman had appointed for their destruction, Jewish arms, supported by the political leadership throughout the empire, succeed in eliminating “those who sought to harm them, and no man could stand before them” (9:2).
The young queen has saved her people.
Many commentators try to “save” the Book of Esther as a religious work by reading it as a story full of coincidences. On such a reading, for example, Ahashverosh “just happened” to be unable to sleep the night after Esther’s banquet, and he starts rethinking the story of the conspiracy to assassinate him because his servants “just happened” to try to put him to sleep by reading the chronicles to him. These coincidences are then attributed to God’s pulling strings behind the scenes, on the theory that “a coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.” Read this way, Esther becomes a book full of little miracles, and there is no problem seeing God in it.
But as we’ve seen, the text itself tells a different story. It reads as though Esther herself caused all these things to happen through her own manipulation of the king and his prime minister. Events turn on her courage and resourcefulness, as the rabbinic commentaries point out. If this is right, then we can only begin understanding what the Esther story has to do with miracles once we recognize that the real miracle in this story is not some coincidental twist in the plot. The real miracle in the story is Esther herself. In saving the Jews from destruction, she takes over the role that was played, for instance, by the east wind that came to part the waters of the Red Sea in the story of the exodus from Egypt. Of course, Esther’s influence on events stems from her own human freedom and initiative. Yet on the biblical view, the more fully Esther inhabits her capacity as an independent political agent capable of influencing human affairs, the more fully God’s will is brought to bear in history.
There is in fact plenty of textual evidence that making the queen the miracle is what the narrative in Esther is up to. Think again about the name that Mordechai gives his adopted daughter when she enters into the palace to serve the Persian king. The name Esther, derived from the Persian word stara, meaning “star,” is meant to appeal to the followers of astrology in the fortress of Susa, so that Esther may enter easily into the world of the palace and move about in it without friction.
But this is not all there is to this name. It is a property of the name Esther that, although of Persian origin, when transliterated into Hebrew characters it bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Hebrew word astir, meaning “I will conceal” or “I will hide.” This can be read as referring to Mordechai’s strategy of concealing the fact that he and Esther are Jews. But beyond this, the word astir is also unmistakably associated with the hiddenness of Israel’s God, who in Deuteronomy tells Israel that if they turn away, they will lose touch with God’s presence, for “I will surely hide [astir] my face on that day” (Deut. 31:18). The fact that Esther’s name is constructed in this way suggests an interplay between human agency and divine purpose. God’s strong hand and outstretched arm are at work in Esther, but in a hidden way in her intelligence, courage, and decisiveness.
There is one sentence in Esther that can arguably be said to serve as the thesis around which the entire book is built. This is Mordechai’s famous statement to Esther, demanding that the queen desist from the accumulation of favor in the court, and throw whatever favor she has gained onto the political balance in an attempt to steer the course of the empire: “Who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you came into royalty?” (4:14)
The last Hebrew phrase in this sentence, higa’at lamalchut (“that you came into royalty”), is in fact rather peculiar. The word lamalchut literally means that Esther “came into kingship” or that she “came into the kingdom.” This expression is parallel to the one that the narrative uses when Esther goes in to see the king, when she “dressed in royalty” (Hebrew, vatilbash malchut) (5:1), which literally means that she “clothed herself in kingship,” or that she “clothed herself in the kingdom.” Whose kingship is she clothing herself with in this passage? Which kingdom is it that she has come into now?
On the surface, we see that Esther has come into royalty by becoming queen to the Persian king, Ahashverosh. But hidden in these passages is another meaning, as the rabbis recognized (Talmud Megila 15a; Esther Raba 3:10). By coming into worldly royalty, Esther has placed herself in a position to be able to act in the service of another king entirely. The deeper meaning of Mordechai’s question is this: Who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you have come into the service of the true King, of God?
A common misreading of Hebrew Scripture assumes that God’s power and human initiative are at odds with each other. In the political realm, this means that since the God of Israel is all-powerful, there’s no room for independent human political initiative. For example, in his book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, the eminent political philosopher Michael Walzer proposes that “The idea that any political leader could, on his own, shape the destiny of Israel is not to be found in the prophets or the histories. Israel’s destiny was firmly in God’s hands. . . . In principle, God doesn’t need help.”
Walzer is an important political thinker, and he has devoted much time and effort to studying the Bible and the teachings of the rabbis. How strange it is, then, to read Walzer’s conclusion, that “In principle, God doesn’t need help.”
Walzer’s assumptions reduce the Bible to an anti-political text, in which human beings are depicted as pawns entirely overshadowed by an all-powerful God, incapable of contributing much of significance through their own political initiative and insight. In this way, Walzer turns the Bible into a grand either-or, one far too many take for granted: either God’s redemptive action in the world or ours. A religious person, he believes, will choose God’s acts over human ones, thus reducing human responsibility for political thought and action to a minimum, whereas a nonreligious individual can free himself from God’s shadow and finally step out into the light of genuine human responsibility for the world.
But the God of the Bible does not cast any shadows. The prophets and scholars who composed Hebrew Scripture did not conceive of human political initiative as intrinsically distinct from God’s initiative and action. On the contrary, in the Bible it is often the independent initiative and action of human beings that constitute God’s actions.
This is true throughout the Bible. There can be no Exodus without the leadership of Moses, no calling Israel to return to God without Jeremiah. Just such a co-occurrence of divine and human action serves as the central focus and teaching of the Book of Esther—which Jews will read in March on the festival of Purim, the Feast of Esther. Esther is a biblical text that purposely sets all talk of God aside so that we may think clearly about the proper place of political initiative and action in relation to God’s larger purposes, including the flourishing of the Jewish people, allied to him in the covenant of Abraham. In turning aside from the road of complacency and cowardice, in facing down the fear that grips her, in inventing and going forward with an audacious plan of her own devising, and in ultimately pulling it all off, Esther’s own choices and actions—undertaken without any explicit command or instruction from God—make her the principal instrument of God’s will in this story. In Esther, not behind, above, or in contrast to her, we see God’s miraculous action in history, an action that aims toward the redemption of his people, and through them the redemption of the world.
The fact that God’s initiatives in history can arise through our endeavors explains why we find, throughout Scripture, God’s openness to man’s initiative, ingenuity, and strength—indeed, his longing for it, his cry and his call for it. “Why did I come, and find no man?” God says to the prophet in Isaiah. “I called out, but no one answered me” (Isa. 50:2). Every time the prophet writes in this way, telling us that God despairs over the actions of men, or that he is angry, ashamed, or filled with regret over what human beings have made of this world, the intention is to awaken us to the understanding that, in the view of the prophets, God needs our help.
Like everything else that is said concerning God, this talk of God’s needs is of course metaphorical. But it is no less central to biblical teaching for that. The entire concept of a covenant or alliance between God and man is constructed around the metaphor of a king in need of the active assistance of his ministers, generals, and allies. The character of God’s project with his people thus requires their participation from its inception. An effective royal administration cannot depend upon the king’s minute involvement in every matter of importance. It requires skillful and sometimes bold servants who take independent initiative to advance the king’s interests. So, also, the covenantal vision of God’s action in the world requires our initiative, for we are, as it were, his subordinates. God needs human action to bring his justice in the world, just as a human king needs just and successful action on the part of his governors and ministers.
This idea of God acting by means of a covenant with human actors, one that delegates to us a great deal of responsibility, has important implications for contemporary political culture. Thinkers like Walzer are right to emphasize that we need to encourage a culture of political responsibility, not recklessness and extremism. Nor should we fall victim to their opposites, which are cynicism and inaction born of the conviction that nothing can be done. Where they go wrong is in their assumptions about the theological underpinnings of a culture of political responsibility.
The fact that God needs our help and has entered into an alliance or covenant with us means that we are responsible for our world, just as surely as agreeing to an alliance or an appointment under a human ruler means that we undertake personal responsibility—to the utmost of our abilities—for bringing success to his efforts to bring his law and justice to his realm. Moreover, to think of our actions as undertaken in the service of God expands the horizon of responsibility. Esther is a story of national loyalty. She does heroic deeds to save her people. But in the context of the Jewish covenant, this national loyalty also has a broader significance as part of the Jewish people’s role in the redemption of God’s world. Surely we need just such a view today, one that recognizes our profound loyalty to our own people but also reaches toward a universal justice rather than toggling back and forth between the false dichotomy of narrow tribalism or abstract universalism.
There is a further advantage to a view of political responsibility based on a biblical understanding of divine authority and human action. Walzer is, in a sense, typical of thinkers who seek to free the political realm from God. He presumes that the future is in our hands, and he thinks this awareness will heighten our sense of political responsibility. This may not be the case, however. If we see ourselves as the sole responsible agents in human history, it’s only too easy to imagine that we have taken God’s place. This is the mistake of so many utopians and terrorists, who persuade themselves that if only human initiative could be pursued with sufficient energy, the entire fabric of the world could be reformed once and for all, here and now. And when such initiatives fail, as they always do, those who survive them, having witnessed firsthand the true limits of human initiative and action, often fall into cynicism or despair.
Against the political fanaticism that imagines human actions capable of near divine power, and a political cynicism that despairs of politics altogether, Scripture offers us an alternative. On the biblical view, we can and must do everything in our power. This is the meaning of the covenant we have made with God. But in accepting this covenant, we also recognize that there are limits to what any human effort can achieve. “Who knows,” Mordechai tells Esther, “whether it was not for such a time as this that you came into royalty?” And this Who knows? means that we just don’t know: We do not know whether our best endeavors will, in the end, be those of Moses, who succeeds in awakening God from his silence and bringing redemption to Israel, or those of Joseph, whose failure to deliver Israel dooms his people to centuries of bitter slavery. It is this utter ignorance about whether we will succeed in the end, or whether political redemption will only come centuries from now, that brings recognition of God’s presence in our political lives today. Our contribution to the tapestry of history as it will appear a few years from now may turn out to be important or insignificant. But in any case, the making of the tapestry as a whole is not in our hands.
Living in Jerusalem, I have long been convinced that we need to recover the biblical view of human action in public affairs if we’re to restore a culture of political responsibility. The Labor Zionism that played such an important role in the birth of the State of Israel was no conventional secular movement, as is so often supposed. Its leadership, as epitomized by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had all been born into Orthodox Jewish homes. And despite their notorious disinterest in the finer points of traditional Jewish observance, they remained in the grip of an incandescent and explicitly biblical faith with regard to Israel’s restoration to its land and the Jewish people’s future role among the nations. With the decline of Labor Zionism in the 1970s, Israel traded in this unorthodox biblicism for a more mundane political culture modeled after European social liberalism—a culture designed, above all, to free the State of Israel from its historic entanglements with the Hebrew Bible and the God of Israel.
But this vision of a quiet, Denmark-like Israel has proven to be ephemeral, wobbling between unrealistic hopes for the rapid emergence of a peaceful Middle East and a decline into an unappealing cynicism. Speaking before young Israeli audiences, it is evident that they are in motion, and that their inclination is toward a life that seeks a Jewish future in a closer connection with the Jewish past. As the celebration of Purim draws near, I can recommend nothing better to them than to reconsider the kind of human initiative and action that we see in the Book of Esther. Esther will throw everything she has—her courage, her loyalty, her intelligence, her beauty—into the political effort to save her people. And if she does everything right, her actions just might amount to a miracle, as God himself arises to act in history.
Yoram Hazony is president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. This essay was adapted from God and Politics in Esther, just released by Cambridge University Press.