The Hiddenness of God: Reading Esther Theologically
Esther’s story is breathtaking and memorable, full of court intrigue, murderous plots, and sweet vengeance turned upon those who would attempt to destroy God’s people. Mordecai’s statement that Esther had become queen of Persia “for such a time as this” has made its way into our cultural vernacular as shorthand for encouraging people to seize the opportunities before them. “Haman’s gallows,” likewise, is used to warn people against devising destruction for others. And the book ends with the inaugural festival of Purim, which is still celebrated each year by Jews around the world.
A Book Teeming with Moral Ambiguity
Such an approach can help modern readers see that God remains active and faithful in our current context just as he was in the biblical context, for right here in the Bible we read of his hidden work among his people in exile. Click To Tweet Apart from Esther’s compelling storyline and how it had influenced modern culture through its language, imagery, and festivals, readers today may scratch their heads at why it’s in the biblical canon. The book never mentions Yahweh, Israel’s covenant God, it takes place in a foreign land, and it features people who didn’t—for whatever reason—return to Canaan when Cyrus issued his decree allowing the Jewish people to go back home. Further, the book teems with moral ambiguity: Esther joins the harem of a Gentile king, which is problematic enough, but readers are left to wonder whether it was of her own accord or not, and the story opens with a raucous, drunken feast and a king who objectifies his own wife then throws her out of the court when she refuses to sexualize her body for the pleasure of others.
Haman is clearly the bad guy in the story, but the Jewish violence against their enemies strikes an uncomfortable tone, even if their plunder is defensive in nature. After all, Esther asks for a second day to destroy the enemies of her people after five hundred were killed on the first day. Perhaps all of this is why one scholar has said, “If the book fills any useful place in the Bible, it is as a picture of unredeemed humanity.” At the very least, these features of Esther warn against reading the Old Testament without a Christological lens.
There are several ways we could approach reading this book theologically, but in this article I want to focus on only one way: acknowledging God’s sovereign, guiding presence even when he appears absent and in a narrative lacking clear devotion to Yahweh. Such an approach can help modern readers see that God remains active and faithful in our current context just as he was in the biblical context, for right here in the Bible we read of his hidden work among his people in exile.
Sovereignty in the Midst of Daily Life
Outside of Esther, we’ve come to expect God’s presence in overt ways, like the prophetic “Thus says the Lord,” the cloud by day and fire by night in Exodus, and the palpable presence of the Spirit in Acts. But God doesn’t show up in Esther the way we’ve come to expect from the rest of the Bible. There are no miracles, no divine manifestations, no voice speaking through a prophet or a burning bush. There’s just the quotidian life of a man called Mordecai, his sworn enemy, and the bold, brave work of his cousin-turned-daughter. If we take the book at face value, these folks are simply going about their lives and trying to make the best decisions they can under the circumstances (except Haman, of course).
However, both the number and nature of “coincidences” in the book of Esther suggest that something deeper is going on. The people in the book are not simply going about their days in exile, far removed from God’s purview. No, these people, though distant in space and time from the place of God’s dwelling during the Old Testament, live under the guidance and sovereignty of almighty God. It turns out that Solomon was right—God isn’t restricted to any place on Earth (1 Kgs 8:27). Though his people are living in Persia, God is there with them, placing Mordecai in just the right position to hear of a plot against the king’s life, giving Esther access to the king of Persia, and moving Ahasuerus’s heart to favor this one woman among all the others in his harem and to grant her desire to rescue her people, the Jews. Even though God’s people are in exile as a punishment for their religious ritualism and idolatry, God is still present among them and working to protect them. You see, the focus of Esther is not whether or not God’s people compromised morally; what matters is that God is faithful to his covenant that he made with them to be their God. Reading Esther theologically means recognizing God’s work and presence even when it is not overt. Click To Tweet
Scholar Karen Jobes says that “The Esther story is an example of how at one crucial moment in history the covenant promises God had made were fulfilled, not by his miraculous intervention, but through completely ordinary events.” Reading Esther theologically means recognizing God’s work and presence even when it is not overt. And seeing God’s activity in this way in Esther encourages Christians today, for we also live in exile and ambiguity, and not many of us are like Daniel, with his spine of steel, or Moses, with his meetings with God on Mt. Sinai. Esther assures us, though, that God’s faithfulness has nothing to do with us and everything to do with him. We may wonder if God is present among us like in the days of the patriarchs or the prophets, and Esther assures us that he is.
 L. Browne, “Esther,” in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, ed. M. Black and H. H. Rowley (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962), 381.
 Karen H. Jobes, Esther, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 41.