Where is God in the book of Esther?

Reed (*1995) absolvierte seinen Bachelor in Theologie am Wheaton College (USA). Bevor er mit seinem Zweitstudium Jura beginnt, hilft er noch mehrere Monate einer befreundeten Missionarsfamilie, aus seiner Heimatgemeinde, in Indonesien.

The book of Esther opens up by depicting some very hard realities. A little girl named Esther has lost both of her parents. She is helpless in the world, but her older cousin Mordecai graciously takes her in and raises her as his own daughter. In spite of this praiseworthy act, a powerful king named Xerxes then comes and takes her away because he desires her for her beauty, along with dozens, hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of other young women throughout the empire. These women, taken from their families and now slaves in the king’s harem, are put through beauty treatments for an entire year in preparation for the time when they will spend the night with the king. Whoever pleases the king the most will become his queen. Yes, it is exactly as it sounds. The women were stolen away from their families, and then forced to take part in a beauty pageant and sex competition in order to please the king and to become his wife. All of this takes place because the King’s prior Queen named Vashti decided that she wouldn’t present herself to be ogled at by a group of drunken men. In response to her disobedience to an unjust command by King Xerxes, she was banished permanently from his presence and a new Queen was saught out. This led to the beauty pageant/sex competition.

The first two chapters in the book of Esther, where we learn of all of these events, don’t exactly match up with the way many of us understand God. Scripture is supposed to be a primary way of understanding God, but it is hard to look at these events and understand how our loving and good God can relate to them. How can God allow his Jewish daughter named Esther to experience these things during her life at the hand of a wicked King? How can he allow Mordecai, who has been doing his commandment to look after the fatherless, to have his adopted daughter taken away from him? And this is just Esther and her family. There were many other beautiful young women who were taken from their families too. How does God relate to them? How can God allow them to experience these things? What does the book of Esther tell us about God?

The short answer is that book of Esther tells us nothing about God. In fact, it is the only book in the bible where God is not mentioned. Ahhhh, now we understand. These evil things can happen because God isn’t actually involved. When we experience the death of a friend or family member, a person is sexually assaulted, a child is constantly bullied, money you worked hard for is stolen away, or a relationship ends because of unfaithfulness, it must be because God isn’t there. Is that the reason God was left out of the book of Esther, because he wasn’t present in these events? It can certainly seem this way in our lives when we are touched by pain and evil. If we do believe God is present, we can be left simply wondering: why God? How could you let this happen, do you even care about our pain? These are valid questions, but perhaps God is still working in our story, and he was still relating somehow to the people and events depicted in the book of Esther. Is he standing far off, allowing for whatever happens to happen? Or is he in the midst of the story, of our story, working his will through people and events everyday? We will take a look at some of these questions in this paper.

The reality of sin seen in the book of Esther, the fact that a queen can be banished for not flaunting her body, young women can be stolen from their families, a powerful king can use his power to force these women into a sex competition for his pleasure, and a girl can be left parentless, is a result of the fall found in Genesis 3. God desired that humanity would live within the boundaries that he gave to us, and those boundaries were for our good. Sin enters the world through humankind’s willful disobedience of God shown in the story of Adam and Eve with the snake. Furthermore, through continued repression of the truth through unrighteousness and failing to acknowledge God, God has given people up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:18-32) There is none who does good, no not one. (Romans 3:10) And the sin of others affects us, just as our sin affects ourselves and others.

These are hard things to understand, but the reality of life at this time is that God has given people the ability to act out their sinful desires. He has given people who don’t worship him, who reject him, over to their passions, and they are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of wrath that is coming. Eventually, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. For now though, God has given them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. God’s kindness is meant to lead them to repentance, but if they don’t repent, eventually judgement will come. And in the book of Esther, it is their sin that affects Esther, Mordecai, and all of the other girls who were taken, just as the sin of the Jewish people originally brought the exile upon them in the first place. God has allowed this because he has allowed people the ability to follow their own desires, and the actions of these people have negative consequences for those in the story in the first 2 chapters.

So, the presence of sin is everywhere, distorting and damaging the lives of those in the story, but where is the presence of God? How can he act in the presence of sin? We see an initial glimpse in Esther 2:20. Esther is said to be obedient to Mordecai, just as she was when she was brought up by him. Here is a subtle clue that Esther is one who follows the commands of God. She obeyed Mordecai, just as the Jews were told to obey their parents by God in the ten commandments. In the giving of the law to the nation of Israel, God has been preserving a holy people from the depravity of sin so that he could be their God and they could be his people. They would be a community of holiness spanning time and space. Esther and Mordecai are part of this community, a community who God brought into existence through the faith of the historical person of Abraham, saying they would be a blessing to the nations. A community who through Moses were given the law. They were told that if they obey God’s voice and keep his covenant, they would be his treasured possesion, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. So the Jews in the book of Esther exist within this covenant with God. It says that God will not take his lovingkindness from them, and that they will not be wiped out as a people but that they will have descendants. The covenant tells them that eventually, all the nations of the world will be blessed through them. While sin reigns in the world around them and God is not stopping it, he is sure to preserve them and to work through them to bless the nations.

So after all of these events, Esther finds herself as Queen of the Persian Empire, which is a position that while powerful in title, doesn’t carry a significant amount of decision making influence. Esther is still at the command of the King. But Esther does have the ear of the King, and when Mordecai discovers a plot to kill the King, he relays it to Esther who passes the news along to the King, giving Mordecai credit. The King’s life is saved and the conspirators are captured and killed.

From this point on, things go south for the Jewish people. Mordecai refuses to bow to the King’s right hand man Haman, perhaps the 2nd most powerful person in the Empire, and Haman decides he wants to have Mordecai killed. This however is not enough for Haman. Most likely because the Jews, at the command of God, have been enemies with his people the Agagites for centuries, Haman decides to use his power and influence with the king to wipe out the entire Jewish population in the empire. A decree is passed and the destruction of the Jews is set for a date about one year in the future.

So much has gone wrong in the beginning of this book. After great wickedness in the first 2 chapters, the 3rd chapter brings the threat of genocide for the entirety of the Jewish population in the Persian Empire, simply because one powerful person took offense to a stubborn Jew. There is so much senseless evil and needless suffering. So what do the Jews do at a time like this, when their God has seen these events and allowed them to happen? They don’t sit back smugly knowing that God will protect them. They mourn and weep and fast, and many lay in sackcloth and ashes. This decree of death is very real for them. Yet they show great faith. Mordecai, who is depicted blamelessly throughout the book, calls on Esther to plead to the King on the Jews behalf, yet has faith that even if she doesn’t act God will still fulfill his promise and “deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place.” Mordecai knows that God will somehow turn these events into salvation for the Jews. He will not let them perish. Esther in turn has the faith to petition God through fasting and to act for the salvation of her people, her people who she knows through Mordecai exist in a covenantal relationship with God. She goes to King Xerxes, and her request for her people to be saved eventually brings about not only the salvation of their people, but also the death of their enemies, including Haman. Furthermore, many people throughout the Persian Empire declared themselves to be Jews because fear of the Jews had fallen on them. They had seen the strangeness of these events, and in all likelihood had recognized that perhaps there was something different about the Jewish people, and perhaps something genuine about the God they worshipped. God allowed the suffering to happen in the first 3 chapters, but he is working to redeem those events as he had promised that he would to in his covenants to Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah.

In the book of Esther, there are very hard realities, realities that we as Christians can’t afford to trivialize or overlook. There is pain and suffering, wickedness that brings real consequences to families. Leaders who abuse their power and abuse the lives of those in their sphere of authority. And somehow and for some reason God allows these things to happen. The hard realities seen in the book of Esther happen with God allowing them to happen. There is no getting around that truth. But the book of Esther and the covenantal history of Isreal revealed throughout the Old Testament can give us some perspective about seeing how God relates to these types of events. While he does allow them happen, he is also working through sin and evil to fulfill his purpose of salvation for the world.

In Genesis, God reveals himself to the person named Abram, saying that he will make of him a great nation, and in him all the families of the earth shall be blessed. When that nation had become great, God promised Moses that the Israelites would be his treasured possession and a holy people if they obey his voice, working to preserve them from some of the detrimental affects of sin. In Esther, after God’s people had been consistently unfaithful and thus removed from the promised land by the Babylonians, God worked amongst the sin, pain, and suffering of the people to preserve the Jews of the diaspora, proving faithful to his covenant. And through these covenants with the Jewish people that God was faithful to, eventually a savior was born in Bethlehem. He was a member of a people who would not have existed had God not brought them about and preserved them over thousands of years, including the Jews seen in Esther. Through the story of Esther and God’s preservation of his people, you and I today, who have faith in Christ, have received salvation. God even worked in the sin of King Xerxes, in the pain of Esther, to bring salvation to all, and while he allowed it and that can be difficult to understand in the present moment, he was working it for good.

I wonder how many of us today are hoping that God will sort out every issue in our lives, give us the correct decision about whatever life choice we have to make next, heal us from any physical or emotional trauma that we may have gone through, or protect us from the struggles of life in an unjust world. I know that I tend to focus on these things. And while these things are important and God does care about them, perhaps the book of Esther points us to a different aspect of God’s will for us that we often look past. Perhaps we can learn to see that God is working his plan of salvation, his salvific will, even from the events of our lives that we do not see him working in. Even when evil touches our lives, the evil of others and the evil of ourselves, we can know that God is bringing good from that situation, God is one who is calling into existence the things that do not yet exist, and he is using the things we do everyday as the canvas for his salvific story of blessing to the world. I wonder will you, like Esther, have the faith to trust that there is a God who is working out his plan for salvation, and to offer yourself up as a character in his story?

I hope this paper doesn’t trivialize the reality of suffering in your lives, saying that yes God allows this, but it is our fault through sin and so we shouldn’t have any doubts about God because of it. When a friend dies seemingly without reason, when a baby faces a lifelong challenge through a medical diagnosis, or when any other instance of suffering come our way or the way of a friend or family member, God could have stopped it. That truth can’t be denied. And we can wonder why God would allow such suffering, especially when it seems so unjust. Understanding that sin affects the world, that human beings choose things that hurt other people and themselves, but that God is working through those very things certainly doesn’t negate the suffering of this life. Nor does it answer the question that we ask in our hearts of “why God” when something evil happens. But it does give us something to cling too, that while God did allow the evil and suffering to happen, he is working to redeem it, just as he has worked to redeem all of humanity through the pain, suffering, and sin that afflicted us for so long. In fact, God works so much to redeem that suffering that in Jesus, God himself wore the yoke of suffering that he could redeem all of us. God said here, I will suffer with you in this life, I will be a leader by example. I will validate your suffering by taking it on myself. I will experience great evil and show you my redemptive heart for you. You will suffer too, but I have purchased for you a new life where there will be no more suffering. And what a glorious day that will be.