Every year around the time of Purim, churches and synagogues around the world dive back into the book of Esther, where we hear of a courageous young Jewish woman in exile saving her people, who were put in danger because of her uncle’s unbending integrity in the face of pagan tyranny. But is that story really what we read–or merely what we’ve read into this unique book of the Bible?
In this tale from the tail end of Israel’s exile, our protagonists Mordecai and Esther are the subjects of a long-running scholarly debate about their proper characterization. For the most part, the prevailing view — seen in the story’s many film, TV, and book adaptations — presents them as praiseworthy, but a more critical interpretation is rising in popularity.
One recent example of the former perspective is a New York Times op-ed titled “Queen Esther, a Hero for Our Time.” Rabbi Meir Soloveichik writes: “we glorify Esther’s initiative, courage, and wisdom to inculcate these same virtues in our posterity” by celebrating the annual festival.
Yet nowhere does he describe her as godly or devout; the word “faith” does not appear in the piece. Instead, Soloveichik praises her autonomy: “Esther is the first biblical figure, male or female, to engage in statesmanship. Previous heroes — Moses and Elijah, Samuel and Deborah — are prophets who are guided and guarded by the Divine, but Esther operates on instinct, reflecting a mastery of realpolitik.”
While there is a good argument for Esther’s courage, not all acts of courage are necessarily godly. And for believers in the one true God, any virtues unmoored from godliness and faith amount to very little. In fact, the prophet Isaiah (50:10-11) promises “torment” to anyone who would follow their own guiding light instead of the name of the Divine Lord.
This altenate view is explained well in two recent books. In 2017’s The Vanishing Jew: A Wake-Up Call from the Book of Esther, Israeli entrepreneur Michael Eisenberg writes that the book “is not the story of a man [Mordecai] who wants to grow close to his God, his people, and his land, but the story of an ambitious man who wants to become the second in command to the king, and sends his niece Esther to the king’s bedroom to achieve his goal.” In 2014’s Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, Christian scholar John Anthony Dunne summarizes his view: “Esther is a story about how God was faithful to an unfaithful people.”
We see this reality in the very setting of the story. It has been nearly 50 years since the Persian king Cyrus sent out his decree to resettle Jerusalem and rebuild Israel’s temple, but Mordecai has remained in Susa — 200 miles farther away from Jerusalem than Babylon, as the crow flies — and now serves Xerxes I. His own name refers to the Babylonian god Marduk, and his orphaned niece is known by the name of the goddess Ishtar. We learn from the text that he has instructed her since childhood to hide her Jewish identity.
Most commentators agree up to this point — that Esther and Mordecai are thoroughly assimilated into their pagan culture — but many speculate that the two experience an awakening when their people face annihilation from a high-ranking Jew hater, Haman, which makes them turn back to God and secure deliverance for their people. Let’s examine the main arguments.
Did Mordecai refuse to engage in idolatry?
The central narrative of Esther kicks in during its third chapter, when Mordecai declines to bow to Haman, newly promoted to a position (v. 10) equivalent to Joseph’s in Genesis 41:41-42. Why doesn’t he bow? Well, he won’t say. And when his colleagues tell Haman about it, they mention “he had told them he was a Jew” — but the wording is such that we cannot definitively conclude that he gave them this information at this time to explain himself.
Compare that to Daniel 3, when four exiled Israelites refuse to bow down to an idol created by Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar: “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king,” they say. “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Even if the text is coy about it, could Mordecai be motivated by the same principle?
Professor Rachel Adelman explains, “nothing in the Bible—or in rabbinic halacha—forbids a Jew to bow to a person.” Dunne points out many examples of God-fearing individuals throughout the Hebrew scriptures who bow to people without apparently crossing any lines. First and most convincing on that list: Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, is seen bowing to the Hittites, a pagan people that his daughter-in-law Rebekah dreads intermarrying with their faith community.
This reading, that Mordecai is resisting idolatry, has only one textual argument — that the addition of “obeisance” or homage to the bowing automatically elevates the act to a religious one. Yet Adelman goes on to show that both the Talmud and Greek/Aramaic translations of Esther add their own details — explicit religious references — to bolster this reading, suggesting that people much closer to the culture and time of Esther’s writing felt the text itself lacked enough support for this interpretation.
This begs the question, then: Is there enough detail in the text to interpret this moment properly, without filling in the gaps with our imaginations?
Dunne writes that Mordecai would have had to similarly bow to the king repeatedly to attain his position before this episode with Haman, so we should instead rely on what the text actually includes: their respective ancestries. The line of Israel’s flawed and rejected king Saul versus the line of Agag, the Amalekite king who somehow enticed Saul into disobedience, was a long-running tribal feud, he argues, explaining not only Mordecai’s defiance but Haman’s disproportional, genocidal response.
Alternatively, Eisenberg writes that Mordecai’s motivation could be “economic” — a show of resistance to threaten Haman’s power as the king’s new treasurer — since we see him take his position and his property at the end of the story. Rava, a rabbi quoted in the Talmud, goes one step further, attributing the episode to personal envy as well as ambition.
Both of these interpretations (tribal feud or power) are not mutually exclusive, and the former is clearly exegetically sound, whereas the “idolatry” reading relies heavily on eisegesis.
Trust in God’s deliverance?
One of the most famous passages of the book is Esther 4:13-14, when Mordecai exhorts her to act even though she fears the king may kill her for entering his throne room uninvited. This monologue, particularly its climactic phrase “for such a time as this,” is ubiquitous in Christian sermons and writings:
Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (ESV)
The popular interpretation is that Mordecai warns Esther that she will die even if she plays it safe with the king and continues to hide her ethnicity. Dunne in particular takes issue with this reading, questioning how Mordecai is certain that no matter Esther’s choice, 1) she will die and 2) the Jews will live.
Is he predicting another nation will wipe out Xerxes’ whole court in these next few months? If he is so convinced of this divine intervention, why not flee and hide out with the diaspora, who are going to be delivered? Is the judgment on Esther — and, apparently, him, despite his warning to take the right action — unavoidable no matter where she is? Has he not only repented but become a prophet?
The resolution to this interpretive conflict may be in the translation itself. In 1991, Bible scholar John M. Wiebe proposed that the phrase “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place” is actually a rhetorical question, with “no” as the expected response.
While it is Dunne’s most speculative point, he insists that there is not enough evidence to “insert God” into the passage even without a change to our prevailing English translations. “Esther is the only hope,” Dunne argues, “and there is nothing to suggest that Mordecai has any belief that God may indeed act to overcome the Jewish plight.”
Esther’s fasting (and prayer?)
Esther’s response to Mordecai’s rebuke includes declaring a three-day fast among all the Jews — and the assumption here is that the fast includes prayers for God to save their people. But the text says nothing about God or prayer or the nation’s fate. Rather, the fast is “on my behalf, ” in Esther’s own words. To drive the point home, she repeats her concern: “Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”
Dunne points to a text from other Ancient Near East cultures to argue that fasting was an expected way to mourn death — no religious intentions required. He suggests this is more like the daughter of Jephthah (Judges 11) weeping over her impending execution.
While Eisenberg sees the fast as intended to change an outcome — not mere mourning — he notes its focus on self, as well. In the contemporary events of the book of Ezra, the title character declares a fast “to repent and beg for forgiveness from ‘our God,'” he writes. “The purpose of Esther’s fast is [merely] so that she may survive her audience with a mortal king.”
Even more problematic, the text notes that Haman’s edict went out on the 13th day of the month of Nisan — one day before Pesach or Passover. That means Esther’s command to fast would effectively be a prohibition of the Passover meal, which was likely still observed, in light of Haman’s reference to unique Jewish customs (3:8). Thus, Esther is (at least inadvertently) commanding her people not to commemorate God’s deliverance from Egypt, as they have done for the past thousand years.
Mordecai’s new holy day
One final troubling element in the story: the creation of Purim itself. Eisenberg writes: “This was an unprecedented innovation. At that time, there was no Jewish holiday that had not been ordained by the Torah… It was nothing less than a complete transformation of the Jewish religious worldview.”
But why? To American eyes, it makes perfect sense to establish days of remembrance for important historical events. But in the nation of Israel, God established seven festivals at once — some commemorative, some prophetic. He calls them “my appointed feasts” when he dictates them to Moses. Between Moses and the exile, there were many towering figures in Israel’s story: kings like David and Solomon, prophets like Samuel and Elijah. Yet none of them commanded an annual celebration of their accomplishments for all future generations.
Mordecai is the only man in the whole Bible to unilaterally declare a holy day — and without any claim to priestly or prophetic authority, as such holy days are inherently religious. It appears instead (v. 9:29) that Esther leverages her royal position to “confirm” the request. By contrast, Hanukkah, the only other novel Jewish holiday, grew out of a delayed celebration of Sukkot or the Feast of Booths — in the same manner as King Hezekiah’s first Passover.
For this reason and more, Eisenberg explains, in the Talmud “the Sages’ discomfort with the holiday is almost palpable.” He traces the evolution of the festival from “a spontaneous folk celebration among Persian Jews, whose expression mirrored Persian practice” to a more sanitized version that would be palatable to the faithful Jews in Israel. However, “it wavered between being a true festival and a folk celebration” until the rabbis of the Mishnah codified the core of its practices. He notes that, unlike the Biblical feasts, work is not prohibited on the days of Purim.
What’s it all mean?
What, then, do we make of this story, if our westernized understanding of it has been upended? I am certainly wary of people who read the Bible from a different perspective than they were taught and then conclude 1) the text and its expositors can’t be trusted, or 2) the allure of some sort of secret knowledge is the highest end in our study of the text. These responses lead to apostasy and cults.
In the two books I’ve cited along the way, there are very different conclusions. For Eisenberg, a takeaway is that assimilation is just as much of a threat to Jewish identity as antisemitism. A stark passage, illuminating the “warning” of his book’s subtitle, encourages his kinsmen to return to their homeland:
The Shushan of old has been reincarnated today in New York, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Los Angeles, London, Johannesburg, and Melbourne. The dilemmas that Mordechai faced in the Persian Empire, when confronting a dominant culture and the world’s first cosmopolitan empire, also confront Diaspora Jews and expat Israelis who, more than ever before, can leave home and try to conquer the world…
[T]he price [of these opportunities] must be stated clearly and openly: There is no substitute for a Jewish-Israeli identity. One who does not join the Jewish state will most likely lose both his Jewishness and his Israeli-ness within a few generations. He will be cut off from the one and only eternal nation that ever entered the historical arena. The nation’s ship will sail on; they will simply not be aboard. [emphasis original]
Dunne focuses on the promises of God being unbreakable, even in exile and even so far away from their promised land. “God was responding [to this crisis] despite the actions of his people,” he writes. Further, he argues that God’s faithfulness foreshadows the inclusion of pagan nations in the Christian church: “in Esther we see God embrace Israel-in-exile–those experiencing not the blessings of the covenant but the curses, those who had been unfaithful–and all of this ultimately prefigures God’s embrace of the nations,” he says. “Because God can embrace Israel-in-exile he can also embrace those from the lands of exile.”
There is much more to be discussed from both of these fascinating books, but I can agree with both of these authors: the story of Esther and Mordecai is worth studying deeply to deepen our understanding of God and ourselves. Yet we must follow the text to some unfamiliar and even uncomfortable places and not retreat from what it actually says.