At this time of the year Jews around the world celebrate Purim, a festival founded on the story told in the book of Esther. It’s an awesome record of God’s deliverance of his people, yet his name is not mentioned in the book nor is there any explicit reference to him. (In the Hebrew Bible, Esther is one of only three books that do not mention God’s name directly.) This is surprising, given the history that the book narrates and its inclusion in the canon of scripture. Was the omission of references to God a rhetorical device intended to elicit a particular response from the readers? Was the author at risk of persecution or having his work destroyed if he mentioned the God of Israel? We don’t know the answer for certain, nor even the identity of the author(s), but we can see that the narrative was composed very deliberately. For instance, the plot has a symmetric structure and is dense with ironies, as well as “coincidences” so improbable as to shout a testimony of divine intervention. And then there is the presentation of historical elements in pairs. The harder we look, the more surprises we find.
Technically called chiasmus, the symmetry of the book is shown in the movement of its plot from danger to deliverance. Not surprisingly, the first and last chapter contain a prologue and an epilogue, respectively. But the mirroring runs right through the story, in which a sleepless night for King Ahaseurus around halfway is the fulcrum; danger to God’s people mounts progressively through the first half of the book, but deliverance unfolds in the second. The plot can be summarised using the chapter numbers, with indents to indicate its mirroring rather like a picture of mountain and its reflection in a lake:
2–3: Ahasuerus’ first decree, spelling death for the Jews
4–5: Haman’s anger toward Mordecai
6: Ahasuerus gets no sleep
6–7: Mordecai is exalted over Haman
8–9: Ahasuerus second decree, spelling deliverance for the Jews
Here are some many pairs of events in Esther. There are three pairs of pivotal banquets are presented in a symmetric structure, two reports of Esther concealing her Jewish identity, and two fasts. Haman’s wife, Zeresh, speaks twice: the first time her advice is bad (to kill Mordecai the Jew) but Haman takes it (or tries to); the second time, Zeresh gives a good warning (don’t try to destroy the Jews), but Haman ignores it. The book tells of two unannounced appearances of Esther before the king at risk of her life, two investitures for Mordecai with royal garments and a crown, two coverings of Haman’s face, and two letters written to institute the commemoration of Purim.
What could be the purpose of all these pairs? To me, they hint at the Two Ways, a Jewish wisdom tradition that contrasts the Way of Life (or Wisdom) with the Way of Death (or Folly), even as Mordecai (the wise) is contrasted with Haman (the fool). Whatever the author’s purpose for the pairs, they appear to be more than coincidental, and the crafting of the narrative seems very deliberate.
Irony, concealment, coincidence, contrast and reversal
The book of Esther is also full of dramatic ironies, unlikely coincidences, sharp contrasts and sudden reversals of fortune. For example, Haman sought to destroy the Jews, but ironically he unwittingly tried to use a Jew, Queen Esther, to do so—to his own destruction. Right before Haman was to charge Mordecai before King Ahasuerus, Ahasuerus had a sleepless night and got his attendants to read to him; they just happened to read the record of how Mordecai had saved the king’s life. Queen Vashti appears as a foil in the plot against which Esther is portrayed; Vashti refused to appear before the king while Esther, in contrast, appeared unannounced before the king. Ultimately, the story tells of how the victims, by the hidden hand of God, become the victors and the arch-enemy of Israel, who sought to obtain Mordecai’s estate by murder, ends up executed, with his whole inheritance going to Mordecai.
Concealment is also a key ingredient in this drama. While Esther’s outer beauty was apparent to all, her ethnic identity (signifying membership in God’s people) was concealed. She was, in a sense, God’s “secret weapon,” as even her name in Hebrew hints. In fact, Jewish audiences are already cued for a tale of divine intervention by the very mention of Esther as a young woman, beautiful of form and fair in appearance (Est 2:7)—the most beautiful woman from north Africa to Pakistan. Prominent women in Israel’s history had similar descriptions (think of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Abigail, for example). So, by bringing Esther’s beauty to the reader’s attention, a biblically literate audience is already primed for a drama that ends in divine rescue.
The Name of God
Now for an even bigger surprise. The name of God is encoded four times in the text of Esther. Twice in the text the four letters of the Tetragrammaton appear in order (forwards) when a Jew is speaking, and twice backwards when a Gentile is speaking. Twice it is the first letter of each of four successive words, and twice the last letter of each of four successive words, once by Esther, once about Esther, once by Haman, once about Haman.
|Esther||Speaker||Topic: honour and dishonour||Direction||Letter|
|1:20||Gentile||About the Queen (Vashti), dishonours her (vv19–20)||Backwards||First letter|
|5:4||Jew||Esther speaking, supposedly honours Haman||Forwards||First letter|
|5:13||Gentile||Haman speaking, dishonouring Mordecai|
after boasting in 5:12
|7:7||Jew||About Haman humbling himself||Forwards||Last letter|
A random outcome? I don’t think so. Acrostics are not uncommon in the Hebrew Bible; authors used them deliberately for various purposes, notably but not only for memorization. Since there were no punctuation marks or even spaces between words in the original Hebrew text, its readers would have been keenly attentive to the first and last letters of each word. Moreover, the pairing evident in the table above is in keeping with the author’s use of pairs, as is the motif of concealment (in this case, of the divine name).
One can see the divine name in the red letters of the verses below, according to the reading direction and letter of each word indicated in the table above. (Hebrew reads from right to left, which I have called “forwards.”)
ונשׁמע פתגם המלך אשׁר־יעשׂה בכל־מלכותו כי רבה היא וכל־הנשׁים יתנו יקר לבעליהן למגדול ועד־קטן
ותאמר אסתר אם־על־המלך טוב יבוא המלך והמן היום אל־המשׁתה אשׁר־עשׂיתי לו
וכל־זה איננו שׁוה לי בכל־עת אשׁר אני ראה את־מרדכי היהודי יושׁב בשׁער המלך
והמלך קם בחמתו ממשׁתה היין אל־גנת הביתן והמן עמד לבקשׁ על־נפשׁו מאסתר המלכה כי ראה כי־כלתה אליו הרעה מאת המלך
Esther’s inclusion in the canon may have been controversial, but it was no mistake.
A foreshadow of Messiah
For Christians, obvious parallels emerge between Esther and the Messiah whom we know as Jesus. Esther left her home and dwelt among a common people who treated her as common. She did not want to “drink the cup” of death before her but when the crucial moment came, she chose to lay down her life if need be (Est 4:16). In so doing, Esther proved herself, gained the favour of the king, and interceded with him for her people, pleading for their deliverance. In the end, the Jews and all who joined them (9:27), will forever rejoice in God’s salvation through Esther. Similarly, the New Testament teaches that Gentiles who entrust themselves to Jesus become part of God’s family (Eph 2:11–22), for whom the final redemption is foreshadowed in the plot of Esther.
Another fascinating aspect to consider is that, in the person of Esther, we have a female image of Messiah—a true saviour. This reminds us that male and female together were created in God’s image, a point worthy of contemplation.
The joyous and comical festival of Purim, in the middle of the month of Adar, commemorates both the person of Esther and the book named after her, as per its second-last chapter (9). This year, Purim falls on Friday this week (26 February), beginning on Thursday evening, the Eve of Purim. You may see the full moon, signifying the middle of the biblical month. It’s a good reminder, and a perfect time to read the book of Esther, to delve into its mysteries, to remember with thanksgiving the salvation that God has brought, and is bringing, to all his people through his own Son, our Saviour, Jesus.
Short Bio: David lives in Cape Town with his wife and two daughters. He holds Masters’ degrees in Science and in Theology, and works online in the faculty of the South African Theological Seminary. This article was adapted from his blog, Temple Swallow, in a post by the same title dated 6 March 2015.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.