Thursday, April 10, 2014

Esther and Her Elusive God


The book of Esther is a biblical curiosity. It tells a great story. It is the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim. But it does not make overt mention of God. Neither does it contain any explicit reference to religious practices with the possible exception of fasting.

Until recently I would not have qualified that last sentence with the word "possible."

The Septuagint version of Esther, considered canonical by Orthodox Christians, treated as Deutero-canonical by Roman Catholics, and relegated to the Apocrypha by Protestants, contains significant expansions on the Hebrew text. This ancient Greek version of Esther is replete with mentions of God and instances of prayer. The Septuagint translators apparently felt the understandable need to dress Esther up in more pious garb. Modern retellings of Esther's story in film and novelized form, also tend to explicit religious elements (and downplay the sexy parts).

I'm not sure where I saw it, but when I came across notice of a new book titled Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, by John Anthony Dunne, I was immediately intrigued. I called my local independent bookseller and ordered a copy.

The book is short, just 156 pages, 20 of which are devoted to end matter. The text comprises 5 chapters and an appendix. Though scholarly, it is written in an accessible style. I found it a quick and rewarding read.

The first part of the book (A Secular Story) is made up of three chapters:

   1. Esther & The Compromise
   2. Esther & The Covenant
   3. Esther & The Cover-Up

In this section of the book Dunne argues, persuasively, that Esther and her uncle Mordecai are not the faithful Jews that ancient versions such as the Septuagint, and more recent retellings of Esther's story in film and print, make them out to be. Ethnically Jewish, these characters are thoroughly assimilated to Babylonian culture and indifferent to Jewish religion. In fact, the gentile women in the book, queen Vashti and Zeresh, the wife of Haman, come off as more valorous and more devout than Esther herself.

Dunne's close reading of the text allows him to make this interpretive move. Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman is not based on religious scruples but on an ancient tribal feud. Esther's call for the Jews to fast on her behalf is a sign of mourning for her almost certain death and not an attempt to enlist the help of the Jewish God. Without rehashing Dunne's arguments, I will simply say that I find them convincing.

Perhaps the most contentious point of Dunne's interpretation is his argument that Esther 4:14a would, contrary to every English version I consulted, be better translated as a question. In the New International Version this verse reads:
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.
Dunne thinks "the text should be rendered as a rhetorical question expecting a negative answer, 'if you remain silent at this time, will relief and deliverance come from another source?'" (p. 46). In other words, the speaker, Mordecai, does not expect help from God.

The Second part of Esther and Her Elusive God, (Canonical and Theological Reflections on A Secular Story) is made up of two chapters:

   4. Esther & The Canon
   5. Esther & The Church

Here, Dunne focuses on Esther's place in the canon of Scripture and how its canonical placement affects interpretation. I find myself in agreement with his contention that Esther, by long usage, deserves to stand in biblical canon. On page 129, Dunne neatly sumamrizes his work:
The perspective of this book taken as a whole is that Esther is a story about how God was faithful to an unfaithful people. This is how a secular story functions as Scripture. Thus, when the church seeks to appropriate Esther for teaching and preaching, the urge to amplify the story of Esther by making the characters religious paragons, as seen in the ancient translations and modern popular versions, should be resisted. The Bible is full of stories with heroes and protagonists that the church should not seek to emulate, and Esther is no exception. Though as we have seen, the secularity of the characters should be distinguished from the perspective of the author, who has chosen to recall Israel's deliverance in a highly ironic and self-critical manner.

I did find a few small points of disagreement with Dunne. He nearly lost me when he cited a sermon series by Mark Driscoll (pp. 41-42). I am no fan of Driscoll but I have to admit that his work has status as a popular level interpretation of Esther. Dunne won me back, however, when I realized that he was critical of Driscoll's interpretation.

I also disagree with Dunne when he states that the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Ephesians. This point is secondary to Dunne's argument about Esther and in no way undermines his work.

Overall I give Dunne high marks for an engaging and intelligent reading of Esther. He has confirmed some of my own thinking of this strange, delightful book. He has also given me pause to reconsider some of my previous interpretation.

When I mentioned to some of my colleagues in ministry that I was reading this book, some of them responded with questions like "So what?" and "When's the last time you preached on Esther?" Granted, Esther does not come up often (if at all) in the lectionary. I have preached on the book in the past and may do so again. I have also had the opportunity to teach Esther in the context of Bible studies. That said, I tend not to be mercenary in my reading, especially in the field of Scriptural interpretation.

So, I recommend this book, highly, to anyone who might preach or teach about Esther but also to anyone who, like myself, is just plain interested in good biblical scholarship.

Dunne, John Anthony, Esther and her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2014.


  1. Many thanks for your close reading and gracious comments!

  2. Thank you for coming by my blog...and for writing such a fine book.