The book of Esther 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.
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
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.