Abide: Esther

  • Can one be directed by God when one doesn’t know that one is being directed? The answer, of course, is yes. We learn about how God directed Esther in ways that may not have been recognizable to her, to ancient Israelites, and in ways that still surprise us today. We’ll discuss that, and more, in today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”

  • Can one be directed by God when one doesn’t know that one is being directed? The answer, of course is yes, we learn about how God directed Esther in ways that may not have been recognizable to ancient Israelites, and in ways that still surprise us today. We’ll discuss that and more in today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m a Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute and each week we discuss the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today we are once again joined by Dorie Cameron, one of our research assistants. Dorie is a junior at BYU from Great Falls, Montana studying art and creative writing. She has a strong interest in literature, culture, media, and language.


    Joseph Stuart: Welcome back. Dorie.


    Dorie Cameron: Glad to be back. I promised my mom I wouldn’t say anything too inflammatory this time.


    Joseph Stuart: Well, we can’t make the same promise. Sorry Sister Cameron, but we will persevere. Kristian, what is going on in the book of Esther?


    Kristian Heal: So like Ezra and Nehemiah and the rest that we looked at last week, the book of Esther pushes the genre boundaries of scripture. Scholars have defined it as a folktale, a farce, carnivalesque work characterized by reversals of fortune. It’s one of the only biblical texts not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The name of God is also not found in the book which has raised some eyebrows. It seems that the story was written shortly after the exile, for edifying entertainment and is an origin story for the festival of Purim. The subtext of the story is, as one might suspect, deeply serious. This is a story of redemption of the Jewish people, comparable to that of Joseph in Egypt. It is a story of reversals, like the imprisoned Joseph who became a king. But here it is the story of a man condemning being condemned, the one seeking glory, having to instead glorify his enemy, is the story as John Levinson observed, “…of the ascent of an orphan in exile to the rank of the most powerful woman, and perhaps the most powerful person in the empire and arguably the world.” This is a book that’s easily read, but perhaps not so easily mastered. As one commentator put it, “Readers who are satisfied that they know what Esther means, would be well advised to examine it again in search of other dimensions.” He continues by confessing that a few years of close textual work on the book and involvement in scholarship on it have immeasurably enriched his reading of it and proven it in his mind to be a vastly more complex piece of literature than he had previously thought. A defining characteristic of scripture seems to be its vertiginous depth. And this is true of Esther, as it has been of each book we’ve examined this year.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that Kristian. The book of Esther has a classic structure, which refers to Hebrew poetry and storytelling. And before Kristian goes through what is in this structure, the rest assured that we will include a graphic of this in the show notes which you can subscribe to at mi.byu.edu. So Kristian, could you tell us about the classic structure, both explaining what chiasmus is and then going into what is happening in the book of Esther?


    Kristian Heal: Chiasmus is a kind of reverse parallelism. Instead of a poem that repeats its rhyme and an ABAB structure, a chiasm reverses its structure in the literary equivalent of an hourglass. It’s a structure that goes in and then returns back, covering the same points on the way out that it did on the way in.


    Joseph Stuart: In a less scholarly way I think about this like a fantasy football draft where the first person goes, and then the person who is last also gets the second pick of the next round, and then it returns back so that it’s constantly expanding and then contracting. Like an hourglass as smart people might say it, but for those like me the fantasy football draft may work too.


    Dorie Cameron: And for the mathematicians among us, it goes A, B, C, B, A, C being the most important part of the structure.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, and that’s important. So you can find lots in literature, lots of these small chasms  just in the way that people speak and they appear in literature from Shakespeare to the Bible. But these extended chiastic structures are really interesting, because they are pointing to some kind of transformation happening. In the Book of Mormon the famous one is Alma 36. As we look at the story of Esther, we see a growing crisis that has a moment in which the kind of tables turn, that the narrative direction turns and then the sort of crises are all undone. We have this process of reversal and it matches well the story which is one of these continued reversals. Nobody except the king, interestingly, is in the same place that they were at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. And so in summary, you have the king appearing, Esther’s appointment, Mordechai showing his loyalty, the execution of the king’s enemies, Haman’s rise, and this sort of royal decree, Esther’s first banquet, Haman’s boast, and then right in the middle we have this little story about the king, something happens. After that we have Haman’s humiliation. So he’s boasting in the first part is humiliating in the second part. We have this first banquet and the first part and then the second banquet as we kind of come out of this. Haman’s rise is then followed as we come out of the story with Haman’s downfall, we have the execution of the king’s enemies, then followed by the Mordechai being raised into a state of glory, Esther’s decree corresponding to her appointment, and then the king back to his same old feasting and ruling and all the things that they’re sort of very two dimensional character of the king. He is not the hero of the story.


    Joseph Stuart: That’s really helpful to know. As Dorie noted in a chiasm, especially an extended chiasm, the most important part of the story is often in the middle. And that seems to be the case here. So the tension is building continually to this point. But what are some of the central questions in the book of Esther that the chiasm is highlighting?


    Kristian Heal: I think it’s really bringing out the sense of a crisis being resolved. And one of the interesting things is that when we read the story, I think what we understand to be happening is God kind of engaging in it. But what we don’t see is God engaging in it. Instead in the middle of the story as we’re building this crisis, as the Jews have this kind of extermination order against them, that Haman is growing in power, Esther has had the king and Haman with her, but nothing has happened, nothing has been kind of brought out. We have this moment in chapter 6 verses one through three, where we read and this is reading the Jewish Publication Society version, “That night, sleep deserted the king.” We’re kind of expecting him to have a dream or something miraculous, but he had a sleepless night. “And he ordered the book of records, the annals to be brought, and it was read to the king. There it was found written that Mordechai had denounced Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s units who guarded the threshold, who had plotted to do away with King Ahasuerus. ‘What honor or advancement has been conferred on Mordechai for this?’ The king inquired. ‘Nothing at all has been done for him,’ replied the king servants, who were in attendance on him.’” And so the crux of it is this moment where something that Mordechai had done that had been acted on had saved the king had not been sort of recognized, some good deed. And now the whole flow of the story turns from this point. The fate of Mordechai goes from somebody who is hunted to somebody who is being glorified and who becomes the most powerful person in the kingdom, one of the most powerful people. “His fame was spreading throughout all the province,” we’re told. “The man Mordechai was growing ever more powerful.” And so we have this kind of interesting reversal. Interesting, sort of culmination to the story in which these figures who were sort of rooting for Mordechai, this man seems to be childless, who’s adopted his young cousin as his own daughter, who has worked for her advancement who has tried to do everything that’s right, who’s kept the his own integrity by not sort of bowing and worshiping payment. He’s finally sort of reached this exalted position and has this kind of full reward.


    Joseph Stuart: Well, it seems interesting to me that Mordechai is maybe the one who receives the highest reward when Esther is the central character in the book of Esther, as one might expect, but she enters a world dominated by men. A degree has just been issued that stated unequivocally that every man should wield authority in his home. But Esther isn’t a man, what should we take from this sort of section?


    Dorie Cameron: I don’t think we should take the king as any sort of exemplary figure. He’s depicted consistently as impulsive, indulgent, taking very bad advice, and a pagan. His decree is not meant to be a recommendation.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, no, you’re exactly right Dorie. And I think that’s really important to recognize that Esther enters into a fraught world with a fickle King and one in which his whims can choose, but also destroy. He can elevate and punish. And he’s happy to do both we see in the story. He also seems to have got a bad taste in advisors, as we can see by his choosing this Haman fellow who is clearly one of those, the sort of worst kinds of people that we see around us who are sort of power hungry and really get upset when they don’t get the respect that they think they deserve. We’ve all seen people like this around us in our lives for better or worse. And so he is the kind of quintessence of the bad leader. And so in the midst of all of this, Esther and Mordechai are kind of navigating a really kind of complex political landscape.


    Dorie Cameron: And I would argue that it’s very dubious at how willing Esther was to enter this arena in the first place.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, Mordecai has a plan and involves his beautiful daughter, his adopted daughter. He sees an opportunity, the king is sort of gathering all of these beautiful women to replace his wife who’s been cast down. The Queen Vashti has been cast down and Mordechai sees a chance here and sort of pushes Esther forward. You know, we don’t hear her saying, “Oh, yes, please choose me!” But she’s sort of there and going through this, you know, thrown, cast into this situation for reasons that we’re not quite clear about. I can’t help but think of the story of Joseph in my mind. She’s not sold into slavery. But she’s sort of pretty much placed into it that way.


    Joseph Stuart: And she’s placed into a situation that most people would not want and somehow makes the best of it and illustrates the grace that God has for each of us. Would you say that’s fair?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think so. Esther is the sort of true hero. Mordechai is sort of in the background kind of strategizing, but Esther is the one who has to confront the situations that allow sort of life or death, that she’s the one who has to go into the king’s presence when she knows that it could mean death and who does this to sort of save her people. And we have that kind of interesting moment, important moment and one of the few moments that are of devotion perhaps to God in the story where Esther, before she does this, asked the people to pray for three days to presumably soften the king’s heart and grant her success. Her actions are done with this sort of knowledge that the people have fasted the three days, presumably for her success but that’s not sort of stated explicitly.


    Joseph Stuart: Now Dorie, you’ve done some research on the history of the book of Esther which takes place in Persia. But when do scholars think that Esther was written? And what are some other things that we should know that scholars have discovered or continue to debate about the book of Esther?


    Dorie Cameron: Yeah. So we typically identify Ahasuerus, we’ve been debating about how to pronounce his name for the last little bit. We typically identify him with the Persian king that the Greeks called Xerxes. That’s X-E-R-X-E-S, if you’re filling out your Bible ABCs. This would have taken place from 486 to 465 BCE, somewhere right around the book of Ezra. By this point, the Jewish people who had been taken into captivity have now been allowed to return to Jerusalem to the promised land, which makes this episode somewhat significant because these Jews have apparently decided to stay in Persia. They’ve decided not to return to Jerusalem. We’re never given any indication why, if they felt compelled, or if they were in love with the Persian weather, we don’t know.


    Joseph Stuart: So that strikes me as really interesting because as we went through the Pentateuch, repeatedly the ancient Israelites are saying, “I wish we were back in Egypt.” And so I wonder if there’s a lesson there too, about how you not only adapt to your surroundings, but that you’ll also take on the characteristics of your surroundings as well if you don’t show constant vigilance and maintaining one’s faith and identity.


    Dorie Cameron: Now we see that particular conflict played out constantly throughout the book of Esther, starting with Esther herself. Her name is often identified with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. You can hear the resemblance there. Mordechai is a Hebrewization of the name Marduk, who’s the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon. They have Gentile names, not Jewish names. We see them trying to maintain their religious customs, fasting, refusing to bow to idols, while still accommodating the Persian cultures in many ways. Esther throws feasts for the people around her though she herself does not participate and Mordecai works for the king and shows some amount of Persian patriotism by preventing an assassination attempt. So throughout this book, we’re seeing this conflict play out of the Jews trying to maintain their religion and their unique identity, while also being perfectly happy to live outside of the promised land.


    Joseph Stuart: It also seems really important to bring up something that Kristian mentioned earlier, which is that God’s name is not mentioned in the book. What are some reasons that might be the case?


    Dorie Cameron: So yeah, the lack of explicit reference to God in the book of Esther makes it a very controversial book. The early Christian fathers in deciding the Bible canon, had a really hard time with Esther. In many early editions of the Bible, Esther was considered part of the Apocrypha. A lot of people will tell you that they did not like that it was a book about a woman. That’s certainly one part. But I think far more glaring, is the lack of any sort of doctrine, or messianic prophecy, or even the name of God is not mentioned throughout the entire book. However, I personally think that God is prevalent on every single page of this book.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think that’s a lovely point Dorie, because God is so overwhelmingly sort of present in so much of the scripture that we’ve sort of read up until this point, powerfully present that and bringing his presence into the text into the world of Israel is a priority. But here we are in sort of an exile in diaspora and what we see is a much more subtle guiding of the fortunes of the people of Israel, a much more subtle way of protecting the covenant people in this situation which is fraught, where you’re living a sort of a more precarious life and where that protection is not being done in the kind of miraculous ways that we saw in God leading his people out of Egypt, but in these kind of subtle ways of keeping a king awake at night.


    Dorie Cameron: Exactly. There are a couple of different potential reasons why the author of Esther may not have explicitly talked about God. It could be that those Jews living in exile outside of the Promised Land, legitimately had a hard time seeing God’s hand in their lives. It could be that living in exile where they are the religious minority, they did not want to make their faith more explicit for fear of offending the majority Persian religion. It could also be not wanting to upset the king by inflicting their Jewish God on his actions. But it has also been suggested that they were concerned that some other culture may appropriate the same story and replace God’s name with the names of pagan deities, which would just be awful, of course.


    Joseph Stuart: That’s something that they may have wanted to avoid, especially because in this story at least as I see it, and as you’ve researched it, that there’s this constant tension this back and forth between assimilation and survival, but also with living the religion and fulfilling the culture, the ancestral expectations that have been given to the ancient Israelites. Is that accurate?


    Dorie Cameron: For sure. For sure. There’s a definite conflict there. I think about my experiences living outside of Utah. The majority of my life I have been the religious minority. A lot of times I am not able to talk openly about how I view religion or how I view the purpose of life. I find ways of talking about it with people who do not view things the same way as me.


    Kristian Heal: I think this, this is one of the great questions that we’re faced when we live as Latter-day Saints outside of our sort of the kind of majority world that we enjoy here in Provo, here on the Wasatch Front. And does present —I remember growing up being the only Latter-day Saint in my high school and feeling kind of embarrassed I think, to be a part of a religious, especially in the UK, an odd religion, a new religious movement to put it in its most politically correct terms. And so it wasn’t until I had had some kind of conversion experience in my own life, I felt confident to talk about the fact that I was a Latter-day Saint. And what I saw actually, in that moment, and something interesting similar happens with Esther here, a kind of a crisis brings about a situation in which she kind of declares her Jewishness. And instead of being thrown out of the king’s presence, what happens is that she continues to be favored. And in fact, her friends have —Mordecai is favored, things turn out well for them, when at the right moment, they can say I’m Jewish in this situation, and I want to care for my people. And certainly for me, I was able to see from that moment of being kind of 14-15 and starting to talk more openly about my beliefs and my faith. I was actually received, I think, and continued to be received very few exceptions, in a very kind of positive people being positive and curious and interested as I did that —what’s the right words from General Conference in normal and natural ways? Right? I mean, to talk about kind of who I was. And I think that there’s part of a lesson I think, in the book of Esther. It feels familiar, for those of us who have spent most of her life kind of living outside of being in the majority.


    Dorie Cameron: Yeah and absolutely, we believe that God is everywhere and all things testify of Christ. And I think we can see that through the book of Esther. From the very beginning, Esther is adopted by Mordecai. It can only be the hand of God that had given her such a remarkable guardian who would be able to give her such wonderful advice and teach her the things she needed to become the woman, the queen that she would grow up to be. It had to have been the hand of God that helped her to achieve the political status that she eventually would, even if she was in a really crappy situation. It had to have been God that softened the heart of the king, to allow God’s people to be protected in a foreign land. It was definitely the Spirit of God that united the Jews to fast and pray for Esther’s success and nothing less than divine intervention that helped her to formulate the strategy of the banquets and easing the king, in order to make her request.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah. That’s a really great point, Dorie. And I think if we were to rewrite the story, we would add these moments. We would highlight perhaps, and add in those internal promptings and would show more explicitly. In some ways, it’s nice to have a story that makes us work a little bit more. Because so often in our own lives, God’s influence doesn’t come with a kind of a, “And thus we see,” and, “The voice of the Lord came.” And so often we have to work to see, okay, if that hadn’t have happened, then this wouldn’t have happened. If I hadn’t met this person, this consequence wouldn’t have come. If I hadn’t had that idea or that sleepless night, then these things— we have to be more reflective and examine our lives more carefully, to recognize that actually wondrous things have been wrought in our lives without us even being kind of aware of it.


    Dorie Cameron: I doubt that either Esther or Mordechai saw any of God’s hand when Esther was sitting in the harem waiting to be called into the king. But then later after these incredible things that happen, no doubt they saw God’s hand through all of it.


    Kristian Heal: Exactly. That’s that’s a lovely kind of point that we— this is the beauty of sort of looking back and seeing the dots join that don’t make sense early on in our lives.


    Joseph Stuart: It’s important to remember that the book of Esther factors into the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim. Kristian, for those who aren’t as familiar with the Jewish calendar, what is the feast of Purim and what is it to commemorate?


    Kristian Heal: So with everything that’s been said up to this point, we do have to remember the book of Esther is an origin story. It is telling us how this feast of the pur, “the lots” which the plural in Hebrew is made by adding the “im”, Purim, have these lots of have been cast and they landed on a certain date in the month of Adar and which is modern March. And that became the date on which an atrocity and that Haman had planned was going to happen. And so we have this story that describes a planned systematic genocide, that through as we read it I think as believers, through divine intervention was avoided. And in fact, it is not simply avoided, but it’s reversed, that those who sought to destroy are actually destroyed themselves. So we have these two days in which the Jews essentially exact vengeance upon those who are going to kill them. These people are sort of killed and then they celebrate immediately, and then the following two days through feasts. And we’re told specifically that we’re given specific advice or specific direction in the text as to how to do this, so it says in Esther chapter 9:20-22. “Mordechai recorded these events and he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of the king, near and far, charging them to observe the 14th and 15th days of Adar, every year the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning, to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking and as an occasion for the sending of gifts to one another, and presents to the poor.” And so we have a specific date, a specific month, a reason for doing this. This was supposed to be a time of celebration, a time of gift giving, and a time of remembering the poor. And this seems to be— and there have been those who have kind of argued that the feast came first and the kind of story came after, but the what we have here is a situation in which the story is given as the reason for this Jewish festival which continues today as one of celebration, one where there are parades involved and dressing up and gift giving and remembrance as to the poor that goes back to this story. The scroll of Esther is read in the synagogue, where noise is made, the name of Haman is mentioned in the story, it’s to kind of drown out the sound. He is definitely in a sort of a pantomime kind of way, the bad guy. And we have to do one more Haman just just so that we could get the boo. And what we’re remembering of course, is another story, the story of the Exodus that prompted another festival, the Passover. And so the Jewish calendar is organized around this series of divine moments of deliverance and blessing that are remembered on an annual cycle as a way of reconnecting, reinforcing the fact that God’s covenant people have been chosen, have been remembered And have survived.


    Dorie Cameron: It should be absolutely no surprise that while Esther has had a difficult history in the Christian canon, it has always been well beloved in the Jewish canon.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s exactly right. This is a book which captures in such a compelling way in such a sort of a tellable way, that the story of Jewish survival against the odds. And it is one that we have to remember, especially as we think in the in the past century of the tremendous suffering and the tremendous efforts of Nazi Germany, of Hitlor. Yeah, exactly. To destroy once again in a systematic way through the Holocaust, the Jewish people, that this is a people to whom we show the greatest respect and believe that God has been continually kind of watching over them and have that faith that he remembers his ancient covenant people.


    Dorie Cameron: It’s a celebration of reversal. The Jewish orphan then becomes the most powerful woman in the world. The arrogant King has his heart softened. The general is hanged. Where God does not appear to be, he was there the entire time.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed week y’all.


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast and follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu? Thank you and have a great week.