1 When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. 2 But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. 3 In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes. 4 When Esther’s eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther summoned Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why. 6 So Hathak went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. 7 Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. 8 He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict for their annihilation, which had been published in Susa, to show to Esther and explain it to her, and he told him to instruct her to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people. 9 Hathak went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said.
This passage is saturated with religious activity and language, yet has no mention of God. I believe this silence encourages to consider the nature of human activity in the world, which then pushes to consider how God is supposed to be involved in the world. Before getting to those, we will need to contextualize the book of Esther and this passage first in order to give these reflections proper understanding.
It is no secret that Esther is the only book in the bible that doesn’t make any direct reference to God. Given this theme of the book, even in times of turmoil, God is not referenced. Despite no direct reference to God in the book, Levenson would warn us against seeing Esther as a completely “secular” book, for the overwhelming amount of coincidences point to God anonymously working behind the scenes.
The striking thing about the absence of divine reference is that there are multiple occasions to comment on God. There are numerous instances of religious activity being done, like in this passage, yet the author is silent on any reference to God. I am convinced with Goswell that the author is making a deliberate and conscious decision not to invoke God’s name in order to draw attention to human activity in problem solving. I think it’s important for us to deal seriously with the fact that God isn’t mentioned, and may even need to resist the temptation to smuggle God in where we would like to see Him. However, I think it would be naïve to think the author didn’t have any understanding for how God could be discovered within the story, even if He isn’t named.
If Esther was composed roughly around the third or fourth century, it would be quite extraordinary for it to be a purely “secular” piece of literature. Religion and the divine pervaded all thinking since there wasn’t a rigid wall between secular and sacred. The cultural context, whether Persian or Jewish, was thoroughly religious in the ancient world. Being composed while exiled in Persia probably under King Xerxes, Esther is only focused on the Jewish diaspora experience. This put the Jews in a context where their religion and cultures was not normative, but the minority.
Under the control of Persian government, much of Esther has moments of sharp criticism of the Persian government. This may be in part because of the way Judaism wasn’t heavily influenced by Persian culture per se as there is little evidence of Zoroastrianism impacting Judaism. It is more of the Greek components of Persian culture that may have impacted Jewish thinking. Given this seemingly resistance to Persian culture, the Jews may have seen themselves as very distinct from the Persians and willing to critique the Persian leaders.
The last piece of context we need to examine is the genre. Talmon ends his paper by stating that Esther is an “historicized wisdom-tale”. In response, Crenshaw argues that Esther is defiantly not in the lineage of wisdom literature as it doesn’t incorporate many of the needed requirements to be wisdom literature and there aren’t good responses to the numerous non-wisdom elements in the book. Gordis also responds to Talmon and argues that Esther indeed does have contact with wisdom principles, but it’s lack of reference to the divine excludes it from totally embracing all the tenets of wisdom literature. For Gordis, Esther is a unique genre all to itself, a story written by a Jew from the perspective of a non-Jew court official. There are further suggestions to see Esther as primarily a folk tale around two heroes.
Given the way the story climaxes in the formation of Purim, I have to disagree with these analyses and side with Bush who characterizes Esther as a festival etiology. This allows us to keep our contact with wisdom literature seen in the book, it doesn’t preclude the obvious familiarity the writer has with the Persian court, it doesn’t commit us to making specific historical determinations which are highly disputed, it doesn’t lead us to quite speculative suggestions like Gordis and finally it allows us to see the main concern of the story, to establish the reasons to celebrate Purim.
We come to this text within the development of the story behind Purim. In the previous chapter, Haman has casts Pur (lots) which ends up being the word for which the festival is named after. After casting his lots for the day of Jewish destruction, Haman becomes successful in convincing King Ahasuerus to let him send out his edict to bring about the total annihilation of the Jews. It is after the public publishing of this edict that we encounter this passage as the tension of this festival legend begins to build rapidly. This passage has elements that should make us consider human responsibility and action in when solving life problems. In considering human responsibility, it should also direct our thoughts to how God is to be involved.
This passage starts out in an undeniably religious fashion, invoking much of the traditional religious acts of mourning in the Jewish tradition. It is quite a shock that the author is defiantly silent on any connection to God with this religious participation. It makes the religious acts in verses 1-4 more of a human or cultural act than as a religious act of reaching out to God. This absence of commenting on God should push us to consider the value of religious and human actions without relation to Yahweh. In their distress, Mordecai and the Jews conform to the cultural religious responses to disaster and as we will see, seek refuge in human ingenuity and power.
There is no cry for God, but only a “loud and bitter cry” at the gates of the king. It’s conceivable that Mordecai is at the king’s gate for two reasons. One is to show his pain and sadness to the king in hopes of trying to get Ahasuerus to rectify the edict. It also can be seen as a way to get queen Esther’s attention, which is indeed what happens. It’s clear Mordecai’s plan is to get Esther to go to the king herself and ask him to end the impending doom upon the Jews, as seen in verse eight. With either reason, we see that the ultimate goal of mourning at the gates is to get a human to rescue the Jews. Given the religious connotations of ashes and sackcloth, it is troubling that no appeal to God is made for salvation, as all attention is focused on a human source of help. Was is the point of sackcloth, ashes, and fasting if not connected to some deity? Upon reflection, it serves as an all too real depiction for how people actually act. For as religious as we may portray ourselves in deed or word, when it comes down to it, we rely on oursleves and other humans for help more than God.
This insight can go deeper than this though, for in verse two the author makes it clear that no one was able to enter the kings gate “clothed in sackcloth”. This suggests that this sort of religious activity was a well know activity to participate in. In the religious plurality of the Persian empire, what the Jews were doing was standard religious protocol. At this point, it would become even more dire to clarify what deity their religious activity was directed towards. When it comes to witnessing for Yahweh, the Jews remain silent, and are seen as just engaging in regular religious activity. They are living in the Persian religious culture without appropriating this culture for the cause of Yahweh. In a religiously pluralistic society, it’s important that we don’t let our religious actions become confused as to who is our motivation for engaging in these rituals.
Still considering this verse, I think we may be able to see another source of descension against the Persian empire to support the overwhelming disapproval of the empire. Not only was the Persian government utterly foolish in a plethora of ways, but it also wasn’t devoutly religious. As we noted, no one is allowed into the king’s gate with sackcloth. This is in stark contrast to biblical depiction of mourning kings in the Jewish tradition like David in 2 Samuel 12:16. The government is not just overly materialistic, foolish, and cumbersome, but it also doesn’t allow engage the fullness of religious practice. This is somewhat of an ironic insight as Esther itself suppresses much explicit religious intuitions.
Given these Persian realities, the Jewish people need to learn how to operate within the confines they find themselves. It’s clear that Esther is unaware of the decree sent out by the king from Haman and so she isn’t sure why Mordecai is so distraught. That’s why in verse five she sends Hathach to go talk to Mordecai. Rather than thinking she is being insensitive to Mordecai’s pain or that she is embarrassed by Mordecai’s actions, it’s more likely that she is trying to bring Mordecai into the king’s court to talk. She knows Mordecai can’t come into the king’s court in his current condition and so she tries to give him attire that will allow him to come and discuss with her what the issue is. The Persian circumstance makes it difficult for the Jews to fully embody their religious practices. In the absence of religious inspiration and predispositions, Esther and Mordecai try to work out a plan where they themselves can use their own abilities to rescue the Jews from annihilation.
From my analysis of the passage and the various categories of contextual evidence, I think there are two important understandings of living out faith in a pluralistic setting. The first is that we need to be aware of just going through the motions. Sometimes, we get caught up in doing religious things, and think that is good enough without taking the extra step to make it a genuine connection to God. In a plural society, religious activity may be ubiquitous and so religious activity just becomes a part of the culture. If we aren’t careful, our religion can be just an expression of culture. A way we live, but never with any intention in interacting with the divine.
In a situation like this, we end up relying ultimately on ourselves and our own strengths. We engage in religious activity just because it is a habit. So, when we go to solve problems and engage in the world, we stake our hope in our own ingenuity and power rather than on God’s. In contrast to this sentiment, I think Esther actually brings dignity and value to motivating people to take responsibility to act in the world. We have to take responsibility for what does or does not get done in this world, and if we just sit around and wait for God to do everything, nothing will get done, we need to act ourselves. Mordecai urges Esther to not sit by idly as her people get destroyed but to go and plead on behalf of her people to the king. However, we must not be so naïve to not acknowledge that the strength, power and religious habits we embody are sustained by God, and most dignified and glorified when enacted with explicit recognition of God as the source of all of it. In 2 Maccabees 15:36, it appears that Purim is referred to as “the day before Mordecai’s day”. This colloquial name encourages our memory to think about the human Mordecai and what he did to save the Jews, and not so much to consider the way God’s providence was involved in the story of their salvation.
The second takeaway I get is the need to appropriate cultural actions for the purpose of glorifying God. On some levels it seems like the religious activity in this passage isn’t strictly Jewish rituals, but may be common to all religious observers. This doesn’t mean not to engage in it, but to we need to be clear to show why and for whom we are participating in it for. When we engage in prayer, acts of service, prophetic witnessing, fighting for justice, it’s important to recognize that these things aren’t solely Christian activities. However, when we do partake in them, it’s dire for us to make it clear that we are doing these things because of Jesus and for the glorification of Jesus. This way we avoid the relativizing of our faith while also being able to speak too and speak with other faith traditions in our context.
Esther can sometimes be a challenge to see its theological worth. With theology meaning talk about God, Esther seems to be entirely silent about theology because of it’s deliberate silence on any talk about God. This changes our focus from thinking about God to analyzing the actions of the people. In focusing solely on human activity, we are led to ponder and consider the moments it would be most clear that characters or narrator would call on God. I think it is in those moments that we then see how our own life embodies so much of the secular nature of this book. Too often our first instinct is often to confide in human ability over divine wisdom to solve life’s problems.
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