I just completed an epic study of the book of Esther, epic because it took me so long to finish it (my brother, Pat, will be happy to know that it is finally completed!). It is helpful to me to write through the things I learned in order to sort through my conclusions about the book. So here goes…
The first and most obvious thing about the book of Esther is that God is missing. As in he isn’t mentioned. Not once. Neither is prayer or fasting or the temple or sacrifices; zip, nada, nothing. Commentators have noticed this from the very earliest times. In fact, so glaring is the omission of God, that those who translated it into Greek (at a very early, unknown date), set about to rectify the problem. The Greek version of Esther has a bunch of additions in which God is mentioned, Esther prays, etc. etc. etc. The translators “filled in the blanks” as it were.
Think about this for a minute. Esther is a book about the salvation of the Jews from wicked Haman, and they are saved, and yet God is not even mentioned. This would be something like me writing a book on the history of the Olympics and completely leaving out any reference to track and field. My manuscript would be returned from the editor for extensive revision!
The fact that God is missing from the book of Esther is so obvious and so glaring that one must conclude that the writer of Esther omitted him on purpose, and that the author wanted us to notice. I say without hesitation that this must have been the author’s intent. But why? Good question.
At the time of the events of Esther, the return to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah has already taken place. The return from exile began around 520 BC. Esther dates to the reign of the Persian king, Xerxes, which began somewhere around 486 BC, some 35 years after some Jews had returned to Jerusalem. Remember that God’s covenant with his people was integrally connected to the land of Israel. Indeed, God had promised that his people were going into exile, but also promised that they would return from exile. But what about the Jews who did not return from exile? Were they still part of God’s people? Did God still have a plan for them? Or had God abandoned them?
The author of the book of Esther sets out to answer that question. Was God still concerned with the Jews who had stayed in Persia, even though his covenant was connected with the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The unknown author answers this question in a brilliant way. He constructs the book in such a way that one cannot help but see God’s sovereignty and providence on display in event after event after event, but he does this without ever mentioning God. One simply cannot read through Esther without seeing God at work on every page, and my argument is that this is exactly what the author of Esther wants us to see. God has not abandoned his people. He is still moving. He is still bringing them salvation, even though they are not connected to the land of Israel. The name of God is missing from the book, but his work and his salvation goes forward.
Indeed, there can be no doubt that, unmentioned, God is the central character of the book of Esther. Here’s how Karen Jobe puts it in her excellent commentary on Esther:
“What is the key to unlocking the great lessons of the book? It is this: Read correctly, the lead character of the book of Esther is not even Esther, but God. Esther should definitely get an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress—but the conclusions one draws from the book don’t work unless God plays the lead.”
So the fact that God is not mentioned is a literary device to get us to ask (and hopefully answer) the question: “Why did the author omit any reference to God?” I think this is brilliant, and part of the reason that the book of Esther is a narrative masterpiece of literature.