Concerns with the Book of Esther
Should Christians grieve for Haman and the Persians that mordechai and Esther had killed? Should Esther still be canon if there is no direct reference to God? Lastly, as Christians, how should we feel about a people that pretended to be Persian and then had the host nation’s people killed? These are honest questions I have and am looking forward to getting it resolved in my heart.
Wrestling with Esther
The fact that Esther does not mention God at all (the only book of the Bible where this is the case) is one of the reasons it had a hard time making it into the canon. So your question about whether or not it belongs there is an ancient one. The Apocrypha, which is accepted as canon by Catholic and Orthodox churches, has additional sections of the book of Esther that do mention God. You can read them here (note there is more than one page): https://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/additions-to-esther/1.html. If you’re not familiar with the Apocrypha, you can read a summary from our site here: https://www.massbible.org/exploring-the-bible/ask-a-prof/answers/apocrypha-canonical-does-it-carry-weight-scripture or a more lengthy treatment here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocrypha.
Also as background, the story of Esther is the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim: http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday9.htm.
There is no question (at least to me) that the bloody turnaround at the end of Esther is problematic. While it may be understandable from a human point of view, the attitude of “You were going to slaughter all of us so now we’re going to slaughter all of you” is not something I believe God would have celebrated. In confronting that in the Bible, I think we can learn to see some of the dark places of our own souls where we too often opt for vengeance instead of forgiveness.
Liberal Judaism at first refused to celebrate Purim because of that vengeance, and this short article by the Senior Rabbi of Liberal Judaism tells some of that history and how they have come to deal with the difficult text: https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/the-megillah-says-what-we-killed-75000-persians-on-purim/.
You’ll note from some of the above articles that there are considerable questions about whether the story of Esther is historical. But to me that doesn’t alleviate the issue that sitting in sacred scripture is a dramatic and heroic story that suddenly turns dark. When you back up from the details, it is a story about the corruption of power. Yes, you have Esther hiding her heritage as a Jew, but once the plotting of Haman is revealed and his powerful position is filled by Mordecai instead, Esther 8:17 says that many of the Persians then pretended to be Jews. That’s also pretty typical human behavior—we want to be associated with the powerful. And, frankly, when you’ve seen that a king can decide to slaughter an entire people one day and then turn on a dime and put someone on the slaughter list into power, many people simply want to live. Aligning ourselves with those in power is often a survival technique and in the story of Esther, both sides did it as the power dynamic shifted.
So what about the slaughter? Haman gets the king to agree to slaughter a people living peaceably among them. Esther does show considerable bravery in thwarting the effort, but then directly supports the retaliation by ordering the hanging of Haman’s sons. Haman himself received the justice of his time. Personally I’m not an advocate of capital punishment, but up to that point in the story in Esther 7, you have an orderly sense of justice. Haman is the villain of the story, rightfully so, and he gets what’s coming to him. (I’ll get to his sons in a minute.)
It’s also justice (again for its time) that Mordecai is put in Haman’s position (chapter 8). For the king to do that made a public statement that the Jewish people were an important part of the kingdom. That’s good politics. Esther is also wise in pushing the king to go further by formally calling off Haman’s plot and allowing the Jews to defend themselves if they should be attacked by a mob that decided to pay no attention to the king’s change of heart. We also know from general human history and experience that mobs go out and slaughter people on no authority but their own. We call such people “terrorists” today. The Jews were right to fear that they might still face violence, and Esther was wise to get them formal permission for self-defense.
It’s chapter 9 where things go off the rails. From the text it seems like the thirst for vengeance takes hold of the mob first—under no one’s orders—in 9:2. But the chapter is messy. It sounds first like the ten sons of Haman are killed by the mob with the others (v. 10 and 12), but then later in the chapter Esther asks the king to have the 10 sons hanged. Unless they were hung after death (kind of like the medieval practice of putting heads on pikes to frighten the enemy into submission), it’s not clear how it actually went down. But it was ugly and violated even the old “eye for an eye” Jewish law since the plot was thwarted before any of the Jews were actually killed.
So, what value does this story give us? Whether or not Esther should have been included in the canon, it was, and there it sits for Christians to learn from. But what is a helpful takeaway for us? What lessons that are consistent with Christian faith can we find here?
When I read the Bible, I look for big T “Truth” rather than focusing on the details of the story, whether they are historical or not, or following one little thing down a rabbit hole. And a major big T “Truth” that I find in Esther is that human institutions of power don’t mix well with the mandates of a faithful life. Judaism did not/does not teach what happened in chapter 9. Christian faith did not/does not teach what happened in the Crusades or the Inquisition or the Third Reich. But when the power of faith gets mixed up with the power of the state, it is rare that the latter does not corrupt the former. It has happened in every major religion right into our own time.
A second Truth for us here is that even the best of us can be overwhelmed by a thirst for vengeance under the right circumstances. Esther risks her life to save her people and shows her wisdom in advising the king on how to get out of the mess that Haman caused. But no one in her situation would be unaffected by the threat of genocide that was almost carried out upon her people. Like with many who are traumatized, the fear—even if averted—can easily turn to anger and anger to vengeance. Jesus addressed this in a number of ways, most centrally on the Cross when he willingly took the violence upon himself and asked God to forgive those who were responsible.
Ending the cycles of violence—of “you did this to me so I’m going to do that to you”—is incredibly hard. You don’t just forget atrocities. But perpetuating the cycle only makes the earth more like hell than heaven. Jesus showed us another way, and told us to take up our own cross and do the same. That’s what leads to the resurrection not just of Jesus or of us as individuals but of the world.
Lastly, there’s the verse that you will hear most sermons from Esther center around from chapter 4, verse 14: “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” It is the lesson that whatever power we are given on this earth—whether high and mighty or just among a small circle of friends—is an opportunity to speak up for those who are in danger and have less power than we do—the people who have to pretend they are something they are not (if they can) just to live. There are moments when we must take the brave step and speak or otherwise use our influence—however great or limited—so that others might live and thrive.
Queen Esther exemplified that in risking her life to save her people. And then, wearied from the effort, she allowed herself to fall into the trap of revenge. We can learn to emulate the former and allow the example of Jesus going to the Cross to help protect us from falling into the latter.