Esther as Literature: A well written story

One of the distinctive of the book of Esther is the very high literary quality. It is a good story, and a well-told story. Actually, one of the “evidences” that people use to prove that the story is not historically true is that it reads more like a good novel with character development, scenes, a climatic moment when the people are saved, etc. Good storytelling does not, though, need to undermine the historicity of the story it is telling.

That said, there are a few important literary motifs that would be helpful to note:

Feasts and gallows as literary device

Throughout the story, there are frequent and recurring references to both feasts and gallows. Each time a feast or gallows is referenced, it serves as a sort of mile marker in the development of the story. And while the next post will demonstrate this through a framing of the book of Esther as a play in 3 acts, plus an epilogue, a few initial observations on feasts and gallows can be made.

  • Feasts (or banquets, or parties, depending upon translation)
    • There are a lot of parties in this story
    • Hebrew word for “feast” is used 20 times in Esther
    • That same word only appears 24 times in the rest of the Old Testament combined!
    • Study Esther and one thing becomes very clear: the people like to party
  • Gallows
    • Gallows appear 4 times in the story
    • The first three serve almost as the end of an act in a play or end of a chapter in a book
    • The gallows on which the Persians “hung” people are not like what we imagine from old western movies
    • They were tall poles that the victim was impaled upon, sometimes using nails to hold them to the impaling pole
    • What does that sound like?
    • Crucifixion: the Romans perfected it, but it was the Persian empire here that developed this form of attaching someone to a pole for executive
    • For more, read this article from Ligionier: Was Haman Hanged or Impaled?
  • Irony
    • There is a great use of irony throughout the story
    • The “great” king Xerxes is revealed as a tool being used by his subjects
    • The “wise” men are anything but
    • Multiple times in the story something happens to make you think, “Boy that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.” (Cue Ron Burgundy)RonBurgundyEscalatedQuickly
    • Example: Mordecai would not bow to Haman, so Haman moves to eliminate all the Jewish people in the empire
    • Example: Mecumen (Es 1:16) declares that Vashti disobeying Xerxes is a wrong not only against the king but against men everywhere who are now going to see their wives revolt against them
  • Character Comparisons
    • Story is set up to invite the reader to make comparisons between the characters, both within the story and with other characters in Biblical history
    • Examples: Haman vs. Mordecai | Vashti vs. Esther | Esther vs. Daniel | Xerxes vs. Jesus
  • Reversals
    • “the reverse occurred” (Esther 9:1)
    • Like any good story, this one has a climatic scene that leads to a series of reversals

Before venturing on deeper into Esther, I encourage you to sit down and read the story. Not in chapters and verses. But as a novel. Read the whole thing and enjoy the high literary quality, the character arcs, and see the subtle providence of God at work.

Where is God?

WhereisGodThe book of Esther is unique. There is something different… unexpected… unique about Esther when compared to all the other books of the Bible: the name of God is never mentioned!

That should lead us to ask a question: Where is God in Esther?

Where is God?

  • Esther is the only book of the Bible that never mentions God
  • In fact, the people don’t even seem particularly “religious”
  • No one prays, no one reads their Bibles, no one goes to temple or sings worship songs
  • God is, seemingly, absent from the story

There is a difference between the presence of absence and the absence of presence – Pastor David Strain at FPC Jackson

Did you hear that? What an important distinction. You may observe what is there… or not observe what is there. Just because Esther never tells us about God explicitly, doesn’t mean he isn’t present. The story of Esther is the story of God’s providential control of all things, even when he seem to be missing in action.

With that, let us establish a theme for the book of Esther

The Theme of Esther

The book of Esther teaches God’s people that even when God’s face is unseen and his name is not mentioned, his sovereign hand is still at work protecting his people.

What are God’s works of providence?
God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preservation and control of all his creatures, and all their actions (WSC 11).

Esther is, in short, the story of God’s providence. There are no miracles and no divine intervention. There is, simply, a faithful God ordaining all the ordinary, mundane details in just such a way as to protect and preserve his people.

Esther: The Time, Place and Occasion of the Story

EstherAs noted in my previous post, I am in the midst of a year long personal study of Esther that has resulted in me teaching a class on the book.

Part of studying any book of the Bible is to ask questions regarding authorship, when it was written, who the original audience of the book was, etc. Our interpretation of the book is shaped by the answers to these questions. Sometimes the answers are really clear (Paul wrote the book of Philippians… very little dispute here). Sometimes the answers are less clear, though generally agreed upon in the evangelical world (Moses wrote Genesis). Sometimes we don’t know at all, but we still need to ask.

Where we are in history: the time, place & occasion of Esther

  • Authorship and Date of writing
    • Authorship is often attributed to either Ezra or Mordecai
    • Truth is, we don’t know
    • Esther was likely written after Mordecai, but before 330BC when Alexander the Great conquered Persia
    • Evidence: The Hebrew used in Esther shows no signs of any Hellenistic influence, something that would have been expected if it was written after Alexander’s conquest
  • Original Audience
    • Esther was written to Jews, likely still scattered throughout the empire
    • Story of Esther served as an impetus for the celebration of Purim
  • Historical Timeline
    • 722 – Northern kingdom (Israel) fell to Assyria
    • 586 – Southern kingdom (Judah) fell to Babylon, the beginning of the exile
    • 539 – Cyrus the Persian captured Babylon
    • 538 – Cyrus decreed that Israelites could return to Jerusalem / their homeland
    • 515 – Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem
    • 486-464 – Ahasareus reigned in Persia
    • ~479 – Esther named queen
    • Two other historical notes of interest
      • Xerxes infamous failed attack on Sparta’s 300 men takes place between chapters 1 and 2 of Esther
      • Whole of Esther takes place between chaters 6 and 7 of Ezra
  • The People
    xerxes

    Ahasareus, aka Xerxes

    • The story of Esther has 4 main characters
    • Ahasareus, better known as Xerxes
    • Haman the Agagite (Boo!)
    • Mordecai the Jew
    • Esther, the orphan girl become queen, raised by her cousin Mordecai
  • The Place: Susa, the winter capital of Persia
    • 2 important location notes
    • First, turns out King Xerxes was a snowbird!
    • Second, and more importantly, the Jews should never have been in Susa. They should have gone back to Jerusalem when they had the chance. So this story reflects part of what happens when God’s people are more interested in acclimating to the systems of the world than to being part of God’s kingdom.
    • See the map of the Persian kingdom below

PersiaMap

Build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ: A Sermon from Matthew 7:24-29

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

And when Jesus had finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Matt 7:24-29).

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable about 2 builders, 2 foundations, 1 test and 2 vastly different outcomes from that test. Watch my sermon that closed out our 32 week study of the Sermon on the Mount.

2 Gates, 2 Roads: A Sermon on Matthew 7:13-14

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14).

Jesus issues a firm challenge: all of us will either enter the wide gate and walk the easy road… or enter the narrow gate and walk the hard road. But he also offers us a promise: He is the gate. And he is the way.

Esther: Understudied and Underappreciated

Esther

God, in giving us his Word, preserved 66 books that, together, make up our Bibles. We believe each one to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God, the final rule of faith and conduct. And we believe that the whole Bible is designed to point us to Jesus, the Word of God become man.

If all of that is true, how come I know so little about the book of Esther?

That is the question that kicked off my personal study of the book of Esther for the past year. Presently, I am teaching a class on Esther based on my studies at Covenant Life Church where I serve as Executive Pastor.

Thus provides the occasion for the following series of blog posts where I invite you, the reader, to join me in a study of one of the most understudied and underappreciated books in the Bible.

But first…

Why I came to study Esther

Here are a few of the reasons I chose to do a deep study on Esther:

  • I had never done so before: As I said, above, I knew precious little of the story of Esther before this present study in my own life.
  • Never had a class on Esther: Ok, I don’t think (and don’t expect) seminary to cover everything, but I did find it interesting to have never even had a discussion in a seminary class on Esther.
  • Only heard one sermon before: While no classes on Esther, I did have a preaching lab professor preach a sermon on Esther in class one day. He covered the whole book… all 10 chapters… in a 30 minute message. Now, it was a really good sermon, but seems that there might be more to be studied here.
  • For women only: Ever get the feeling that Esther and Ruth, just because they are named after female characters in their respective stories, are for women only? That’s how I felt… and I thought I should change that.

An understudied and underappreciated book

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had never studied Esther much:

  • No commentaries: For the first 6 centuries of the church, no commentaries were written on the book of Esther!
  • Calvin never preached on Esther: Yeah, the same Calvin who was preaching 3 times a day 5+ days a week, and he never preached a sermon on Esther.
  • Luther questioned its canonicity: Martin Luther of “I started the Reformation” fame questioned whether Esther should even be in the Bible. Let’s all be glad he didn’t get the final call on that or we might be missing some wonderful truths. 🙂

How the story of Esther is normally told

My familiarity with Esther before diving into this study may have been limited to the Veggie Tales version. But there are some commonalities in the way the story of Esther is normally told:

  • Esther is the courageous, pure, lovely young beauty who always does the right thing
  • Mordecai is the wise old sage of an uncle who guides and directs Esther
  • Ahasareus is the generally good, though easily deceived, king

Listen to this description from The Reluctant Queen, an historical novel on Esther from Joan Wolf:

You’ve read it as a biblical tale of courage. Experience it anew as a heart-stirring love story. She was a simple girl faced with an impossible choice. He was a magnificent king with a lonely heart. Their love was the divine surprise that changed the course of history. The beloved story of Esther springs to fresh life in this inspired novel that vibrates with mystery, intrigue, and romance.

So as not to bury the lead, let me just put this out there: I don’t think that is what we are going to find as we get into the story of Esther. In fact, what we find is far different than anything I expected. I invite you to join me in this space in the coming weeks as I post my insights into the book of Esther.

Fake Book Covers from Reformed Authors

In the lead up to the PCA’s General Assembly this year, we created some fake food-related book covers from some of the most well-known Reformed writers, pastors and theologians. Ever wonder what Tim Keller thinks about an American classic, the hot dog? Or imagine John Piper writing about leftovers. Well, here you go! Here is the full collection. Enjoy.

*Special thank you to Chris Meadows for his invaluable assistance in creating these graphics.

The Prodigal (Hot) Dog by Tim Keller

The Prodigal (Hot) Dog
by Tim Keller

Don't Waste Your Leftovers by John Piper

Don’t Waste Your Leftovers
by John Piper

Three Free Cinnabons by Steve Brown

Three Free Cinnabons
by Steve Brown

The Pizzamaker by Ken Sande

The Pizzamaker
by Ken Sande

He Gave Us Streusel by Richard Pratt

He Gave Us Streusel
by Richard Pratt

Christ-Centered Eating by Bryan Chapell

Christ-Centered Eating
by Bryan Chapell