The Voice: Exile/Esther/Exodus/Easter
I have been sitting with the Book of Esther for most of a year now. I have read it time and again, listened to it several times on an audio bible, thought about it, prayed about it, and been preoccupied by it. Perhaps I could even be accused of obsessing over it.
I have inexplicitly been drawn to the story; called to it. Elie Wiesel’s words about the “secret in every tale, book, and novel … which makes the unity of the work” comes closest to the explanation of “why?” In this work of Esther, I have sought to discover its secret. This story, which is devoid of any explicit spirituality, any mention of worship, any mention of God, any mention of prayer – I have been engaged in that game of divine hide–and–seek when it is the glory of God to conceal a matter and a royal quest to search it out (Prov 25:1).
I found that the secret of the Book of Esther is discovered by listening to its whisper and silence. For Esther is a story told at several levels of volume. In places it shouts, at times speaks, sometimes whispers, and most times retains a silence which mysteriously speaks. Those parts of the story which are whispered and silent are parts which contain the life–giving message. As a rule, the louder the voice in the Book of Esther the emptier the message. Yet the danger is, and it is true to this day, that it is the loud voices which gain attention.
The story begins Esther 1:1–12 (NIV) at full volume: shouting . . .
1 This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: 2 At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3 and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.
4 For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. 5 When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa ….7 Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. 8 By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.
9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.
10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him … 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
So, at one level, the Book of Esther is told at full volume and this shouting continues throughout the narrative. Events and people are exaggerated and much of the story is over the top. Amid the shouting in Esther 1:1–12, there are several pathways we can take through the rest of the narrative. We could take the path of banquets. Or we could take the path of robes; who is wearing what and when is an important path through the story. We could take the path which focuses on written edicts, laws, and writings in Esther. There are sixty-three of those.
But the path we are taking is whispered: exile.
At first glance “exile” is shouted. The action takes place in Persia after the Israelites had been taken into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Now about 100 years later some Jews had returned home while others stayed under the new empire Persia ruled by King Xerxes. “Exile” is shouted in the Book of Esther.
Yet at a deeper level – at a level common to humanity – this pathway exposes the exile that all humanity suffers. In Esther 1, after the six-month tour of the empire’s splendour and a further six days of banqueting, we read in Esther 1:10 “On the seventh day . . .”
The faintest whisper but a whisper even so of Genesis 2. In Genesis 2:1–3, after six days of divine splendour, on the seventh day God rests, blesses and makes the day holy. By contrast, in Esther 1 after six months of human pride and six days of drunken feasting, on the seventh day, Xerxes abuses, sins, and destroys. Esther 1 gives us a vision of the world in exile from a wider spiritual perspective.
We have nothing in common with Xerxes concerning his political power, but we have everything in common with his human weakness. We are all prone to actions and decisions which fracture and fragment. We are all prone to vanity and conceit. Insofar that is true, we are all consigned to live East of Eden in exile.
This is what is whispered at the start of the Book of Esther, and we will be well served to name it. To aid us, the story of Esther shows us the shape and shade of exile through the characters in the story.
We have Mordecai whose identity as a member of God’s people is no secret. We have Esther whose identity as a member of God’s people is a secret.
We have Mordecai who speaks throughout the story. His presence and practice proclaim the people of God, and this translates to suffering.
We have Esther who whispers throughout the story. Her presence and practice reveal the presence of God, and this requires wisdom.
The experience of exile is heightened by the presence the enemy of the Jews: Haman.
In Esther 2 – we know how Mordecai came to be in the heart of Persia. We know how Esther came to be there … but Haman? Not so much. He drops into the story in Esther 3. We don’t know how he came to be here in the empire, but we do know where he came from. He is an Amalekite (Esther 3:1), that age-old enemy of Israel who harassed, hindered, and attacked them as they left Egypt in the exodus (Deut 25:17–19). As one commentator puts it, Haman is “The Darth Vader” of Biblical history.
Throughout the story Haman shouts. On the rare occasions when he is silent, he is sly. In Esther 3 when he makes a play to the King to eradicate the Jews, he mainly uses a form of silence that is a combination of a truth, a half-truth, and a lie. All this amounts to evil.
There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom (a truth) who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people (a half-truth) and they do not obey the king’s laws (a lie). It is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them (an evil).
Haman’s silence is sly and his silent identity more so: “the enemy of the Jews” (Esther 3:10). That description is not used again until after he has been exposed in Esther 7 where the term is used four times.
Life in exile.
Bewildering. Bitter. Grief–stricken. Distressing. Threatening. Destructive.
Life in exile means living in the presence of the enemy.
In reflecting on the Book of Esther, Eugene Peterson writes:
The insight that there is, in fact, an enemy is an important biblical insight for pastoral leadership . . . There is danger, and there is threat: there is an enemy. Pastoral work takes place in an environment of hostility. There are times in history when it is overt, other times when it is covert; always it is intense … Wherever there is a people of God there are enemies of God. Pastoral work that seeks to build up the community of faith cannot afford to be innocent about Haman.
When I left pastoral ministry after seventeen and a half years with the same congregation, I did so with one regret. I had been too slow in recognising the presence of evil at work among the people of God. Eventually and always evil will overplay its hand and be exposed. However, I failed in discerning evil soon enough. We suffered because of that. The Book of Esther teaches us that the reality of exile is shouted and amplified by the presence of the enemy of the God’s people.
And what makes such exile worse is the apparent absence of God. As far as Old Testament narratives are concerned Esther breaks the golden rule: the main character is God and God is the hero of the story.
But not here in Esther. As specified earlier, in the Book of Esther there is no spirituality, God is never mentioned, there is no worship, there is no prayer. The story is a spiritual vacuum. Evil grows and redemption fades. Exile shouts. God seems silent and absent.
My exhortation to you: listen to the whisper and silence in the story. For when we do that, we discover that during exile there is always exodus.
When we listen to the whisper and silence, we discover God.
One of the first instances of this is in Esther 3. Haman casts the pur (lot) to determine when to annihilate the Jews. Scripture says he did so in the first month, the month of Nisan. In this Haman is clueless: he cast the pur on the eve of Passover.
Silence that speaks.
Exodus has begun yet no-one in the story knows it. God is silent and acting. However, just as the original exodus in Egypt (Exod 5), the threat initially increases rather than decreases.
Having learnt about the impending genocide from Mordecai, Esther seeks an audience with the king. However, when he asks her what her request is she delays and instead invites him and Haman to a banquet (Esther 5). Once at the banquet, the king again asks what her request is. She further delays saying she will answer the next day at yet another banquet. But is she trying to be too clever? Has she missed her opportunity? Has she not said enough soon enough? The threat increases.
Haman leaves the banquet elated that he is the only one invited with the King. But on his way through the king’s gate there he is again! Mordecai stands there refusing to bow before him. At home with his wife and friends Haman recites all his good fortune, but it means nothing when “I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate” (Esther 5:13). So, his wife and friends tell him to erect a pole twenty metres high and to ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai impaled on it.
Now we hear God in the silence.
Now we see God in the gaps.
For in Esther 6–7 everything turns. All the silences in the narrative now collide in these two chapters, especially in chapter 6.
In Esther 6 when the King can’t sleep the chapter is full of multiple silences. These silences conspire to lead to redemption. As readers, we see the silences telling the story the king did not know:
- The silence that Mordecai had saved his life from an assassination plot.
- The silence that Mordecai had not been rewarded for saving the king’s life.
- The silence that Mordecai and Haman were enemies.
- The silence that Esther is a Jew.
- The silence that Esther and Mordecai were related.
- The silence that Haman had not told the King the true situation concerning the Jews.
- The silence that Haman’s plot would reach into the very palace.
These silences conspire to lead the king to reward Mordecai.
Haman appears at that moment to seek the King’s permission to execute Mordecai. The king and Haman have a conversation marked by silence. They think they know what is being talked about: how should the king reward the man he wants to honour? (Esther 6:6).
The silence has the last redemptive word in it all.
- The King doesn’t say who he wants to reward.
- Haman doesn’t know it’s Mordecai.
- The King doesn’t know Haman thinks its him.
- The King doesn’t know Haman and Mordecai are enemies.
- The King doesn’t know why Haman is even there.
The silence is broken with the king taking Haman’s advice on how to reward the man the king wants to honour: essentially make him king for a day.
And Haman can be the servant of that king.
All of it is God.
The exodus which began when the lot was cast on the eve of Passover (Esther 3:7), now continues in chapter 6 as the Angel of Death “passes over” (c.f. Exo 12:13) Mordecai, Esther, and the Jews.
In the silence.
This chapter (Esther 6) is the chapter where God is most clearly discerned. This chapter, marked mostly by silence, contains one of the strongest and most explicit theological statements in the whole book. After the humiliated Haman has led Mordecai through the streets of Susa as he would a king, we hear the fearful whisper of Haman’s wife and friends:
“Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him – you will surely come to ruin!” (Esther 6:13).
“Of Jewish origin.”
There it is!
“Of Jewish origin.”
The silence is truly broken.
“Of Jewish origin.”
This speaks of God, his people; it speaks of exodus. This speaks of God’s redemptive plan through his chosen people. Here the Angel of Death passes over Mordecai but not Haman.
Chapter 6 is the chapter to read to find the secret of the Book of Esther. For in the white spaces between the words, in the gaps in the conversations, in the talking past each other, God is present.
To read chapter 6 with your context in mind is to be reminded who the head of the church is.
To read chapter 6 is to be reminded that there will be times when you cannot do anything other than watch God reverse the situation.
To read chapter 6 is to believe that when evil words are being spoken, evil actions are being planned, the future appears bleak, threats are growing – the God of the Exodus is present.
Even if he is not saying a thing.
Chapter 6 ends with Haman barely taking in the prophecy of doom before the king’s eunuchs arrive and hurry him off to the next banquet. This will be his last meal.
To read chapter 6 is to be introduced to the spirituality of chapter 7. For there at that banquet all is revealed. Here is the Passover meal of the Book of Esther. Here is the foreshadowing of the Last Supper of the gospels. Evil and betrayal are unmasked and disarmed. Because of this meal, the future changes.
In one sense, everyone is present at the banquet in chapter 7: Xerxes, Esther, Haman, Mordecai, and the Jewish people.
All is revealed at this banquet. The identity of God’s people and of God’s enemy. For the one time in the story Esther raises her voice above a whisper. In revealing her identity and the threat to her people she ensures it is deeply personal.
Grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated.
“My life/my petition; my people/my request; I and my people . . .”
The banquet and her speech are marked by desperation and urgency. Her life depended on it.
Such virtues and themes as evidenced through Esther’s example ought to reside in our equivalent banquet (communion) when we celebrate the victory of God over evil. For we too declare at that banquet, every time, our identity as God’s people and the unmasking of evil as God’s plan succeeds over evil’s plot. We recall as we celebrate our banquet, that the first time it was instituted, good and evil sat at that table. Twelve disciples and the Saviour broke bread and drank wine and in doing so all was revealed.
Faithfulness and faithlessness broke bread and drank wine.
Promises and vows were uttered, and betrayal and denial were committed.
Lives depended on it.
They still do to this day.
And the future was secured in Christ.
Oh, that we as would celebrate our banquet every time with urgency, desperation, and hope – and take Esther’s words on our lips as we take the bread and cup:
“My life/my petition; my people/my request; I and my people.”
Yes! To have that kind of passionate heart for those you serve in this place of exile as we wait for exodus.
After the banquet in Esther 7, there is an increase in names. Everyone and everything are named. By association, God is named. Yet the ones named most are the people of God, “the Jews.” God’s people and the community of faith.
The people of God have been totally silent throughout the whole telling of the story. Their silence only matched by God’s silence. And herein lies the key to seeing God in the Book of Esther – he has been hiding in plain sight.
If you want to see God in the Book of Esther; if you want evidence that he is in the story of Esther; if you want to read the name of God in the Book of Esther – his name is found with his people.
God identifies with his community in exile, and he clothes himself with exodus garments.
Has it been some time since you have sensed God at work? Look again at the people you serve and worship with. Look again because God is hiding in plain sight. Gain heart from the end of the Book of Esther when the people of God have cause to celebrate the action of God; as silent as it is. The veil is pulled back and for a moment there is something eschatological about it.
All will be well … all will be well.
Esther 8 – 9are summed up with phrases such as:
For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honour (Esther 8:16).
On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them (Esther 9:1).
Yet, the one person who begins to be named less from this point is Esther: her voice begins to be heard less. It’s still there but trails off. Her voice was raised at the banquet in Esther 7. Before and after that she whispers. And by chapter 10 – she is silent. As is God. But together, God and his daughter have defined and secured the future.
In that they speak.
Rabbis have a primary command for Purim, the Festival of Esther: “Read me!” Generations of Jews celebrate Purim not as a something that happened to their ancestors like it is a museum piece. They celebrate their ancestors’ experience like it is a drama. The story of Esther is embraced with its drama and as such contemporary exile experiences find a place there. The story of Esther is embraced, and it is a means to yet again experience exodus.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was in Auschwitz-Birkenau as a fifteen-year old. While there, Wiesel was schooled by a master rabbi who one night took him back to his barracks to witness something extraordinary: three rabbis indicted God for crimes against humanity and placed him on trial. Over subsequent years, Wiesel tried to write what he had witnessed. He failed a number of times but eventually settled on a play entitled “The Trial of God.”
Here’s the thing: Wiesel soley wrote this play for the festival of Purim. Wiesel wrote in the introduction of the play:
Its genesis [the play]: inside the kingdom of night, I witnessed a strange trial. Three rabbis – all erudite and pious men – decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But there nobody cried.
One of the characters in Wiesel’s Festival of Purim play keeps asking the question: “And God in all this?” The question which permeates the story of Esther and every human story since.
And God in all this?”
Wiesel had two favourite words during his life: “And yet.”  He claimed those two words can be applied to any situation whether they are happy or distressing.
Those two words capture the intention and spirit as to why Wiesel could locate his experience of genocide in the story and festival of Esther. They capture the theology and work of God in the Book of Esther. They are the vocabulary for hope. The Book of Esther acknowledges the people of God face threats and yet no matter how serious the threat, there is a future. And yet the Book of Esther assures the people of God’s place in the world is secure because ultimately God and his plan is secure.
Eugene Peterson asks the question that the Book of Esther poses:
Is it possible for God's community to survive when you remove it from its home base, when you take away its form of worship, when you mix it into a pagan system, and subject it to powerful and malicious hostility? – even remove the name of God!
He answers by quoting Thomas Merton:
The last thing in the world that should concern a Christian or the Church is survival in a temporal and worldly sense: to be concerned with this is an implicit denial of the Victory of Christ and of the Resurrection.
Purim does not celebrate the day the Jews defeated their enemies; it celebrates the day on which they rested from their enemies. There is the faintest of whispers again from Genesis 2:1–3. The rest of God after the work of God. Is this part of what it is to be the people of God? A people who knows God’s rest because of the Victory of Christ and of the Resurrection? Is this what it means to live in exile and yet live as hoped–filled exodus people?
Israel Baal Shem Tov eloquently said, “Forgetfulness leads to exile. Remembrance is the secret of redemption.”
The secret in the Book of Esther that unifies the tale is the reminder that despite apparent silence and inactivity on God’s part, he is silently and actively bringing about exodus in and through his people.
In and through his Son.
Geoff New is Dean of Studies/Acting Principal at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership (Dunedin) where he teaches preaching, pastoral care, and Christian Formation. He is a trainer for Langham Preaching in South Asia and also leads Kiwimade Preaching. His most recent book is Echoes: the Lord's Prayer in the Preacher's Life(2020).
 Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel (New York: Paulist Press, 1976), 84–85 quoted in Irving Abrahamson (ed.), Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel (New York: Holocaust Library, 1985), 1:9.
 Carol M. Bechtel, Esther, Interpretation(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), 13.
 Adele Berlin, The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), xxxviii.
 Berlin, Esther, 38.
 Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 218–220.
 Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 333.
 Berlin, Esther, xiviii.
 Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (New York: Schocken Books, 1995).
 Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 16.
 Joyce Baldwin, Esther: an introduction and commentary (Downer Groves: IVP, 1984), 37.
 Peterson, Five Stones, 233.
 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Image Books, Doubleday, 1968), 126 quoted in Peterson, Five Stones, 233.
 Berlin, Esther, 89.
 Quoted in Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, ed. Irving Abrahamson (New York: Holocaust Library, 1985), 1:85.