Esther takes place during the time of Exile.
If you follow Israel’s story throughout the Old Testament, you know there are high’s and low’s. You see the small beginnings of Israel when God called Abraham to follow him. You see how Jacob and his sons escape famine and starving by going to Egypt, where years later they are enslaved. Then you see how they are rescued, in a very dramatic way, and go to their promised home. During their journey, they meet with God at Mt. Sinai and receive his law that will govern their life. If you walk with me, keeping these commandments, I will watch over you and protect you. If you don’t walk with me, don’t keep these commandments, you will lose this promised land and wind up in exile.
Fast forward 500 years, Israel has not walked with God. So they are in exile. Exile is the existential crisis for Israel. They wonder, “are we still God’s people?” We learn through Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and other prophets that the answer is yes. God’s are rescued from Babylonian rule by the Persians, who allow them to return to their homes. Some do and begin rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem (hence the books Ezra and Nehemiah). The majority of Israelites do not. The stay in Babylon. They stay in Persia. Are they God’s people? Does God reveal himself to them? Does God save them too?
The answer of Esther is yes.
Esther shows us that we have a (sometimes) hidden God.
The story of Esther takes occurs during the (early) reign of Xerxes, who reigned from 486 BC until his assassination in 465 BC. His bodyguard was the one who assassinated him. Xerxes is his Greek name, but his Persian name was Ahasuerus. He was only 32 when he came became the most powerful man in the world.
Esther is a challenging book to read and understand, even the reformational leader Martin Luther questioned if it should even be in the bible. But “the absence of God is the genius of Esther” wrote biblical scholar Karen Jobe.
There are a lot of challenges to interpreting Esther, as we do not know who the author is, when it was written, nor is God’s name ever mentioned. Jobe put it this way, “God is telling the story.” And the original audience knew who Ahasuerus was. We do too, just by his Greek name. We know that he is the man responsible for the collapse of the Persian empire. The predominant theme of Esther is seeing a hidden God rescue his people. The author deliberately highlights this for us by starting the story off with a party of epic proportions. He has all this wealth, food, drink, and more. Esther is very much like Game of Thrones, were people jockey for more power, more position, more prestige. Being an Israelite in Persia is better than being such under Babylonian rule, but there is still immense pressure to compromise, give in, and even hide.
When we think God is absent, then we hide as well.
What does God do then?
The story of Esther gives us the answer. He rescues us. He shows up in marvelous, surprising ways. He shows us that he is never absent. The story of Esther means that we can never say that God is absent. We can never say that God is working in our life or in the world. He is.
That’s the story of Esther.