The Search for God in Esther

Nava Finkelman Tradition Online | February 27, 2023

One way to explain God’s absence in Megillat Esther is to position it as the book’s central theological message. Our Sages homiletically interpret Esther’s name as hinting to God’s hester panim, playing on His threat (Deut. 31:18) to “keep My countenance hidden” as an expression of His wrath (Hullin 139b). R. Yoel Bin-Nun develops this approach, writing that we don’t need overt miracles or explicit mention of God’s intervention to perceive His involvement in human affairs; rather, God’s control of events can be apparent even when not visible outright.

Following this line, many exegetes view the events described in Esther as divinely directed, even though this is not made explicit, and point to several instances where God’s intervention seems apparent. For example, incidents that are presented as coincidental are attributed to God’s machinations – Mordecai “just happened” to overhear Bigtan and Teresh; Ahasuerus “just happened” to have insomnia that night; Haman “just happened” to approach the king at the opportune time, etc.

Another method of “finding”’ God in Esther is to seek out words that seem to hint at His underlying presence. The most well-known of these is Mordecai’s admonishment to Esther: “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter” (4:14), where “another quarter” is interpreted as an allusion to God, the One who could provide “relief and deliverance.” Others see the proper noun “King” (ha-Melekh) which is used to refer to Ahasuerus as implicitly referring to God, especially in verses such as “the King and Haman sat down to feast” (3:15) and “That night, sleep deserted the king” (6:1).1

I would like to proffer another verse in the Megilla, usually overlooked, which I believe alludes to God. After returning home from the horse scene, Haman’s wife Zeresh and his advisors tell him: “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him; you will fall before him to your ruin” (6:13). In this statement, Zeresh and Haman’s advisors link Mordecai’s Jewishness to his upcoming success, or victory. Why is this connection so obvious to them? What makes Mordecai’s ethnic affiliation a guarantor of his eventual triumph? 

The motif of foreigners verbally acknowledging Israel’s God appears in narratives throughout the Bible. These foreigners are present in a wide variety of contexts, such as family affairs (Hagar, Gen. 16, 21; Laban, Gen. 31; and Jethro, Ex. 18); treaties of friendship (e.g., Abimelech, Gen. 26; Hiram, I Kings 5; and the Queen of Sheba, I Kings 10); and war (e.g., Melchizedek, Gen. 14; Balak, Num. 22-24; or the Philistines, I Samuel 4-7). In several narratives, the foreign enemy is presented as God’s opponent, such as Pharaoh (Ex. 5-12), Rabshakeh (II Kings 18-19), or Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 3).2

While the specific angle of each statement may vary according to context, they all seem to serve the same purpose: Glorifying Israel’s God. In some cases, this comes after witnessing a miracle. For example, after Naaman was miraculously cured of his tzara’at, he declared: “Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!” (II Kings 5:15). In other cases, the foreigner recognizes his own subservience to Israel’s God – for example, Balaam repeatedly asserted that “I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of my God the Lord” (Num. 22:18); or Cyrus’ declaration: “The Lord God of Heaven… has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:1). For our purposes, I would like to look at several narratives in which foreigners glorify God by attributing Israel’s success to Him. In these cases, an Israelite succeeds in some manner, and the foreigner in the story views God as the source of that success. 

There are several war narratives where the foreigner voices the theology that the Israelites’ victory was orchestrated by God. The first such case appears when Abram goes to war against the four kings. He liberates his nephew Lot along with other captives from Sodom (and their belongings), succeeding where the combined armies of five local kings failed. Upon returning from the battle, Melchizedek greets him and blesses God, accrediting Him with Abram’s recent victory: “Blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your foes into your hand” (Gen. 14:20). According to Melchizedek, God is to be accredited with Abram’s success.

The next such case occurs at the splitting of the Reed Sea. While this may not be a classic example of a “war,” the Egyptians seem to view it as such. When finding their chariots immobilized, they declare: “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt” (Ex. 14:25). This victory on the Reed Sea is later recalled by Jethro (Ex. 18:10); by Balaam (Num. 23:22, 24:8); by Rahab (Josh. 2:10) and the Gibeonites (Josh 9:9); and centuries later, by the Philistines (“Who will save us from the power of this mighty God? He is the same God who struck the Egyptians with every kind of plague in the wilderness,” I Samuel 4:8). One more case worth mentioning is found in the Gideon narrative, where the enemy soldier has a cryptic dream (“a loaf of barley bread was whirling through the Midianite camp. It came to a tent and struck it, and it fell; it turned it upside down, and the tent collapsed,” Jud. 7:13). This dream was subsequently interpreted by the foreigner’s friend: “That can only mean the sword of the Israelite Gideon son of Joash. God is delivering Midian and the entire camp into his hands” (Jud. 7:14). Although the dream appears to have no connection to either God, this foreign soldier perceived it as portending the Israelites’ victory thanks to God’s intervention. In all these narratives, the foreigners perceive God as a warrior deity who fights on behalf of the Israelites.

Other narratives in which the foreigner perceives God as the source behind the Israelite’s success come within the context of interpersonal relationships. Abimelech explicitly attributed both Abraham and Isaac’s success to God: “God is with you in everything that you do” (Gen. 21:23); “We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you” (Gen. 26:28). This sentiment is voiced by Laban as well. After years of Jacob’s servitude, he confesses: “I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me on your account” (Gen. 30:27). Earlier, Laban had echoed Abraham’s servant’s contention that God had intervened in his mission to find a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:12, 27), declaring that “The matter was decreed by the Lord…” (Gen. 24:50). In these cases, the foreigners are well-acquainted with the Israelites, and view Israel’s God as the source of their success. 

When Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dream, after all of Pharaoh’s advisors had failed, Pharaoh credits God with Joseph’s success: “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you” (Gen. 31:49). In a parallel narrative, Nebuchadnezzar similarly attributed Daniel’s successful interpretation to skills bestowed by God: “Truly your God must be the God of gods and Lord of kings and the revealer of mysteries to have enabled you to reveal this mystery” (Dan. 2:47). 

The Queen of Sheba is overwhelmed by Solomon’s wisdom, his riches, and the Temple he had constructed. She attributes his sovereignty to God: “Praised be the Lord your God, who delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel. It is because of the Lord’s everlasting love for Israel that He made you king to administer justice and righteousness” (I Kings 10:9). In these cases, both the dream scenes and the Queen of Sheba, the foreigner notes that the Israelites are successful in some sphere or another, and verbally attributes that success to God’s intervention. In all the above-mentioned cases, it seems as if the foreigners assume that if an Israelite is successful, God must be the cause.

However, not all foreigners respond to an Israelite’s success in the same manner. Some, like Abimelech or Laban, seek to gain some benefit by allying themselves with the Israelites. Thus, Abimelech seeks a peace treaty (Gen. 21:22, 26:28-29), and Laban wishes that Jacob remain with him (Gen. 31:28).3 Both Rahab (Josh. 2) and the Gibeonites (Josh. 9) seek treaties that will protect them. Pharaoh (Gen. 41) and Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2) promote their dream-interpreters (Joseph and Daniel, respectively), and keep them close as high-level officials and advisors.

Other foreigners are not as friendly. Though Pharaoh (the one in Exodus, not Genesis) eventually admits defeat (“The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong,” Ex. 9:27), he remains an adversary. Balak is an enemy, as are the Arameans (I Kings 20) and Rabshakeh (II Kings 18-19), despite having been overtly bested by Israel’s God. These are all cases where the foreigners defy God, and remain defiant; they have no interest in befriending Israel. Instead of manipulating the situation to their own benefit, where siding with the Israelites will lead to partaking in God’s blessing, these enemy foreigners prefer to remain enemies; and as such, they are defeated.

The notion that a foreigner’s fortunes are linked to their attitude toward Israelites is proclaimed in God’s first revelation to Abraham. After determining that Abraham will himself be “a blessing,” God declares: “I will bless those who bless you, and curse the one who curses you.” This is quite clear: those who will treat Abraham (and by extension, his descendants) as a friend, or ally, blessing them, will, in turn, be blessed by God; while those who choose to curse him, will be cursed.

We can now return to our original topic, allusions to God in Esther. In chapter 5, Haman is euphoric, having been singled out by the Queen for a private audience with the royal couple (5:12). The only issue marring his perfect joy is Mordecai’s very existence (5:13). After being coerced into honoring his enemy, Haman returns home and recounts his misfortune to his wife and friends. They immediately tell him that “If Mordecai… is of Jewish stock… you will fall before him to your ruin” (6:13). Why do they assume that if Mordecai is Jewish, Haman will be defeated?

If we return to the list of examples brought above, we can identify two main categories of foreigners. The first includes those who wish to initiate a positive relationship with Israel, such as Abimelech, Rahab, the Gibeonites, the Queen of Sheba, and the Pharaoh in Genesis. These foreigners all confess to God’s greatness and are subsequently befriended by, or protected by, the Israelites in their story. When these foreigners are kind to Israelites and acknowledge Israel’s God, things go well for them – perhaps in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you.”

The second category of foreigners comprises Israel’s enemies who are, by extension, God’s enemies as well. These include foreigners, usually kings, whose hubris leads them to challenge God, believing that they are the more powerful. This list of the Bible’s ‘villains’ includes the Pharaoh in Exodus, who said with derision: “Who is the Lord that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2). The Rabshakeh, speaking in the name of the Assyrian king during a siege on Jerusalem, likewise mocked: “Which among all the gods of [those] countries saved their countries from me, that the Lord should save Jerusalem from me?” (II Kings 18:35). Nebuchadnezzar, similarly confident of his own power, sets up a challenge: “What god is there that can save you from my power?” (Dan. 3:15). These are the foreigners whose stories illustrate the second part of God’s promise to Abram, “and curse the one who curses you.” These foreigners are subsequently defeated.

The relationship between Haman and Mordecai seems to fit the latter model. Haman had no interest in creating a positive relationship with Mordecai, but, rather, considered him an enemy. The text presents Mordecai not only as a private individual, but as a representative of his ethnic group: hence “he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone – having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6).

The relationship between Haman and Mordecai is complicated by a long history of enmity between their respective family lines, dating back to Esau and Jacob. “Haman the Agagite” was a descendent of the nation of Amalek, whose eponymous ancestor, was the grandson of Esau through his son Eliphaz (Gen. 36:12). Mordecai, “a Benjaminite,”, was a descendant of Jacob through his son Benjamin. Indeed, the ancient Aramaic translations of Esther stress this point, listing all the intermediate generations of each as well.4 Before Esau and Jacob were born, their mother Rebeccah was granted an oracle which foretold their future relationship: “Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other” (Gen. 25:23). The prophecy is somewhat ambiguous, leaving Rebeccah – and the reader – to wonder which shall be mightier. In any case, it seems to predict a zero-sum relationship in which the rise of the one is linked to the decline of the other. This echoes Isaac’s blessing to Esau: “You shall serve your brother; but when you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck” (Gen. 27:40). One shall rule, or the other; but they will not live peacefully side by side.

The ancient sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, which was to have ended with Saul’s war against Agag but tragically did not, reaches its culmination with the clash between Haman and Mordecai. At first, Haman rises to power, and the scale seems to tip in his favor. However, after the horse incident, when the tables start to turn – his wife and friends warn that “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him; you will fall before him to your ruin.” They are apparently aware of the prophecy given to Rebeccah. Alternatively, or in addition, they may be aware of the prophecy given to Abram: I will curse those who curse you. Haman, a sworn enemy of Mordecai, will fall.

This “fall” may be attributed to circumstance. It just so happened that Ahasuerus had not yet rewarded Mordecai for his loyalty in the Bigtan and Teresh incident; it just so happened that Mordecai was related to Esther, who just so happened to be chosen as queen; it just so happened that Haman inappropriately approached Esther, and Ahasuerus just so happened to witness this gaffe. Perhaps these are all coincidences. Or, perhaps, we are to understand that it is God who has orchestrated all the events. We are told that Haman “nofel ‘al hamittah” (7:8). This is understood by most commenters to indicate that Haman approached Esther to beg for her help or mercy. JPS, however, translates this as “Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined,” which better explains Ahasuerus’ livid response (“Does he mean… to ravish the queen in my own palace?” Rashi cites the midrash that explains Haman’s presence, so inappropriately near the queen: “ha-malakh dahafo,” the angel pushed him. Robert Alter points out the connection between this verse and 6:13, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock… you will fall before him to your ruin”). Both verses use the verb n.f.l., perhaps hinting at a connection between the two – Haman’s eventual “fall” before Mordecai, the Jew, is triggered by his “falling” on Esther’s bed; according to the Midrash, at God’s behest.

If so, then when Haman’s wife and friends so unequivocally predict his ruin, they are insinuating God’s control over the events. God who protects His people against their enemies will do so once again. Targum Rishon makes the connection explicit:

If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him. As the kings fell before Abraham, and Abimelech before Isaac, and Jacob overcame the angel, Moses’ and Aaron’s hands caused Pharaoh and his servants to drown in the Reed Sea, and all the kings and governments were given by God unto their hands, so you too will fall before him to your ruin.

The Septuagint renders this verse with the following addition: “If Mardochaeus [be] of the race of the Jews, [and] thou hast begun to be humbled before him, thou wilt assuredly fall, and thou wilt not be able to withstand him, for the living God [is] with him.” While the Septuagint inserts God’s name throughout Esther, here it explicitly attributes the Jew’s success to God.

Esther does not mention God. However, Zeresh and Haman’s advisors point out that if Mordechai is a Jew, he will be successful. This statement is fairly opaque – why would being a Jew ensure his success? Unless this is another example of the trope in which biblical foreigners acknowledge that a Jew’s success is backed by God’s involvement. If so, it may also be another hidden allusion to God in the Megilla.

Dr. Nava Finkelman wrote her doctorate on “Foreigners Who Speak of God in Biblical Narrative” at Bar Ilan University. She teaches in Midreshet Lindenbaum and in Matan.

  1. See Megilla 15b, as well as Midrash Esther Rabbah, Yalkut Shim’oni, and others.
  2. See Carol Newsom, “God’s Other: The Intractable Problem of the Gentile King in Judean and Early Jewish Literature,” in The “Other” in Second Temple Judaism: Essays in Honor of John J. Collins, Harlow, Hogan, Goff, Kaminsky, eds. (Eerdmans, 2011), 31-48.
  3. Laban, in his usual indirect way, does not make this request explicit; however, given the context and Jacob’s reply, this was clearly his intent.
  4. Bernard Grossfeld, The Targum Sheni to the Book of Esther (Sepher-Hermon Press, 1994), on Est. 2:5 and 3:1. The ancient Aramaic translations of Esther, referred to as Targum Rishon and Targum Sheni, were most probably composed between the 5th and 8th c. CE. They include many midrashic and aggadic additions to the Masoretic text, including genealogies, prayers, letters, and stories, many of which provide theological interpretations lacking in the original.

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