Chapter of Esther: Portrait of the Leading Characters

Contrary to the other narrative books of the Bible, which often contain dozens of stories, Esther is limited to one single account which can be summarized in one sentence: “In the fifth century b.c., the Jewish nation, threatened with total extermination planned by a high Persian bureaucrat, was saved thanks to the courageous intervention of Esther, a beautiful Jewess who had become queen seven years earlier.”

Of course, the book of Esther contains much more than that, because the account shows different facets. We find the rejection of the first queen (chpt. 1), the choice of Esther (chpt. 2), the circumstances surrounding the prime minister’s Machiavellian plot (chpt. 3), the steps leading up to the queen’s intervention (chpt. 4-5), the particular concurrence of circumstances (chpt. 6), the king’s anger when the plot is announced (chpt. 7), the affair’s denouement and the sentencing of the plotters (chpt. 8:1-9:18), the administrative epilogue (chpt. 9:19-10:3). These facets differ from each other, yet form one single story. The link between the story’s different parts, however, poses problems for preachers. How should one preach on one part of the text without constantly referring to the whole? For example, there is a great contrast between the pericopes of the synoptic Gospels, which form such well-constituted entities that they often appear to be quite independent of each other.

Esther is a book about one story. What the preacher might regret–it being a story which is too long to be read to listeners–the reader can appreciate. Regarding the latter, a short story is often a story which is too short; it lacks details and depth. On the other hand, a longer story permits the reader to better grasp the characters’ personalities. By its length, the story of Esther gives the reader the possibility to experience the story from within.

We thus propose to review the account’s main protagonists and emphasize their character traits. We begin with the “bad guys” before turning to the “good guys”. This review of the characters will be particularly appreciated by the readers who are familiar with the story of Esther. The commentary part will take up these elements again in line with the text and go further in depth, but we felt it would be useful to regroup the different information on the main characters in one single chapter.

1. The Pagan World

The author of Esther paints a somber but realistic picture of the secular world. The Persian empire is characterized by its power, seduction and harshness. These three aspects appear as from the first chapter. Ahasuerus begins by showing his greatness, organizing a feast which lasts 180 days. Then there is a semblance of generosity by the invitation addressed to all of the capital’s inhabitants to drink as much of the royal wine as they wish. Finally, the kingdom’s harshness is revealed by Vashti’s rejection. She is removed from her throne forever for not having responded to a simple invitation.

In the Persian empire, it is all about boasting, fights over having influence, love of money, despising the weak. Each person tries to make points and woe to those who do not respect the rules! Thus, the independent Vashti is not loved. At the first hint of resistance, she is thrown out with a sweep of the hand, not only by her husband, but by the entire council of ministers. For them, the least sign of independence is a threat. The king is not afraid of using “big guns” to make the point hit home, as well as to increase men’s hold over women, if possible—the greater holding sway over the lesser. An official edict, written and translated into all of the languages used at that time, is sent to all provinces of the immense empire. Each parcel of land, every single soul should know the royal decision.

Later on, Mordecai is also reprimanded for his independence. A faithful worshiper of God, he is hated for his righteousness and his refusal to behave like the others. In his case, the intolerance of the mighty is even more virulent, because the massacre of all his people is decreed. The authorities have no remorse, because their sole preoccupation is to gain their victims’ possessions. When the affair is over, the evil ones get drunk while the people lament.

The evildoers are represented by two individuals: Ahasuerus and Haman. The prime minister is the worse of the two. 


Haman wants all the honors and he wants them right away. Nothing and no-one will stop him. When the Jew Mordecai refuses to bow before him, he wants to kill him immediately. Haman even extends his anger to the disobedient one’s people (3:6). The only thing that curbs Haman’s ire is his superstition. In fact, the lot cast to designate the day of judgment makes him have to wait until the last month of the year. But even this deadline set by the gods is intolerable for him. As soon as someone (in this case his wife) suggests a manner of bypassing this, even partially, Haman unhesitatingly seizes the opportunity. That same night, he builds a gallows for Mordecai and at dawn he goes before the king to demand the execution of the one who refuses to honor him (5:14; 6:4). Haman is so impatient to kill Mordecai that he prepares the gallows before even receiving permission. Each minute gained is precious, because the thirst of vengeance suffers no delay.

Who can resist Haman’s arrogant assurance? He anticipates Ahasuerus’s favorable response and when the latter asks him the next day “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” the prime minister thinks that it can be none other than he who is to be honored. Haman’s reply unveils the extent of his overbearing pride. He wants Ahasuerus to give him the honors reserved for a king (6:8-9). In scantily veiled terms, he expresses his desire to reign.

Haman wants to be seen by all, but his own vision is weak. Only a denunciation allows him to perceive Mordecai’s insubordination. He does not know Esther’s identity or the family ties which link her to his enemy. He is completely unaware of Esther’s strategy. In this way, the queen accuses him at the very instant he thinks he has found his best ally, in the same way that the king humiliates him at the very moment he thinks he is being honored.

Haman is also the typical fool. His choices are motivated by impatience and he is incapable of mastering his rage, a feeling which deprives him of all happiness and prevents him from enjoying the great honor accorded to him by the queen (5:11-13).

Proud, cruel, superstitious, impatient, arrogant and senseless, Haman is nevertheless not lacking in certain qualities. The manner in which he maneuvers the king when he demands the Jewish genocide shows his great political adroitness. He dangles a financial advantage in front of the sovereign’s nose (ten thousand silver talents), although he seeks only to serve his own interests (3:9-11). Haman knows the king and also knows how to exploit his weaknesses. With an irreversible decree, he seals the decision and prevents the wavering monarch from backtracking.


Even though he is not as evil as Haman, Ahasuerus also personifies the evildoers of this world. He has a complex personality, but contrary to Haman, he is not entirely bad. He reflects the kind of evil which one encounters in a number of people, an evil which is more passive than active. With him, it is a guilty laisser-faire and the weakness of not living in a proper manner, more than a deliberate intention of doing evil.

Ahasuerus has his pleasant side, and shows his generosity on several occasions. He organizes a 180-day feast, and then invites the entire population of the capital to drink as much royal wine as they wish during an entire week. Some see him as a figure of God the Father, but this idealization has nothing to do with reality, because it reduces his corrupted aspect.

Ahasuerus’s generosity is only a facade by which the king seeks to glorify himself. Contrary to Haman, who seeks to elevate himself by demeaning and crushing others, Ahasuerus seeks glorification in the admiration of his subjects. Ahasuerus wants to bedazzle. He wishes to appear so rich that he has a duty to be generous. He not only wants to entertain the nobles for six months, but also the entire populace for a week.

In the book of Esther, Ahasuerus always grants what is asked of him. He approves all the proposals submitted. The list of his gifts or approvals is long: 


  1. The king approves Memucan’s advice to send Vashti away (“so the king did as Memucan proposed” 1:21).

  2. He follows his servants’ advice to look all over the kingdom for a new, beautiful queen (2:4).

  3. He gives Haman carte blanche when the latter asks for an entire people to be killed (3:11).

  4. He leaves the Jews’ property to Haman (“Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please.” 3:11).

  5. He points the scepter towards Esther, and then thrice offers her half of the kingdom (5:3, 6; 7:2).

  6. He accepts both of Esther’s invitations to a meal.

  7. He follows Haman’s recommendation when he wants to honor a man (“Do not neglect anything you have recommended.” 6:10), even if he most likely voluntarily demeans Haman (see Commentary).

  8. He saves Esther’s and her people’s lives.

  9. He gives his seal to Esther and to Mordecai to write a new edict.

  10. He grants Esther the right to prolong the judgment of the Jew’s enemies by one day at Susa (9:14).


Ahasuerus is so anxious to satisfy what people ask of him that we see him even attempting to anticipate requests, to the point of losing sleep over them (see commentary in 6:1).

This conduct–i.e. that Ahasuerus gives what is asked of him–is consistent throughout the book. The author thus never expresses the king’s refusal, even if his subjects are being condemned. Vashti is punished for having refused to honor the king’s invitation, but it is never mentioned that the queen has asked the king for grace. The same goes for Haman, who at the moment of his sentence asks the queen for grace, but not the king. From a human and practical point of view, it is unthinkable that the sovereign should have ever refused a request, but the author does not indicate any instance of such, because he wants to underline a major trait of Ahasuerus: his absolute desire to please and bedazzle.

This desire to please is the root of evil, because no difference is made between good and evil men, between just and unjust decisions. Vashti is shunted away; women are denigrated to comply with ministers and, in general, to men. Mordecai and the Jews are delivered to genocide to please Haman.

Ahasuerus aspires to a total sovereignty, almightiness. He wants to be enthroned above the crowd and offer those close to him whatever they wish. But in doing so, he ends up being just a puppet. His reign is completely unpredictable. Either good or the worst injustice can result, depending on the kind of evil or honest men who influence the king.

Ahasuerus is irresponsible, directing without guiding, confiding his royal seal as easily to an evildoer (Haman) as to a good man (Mordecai). He lets his ministers and the queen do more or less as they please. Of course, they are accountable to him for their actions. Haman must ask his permission to eradicate a people, and then later on request the authorization to have his enemy hanged. Mordecai must be careful not to contradict the first edict when he formulates the second one. Esther receives permission to prolong the enemies’ judgment by one day. Thus, influential members of the government are restricted by certain limits, but Ahasuerus supervises them only from afar. At the beginning of the year, he does not try to find out who the people are whom Haman is ready to massacre, and at the end of the year, he is unaware of the result of the massacres in the country prior to granting Esther an additional day so that the enemies of the Jews can be pursued in the capital.

Ahasuerus remains the same from start to finish. If justice should finally reign in his kingdom, it is not because the king has character, but because good men have been able to attain the higher spheres of the Persian administration—Ahasuerus has nothing to do with it. It is not his discernment which has prevailed, but divine grace.

The lack of discernment is another constant of the king’s temperament. Ahasuerus is wrong about almost everything. When Haman comes to accuse the Jews of being a threat to the empire, (3:8-9), Ahasuerus delivers them into Haman’s hands, thinking he is handing the “bad guys” over to the “good guy”, whereby he ends up doing just the opposite. When the king attempts to find out what Esther’s request is, he is completely off track when he figures it could be connected to Mordecai’s services not having been rewarded. The king errs once again when he sees Haman slumped on the divan near the queen. Instead of seeing a request for mercy, the king interprets Haman’s position as an act of violence. Even the announcement of the gallows prepared for Mordecai is probably–falsely–interpreted as an act of rebellion by Haman against his sovereign.

The Other Negative Characters

Haman and Ahasuerus are the book’s two main malevolent characters, but not the only ones. Other persons who are not as visible also exhibit behavior marked by sin, among them the seven ministers of Ahasuerus, who seek to increase their domination over women. We can also mention Zerech, Haman’s wife, who is quicker than her husband to wish Mordecai dead, but she is also the first to turn away from Haman when defeat is imminent (6:13). Yet another example is Harbona, the eunuch in the king’s service who is prepared to abandon Haman as soon as his luck changes (7:9), and finally, Haman’s ten sons, who are on their father’s side. Hence, evil is widespread throughout the realm. The women are no better than the men, because Haman’s wife seems to be worse than he is. The book is neither feministic nor antifeminist, it is simply realistic. The entire human race, both men and women, is evil.

This presence of evil at all levels of society causes a profound and inexplicable apprehension. Nothing is stable or sure anymore, and anything can happen, because evil is everywhere. A new monarch will not make any difference. In this malevolent atmosphere, no-one is spared injustice, not even the VIPs. Vashti is rejected. Esther is forgotten for a month and cannot even approach the king without running the risk of being put to death. Haman is a victim of the king’s blindness, being sentenced for crimes he has not even committed (i.e. violence against the queen and rebelling against the king).

Who can survive in such a hostile world? Where is hope? It remains on two levels. On the one hand, some good men, who are courageous and intelligent, are committed to doing good; on the other hand, God continues to watch over his people. These two aspects are the topic of the following analysis.

2. Portrait of the Faithful

The two Jews of the book behave in an exemplary fashion. We will first look at Mordecai before we consider Esther. We will then examine the ethical question raised by their enemies’ deaths at the end of the book, a matter in which both Esther and Mordecai are involved. Finally, we will cast a glance at other persons with admirable conduct.


Mordecai is the opposite of Haman. He does not seek to elevate himself or to crush the weak. He is a man who is discreet, humble, patient, caring towards the weak, respectful of the law and justice, courageous, firm in his faith. Neither glory nor his own well-being are important, but honoring God.

He cares for Esther when she is orphaned (2:7). He watches over her when she is taken to the king’s harem: “Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.” (2:11). He protects her by denouncing a plot when she is queen (2:21-23).

Mordecai is so discreet that he appears to be passive. When the king forgets to reward him for having saved his life, he does not intervene. It would have been easy to remind the monarch of his good deed without needing to be pushy about it, as the Persian kings were very fastidious about their personal security and generously rewarded their guards.

Mordecai is reserved, but not apathetic. He watches over Esther and reveals to her the plot against the king (2:22), then urges her to intercede with the king to save his people (4:7, 13-14). Mordecai intervenes when other people’s interests are at stake, without showing any preoccupation for his own safety. He doesn’t care about royal honors and does not seek personal fame or glory. What is important to him is mercy, justice and above all, God’s complete glory and honor.

If Mordecai seeks discretion, it is not due to weakness or timidity. When he asks Esther to hide her origins (2:10, 20), it is not because he wishes to compromise. He is courageous and fundamentally honest, as indicated by his behavior toward Haman. He dares to state his faith – exaggeratedly, according to some commentators, who reproach him for risking the lives of all of his people by not bowing before Haman. But who could have possibly predicted the latter’s reaction? In addition, doesn’t God ask the faithful not to adopt a utilitarian morale, but rather an ethic based on justice? Mordecai simply wished to avoid giving Haman the honor due to God.

Mordecai is a sage par excellence. S. Talmon shows the contrast between Mordecai’s and Haman’s characters. Whereas Haman is very eloquent and reveals his feelings and thoughts to others (5:10-13), like the fool of Proverbs, Mordecai does not expose his thoughts or actions. “Except for Esther, whose help he requires, he confides in nobody, knowing that secretiveness goes with the wise courtier’s metier (Prov 12:33).” Talmon adds: “Mordecai does not lose his temper and remains level-headed even in times of utter distress. He plans carefully and never rushes into action… His foresight is proved when he sets up Esther in the palace, thus providing for a rainy day (Eccl 11:1).”

Mordecai is a contrast to Haman not only in wisdom, but also in kindness. He seeks the good of his people, whereas Haman is prepared to sacrifice a nation to satisfy his vindictive personality. The Jew would have the right to feel hate, but he shows none; Haman displays hate for a futile reason.


Esther’s character is the completest one of the entire book. Her being is revealed progressively, as opposed to Haman’s, for example, whose perverse nature is recognized quite quickly. Esther presents contrasting aspects which never cease to surprise and perplex the reader.

In the beginning, Esther is presented as being totally submissive to Mordecai. The author repeats this information to ensure that no-one will miss it (2:10, 20). He also adds that Mordecai’s adopted daughter follows the advice of Hagai, the eunuch in charge of her preparation, to the letter (2:15). Esther seems to blend into her environment so much that she does not have her own will. This first impression, however, changes completely as the story develops.  When Mordecai asks her to intercede to the king, she hesitates and argues with her cousin. Only the threat of death appears to change her mind, and from that very moment, Esther ceases to be the little wallflower. She takes her destiny, as well as that of her people, into her own hands. She immediately urges Mordecai to assemble all of the Jews in the capital to fast for her for three days, after which she pleads to the king for her people several times. At the book’s end, she even goes so far as to ask for the massacre of the Jews’ enemies to be prolonged.

Esther’s independence and initiative also show themselves in the bold strategy she works out to accomplish Haman’s judgment, and where she displays incredible sangfroid. She lets the king believe that she is completely submissive to him and that she seeks only his well-being, whereas in reality she is placating him in order to attain her goal more easily. She goes so far as to refuse to “spill the beans” to the king when he asks her the true reason for her actions (5:8). The queen lets him simmer for twenty-four hours, promising to reveal her request the next day. Esther directs everything with remarkable ability, and she is the one who decides when and how she will accuse Haman.

The portrait of Esther changes during the course of the account. We would like to examine the depth of this change prior to beginning a moral evaluation. Is the evolution of Esther’s portrait fundamental or superficial? Is it a change of temperament or a simple confirmation of her character? Many see a fundamental change, either for the good or for the bad. The feminists approve the “liberation” of Esther, who finally dares to release herself from male domination, whereas others deplore the perversion of power which transforms the gentle Esther into a merciless avenger.

We prefer to see a continuity of her character. Like the bare branches of a tree which are progressively covered by greenery during the course of springtime and finally give a new “look” to the whole, trials often reveal a person’s character. A generous and courageous heart can suddenly be revealed, just like adversity can expose egoism and cowardice. Esther’s character does not change during the trials, but, instead, her qualities are confirmed. There is no need to regard Esther’s submission in chapter 2 and her personal initiatives as from chapter 4 as being contrary to each other. Submission is not a synonym for passivity and sterility. Christ is entirely submitted to the Father, yet at the same time, he displays an exemplary dynamism throughout his earthly ministry as well as an uncommonly innovative spirit. Esther shows a submission similar to that of Christ.

Esther is Vashti’s opposite. Neither approves the king’s decisions, but Vashti expresses her disagreement publicly, whereas Esther manipulates the king (the expression is not too strong here) prior to obtaining what she desires. Vashti is rejected for not wanting to accept the king’s invitation; Esther regularly gets what she wants. Three times, half of the kingdom is offered to her (5:3, 6; 7:2); the scepter of grace is extended to her twice (5:2; 8:4); the royal seal is confided to her once to write an edict which corresponds to her wishes (8:8); on another occasion, the king promises to fulfill the queen’s wish before he even knows what it is (9:12). Why should Esther criticize Ahasuerus when she can get anything she wants in another way? Esther is delicate, diplomatic, and wily.

In certain aspects, Esther is also the opposite of the king. On the level of power, Ahasuerus is theoretically almighty, but in practice, he remains the partisans’ toy. Queen Esther, on the other hand, has very little power in her position (because she depends on the king’s goodwill to be able to approach him) but in practice, she dominates her entire entourage.

Esther also displays great discernment, contrary to Ahasuerus, who understands everything the wrong way. Being familiar with the rules of protocol at the Persian court, Esther is well aware of the risks run by anyone who presents himself to the king without first having been asked to do so. She knows Ahasuerus’s desire for admiration as well as Haman’s pride. She knows that God’s intervention is primordial, so she acts consequently. She decrees a fast to implore God’s help before she undertakes a risky action. She flatters the king and his minister by treating them with the greatest respect, whilst at the same time raising jealousy between Ahasuerus and Haman. Esther is very savvy, and in this way shows the weak how to survive in a hostile world.

Esther and Ahasuerus seek to please others, but for diametrically opposite reasons. Ahasuerus thinks only of himself, whereas Esther does things for a noble cause. She knows that in the kingdom of appearances, the diplomat is king. You can best reach your goal if you know how to please. We do note, however, that Esther does not sacrifice her principles; she remains firm. It is interesting in this regard that she gives hardly anything, as opposed to Ahasuerus who goes overboard, promising her half of his kingdom several times. Esther limits herself to offering two meals which no-one had requested. When the king prompts her to reveal the deeper reason for her intervention, she refuses to respond right away and postpones her reply to the following day. When Haman asks Esther for mercy, the author does not even mention her answer, seeing how obvious it is. When Mordecai asks her to implore the king’s help, she first expresses her reservations.

Esther is also diametrically opposite to Haman. Without mentioning all of the obvious contrasts, we would simply like to highlight the difference between the queen’s patience and the impatience of the minister who wants everything immediately. Esther knows how to wait for her time to come. When it’s time for action, she is diligent, but without haste. She fasts for three days before she goes to beseech the king. At the point when the king offers her half of the kingdom, she first invites him to two meals.  When Haman is condemned (7:10), she waits a while before she asks for the Jews to be freed (8:3; see commentary).

In the chapter of criticisms, some reproach Esther for having a pagan husband and for making herself impure by eating desecrated food. Esther transgressed Mosaic law, contrary to the prophet Daniel, who refused to pollute himself with impure foods (Dan 1:8).

One could argue that the consumption of impure food in Esther’s case has not been proved (because the author does not mention it), and that the foreign nations quoted in connection with the prohibition of marriages did not include the Persians, but was restricted to Israel’s neighbors (Dt 7:1-4 ; 1 Kings 11:1-2).

It appears more convincing to exonerate Esther on the basis of something else. Esther lived in very constrained conditions, and she seems to have had very few choices. Upon her marriage with Ahasuerus, she probably had no other alternative but death. Should she have chosen martyrdom? We don’t think so. The primary function of the law regarding prohibition of marriage with a foreigner is the protection of the individual who wishes to marry. Transgressing this law harmed oneself first of all. This personal dimension also characterizes the domain of food. To eat food forbidden by the law only affected Esther. Jesus drew attention to the spirit of the law in this area. He approved David, who had the liberty to break the food law to save his life (Luke 6:1-5). The ritual laws were set down for man, not the other way around. The Sabbath is created for man; man is not created for the Sabbath.

The death of the Jews’ enemies

Esther and Mordecai’s commitment regarding the death of more than 75,000 persons (9:16) perturbs many commentators. Esther obviously approved the course of events, because she asks Ahasuerus to extend the action by one day at Susa, increasing the number of victims in that city from 500 to 800.

We have four reasons to support Esther and Mordecai’s behavior:


  1. Esther and Mordecai, as well as all of the Jews in the empire, were in a situation of legitimate defense. The Jews were fighting for their survival. Instead of focusing on the death of 75,000 people, one should rather be surprised at the harshness of the Jews’ enemies, who, despite a royal edict which testified to the king’s reversal in favor of the Jews, remain intent on destroying them.  The edict which Mordecai drew up is actually an edict of defense, not of aggression (8:11).

  2. The two Jews display commendable behavior until chapter 7. One would assume that they continue to demonstrate the same qualities in the last chapters. The benefit of a doubt should lean in their favor.

  3. The establishment of the Purim feast, which crowns the book, is set at the 13th and 14th days of the month of Adar. The fact that these two dates were chosen as key dates, rather than the day on which Mordecai was honored and Haman was condemned (chapters 6 and 7), shows that for the Jews, the crushing of implacable and determined enemies is the culminating point of the entire story, which the inspired author clearly approves.

  4. According to Scripture, violence and injustice are often caused by a justice that is not fully carried out; because it is only partially completed, it loses its effect. King Saul is reprimanded for not having eliminated the Amalekites (1 Sam 15). Sparing the lives of men who were as bloodthirsty as the Amalekites was severely disapproved, to the degree that the house of Saul was removed from the royal line. Love of fellow man should not be confused with a lax attitude, which is contrary to it. God has the innocent at heart when he demands the execution of a murderer (Ex 21:12). This aspect of divine justice is often obscured today.

Are there other positive persons?

To close this section on the portraits of the faithful, we must mention that several eunuchs show a certain sympathy toward the Jews. Hagai and Esther appear to be quite close during the twelve months of preparation, because the eunuch provides Esther with good advice which she carries out to the letter (2:15). Hathac has Esther’s and Mordecai’s trust, because he faithfully transmits messages between the two Jews (chapter 4). Harbona helps hasten Haman’s fall when he informs the king about the gallows which have been erected to execute Mordecai (7:9). Are these three eunuchs basically good? We know too little about them to make a statement, because the goodwill of a moment does not imply intrinsic righteousness. Hagai and Harbona could have acted out of opportunism rather than kindness. The remarks on the nature of the Persian kingdom make the appraisal lean towards a negative evaluation, but we cannot exclude a positive influence by Esther on these three men. Did their lives change after contact with the heroine? The question remains open.

3. God’s presence and actions

God is the most important and discreet person in the entire book. Even though his name is never mentioned, he is the one who steers events and reverses circumstances to the advantage of the faithful.

The deletion of God is even more paradoxical seeing as the other characters of the book are mentioned with remarkable detail. In fact, everything is used to mask God’s presence and to give the book a secular character. Thus, it is not only the name of God which never appears, but there is absolutely no reference to prayer, the Temple, the sacrifices, the covenant or Jerusalem. This absence of God is one element which is found only in Esther.

The most direct allusion to God can be found when the fast is mentioned. A fast was always accompanied by prayers. In addition, a fast imposed upon all Jews just prior to Esther’s appearance before the king could have no other purpose but to beseech God (4:16). The allusion is clear, but it remains circumspect, because the fast does not necessarily introduce a religious dimension to the book. The fact of abstaining from food and drink can be seen simply as a contrast to the king’s fare.

Some see a very discreet–but nevertheless voluntary–allusion to God in four acrostics of God’s name. The four letters of the tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh) appear in four consecutive words in four different ways at four important points of the book: twice with the first letters of four consecutive words (1:20; 5:4), twice with the last letters of four consecutive words (5:13; 7:7), twice by taking the words in normal order (5:4; 7:7), twice by taking the words in reverse (1:20; 5:13).

The probability of finding four acrostics identical to those in the book of Esther is approximately two in a thousand. The two  acrostics “with the words in the right order” are particularly interesting, not only because they are easier to read, but above all because they are located at two strategic points of the book (see structure): at the start of Esther’s strategic plan to accuse Haman (5:4) and when Haman’s judgment is decided by the king (7:7). It is thus strongly possible that the acrostics are intentional. Elsewhere, in certain Hebrew manuscripts, the four letters of the Tetragrammaton are written somewhat larger.

God’s action

In Esther’s story, God mainly manifests himself through his acts. The story reveals the hand of God which acts over his people.

Firstly, Esther’s behavior is so remarkable that it is difficult to see it only in a human dimension. Esther sovereignly hovers over the king and his minister with majestic calm. She takes no false steps, shows no hesitation, and she is completely in control. Her strategy is also remarkable. Yet Esther’s genius does not manifest itself until after the general fast. To see a link between God and Esther’s exceptional behavior is thus founded: God is the key to Esther’s success. After interceding for his people, God grants the queen the necessary qualities to succeed with her plan.

Secondly, God’s action shows itself through favorable circumstances which come about at crucial moments in history. The first lies in the choice of Esther as queen. This positive aspect does not immediately spring up in the story, because it is not until after the promulgation of Haman’s edict that Mordecai draws the queen’s attention to this favorable circumstance: “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14). The second favorable circumstance presents itself with the choice of the day for the condemning edict’s expiration. The designation of the last month of the year (3:7) is more than favorable, because a maximum amount of time is thus granted to the Jews to defend themselves against the genocide.

A chain of favorable circumstances presents itself afterwards, at the story’s darkest moment–i.e. when Haman has given the order to build a gallows to hang Mordecai. We have the king’s insomnia (6:1), then the king’s recollection of Mordecai’s past services and the king’s decision to honor Mordecai (6:2-3), then Haman’s unusually early morning arrival (6 :4-5), followed by the quid pro quo regarding the royal reward (6:6-10), then, after the meal, Ahasuerus’s return to the royal gardens at the very moment when Haman is in an ambiguous position (7:8), and, finally, the news about the gibbet Haman has prepared for Mordecai’s hanging (7:9). This accumulation of unusual, exceptionally favorable circumstances happen at the story’s most crucial moment, reinforcing the conviction that God is behind all of these events. He remains the master of circumstances, and there is a reason for calling the feast which commemorates these events the feast “of lots” (Purim).

God is the master of events, even when fate seems unfavorable. The fact that Ahasuerus forgets to reward Mordecai just after the condemnation of the two rebellious eunuchs (2:23) would not have made Esther’s cousin very happy. And the decision of Ahasuerus’s servants to include Esther among the young women who were potential candidates to become queen must have profoundly affected the young Jewess. Yet these two negative circumstances were still used by God many years later to save Israel.

It is vital to realize that God uses both the reflected actions of the faithful as well as providential circumstances to save his people. The faithful must give their best, but that is not enough. No matter how ingenious Esther was, she could not change the situation all by herself. Exceptionally favorable circumstances were needed to support the queen’s commitment and strategy.

Human beings play a preponderant role in the plan of salvation, but their importance depends primarily on God’s will. God provides them with opportunities to serve him. If Esther had not been involved, he would have used a different means to save his people, just as Mordecai tells Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish.” (4:14; cf. Luke 19:40). God’s designs are always carried out. It is better to submit to God and stand on his side.

What holds true for redemption also does so for justice. God, the highest judge who guarantees exemplary and infallible justice, cannot hold the guilty innocent. This responsibility to punish is generally delegated to men, traditionally a magistrate called to exercise civil authority (Rom 13:4), but when such a person neglects his duties, God intervenes directly to judge sinners. Haman, who wanted to harm innocents and destroy them, is finally condemned by Ahasuerus for two crimes he has never committed—a just reversal of events: the one who wants to kill innocent people dies like an “innocent” (see p. 169).


The Reasons for God’s Discretion

Of course, the reader could ask what reasons may have pushed the author to be so discreet about God’s presence and action. Why does he omit God’s name? Why not comment God’s intervention using Esther as an intermediary or through the circumstances?

A number of reasons have been proposed in this connection, sometimes with reference to the editorial framework. For some authors, the book was part of the Persian annals mentioned in 6:1 and 10:2, which would explain the complete absence of God’s name. Others suggest that the story of Esther was written for pagans, or by Jews who had been assimilated by pagans. According to other commentators, the deliberate absence of God’s name indicates a period when it was very dangerous to speak of God. Other explanations are based on the book’s nature or content. In order to prevent the name of God from being profaned by a reading of the text under the influence of alcohol on the day of Purim, the author would have avoided mentioning God’s name.

None of the reasons listed above are very convincing, because even if the arguments presented to explain the absence of the name Yahweh were accepted, the lack of any reference whatsoever to religious life remains to be explained.

We prefer to confirm that the absence God’s name is a proper manner to emphasize that it is the hidden God who acts and carries out his plans. The book of Esther illustrates the reality of a world of pretense, where everyone wishes to appear important and where God is neglected. The absence of his name is fundamentally pedagogical. We will take the opportunity to deal with this topic in greater detail in the following chapter.