The Book of Esther illustrates how narrative (storytelling) can communicate spiritual truths.
The king spares Esther’s life by extending his sceptre.
Human thought is narrative in nature. Every individual thinks of his or her life as a story. Most people find it fairly easy to go through life as long as their particular story has purpose and direction. Let the story lose its plot though and the stage is set for serious problems. One could argue that many personal and social problems are traceable to the bad story lines that fill the minds and hearts of children and adults. Many of the individual and collective pathologies of tomorrow have their roots in the stories and story lines that absorb people today.
Storytelling is crucial to moral training and the building of character. In the place of wholesome stories that build up, people can unwisely focus on “de-moralizing” tales that tear away the moral courage of those who hear them. The plots in such stories often involve bizarre situations with moral dilemmas that leave hearers confused over basic issues of right and wrong. The “heroes” are not the larger-than-life heroes of yesteryear who exhibit the positive qualities of courage, integrity, and faithfulness in measures bigger than that found in everyday life. Rather, they are smaller-than-life “anti-heroes” who display negative qualities in degrees that would be difficult if not impossible in normal life.
For good or ill, stories allow people to “overhear” messages they would reject if they were confronted directly by them. One person can tell another person that life’s not worth living and have that message rejected. Recast that same message in stories though and it will more likely be accepted. Similarly, one person can tell another that every day is an opportunity to experience and share God’s grace and be met with skepticism. But recast that same message in stories and the probability of eventual agreement is increased. So for good or ill, stories have a way of sidestepping the objections that dogmatic assertions inspire and of succeeding where plain statements may fail. (Note how Nathan used a story to convict David of his sin with Bathsheba.)
Although Esther is a favorite story among Jews, many Christians haven’t quite figured out what to do with it. There were no Christian commentaries written on Esther during the first 700 years of the church’s existence. Luther and Calvin, who were prolific writers, left no commentaries on Esther. Why? The failure of Esther to directly mention God and Esther’s apparent endorsement of vengeance on one’s enemies are frequently cited. Another factor was that many viewed Esther with suspicion because it portrays Jews in a good light. Unlike the portrayals of Jews and Israelites in other books of the OT, Esther and Mordecai are portrayed in Esther as thoroughly noble characters, not like David, Solomon, etc. who are shown as heroes with feet of clay. Apart from these objections, Esther presents a problem because it raises a major question about the role of narrative in Scripture.
Esther is not like Leviticus, nor is it like Romans. Laws like those in Leviticus are easy to interpret; theology like Romans is less so, but what do you do with a story?
The answer is that you read it in terms of the author’s purpose. That’s easy to say, but it’s not always easy to do. What is the author’s purpose in writing Esther? It’s certainly possible to get his message wrong. For example, someone might come away from Esther thinking that the example of Xerxes and Vashti establishes a legitimate ground for divorcing one’s wife or that the example of Xerxes and Esther teaches that physical beauty is the primary qualification of a good wife. Someone else might say that the purpose is to show how to plan for the future; i.e., by rolling the dice as Xerxes did. Such misapprehensions are wrong to the point of being comical– too bad the right answers aren’t always so easy to identify. In the case of narrative, there’s always the danger of missing the message; e.g., the natives who thought Judas was a hero when they first heard the gospel. Thus we have the importance of “reading in communion.” In listening to the story of Esther, we find ourselves in the same position of those who listened to the parables of Jesus.
Another mistake in interpreting narrative like Esther is to become too wrapped up in questions of historical accuracy. The existence of Purim is very difficult to explain if Esther has no connection with history. There is much evidence to vindicate the historicity of Esther (e.g., discovery of dice bearing “puru,” profane history’s confirmation of Xerxes’ character, etc.), but focusing on it as history misses its value. Esther is most important because of its themes.
Theme: God’s hidden presence and divine providence in the midst of the most trying and dangerous circumstances. There are two worldviews in Esther: one based on fate; e.g., the practical atheist Haman; the other based on providence; e.g., Mordecai and Esther. Secondary themes include (1) the way Jews should conduct themselves (be good citizens) in the midst of foreigners and (2) the importance of faithfulness even among those who find themselves at the periphery of Jewish life and expectations.
Theology: The theology of Esther is that (1) God works providentially; (2) God’s presence if often hidden; (3) God’s people must be willing to risk their personal comfort; and when push comes to shove, (4) loyalty to God is what counts. All of these could be stated dogmatically, but in that format, they could easily be rejected. All of that theology and all of those themes have been woven into the memorable book of Esther, and because of that memorable story, millions have been inspired by the larger-than-life heroics of Mordecai and Esther, a story that, once read, will find an important place in one’s own story.