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By Israel Drazin
The Book of Esther is one of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. Curiously, God is not mentioned in this volume of Scripture and there is no indication that God was involved in any way in helping Esther and Mordecai save the Jews of Persia from the evil machinations of Haman, who planned to kill them. True, the frightened Jews prayed when they heard that Haman received a royal acquiescence for his nefarious plan, and this seems to be a religious activity. But there is no suggestion that God heard their prayers or that the Jews relied on the efficacy of their prayers. In fact, just the opposite. Although forbidden to appear to the king unless she was summoned, Esther devises a subtle plan, goes to the king, and saves her people. Jews remember Esther’s deed yearly by celebrating the holiday of Purim, a word that means “lots,” a recollection of the lots that Haman tossed to determine what day he should murder the Jews. This title also doesn’t indicate the involvement of God, but pure chance.
This isn’t the only curiosity. The Jerusalem Talmud states that all of the biblical books, with the sole exception of the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Esther will be nullified in the future. The ancient Midrash Rabbah 9 states that all the Jewish holidays will cease except for Purim. What are the Talmud, Midrash, and the Book of Esther telling us?
Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims have tried to interpret the Book of Esther as a religious document designed to teach that God is involved in all that occurs on earth, but in a secret way. Many suggest that the name Esther is related to the Hebrew word hester, which means “hidden.” This, they insist, supports their view that God helps people in a hidden way. This is an interesting sermon for those who hold this view, but it isn’t true. Esther is a Persian name, not Jewish. It is a variation of the name of the goddess Astarte. Mordecai’s name is also a Hebraic version of the idol Marduk. Not only are the names of the main protagonists of this story not Jewish but they are names of idols. It is also noteworthy that the author does not even hint that Esther observed Jewish practices, such as keeping the kosher laws. This is not that surprising. It is unreasonable to imagine that since the book states she kept her background secret and was watched constantly, she was able to observe Jewish practices. Thus, our heroine who slept with a pagan monarch apparently didn’t observe Jewish law.
Actually, the message of the Book of Esther, the Talmud, and Midrash is what the famed Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught: God created or formed the laws of nature and is no longer involved in this world; God does not aid people; God expects people to learn how the laws of nature work and use their intelligence to help themselves, to improve themselves and society. This is why the Book of Esther does not mention God; God did not save the Jews; Esther used her intelligence and devised a way to save her people. Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash are stating that there will come a day when all people will realize that they cannot rely on miracles, that the miracles in the biblical books should be understood figuratively. They will understand that the message of the Book of Esther is true.
The fact that Esther and Mordecai had names related to idols and she most likely didn’t observe Jewish law, teaches that we shouldn’t focus on such things. We should remember that she saved Jews. This situation is strikingly similar to the secular Jews who formed modern Zionism which resulted in the rebirth of the State of Israel.
Thus, this book is not religious in the sense that many people consider religious, a passive reliance on God. But it contains an important message about human duty. It is not the only book in the Hebrew Bible that is not conventionally religious.