The Holiday of Purim occurs in 2024 on the eve of March 23 to the eve of the 24th. Tradition tells Jews to read the biblical book Esther during the first evening and the next morning services. Why should we read it?

 

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 plot of Haman to kill them. True, the frightened Jews prayed when they heard that Haman received royal acceptance for his horrific plan, and this seems to be a religious activity. But there is no suggestion that God listened to their prayers or that the Jews relied on their prayers. Although forbidden to appear to the king unless 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 biblical books, except 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 the 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 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.

 

The message of the Book of Esther, the Talmud, and Midrash is what the famed Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) 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 use their intelligence, learn how the laws of nature work and help themselves, to improve themselves, society, and the world generally. 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 state that there will come a day when all people will realize that they cannot rely on miracles and that the miracles in the biblical books should be understood figuratively. They will recognize that the message of the Book of Esther is correct.

 

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 pieties to help us when we face danger. 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 does not teach what many people consider religion: a passive reliance on God. Instead, it contains an important message about the human duty to perform acts that treat all that was created as we want to be treated. It is not the only book in the Hebrew Bible that does not reflect the common misconception that religion requires people to sit back and rely on divine help.