Archive for March, 2016

The Messianic Meaning of the Book of Esther (Part I)

by Geert ter Horst


Illuminated Megillah

Illuminated Megillah

Christian commentators of the Bible often have greatly disregarded the Book of Esther. As noticed for example by Trisha M. Gambaiana Wheelock,

“The early Christian community did not produce a single commentary on the book for seven centuries, and John Calvin never preached a sermon or wrote a book concerning the Esther text. Martin Luther’s infamous remark succinctly summarizes much of the Christian response to the Esther scroll, “I am so great an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it had not come to us at all, for it has too many heathen unnaturalities [it Judaizes too much].” [1]

Yet early Christians loved this book, which was appreciated by many Church fathers, like Pope Clement I, Athanasius of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and Aphrahat the Persian. [2] Their appreciation seems to be based, however, on allegorical or typological interpretation. Jerome, for instance, saw its principal characters, Mordechai and Esther, as types of the Church and Christ. One should know, moreover, that, until Jerome, the Church mainly favoured the Greek version of the book, preserved in the LXX. [3] That’s probably why in the Eastern Church there never was a real controversy about Esther. The reason for its problematic position in the West was that the Hebrew text was perceived as too typically Jewish and lacking in piety. The conspicuous absence of any mention of God or religious practice had even caused some Jewish reservations about its canonicity [4]:

For how to explain the inclusion in the canon of a book which was ostensibly so secular in nature? Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind the view of the Christian Church for whom the Book of Esther was, on the whole, an embarrassment. Most premodern Christian exegetes would probably have wished that it had never been included in the canon. The Church Fathers ignored it completely, and in the Middle Ages it was commented upon very rarely. Those exegetes who did comment on it usually interpreted it allegorically. Many Christian scholars, and not a few Jews, even in our own century, are offended by its particularistic, nationalistic tone and especially by the bloody scenes of revenge and the joyful triumph of the Jews over their enemies described in the book. [5]

Jerome’s comparison of Esther to the Church introduces us into the problems of interpretations based on Replacement Theology. Should this comparison lead to the conclusion that while in pre-Christian times God saved the Jews from their persecutors and secured their national and ethnic survival, yet after the advent of Messiah he transferred this favour to the Christians? Such a reading is not only completely beyond the literal meaning of the Book of Esther, but flatly contradicts its message, which is that the Jews are physically saved as a nation and people, wholly apart from their spiritual and religious condition.

In the XIXth centure some of the first dispensationalists, in a predictable reaction to Church theology, moved to the opposite view that saw in the replacement of Vashti by Esther a veiled prophecy of the end of the Gentile Church. At least, in his Études sur la Parole, John Nelson Darby made the following intriguing remark:

Nous voyons l’épouse Gentile, mise a côté à cause de sa désobiesance et pour avoir manqué à montrer sa beauté au monde; elle est remplacée par une épouse Juive qui possède l’affection du roi. [6]

William Kelly, following Darby’s dispensationalist approach, was even more explicit. He typologically compared Vashti to Christendom in an explicit way in a 1873 lecture on the Book of Esther:

The book not only is a book of providence — God’s secret providence — when He could not name His name on behalf of his people — in behalf of the Jews in their poor and dispersed condition among the Gentiles; but, further, it is typical of the great dealings of God that are yet to be, because what, mainly, does the book open with? This — the great Gentile wife of the great king is discarded, and the singular fact comes that a Jewess takes her place. I cannot doubt, myself, that it is what will follow when the Gentile has proved himself disobedient, and has failed in displaying the beauty that should be in the testimony of God before the world. In short, it is what is going on now; that is, at this present time, the Gentile is the one that holds a certain position before God in the earth. The Jew, as you are aware, is not the present witness of God, but the Gentile. The Gentile has utterly failed. According to the language of the 11th of Romans, the branches of the wild olive — the Gentile — will be broken off, and the Jew will be grafted in again. Well, Vashti is the Gentile wife that is discarded for her disobedience and failure in displaying her beauty before the world. That is what Christendom ought to do. The Gentile, I say, will be broken off and dismissed, and the Jew will be brought in. This is what is represented by the call of Esther. She becomes the object of the great king’s affections, and displaces Vashti, who is never restored. [7]

Whether Kelly’s comparison has any sound textual basis remains to be seen. It is obvious, however, that in dealing with the interpretation of a biblical text we should not in the first instance run to a typological, allegorical, or any other kind of non-literal explanation. Our first concern should be to establish its literal meaning. This being said, it is also obvious that historical events described by a text may point beyond themselves to other and greater events of which they are preconditions and prefigurations. That’s why the redemption from Egypt and the birth of national Israel can point to the national end-time redemption in the Messianic Kingdom and even beyond that to the state of eternal redemption in the World to Come.

The reason for this possibility of a deeper explanation is that God not only reveals himself in the words of Holy Scripture but also in the historical events described by the words of Scripture. These events are all directed by God and are part of his all-encompassing purpose with creation. This causes not only the words of Scripture to have signification, but also the events described by the words. Hence a particular and limited story can point beyond itself and find a deeper and more comprehensive meaning in later events or in the broader context of scriptural history. Thomas Aquinas gives a succint account of this possibility in the opening question of his Summa Theologiae:

The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science [i.e. sacred doctrine — GtH] has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. [8]

By this account of Aquinas a typological or other “spiritual” sense of a scriptural text that would go against the literal sense, or overthrow its gist, is rightly excluded. That’s why I discarded here above the typology of the Church father Jerome.

The preferred way to find out whether a biblical history contains a typological meaning is to examine its connection to the mystery of Messiah. When there are hidden clues which clearly signify the person and work of Messiah, then it is reasonable to assume that the text has a spiritual meaning related to the broader context of biblical history, since all divine plans and purposes culminate in Messiah.

To find such hidden clues in the Book of Esther is not particularly easy, because of its secular appearance. Neither God nor anything religious is explicitly mentioned by it. However, there’s a character which shows a resemblance with Messiah in his humiliation and exaltation. This is Mordecai. He is a Jewish official in the palace of Ahasuerus (Est. 2:5). When he gets the news of the decree of Haman, Mordecai puts on mourning apparal (Est. 4:1). But soon after he is exalted as “the man whom the king delighteth to honour” (Est. 6:11). Finally, he replaces Haman (Est. 8:2) and reigns under Ahasuerus, in a similar position as Joseph under Pharao (Est. 8:15; 9:4; 10:3). This is an indication that Mordecai can be considered a type or prefiguration of Messiah.

When we look a bit closer to the details of the text, this indication is confirmed and we see in the events of Mordecai’s life a striking resemblance of “the sufferings of Messiah, and the glory that should follow” (I Pt. 1:11). In the following paragraphs we’ll go into some of these details, by way of a preliminary survey, without trying to be complete.

The calendrical date of the publishing of Haman’s decree is the thirteenth day of the first month (Est. 3:7, 12), i.e. the 13th of Nisan or the day before Pesach. [9] According to the Gospel of John this is the day before the crucifixion. [10] It seems probable that this was the first of the three fast days demanded by Esther as a preparation of her appearing before the king. For we read in Est. 3:15 that the king and Haman set down to celebrate and drink on the publication of the decree, but that the city Shushan was perplexed. So the city seems to have known of the decree the same time when the king and Haman were celebrating. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Mordecai, being an official in the palace, would have found out about it at the same time or even earlier than the city. [11]

On the assumption that this is correct, Mordecai appeared in sackcloth before the king’s gate on that very day, and this would make the 13th of Nisan the first of the three days of fasting. The third day of this fast, the day of Esther appearance before the king and of her first banquet with the king and Haman, is then the  15th of Nisan , the first Yom Tov of Matzot and the day of the Pesach Seder. This is the day when Messiah was dead and resting in the sepulchre. Mordecai prefigures this death in remaining complete motionless before Haman. While at an earlier occasion (Est. 3:5) it is said that Mordecai bowed not before Haman, nor did him reverence, here (in Est. 5:9) it is said that Mordecai did not rise or even stir on Haman’s account. Surely he didn’t rise, for he was destined to be typologically risen — i.e. to be exalted — the next day, the 16th of Nisan, which was to be the day of Haman’s definite humiliation and death. According to the chronology of John’s Gospel the 16th of Nisan is the day of the resurrection of Messiah.

In the Book of Esther this typological resurrection day starts with the night when the king couldn’t sleep and the merits of Mordecai were read before him from the royal chronicles. Here Ahasuerus functions as an image of the King of kings, because “he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). [12] It isn’t difficult to recognize that Mordecai’s exaltation as “the man whom the king delighteth to honour” (Est. 6:11), on the very calendrical date of the resurrection, typologically functions as a prefiguration of the resurrected Messiah in whom all Israel will be saved in the end. The hanging of Haman on the same day (the 16th of Nisan) clearly prefigures the defeat of Satan by the resurrection of Messiah.

At this point we have to pay attention to the more difficult question of the typological role of Esther. We have already seen that this role is linked to that of Vashti, whom she supersedes as queen. Esther cannot simply stand for the Jewish nation, since the Jews’s literal presense in the story is manifest enough. But perhaps we can discover what she represents by exploring her connections to the persons whose typological functions we have establised thus far. We’ll attempt to do this in Part II.

To be continued.


[1] Wheelock, Trisha M. Gambaiana, Drunk and Disorderly: A Bakhtinian Reading of the Banquet Scenes in the Book of Esther, Baylor University — Waco, Texas 2008

[2] According to Athanasius, the Book of Esther was not included in the canon of Scripture.

[3] Summer 16-17: “In his survey of patristic literature on Esther, Timothy Gustafson notes that the response of early Christian writers to the Book of Esther was largely shaped by the Greek additions described above: “Although the translators of the Septuagint could not know it, their pious recasting of the story would give the book a general religious appeal that Christians could accept.” Because the Greek version emphasizes Esther’s extraordinaryfaithfulness, patristic writers often interpreted the narrative typologically with Esther representing the Church. In a late fourth century letter, for example, Jerome offers a typological reading of the story. Esther is a type of the Church, he writes, who “frees her people from danger and, after having slain Haman whose name means iniquity, hands down to posterity a memorable day and a great feast.” Gustafson cites other Christian writers with similar interpretations, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Rabanus Maurus.” [Saralyn Ellen Summer, “Like Another Esther”: Literary Representations of Queen Esther in Early Modern England, George State University — Atlanta, Georgia 2006]

[4] Philo of Alexandria never mentions the Book of Esther at all; Josephus summarizes it in his Antiquities, but it is not clear that he viewed it as part of Scripture.

[5] Walfish, Barry Dov, Esther in Medieval Garb. Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages, State University of New York Press — New York, Albany 1993

[6] Darby 172 [John Nelson Darby, Études sur la Parole destinées à aider le chretien dans la lecture du Saint Livre, Tome II (I Rois à Esther), Éditions Bibles et Traités Chrétiens — Vévey 1974]

[7] Kelly 8-9 [William Kelly, The Book of Esther, Lecture by W. Kelly 1873, Bible Truth Publishers — Oak Park, Ill.]

[8] S.Th. I.1.10c: “[…] auctor sacrae Scripturae est Deus, in cujus potestate est ut non solum voces ad significandum accommodet (quod etiam homo facere potest), sed etiam res ipsas. Et ideo, cum in omnibus scientiis voces significent, hoc habet proprium ista scientia quod ipsae res significatae per voces, etiam significant aliquid. Illa ergo prima significatio, qua voces significant res, pertinet ad primum sensum, qui est sensus historicus, vel litteralis. Illa vero significatio, qua res significatae per voces iterum res alias significant, dicitur sensus spiritualis, qui super litteralem fundatur, et eum supponit.”

[9] Pesach in the strict sense is the day when the Pesach lambs are to be slaughtered, the 14th of Nisan. This is not the same day as the feast day of Matzot, which is the immediately following day, the 15th of Nisan (Lev. 23:5-6).

[10] Jn. 19:14 says that the day of the crucifixion was on the preparation (day) of the Passover. This is to be understood as the preparation of the feast day of Matzot, as is clear from Jn. 19:31. According to John’s chronology the Lord Yeshua was thus crucified on the 14th of Nisan.

[11] Berlin 45: “Mordecai heard the decree at the same time as the city of Shushan. Unlike the dumbfounded city, Mordecai springs into action, taking definite steps to publicly demonstrate his feelings.” [Adele Berlin, The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther, The Jewish Publication Society — Philadephia, Pennsylvania 2001 (5761)]

[12] This is confirmed by the opinion of R. Tanhum, who said that “the sleep of the King of the Universe was disturbed” (BT Megillah 15b). Actually, the Hebrew text doesn’t say “disturbed”, but that the kings sleep “fled”, according to Young’s literal translation of ‘nâdad’. The same Gemora explains the passive form used for the reading of the chronicles — “they were read” instead of “they read them” — as an indication “that they were read of themselves”, meaning perhaps a passivum divinum.