John Anthony Dunne, Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014). (Amazon.com)
Aim of the Book:
According to John Anthony Dunne, in the Book of Esther, “…there appears to be evidence that the protagonists were unfaithful to the God of their ancestors (p. 15).” Esther is a story about assimilated Jews in the Persian Empire, not a hagiographical book about pious Jews who have remained faithful to their covenant God. This has made commenters uneasy—both ancient and modern. In this study Dunne works exegetically through the Hebrew text of Esther to show that the original story was a “secular” one and that there has been an uneasiness with this throughout the work’s reception history. Because of this “Esther is a misunderstood story” that is “either neglected by those who claim that its words are significant, or, if not neglected, is adjusted in such a way that significantly distorts the story (pp. 3-4).”
This is true of some scholarly literature and most popular literature as well as films and novels based on Esther. Therefore, this book walks the line between a scholarly and popular work, trying to engage both worlds, and it does so successfully in my opinion. Scholars can learn from Dunne’s argument finding it engaging and challenging. Other readers will find it accessible and informative.
This book begins with an Introduction that sets forth the aim of the book while giving some qualifications about its nature (not a commentary) along with some basic background information about Esther (date, genre, overview). It is divided into two parts: (1) A Secular Story and (2) Canonical and Theological Reflections on A Secular Story. Part 1 has three Chapters. In Chapter 1 (“Esther and the Compromise”) Dunne argues that “the typical view of Esther and Mordecai fails to account for a number of important factors (p. 17)” including their placement in the diaspora (the exile is over but they haven’t gone home), their negative genealogies, their Babylonian names, Esther’s foreign marriage, and their hidden Jewish identity. Dunne argues quite convincingly that Esther and Mordecai have been fully integrated into Persian society.
In Chapter 2 (“Esther & Covenant”) Dunne aims to upend our common (and his estimation wrong) understanding of Esther as being subtly pious. He challenges how many interpret Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman, the idea that the fasting of the Jews was an act of repentance, that deliverance “from another place” means “God”, or that the Jew’s self-defense was “holy war”. Also, he points out that the setting of the book is near Passover, which is completely ignored. Often I found myself acknowledging that I may have baptized many texts in Esther as religious that are no such thing.
Chapter 3 (“Esther & the Cover-Up”) shows that modern interpreters aren’t the first to sanctify this secular story. Dunne shows how two Greek versions—the Septuagint (LXX) and Alpha Text (AT)—and two Aramaic versions—Targum Rishon and Targum Sheni—insert text that speak of God or explain sections of Esther as being more pious than the Hebrew text expressed. Popular works and films often follow suite mimicking the Esther story of these versions more than that of the Hebrew text. The first part of this chapter should be read alongside the Appendix at the end of the book “A Closer Look at the Relationship between the LXX and the AT”.
Part 2 has two chapters that attempt to address the “meaning” of Esther, the secular story, as a canonical book used by the Church as Scripture. In Chapter 4 (“Esther & Canon”) Dunne asks, “Does Esther really belong in the canon? If so, how does it fit (p. 95)?” He begins with an exercise that asks readers to summarize the Bible. Then, when we’ve done this (I said something like “Israel’s God’s creative and redeeming actions in the world and the attempt of humans to understand that God and that God’s actions.”) we realize that Esther doesn’t quite fit. The goal is to discern whether or not Esther belongs in the Protestant canon (Dunne acknowledges that there are other version of the canon on p. 101). It is important to note “Protestant” because Protestants based their canonical version of Esther on the Hebrew text.
Dunne begins by defining canon then he provides an overview of Esther’s reception history among Christians and Jews to see how this book has been used as Scripture. Ultimately this serves as the ultimate “more objective” reason for accepting Esther as canonical: “reception itself (p. 105)”. (Dunn notes that there is a theological reason—divine authorship. He observes that this is a position that can be held in faith, but difficult to “prove” on pp. 104-105.) The Church has continually received Esther as Scripture and this long history of reception is the reason for canonicity: “…the received texts are the canonical texts (p. 107).”
In the final chapter, Chapter 5 (“Esther & the Church”) Dunne asks whether the Church should use a secular story as Scripture, a book where God is absent. He notes that in spite of the nature of the book it remains, for the Church, “a story of God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people (p. 112).” The author may present us with assimilated Jews who have forgotten their covenant God, and that covenant God may be ignored by the narrator and the characters, but when the Church reads this book in the context of canon, in the context of the gospel, we can see that God doesn’t need to be recognized, named, or acknowledged to remain faithful. God is faithful to God’s people. Or, as Dunne summarizes, Esther shows us “God’s deliverance of his people even though they do not recognize it or perceive it (p. 119).”
This book should receive a wide and diverse audience. It interacts with scholarly and popular interpretations of Esther. It is readable, understandable, yet challenging and provocative. In my estimation it forces us to allow Esther to be Esther, which can be troubling, but also quite rewarding. Dunne’s division of the book into a exegetical-historical and ecclesial-theological is a helpful way to arrange things showing how solid, exegetically sound interaction with the text isn’t a theology-free exercise, but it can be a very theological one.
If you are a pastor looking to preach on Esther, a small group leader wondering about what book of the Bible to study next, or just someone interested in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament as literature, consider this book worth your time. It challenges my assumptions about Esther. I’m sure you’ll find it will do the same to yours.
This book was received in exchange for a bias-free review from Wipf & Stock.