Book Review: Esther and Her Elusive God

One of the many joys of hav­ing chil­dren is get­ting to expe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent aspects of your child­hood all over again, albeit in a dif­fer­ent form. I have allud­ed to some of these via the var­i­ous rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of children’s sto­ries and nurs­ery rhymes on this blog. However, giv­en my cur­rent train­ing in bib­li­cal stud­ies one of these aspects that inter­ests me is how var­i­ous bible sto­ries are pre­sent­ed for kids. These sto­ries come in a vari­ety of forms, from the sim­ple board pic­ture books through to car­toons.

hqdefaultBut out of the whole host of sto­ries there are a few that irk me with their retelling: Daniel, David, Jonah etc. Notable amongst these is the book of Esther, which usu­al­ly gets trans­formed into a Disney/Cinderella type redemp­tion nar­ra­tive. Therefore it was with inter­est that I saw that a friend of mine pub­lished his thoughts on the book of Esther last year in Esther and Her Elusive God.

This book from John Anthony Dunne square­ly address­es the ele­phant in Esther’s room: the lack of God in the sto­ry. Dunne begins by propos­ing that the point of Esther isn’t that God is mere­ly the sub­text behind the action that is going on. But rather that the book func­tions to high­light ‘that the elu­sive God of Esther was stead­fast and faith­ful, pre­serv­ing his peo­ple though they did not deserve it.’ (5) In order to address this point he con­sid­ers the sec­u­lar nature of the sto­ry through three aspects: the Compromise of the Israelites in the nar­ra­tive, the rela­tion­ship of the nar­ra­tive to the Covenant, and the recep­tion his­to­ry of the book of Esther and its sub­se­quent mod­i­fi­ca­tions in the Septuagint (LXX) and Alpha Text (AT). Throughout the book Dunne pro­vides con­ve­nient com­par­isons with mod­ern retellings of the sto­ry, and their emphases on the changed nar­ra­tive in order to rein­tro­duce and high­light God in the sto­ry.

The analy­sis por­tion of the book is care­ful­ly, slow­ly and cumu­la­tive­ly argued and builds a strong pic­ture of the sec­u­lar nature of the book. In this sec­tion the pri­ma­ry weak­ness and like­ly stum­bling block for many read­ers lies in the treat­ment of Esther 4:13–14 which many schol­ars point to as the recog­ni­tion of the implied deus ex machi­na at work. However, even here the argu­ment makes cumu­la­tive sense if tak­en as a whole and this should not cause a care­ful read­er too many issues. The final chap­ter of this the first part of the book address­es the redac­tion and addi­tions present with­in the LXX and AT. This chap­ter presents some of the changes to the Masoretic through­out the lifes­pan of the book, although it would have been use­ful for the asso­ci­at­ed appen­dix to be inte­grat­ed into the chap­ter as a whole.

If the first part of the book advo­cat­ed for a neg­a­tive read­ing of the lack of God in the book of Esther, the sec­ond part asks the ques­tion of why the book is in the bible at all. In these last thir­ty odd pages Dunne dri­ves home his argu­ment that the sec­u­lar­i­ty of Esther and its pres­ence and con­text with­in the canon actu­al­ly high­lights the prov­i­dence of God in the sto­ry. Here he argues that like Job, the book of Esther is anoth­er excep­tion that proves the rule, that ‘Esther [is] a tale of how good things hap­pen to unde­serv­ing peo­ple.’ (125) These two chap­ters as the crux of the book are arguably the high­light of the care­ful argu­ment that has gone before, and I wish that he had the time and space to expand on this appli­ca­tion fur­ther.

Overall I believe Dunne pro­vides a con­vinc­ing argu­ment, and one that resolves many of the aspects of the book that have irked me in the past with­out sim­ply being a hagio­graph­ic retelling. However, in get­ting his argu­ment across occa­sion­al­ly the book comes across as some­what vin­dic­tive and vil­i­fy­ing in its high­light­ing the moral, cul­tic and covenan­tal fail­ings of the char­ac­ters. This slight polem­i­cal tone jars with Dunne’s oth­er­wise laid-back style and will ham­per the absorp­tion by some audi­ences. This aside I found it an enjoy­able and con­vinc­ing read, and look for­ward to think­ing about how it will impact on my preach­ing and retelling of the sto­ry for chil­dren.

In addi­tion I quite like the ded­i­ca­tion:

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John Anthony Dunne, Esther and Her Elusive God:How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014.

Available: Amazon

Chris

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