by Lee Beach
The Book of Esther reminds us that even when God’s name is absent, mission can still take place. Our commitment to living with missional intentionality through thoughtful cultural engagement is a powerful tool of proclamation.
Can we do mission without mentioning God—or more particularly, without mentioning Jesus? This question has particular relevance for those serving in places where Christianity is either marginalized or ostracized. Whether in limited-access nations, in places where Christians are a significant minority, or even in the West where the Christian faith wanes and the Church slides to the edges of culture, the question of how to express our faith requires continual re-evaluation. Can mission proceed effectively without explicit reference to the primary subject of that mission?
A source of guidance particularly useful in these contexts is the Book of Esther, which provides readers with a model of contextualization that can inform the challenges practitioners face when they find themselves in contexts where the message of Jesus is not only foreign, but even unwelcome.
The story of Esther demonstrates to subsequent generations how the wisdom of God informed life for a minority people in a culture governed by powers and laws different and even contradictory to their own. For this reason, Esther offers contemporary wisdom to those engaged in mission in similar circumstances. In order to understand these connections, we must explore the text itself.
God’s Presence in the Midst of His Absence
One outstanding feature of the Book of Esther is a key reason it is not usually thought of as a primary missionary text—namely, the absence of God’s name. YHWH is not named as an explicit player in the drama. His presence is implied at best. However, the acceptance of Esther as a canonical text calls us to discern the presence of God in it. This can be done through the inferences to his presence (4:14, 16), the “coincidences” and plot reversals that point to an external power controlling the events (6:4, 7:8, 9:1), and the conversion of many Persians to Judaism (8:17), which represents what would have been understood by ancient readers as the expected response to a display of God’s power.
Ultimately, it is the rootedness of Esther within the Hebrew exilic tradition that leaves the reader with the impression that
God, while veiled, was intimately involved in the outcome of the narrative. As a book designed to offer advice to Jewish exiles, it reflects the prophetic assumption that God was at work in the foreign nation, even if that influence was not immediately apparent.
In this sense, the Book of Esther seemed to address the community’s latent doubt concerning God’s presence by using a tale of his subversive activity in coming to the aid of his people in ways only discernible in retrospect. Thus, the author used the non-mention of God’s name as a literary device that requires readers to look beneath the surface in order to find assurance that God really is present when it seems he is absent.
For many who work in places where the gospel is ignored or opposed, a theology of presence in absence is necessary. We sometimes advance the mission of Christ best by not talking about him much, if at all. Although this seems counter-intuitive, the Book of Esther provides us with a reminder of God’s behind-the-scenes work and his presence in places where he is not often acknowledged or named.
As oblique as the presence of God is in the Book of Esther, the integration of the heroine within Persian society is quite explicit. The ease with which she functioned in Persian culture, and her apparent moral ambiguity, have at times been a point of contention for readers.
There is certainly room for these anxieties; she, of all the candidates for queen who spent a night with the king, pleased him the most. This offers at least the inference that Esther’s charms extended beyond simply her physical beauty. She was the one who, instead of challenging the king’s diet (as Daniel did), prepared his food. She chose to avoid risk by concealing her Jewishness. As a Jew, she seemed to have no scruples about being married to a Gentile.
These problems were felt as early as the second century B.C., when the Greek additions to Esther were composed, adding prayers and stating how Esther hated being married to a Gentile and that she meticulously followed Jewish dietary laws. These later additions affirm that Esther was perceived as enmeshed in Persian culture, perhaps overly so.
Yet her behavior as an exile was deeply connected to Jeremiah’s words to Israel that they should prepare for an extended exile by settling into life under foreign rule (Jer. 29:4-7). Esther epitomized Jewish ability to thrive in a foreign setting.
In certain ways, this is Missions 101: What does it mean to live as a Christian in this culture? This question proves to be more complex in certain settings than in others. Esther demonstrates how deep cultural integration can be necessary for genuine influence to take place.
Perhaps the people at home would not have understood why Esther chose to become so enmeshed in Persian culture. Esther’s story reminds us that sometimes, in order to do what God has called us to do, we must participate in things others may find taboo.
A colleague recently shared the story of a successful artist who was highly committed to living missionally in his artistic community. One performance called for him to use obscene language. Unhappy with this, a fellow church member complained to the pastor about the inappropriateness of this behavior. Fortunately, the pastor was wise enough to remind the church member that the artist was reaching a community that few people could.
Mission requires that we immerse ourselves in a culture so that we can have influence. Like Esther, this may mean concealing our religious identity at times. It may mean that we immerse ourselves in relationships that respect the culture of our new friends even to the point that we honor them by our engagement with their culture.
The particular diasporic issue that Esther speaks to is that of living with limited power (Bechtel 2002, 11). Her “success” was always the result of her ability to behave wisely in the circumstances she faced. This behavior was characterized by the ability to compromise in just the right ways so as to allow her cause to advance. This attempt at “critical compromise,” (Bechtel 2002, 12; i.e., a compromise that is thoughtful) is in contrast to other characters who took less subtle approaches that ultimately backfired.
For instance, when summoned by her husband the king to appear at his party, Queen Vashti dramatically refused. While her courage in standing up to the king’s desire to show her off may have been admirable, it resulted in her being banished from the royal court. An edict was also declared that sought to repress any woman who would try to defy their husbands (1:19-22).
In contrast, Esther’s more flexible approach is depicted as having positive results. This approach has meant that some see Esther as a compromised character. Even if this were so, this does not seem to be the emphasis of the story. Esther acts as a model for cultural engagement in situations of limited power. As one with minimal official power, she found ways to work within her culture and advance the cause of her people. This is the way that those living in a minority position must learn to work if they are going to transform the host culture.
Contextualization often requires making situational decisions about how to get along in a foreign culture. There are no easy answers to all situations; however, if the goal is to remain in a place where our influence can grow, often the way forward is to determine how our decisions can facilitate that goal without going too far.
Compromise, although sometimes frowned upon in Christian circles, is exactly what is needed. A lack of flexibility will often stunt our influence, whereas diplomatic wisdom, or critical compromise, will enable us to move forward and gain fresh opportunities to advance our mission.
This may mean that in certain contexts some will choose to participate in cultural norms, customs, or religious rituals that may not seem ideal, but that nevertheless facilitate relational development. Some missionary colleagues in Africa are faced with such a decision each year during a nationwide religious festival that includes sacrificing goats to local gods as atonement for communal sin. The meat from the goats is cooked and eaten in a post-sacrifice feast. Even though my colleagues do not agree with the theology of the overall event, they choose to participate in it as a way to engage the people among whom they live.
Esther models an embodied purity that demonstrates the importance of holiness in exilic life. A proper understanding of Esther’s morality lies in her relationship to and actions on behalf of her community. When understood as part of a tale that describes deliverance for the Jews, her actions take on a much more complex, even heroic hue.
First, we see her loyalty to her people over her own personal safety. She acted on their behalf by going to the king, even though it might have cost her own life (4:16). Remembering her heritage, she determined that the salvation of her people should take precedence over her own well-being.
Further, she demonstrated loyalty to her God by calling her people and her court to a fast before attempting to appear before the king in what might have been an act of political, if not personal, suicide (4:16). Her piety was one of action and not just words. Her plot to expose Haman and his diabolical scheme demonstrated Esther’s faith, not in words but in deeds. She acted cleverly and effectively on her people’s behalf (Costas 1988, 71-78).
Esther navigated the many potential pitfalls of her situation by knowing how to play by the rules in a hostile society.
What we see in Esther is a character whose actions must be understood in the communal context. She acted not according to what was right by the law, for to do so might have ultimately endangered the welfare of many. Instead, she acted in a way that subverted the power structures of her Persian conquerors; in so doing, she represented an exilic piety of action that pointed toward the delivering hand of God. Esther navigated the many potential pitfalls of her situation by knowing how to play by the rules in a hostile society. She was observant and graceful, shrewd and courageous.
Esther’s vision of holiness offers two key insights.
First, holiness is as much about what we do, as what we don’t do. Often, questions of contextualization focus on making sure we don’t cross certain perceived boundaries of conduct. However, Esther’s holiness was demonstrated in the positive actions she took on behalf of others and that set her apart from those around her.
This approach de-centers questions of cultural integration from what we should avoid, to what we can do to demonstrate how our faith works in practice. Some colleagues who work in a “closed” country where husbands treat their wives in ways that reinforce the inequality of the genders demonstrate holiness by treating each other in ways that reflect their belief in equality. Their quiet witness has prompted both male and female friends to ask about their relationship and reason for their treatment of each other.
Second, in many contexts where integration may call for participation in behaviors that seem to run counter to Christian traditions, Esther tells us that we should be guided by the greater purpose of our mission as we discern how to engage the culture. Our focus is not on specific cultural or even religious issues as much as it is on the question, “Does this open up new possibilities for sharing the gospel with integrity down the road?” The long view of the overall cause guides the day-to-day decisions we make about cultural integration.
An Unlikely Hero in an Intimidating Situation
The story of Esther reminds us of the kinds of people God uses in his mission. Esther was an orphaned, exiled female. In an ancient context she was a most unlikely leader. Her only qualification was that she won a beauty contest. Yet she joined a long line of unlikely heroes in the history of Israel. Her participation in God’s program speaks eloquently of how God works through those who are of seeming low esteem.
Esther’s womanhood cannot be overlooked as a part of what makes her a model for mission in challenging circumstances.
As a woman, she was able to illuminate the power relationship at play between a mighty monarch like the Persian king and a subjugated partner like Israel.
Like Esther, the Jews in diaspora were also in a weak position as a subordinate population. Thus, not only was Esther a woman and a member of a perpetually-subordinate population, but she was an orphan, a powerless member of a Jewish society. Her position in society was constantly precarious, as was the position of the Jews in diaspora. With no native power of her own, Esther was forced to learn to make her way among the powerful in order to fulfill her role in God’s economy.
Given some of these realities, it is not hard to understand why Esther chose to act so discreetly. Those who serve in similarly complex settings and enter these settings with a lack of power can take encouragement from Esther’s example.
The Missional Results of Esther
One of the magnificent results of Esther’s actions was that “many people of other nationalities became Jews” (8:17). As a powerless figure fighting for a powerless people, Esther influenced some of the powerful people to side with the powerless.
Allowing the text of Esther to guide our own approach to cultural engagement in difficult places may lead to similar reversals in our own ministries. At the very least it provides us with a hopeful vision and working wisdom for the process of missional engagement in such cultural circumstances.
Can we do Christian mission without naming Jesus? Esther reminds us that even when God’s name is absent, mission can still take place. Our commitment to living with missional intentionality through thoughtful cultural engagement is a powerful tool of proclamation. This is a necessary theological perspective for mission. Sometimes it is the only perspective that will keep us going as we face the challenges of doing mission in difficult places.
Bechtel, Carol. 2002. Esther. Louisville, Ken.: John Knox Press.
Costas, Orlando. 1988. “The Subversiveness of Faith: Esther as a Paradigm for a Liberating Theology.” Ecumenical Review 40:66-78.
Lee Beach (PhD) is assistant professor of Christian ministry and director of ministry formation at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 284-289. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.