Esther, Divine Providence, and the Problem of Evil

Part 1

Much has been made of the fact that Megillat Esther is one of only two books in Tanach that do not contain any explicit mention of God. The standard explanation for this is that it is meant to show Divine Providence, that God is active in everyday life, not just when performing open miracles. The entire narrative of the Megilla never mentions God, and yet He is understood to be pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The only time this is even hinted at in the story is when Mordechai is convincing Esther to go in front of the King and plead for the lives of the Jews. Responding to her objection on the grounds that an unsolicited appearance before the King carries the death penalty, Mordechai makes a somewhat cryptic allusion to a big-picture historical dynamic:

“Do not think that you will escape [the fate of] all the Jews by being in the king’s palace. For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position.”

This seems to allude to some larger plan. Mordechai claims to know that whether or not Esther goes to the King, the outcome will be the same. The Jewish people will be saved. The conclusion often drawn from this is that actions do not directly affect outcomes, as those are in the hands of God. Humans can only make the correct decisions and pass ‘tests’, but not directly cause anything to happen.

Putting aside for a moment the intuitive and philosophical objections to this picture, is this warranted by the text? Mordechai does say that the Jewish people will be saved in some other way, but he also says that if Esther doesn’t go, she and the house of her father will be lost, so her actions apparently directly affect at least that part of the outcome.

Furthermore, the survival of the Jewish people is something that is explicitly guaranteed in the Torah, so when Mordechai says that salvation will come from some other place, it doesn’t have to mean that all outcomes are unaffected by human action, but only that in this particular instance where there is a divine promise, it can be relied upon.

Another issue is the question of how Mordechai knew of the specific outcome. Even if we say that Divine Providence works in the way outlined above, and Mordechai knew that Esther’s actions wouldn’t affect things one way or the other, he should have said just that, “don’t think that your inaction can save you, what shall be, shall be, one way or the other”. This seems to support my hypothesis of Mordechai referring to the Torah’s guarantee of Jewish survival.

All of this suggests that we might be justified in positing a more nuanced account of the Divine Providence being shown in Megillat Esther in general, and in this passage in particular.

Mordechai seems to be reading the situation with a certain narrative consciousness. He sees Esther’s remarkable ascent to the crown as a sign of some kind of Divine Providence, yes, but I would call it more of a working out of the Divine Narrative. God must have some purpose in setting things up so that Esther becomes Queen, but it is entirely up to her to see the importance of her situation, and to act accordingly. The way things are poised is indeed part of God’s plan, but Esther’s response to them is entirely her choice.

The kind of model I have in mind here is one where God works his will in the world through the free choices and actions of people so as to create a story, a narrative of history, exhibiting lessons for mankind. Even if, metaphysically speaking, God is technically making everything happen, He is committed to doing so according to the natural patterns of things, so that people can respond to situations based on patterns they understand. Thus, for all practical intents and purposes, people are affecting outcomes, because they are working with the patterns that God sets out.

Divine Providence doesn’t mean that the regular patterns of the world, especially the moral patterns, are insignificant.

People think that seeing as God is involved in making things happen and we can’t be sure what His purposes are, and therefore what He will do, considerations of practical consequences should not enter into our decision making, only the Law, only Halacha, only what we are Instructed-To-Do. On this account we should discount all experience of the consequences of actions, as they’re not really consequences of the actions, but rather just what happened to follow.

It seems to me this is dead wrong. The world seems to be set up in such a way that we can deal with it reasonably, and make reasonably consistent predictions. More importantly, it is given to us to learn moral lessons from what happens in the world, specifically from the relationship between our actions and their consequences. We are able to see that we were wrong to do certain things in certain situations, and right to do them in others. We can learn from the experience of others as well.

I am not saying that God is not involved and things just run by themselves. I am saying that God doesn’t govern the world by inscrutable whims, swaying wildly from one pole to another, so that we can make no sense of things.

The upshot of all this is that Divine Providence makes the consequences of our actions more relevant, not less. We are meant to do the right thing in the situations we are presented with, based on our best understanding of the opportunities to affect good with which we’re presented. As we go through life, our actions and their consequences weave a rich moral tapestry, from which emerge patterns, crisscrossing with each other and with the patterns woven into the tapestry of the lives lived around us. Each pattern is a story, and stories are the best way to learn lessons.

Mordechai is telling Esther that it is her special duty to do her best for the Jewish people, because she is in a unique position. She occupies a special place in the story. Although neither of them can know for sure that this is the purpose of her being Queen (“Who knows if it is not for just such a time…”) she has to do her best with what she has. She is in a better position than anybody to do good, so that’s what she must do.

Part 2

 

Back to the larger fact of Esther being a book of scripture devoid of God’s name. Too much focus is put on that negative; on what the book is not. The standard explanation cited above boils down to the lesson being that everything really still works just like it did in the time of the open miracles in the Torah and earlier Prophets, except now it’s hidden.

What happens if we focus on what the book actually is, not just on what it isn’t? We have a book without God’s intervention mentioned explicitly. In fact we have a book in which the events do not reflect God’s open miraculous intervention. We have a story. Pure and simple. Something that happened the way things happen in our experience. Perhaps we’re not supposed to simply shove it back into the same category as all the previous stories.

It is well known that the only book of Tanach that wasn’t found among the Dead Sea Scrolls was Megillat Esther. In his book “Not in God’s Name” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about the Qumran sect, authors of the scrolls, as being an example of people suffering from what he calls “pathological dualism”, which is the tendency to explain the evil in the world by attributing it to some power completely other than God, and to divide the world sharply and starkly between those who are good and those who are evil. The Qumran sect had many texts speaking of the war between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, thus exemplifying this mentality.

I wonder if it might not be right to link their exclusion of Esther to this characteristic.

A book of scripture that is just a story. Perhaps this can be taken to mean that there is something very central in the nature of “story”, to learn from.

One of the fascinating elements of stories is that they make us experience, not just understand, but experience, one of the answers to the problem of evil (If God is good, why is there evil in the world?). No story is good if it doesn’t have any darkness and conflict in it. Fact. In order for the narrative to have any meaning, there needs to be evil to overcome. The best stories don’t just show stark good and stark evil, but show how the good must overcome the evil within themselves.

It is thus that an answer to the problem of evil that seems glib and insensitive when relayed abstractly is intuitively felt to be true. Every time someone goes to watch a movie they are displaying this instinctive understanding. Perhaps the problem of evil is not one to be answered or solved philosophically, but one to be struggled with, to be experienced itself.

Megillat Esther is such a story, where the excitement and the meaning depend upon the existence of evil. Maybe pathological dualists like the Qumran sect had some sort of understanding of this text as a rebuttal to them? We will never know, but I think the lessons to be learned from what the Story of Esther and Mordechai actually is, stand nonetheless.

About the Author
Born in the US, made Aliyah at 3 years old. Going to Hebrew U to study law in October. Was in Yeshiva for 7 years. interested in basically everything. Aspiring writer, somewhat-more-than-amateur musician, armchair philosopher, and connoisseur of human folly (including, hopefully, my own).
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