Israeli Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun and American Professor Michael Fox are two thinkers and careful textual analysts who are convinced that the text of the Megillah has to be read not just for what is on the surface but for what it reveals below the surface, for what it hides.
Both believe that the Megillah and its author have things to tell us about religious faith. However, their readings are very different. Where one finds certainty regarding God’s role in history and in the world, in the silence of the text, the other finds ambiguity and uncertainty.
But they both believe that there is a deep theological message in the text’s silence and reject a secular reading of so apparently secular a text.
Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun, Israel:
At first glance, the inclusion of Megillat Esther among the 24 books of the Tanach, seems very strange. The Megillah seems like a secular book, in total contrast to all the rest of the biblical books. The Megillah completely ignores any aspect of holiness…Why does it give such a secular description of events? What is the goal of such a deliberate rejection of the holy?
All of the biblical books…are the story of God’s word to mankind in general and the Jewish people specifically. They do not tell the history of the ancient world and not even the history of the Jewish people in the regular sense of the word. [That is to say that the reason for writing the Megillah cannot simply be to retell a historical event that happened to the Jews. Not all ancient Jewish history is retold in the Bible. That, in itself would not be sufficient reason for its inclusion in the Bible].
The scroll of Esther stands in opposition to the entire Tanach. As opposed to the rest of the biblical books which describe the realm of God and God’s supervision of the world, the Megillah portrays deliberately, in an exaggerated and very extreme way, the “realm of the reversals”), the reversal of everything that holiness can connect with. [In the entire world of the Megillah, we seem to hear no mention of God and no mention of religious rituals of any kind. Indeed the world is a world where the conventional moral categories of God’s world which appear in other biblical books, appear to be completely absent]…
The aim of the inclusion of the Book of Esther in the Tanakh is therefore to bring up for examination the question “who rules in the realm of the reversals”. If we had in our possession the Tanakh without the Megillah, we would know God only in every place and situation where God can be directly named. The Megillah comes to complement this deficit and to teach us that God is found secretly also in those places where God cannot be named.
Here we encounter a deep issue connected with the culture of Persia. The Persian belief system divides the world up into two realms, of good and of evil that eternally battle between them. The Megillah comes to teach us …that God directs the world even when God hides…[God does not only direct the world of good, but also those parts of the world where evil seems to rule and where at face value, there is no sign of God’s presence]. Esther teaches us that God supervises the world, even in a time when His face appears to be hidden [Esther from “Hester Panim”] from us, when we cannot discern God on the surface of things.
In this way, Megillat Esther completes the Tanach. It was deliberately written in such a radically secular style to teach us that divine providence exists in places and situations far from the realm of holiness, and that God’s hand directs the world even in places where God appears to be hidden.
Professor Michael Fox (USA, 1990s):
God in Esther is indeed veiled, as the popular metaphor puts it…a veil suggests that there is something behind it and invites us to look through. But when we look through this one, we do not see the sturdy old faith that so many readers assume must be back there somewhere. We see a light but it shimmers. [In other words, instead of the clear mention of God and the way that God acts in the other biblical books – the “sturdy old faith” – we only see signs of a faint reflection of God’s presence, if we look very carefully – “a light that shimmers”].
This carefully crafted [ambivalence] is best explained as an attempt to convey uncertainty about God’s role in history. [There is a reason that the author of Esther has not made God a more prominent actor in the story and has drawn God, if at all, below the surface of the story, with just a hint of presence]. The author is not quite certain about God’s role in these events (are you?) and does not conceal that uncertainty. By refusing to exclude that possibility, [i.e. that God is indeed in control behind the scenes and is directing the action], the author conveys his belief that there can be no definitive knowledge of the workings of God’s hand in history. Not even a wonderful deliverance can prove that God was directing events: nor could threat and disaster prove His absence.
The story’s [ambivalence] conveys the message that the Jews should not lose faith if they too are uncertain about where God is in a crisis. [Since it is impossible to know for sure whether God is present, you should never discount the possibility even when things look very bleak, as they did for the Jews of Persia in the story]. Israel will survive – that is the author’s faith – but how this will happen he does not know. Events are ambiguous and God’s activity cannot be directly read out of them: yet they are not random…[The author might not be sure what to believe but he is sure that there is some kind of pattern in the world and that things such as the events of the Megillah have not happened for no reason at all].
When we [search carefully] the text of Esther for traces of God’s activity, we are doing what the author made us do. The author would have us probe the events that we witness in our lives in the same way. He is teaching a theology of possibility. [He wants us to be aware, all the time, of the possibility that behind the world there is indeed a benevolent God that works in mysterious ways].