The world of the Hebrew Bible—with its prophets, revelations, and open miracles—can seem so foreign that it is sometimes difficult to see what practical lessons it can impart about sustaining faith and structuring society in the modern world. But one book of Scripture stands out for its striking resemblance to our own age. The Book of Esther contains no mention of God, and its plot is moved entirely by human intrigue, political machinations, and apparent coincidences. Yet, writes Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony, the rabbis of the Talmud believed it was only Esther that “offered the key to the miraculous.” In fact, he argues, a proper understanding of the Book of Esther holds important lessons for contemporary political culture, as it points us toward a deeper understanding of divine action as operating through the seemingly worldly activity of human beings.
Esther is a book of the Bible that does not refer to God explicitly even once. On the surface, it is a story about political intrigue, sex, and violence. Yet the rabbis of the Talmud lavish praise on this work, asserting that there are two portions of Scripture that would never cease to be relevant to mankind: the books of Moses and the Book of Esther. And while they taught that the other parts of the Bible could bring an understanding of piety, wisdom, consolation, and greatness, it was only the Book of Esther that they thought offered the key to the miraculous.
How can a work in which God is not mentioned, and in which every turn of its dense plot is the result of human decision and human action, hold the key to understanding the miraculous? This is not merely an exegetical or theological question. Contemporary readers need to reckon with the miraculous character of the Book of Esther, for it illuminates the possibilities and limits of political action, possibilities and limits we too often neglect.