Christians Have Fallen in Love With Queen Esther, Purim’s Jewish Heroine
In recent novels, sermons, and Bible-study guides, evangelicals and mainline Protestants alike find inspiration in the biblical tale
Many Jews may be unaware that Esther has taken on new status among Christians, but not everyone is surprised. “Esther is this remarkable, richly developed female character in the Bible,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL, a Jewish think tank and leadership training organization. “It’s a great story—there’s sex, politics, boundary-crossing behavior. Why wouldn’t Christians be paying attention? It’s their story as much as ours.”
Hirschfield maintained that non-Jews have always been enamored of Esther and that one need look no further than medieval and Renaissance painting for proof: “Positive portrayals of Esther are legion in Renaissance art,” he said. Indeed, masters from Michelangelo to Tintoretto to Rembrandt have painted images of Esther, many depicting the same scene as the Tenney novel when Esther approaches King Ahasuerus.
But some observers see the Christian embrace of Esther as especially relevant to our era. Christian and Jewish commentators alike are quick to point out that Esther is the one book of the Bible where God is not mentioned. Riess surmised this very absence is what is engendering this current revival of interest in Esther and adds that the story may even be a good outreach tool. “Evangelicals are enamored of the character now because we are living in a very secular culture,” she suggested. “Esther is a story that can speak to secular young people in a way that other biblical characters cannot.”
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs at the Velveteen Rabbi and has written about Esther for both Jewish and Christian audiences, agreed that Esther can be a religious touchstone in a secular world. “The story is about being true to who you are and navigating the non-Jewish or multifaith world in a way that is true to her. She doesn’t leave her Jewish world, but she’s ready to leap into this wild secular adventure,” Barenblat explained. “Esther is a model for those of us who want to live in the world but still want to retain our connections to where we come from.”
Though Christian hero may not be the role most Jews are accustomed to Esther holding, ultimately, Christians and Jews understand the deeper meaning of Esther in a similar way. Just as the Christianized Esther depicted in the Tenney novel found God in the most secular of environments, rabbis have taught that God is present in the story of Esther despite his absence from the Megillah. “Divine presence permeates the story,” Barenblat explained in her contribution to Held Evans’ blog series. Hirschfield agreed: “Like the Christian authors, the absence of God doesn’t trouble the rabbis,” he said. “The absence of God as a character doesn’t mean the absence of God in the world.”
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.
Why read the Talmud as a secular Jew? In part, for its expression of an independent Jewish creativity and spirituality.