The Concealed Face of God

A theological explanation for why God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther

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Many of the serious messages of Purim are encoded in word play and irony, and the Book of Esther's seemingly absent God is no exception. The centrality of the concept of hester panim or "the concealed face of God" to Purim is recognized in the fact thatEsther is the only text in the Hebrew Bible, except for the Song of Songs,that does not mention the name of God explicitly.

hidden face of godIn the case of Purim, hester panim's importance is also intimated by the name of the heroine of the central narrative of the festival, Esther. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Hullin 139B states, "From where does the Torah bring the name Esther? From the verse 'But I [God] will surely conceal my face ["haster astir panai"] on that day for all of the ill that they have done--for they turned to other gods. (Deuteronomy 31:18).'" The name Esther is interpreted as an extension of the phrase for a "concealed God."

Discussing the verse in Deuteronomy, the medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that the term "turned to" or panah should actually be read as "whored with" or zanah. Here, the blame for the broken relationship between God and Israel lies squarely with Israel's assimilation and worship amongst the gods of the nations, a circumstance apparent in the story of Purim as well. There seems to be no distinction between Esther or Mordechai and the non-Jewish Persians until the Jews themselves reveal who they are.

Furthermore, Esther's moniker is doubly ironic, because her name is a Hebraization of the name of the Near Eastern goddess Ishtar, and her Uncle Mordechai's name is a Hebrew version of the name of the Near Eastern god Marduk. Through the lens of a nitty-gritty melodrama of sex, deception, and violence, The Book of Esther openly critiques the possibility of a "secular" world of blind fate and challenges the nature of assimilated Jewish life. Without God at its center, Jewish life and Jewish heroes merely become a poor imitation of the world around them. The Diaspora Jews depicted at Purim's core can be seen as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy of divine abandonment resulting from Jewish assimilation to the cultural norms counter to a Jewish center.

Esther as Commentary

The Book of Esther as a whole may be a kind of midrash or meditation on the verse in Deuteronomy cited above. This meditation is far from simple, much closer to a hall of mirrors than an opportunity for focusing reflection on any one proper identity or image. Culturally in the Book of Esther, Jews mirror non-Jews, going so far as to popularize the names of foreign gods for their own elite. This is a dramatic turn for a Jewish people told to be a nation holy like God throughout the period of their growth in the desert (Leviticus 19: 1-2) or for that matter, for humanity as a whole, which is said to be created in the image of God in the first chapters of Genesis.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.