The Concealed Face of God

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

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Yet despite God's vow in Deuteronomy, it is not clear if the Jewish disconnect with the divine in Esther is the result of God's withdrawal from protection of Jewish religious sanctity during the destruction of the First Temple--from which Mordechai and Esther's ancestors as said to have fled--or if God withdraws from the Jews only gradually because of their assimilation in Persia. Whether God or the Jewish people initiate the break in this relationship, the result is that the Jews can no longer mirror God because God is no longer a face to be experienced and reflected upon. The world of the Jews of the Purim story is one of physical and spiritual exile.

Purim and the Day of Atonement

Amidst practices of drinking and bawdy entertainment, Purim contains a serious undercurrent that carries the responsibility of repentance to mend a broken relationship with the divine. Jewish teachers note that etymologically, Purim is partnered with Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement. Yom HaKippurim is said to be a day k'purim – a day like Purim. This linguistic and thematic connection reflects on the tone of both days, Yom Kippur giving a sense of life's random absurdity and Purim a feeling that even the most outrageous celebrants are in fact approaching the work of reconciliation with God. The terminology of the hurt and concealed face provides a particularly strong link between these two festivals.

The concept of the concealed face appears initially when Adam and Eve hide themselves "from the face of God" after eating from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2: 8). Then, as part of his punishment following Cain's murder of his brother Abel, God asks Cain, "Why has your face fallen?" (Genesis 4:6). Having admitted his guilt, Cain summarizes his punishment: "Here, you drive me away from the face of the soil, and from your face must I conceal myself" (Genesis 4:14). The concealed face represents a violent rift between people and God, a burden of great wrong that is an ancient, shared vocabulary of pain and disappointment.

Furthering the link between repentance, God's concealed face, and Purim, another medieval commentator, Nachmanides, notes that the curse of God's concealed face in Deuteronomy--to which Esther is most likely related--is a burden of the sin of idolatry punishable by exile, not relieved until the Jewish people demonstrate profound remorse through vidui [confession]and teshuvah [repentance]. These are terms essential to the ritual process of reconciliation between people and the divine on Yom HaKippurim. While Purim theology is by its nature at turns serious and ridiculous, the link between Purim and unfulfilled atonement makes thematic sense.

As social commentary on the cause of the concealed face of God, the Book of Esther challenges both Jewish and divine identity from numerous directions. Purim can be understood as a ritualized celebration of breaking down day-to-day persona and identity by questioning the old and trying on the new. The festival also presents the deeper conflict of Jews who do not know who they really are in relation to their own culture, the surrounding culture, or their Creator. Indeed, even the identity of God, certainly the hero of the Hebrew Bible, is challenged. God does not make even a cameo appearance in the Book of Esther--at least not in a form to which the text cares to give a name.

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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.