A Mystery in the Megillah
A megillah is one of the five scrolls of the Bible (Ruth, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther). However, most often the term refers to the scroll of Esther, which is read in its entirety at Purim. Because the scroll of Esther is ten chapters long, the phrase “whole megillah” has come to mean the entirety or total amount of something.
The story of Esther might be a familiar one. If you are Jewish, you may have participated in the Purim plays put on by your temple or synagogue, or your Hebrew school or youth group. What Jewish girl hasn’t longed to play the part of the beautiful Queen Esther? What Jewish boy hasn’t vied with his friends to see who could make the loudest sound with his grager (noisemaker) in order to drown out the name of wicked Haman?
Because the story of Esther is familiar, we may be apt to overlook one of its most fascinating mysteries: nowhere in that whole megillah is the name of God mentioned.
What? How can it be that God’s name is omitted? After all, Esther it is one of the books of our holy Bible—how can the book of Esther be holy when it doesn’t even acknowledge the God of Israel?
There are answers for those who are willing to look for them—at least three different answers!
The name of God does not appear in the megillah of Esther because of the problem of translating that name into other languages. We learn in verses 1:1 and 8:9 that the region which King Ahasuerus governed covered an area which extended from India to Ethiopia. There were 127 different provinces included in the realm. While each province may not have employed its own unique script and language, still there must have been scores of different linguistic and ethnic communities within the borders of the Medio-Persian empire. The events recorded in the book of Esther were reported to the Jews living in the various provinces, and were very likely translated into the various provincial languages. What would have happened to the name of God in such a translation? It might have been transliterated. That is, “carried across” into the closest corresponding letters of the new language, in which case the non-Jewish reader might commit the error of trying to pronounce the sacred name of God. Or it might have been replaced by the name of whatever local god was atop the hierarchy of worship in that particular locale, a situation equally undesirable. So it is a strong possibility that the name of God was omitted to preclude such translation problems.
The name of God is found in the megillah! It’s there, but it’s hidden. One of the favorite devices of Hebrew writers is the acrostic, in which the first letter of successive words forms a word or a pattern. Psalm 119 is a good example: the lines of each stanza start with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostics are harder to spot in prose, but clever Queen Esther is able to work one into her request to King Ahasuerus in 5:4. She says, “If it pleases the king, may the king and Haman come this day to the banquet I have prepared for him.”
The Hebrew word for “may he come” is yavo‘, the word for “the king” is ha-melech, “and Haman” is ve-Haman and “this day” is ha-yom. The first four letters of these words are yod, hey, vav, hey—which together form the sacred and unpronounceable name of God.
To speakers of English, this acrostic might seem merely accidental, but Hebrew scholars assure us that it is not. The writer of the megillah has deliberately chosen this method to reveal that God is indeed present in the story of Esther.
God Himself is present in the megillah of Esther because it is He who guides and directs the events that take place in it, and who inspires the godly attitudes of the main characters Esther and Mordecai.
Many of the events that are recounted in the book of Esther are clear indications of God’s hand in the situation. Among these are Esther’s finding favor with King Ahasuerus in the first place and the king’s subsequent willingness to extend his scepter to hear her plea; Mordecai’s overhearing the plot against the king, coupled with the king’s later sleeplessness and his reading about Mordecai’s heroic deed in the chronicles of the kingdom; and in the very fact that all the events have been recorded for us today to learn from and to remember.
We also see the hand of God in the attitudes of His people. In verse 4:14, Mordecai voices his confidence that help will arise “from another place” even if Esther does not speak up: yet he is convinced that Esther has been placed on the throne for such a time as this, and that she will not fail her people. Surely it is God Himself from whom the help will come, and God Himself whom Mordecai credits with placing Esther on the throne.
In 4:16, Esther both fasts for herself and requests that all the Jews of Shushan fast for her as well. Although only fasting is specifically mentioned, is it too much to surmise that, while the people were abstaining from food for three days to honor Esther’s request, they also prayed to the God of Israel, as did Esther herself?
In 10:3, we see a final reminder of God’s presence with Mordecai: raised to a position of power second only to Ahasuerus himself, Mordecai seeks the good of his people and the good of the nation above his own honor or glory. Only a proper reverence for God could have sustained an attitude like this.
We have seen that, although His name is present only in a mysterious and hidden way, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the main actor in the drama of Esther—guiding and directing events and inspiring men and women to trust in Him, not in human rulers, for their security and safety. But perhaps the mystery of the megillah is this: How can we live our lives from day to day as if God were not involved with us, as if He were not as desirous for us to trust in Him for our safety and welfare as did Esther and Mordecai?
All of us are beset by the “Hamans” of today: secularism, cynicism, anti-Semitism and more. Will we look to God to rescue us or will we continue to ignore Him? That is the real mystery in the megillah.