Purim and Divine Inspiration

There’s only one book in the Hebrew Bible that doesn’t mention God’s name: The book of Esther, which we read on Purim. Instead of emphasizing the supernatural, the focus of this story is the human capacity to take brave and decisive action.

The absence of any explicit reference to God in the book of Esther makes the Rabbis, who are the earliest interpreters of the Bible, pretty uncomfortable. A sacred book without God’s name? It just doesn’t feel quite right.

But many of the Rabbis of the Talmud (Megillah, 7a) argue that although God doesn’t appear as a character in Esther, the book was divinely inspired nonetheless. Many pull examples from the text, including the following: 

Rabbi Eliezer says: “The book of Esther was said with the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, as it is stated: ‘And Haman thought in his heart.’ (Esther 6:6) If the book of Esther was not divinely inspired, how was it known what Haman thought in his heart?”

Rabbi Akiva says: “The book of Esther was said with the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, as it is stated: ‘And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her.’ (Esther 2:15) This could have been known only through divine inspiration.”

Though the Rabbis use technical logic to prove that God must be present in the story, their arguments prove a larger point, which is one of the main lessons of Purim: Things aren’t always as they appear. Many of the human characters hide and reveal their identities throughout the story. After all, Esther’s name comes from the Hebrew word nistar, which means “hidden” or “concealed.” Though God does not appear in the story, the Rabbis see traces of God’s presence hidden just below the surface, visible if you look hard enough. 

In many ways, I connect to this portrayal of God as One for whom we have to search. In all the other books of the Hebrew Bible, the characters meet God face to face or witness miracles that are undeniably the work of God’s hand. But any contact we may have with the Divine is subtler. Just like the characters in the book of Esther, we navigate the world by relying on our own skills and judgment, and can only wonder about God’s place in it all. 

As Purim approaches, I hope this joyful holiday helps us discover new aspects of ourselves and our world. You never know—they might be hidden just below the surface. 

Shabbat shalom,