There's a book in the Bible that doesn't mention God at all. It reads more like a thriller or a historical novel than a Bible book. It has jealousy, treachery, romance, betrayal, bloodshed and a (reasonably) happy ending.
It's a great read, but it doesn't mention God. So why is it in the Bible – and what does God's absence from its pages have to tell us today?
The story: it's set in the time of the Exile, before the Jews returned to Jerusalem. King Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus, was a Persian king famous for his attempt to invade Greece. He was married to Queen Vashti, and gave a feast for his nobles at which wine flowed freely. He ordered Vashti to appear at the feast, and courageously she refused. He repudiated her and decreed that "women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest" throughout his empire (1:20).
He then collected women from all over his empire for his harem, in what was actually a case of wholesale sexual slavery. A young Jewish woman, Hadassah, took his fancy and he made her his queen, as Esther.
Esther's uncle Mordecai was responsible for saving the king's life from assassins. However, he fell foul of an official of the king, Haman, who accused him of failing to show him respect. Haman's response was to attempt to destroy all Mordecai's people throughout the empire. (3:8). He convinced the king to order their destruction. At Mordecai's urging, Esther approached the king at the risk of execution and – after various plot twists – revealed her Jewish identity and accused Haman of trying to kill her and her people. Haman was hanged, or more likely impaled; the Jews were given permission to "destroy, kill and annihilate" their enemies, with their women and children (8:11), a permission of which they took full advantage. Esther asked for an extension of the bloodletting (9:13) and for the impalement of Haman's 10 sons; 800 men were killed in the capital Susa and 75,000 elsewhere in the empire. The Jews were saved, Mordecai was promoted and the events have been celebrated on the Feast of Purim ever since.
It's fair to say that the book of Esther is usually rather sanitised for Christian consumption, with the bloodthirsty bits decorously skated over. But what does it say to us about God, without mentioning God?
First, if God is anonymous it doesn't mean he's absent. Mordecai says to Esther: "Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" In other words, you have been placed here in God's providence so that He can save His people through the choices you make. The whole book is about the people of God, and how they are miraculously preserved to bear testimony to His salvation down the generations.
Second, it speaks of the importance of right choices. Esther was not naturally heroic. When Mordecai first tells her she should speak to the king about Haman's plot, she is terrified. The king hasn't called for her for the last month – perhaps he has simply tired of her. If she goes into his presence without being told she might be executed; the king won't put up with more disrespect. Mordecai warns her the Jews will be saved one way or another, but she and her family will perish. It's her fear for her own safety that makes her do the right thing – but she does it. In the choices we make, our motives may be mixed and our hearts may be fearful, but we can still be heroes.
Third, it is absolutely true to life. Most of us, most of the time, don't hear God speaking in an audible voice. If we are wise, we'll pray regularly and read our Bibles, but we don't look for specific guidance on every detail of our lives; most of the time, we just live. God has given us minds and spirits capable of solving problems and rising to challenges because we're human. This is a story of people doing their triumphant best in line with God's will because of the relationship they already have with him, not because they are gifted with supernatural strength, courage or wisdom. We can admire Mordecai and Esther because they are like us.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods