Probing Moral Ambiguity: Grappling with Ethical Portraits in the Hebrew Story of Esther -- By: Charles D. Harvey

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 02:3 (Fall 1998)
Article: Probing Moral Ambiguity: Grappling with Ethical Portraits in the Hebrew Story of Esther
Author: Charles D. Harvey

Probing Moral Ambiguity:
Grappling with Ethical Portraits in the
Hebrew Story of Esther

Charles D. Harvey

Charles D. Harvey is a PhD candidate at New College, University of Edinburgh. This article is adapted from his dissertation, which is tentatively entitled “Finding Morality in Exile? (Extra) Ordinary Ethics in the Book of Esther.” This is his first scholarly publication.


When a perceptive reader engages the Hebrew book of Esther, an interpretive weight necessarily falls heavily upon her or his shoulders. A masterfully told story though it is, one cannot escape facing the reading decisions that exist as a result of what the author said, alluded to, or did not say in the pages of the narrative. Interestingly enough, gaps in understanding abide in all three of these situations. Concerning this phenomenon, M. Sternberg writes,

Biblical narratives are notorious for their sparsity of detail….And the resultant gaps have been left open precisely at key points, central to the discourse as a dramatic progression as well as a structure of meaning and value. Hence their filling in here is not automatic but requires considerable attention to the nuances of the text, both at the level of the represented events and at the level of language; far from a luxury or option, closure becomes a necessity for any reader trying to understand the story even in the simplest terms of what happens and why.1

This narrative situation and resultant interpretive task certainly apply to the ambiguous aspects of morality in the Scroll of Esther. Since the book was not composed as an ethical treatise, much of its (im)morality is unspoken, not specifically addressed, or only implied at best. The motives and (in)actions of Vashti, Esther, and Mordecai in the narrative exhibit intriguing “moral gaps” that have been open historically to varied and wide-ranging interpretation. Yet not all of this past explication has been equally satisfying.

Therefore, in this study I shall seek primarily to pinpoint these lacunae via exegetical analysis, and, when possible, attempt cautiously to suggest some possible ways in which the material might be understood within its various contexts, both near and far. To be sure, I will neither be able to eliminate all of the narrative’s ambiguities, nor do I intend to fill in all of the gaps pointed out in these episodes; Sternberg’s “closure” is not always easily achieved. Rather, a more descriptive and interrogative process will follow, one with a view to an interaction with and apprehension of the moral complexion of the book of Esther in its Hebrew form.2

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