Team Daniel or Team Esther

Yesterday, I paired the Books of Daniel and Esther. Both are post-exilic writings set in the exile/diaspora. Both feature Jews who have found their way into the royal courts of Babylon and/or Persia. Both address the question of how true one must remain to their Jewishness to show fidelity to their god. In the Book of Daniel, characters such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t compromise. They are willing to die/suffer rather than break their dietary laws, or worship other gods, or even take a break from worshipping their god. Esther and Mordecai hide Esther’s Jewish identity which includes eating Persian foods, having sex and marrying a Gentile, and who knows what else. Mordecai might be a little more like Daniel and friends when he refuses to bow to Haman but overall the ethics of the Book of Esther are less black-and-white than the Book of Daniel.

I ended class by having my students get together in a Google Meet and record their discussion where they argued for either the quasi-deontological (or divine command) approach of the Book of Daniel or the more consequentialist approach of the Book of Esther. One of my student leaders begun the conversation by asking who was ‘Team Esther’ or ‘Team Daniel’. So far, as I watch/grade the recordings, team Esther is winning (though there were a few pro-Daniel students).

What’s fascinating is to observe their reasoning. Some students say they’d be like Daniel depending on the context though if the context was that your life was at risk, they’d be more like Esther. One student pointed out that Esther never explicitly said she wasn’t a Jew (though it could be argued many would have accused her of not living like one), so she didn’t technically lie about this.

Another topic that caught my ear was the difference between how God’s presence is narrated in Daniel contrast with Esther. Famously, God speaks to Daniel in dream and visions. He intervenes miraculously. Esther is ambiguous about God’s presence. God is never named or directly mentioned. Some of the key turning points suggest to some readers that God’s in the background but God is never mentioned. I think that’s key. For some students, if God was performing the deeds like we read in Daniel, sure, they’d adopt his approach, but life seems to be more Esther-ish: whatever we might say about divine activity, it’s not clear when and where God acts.