Coincidence in the books of Esther and Ruth

The two most “random” books in the Old Testament (IMHO) are the two short stories named after their strong, heroic female protagonists, Esther and Ruth. I say “random” because neither of the books “advances our knowledge” overtly, nor do they give us any significant “historical information” as the rest of the histories do, nor, for that matter, do any laws or proclamations come down from on high (except for a key one from a pagan king in the book of Esther which only applies during that story).

In fact, both books are obviously inserted as interludes, for a change of pace in the midst of some heavier material on either side. The book of Ruth takes place at the same time as the Judges ruled over Israel, although no specific year is described in the book; it follows the highly depressing book of Judges and precedes the long history of David and the other Kings of Israel. Meanwhile, Esther takes place during the period of Babylonian captivity, and thus makes a nice change of pace from the failings of the initial forays back to the Holy Land and the long, wordy Book of Job.

Both books are part of the five-book Megillot, along with the preachy book of Ecclesiastes, the semi-erotic Song of Songs, and the somewhat depressing book of Lamentations. Each of the five festivals celebrated by traditional Jewish communities includes a reading of one of the “Five Scrolls”; Esther, for example, is always read at Purim. They’re also the only two books in the Bible named after women, for what that’s worth.

But here’s what I find fascinating about both books: neither of them specifically includes God. 

Oh, He’s mentioned briefly in Ruth here and there, but He makes no actual appearances, nor does He play any particular role (except that the laws of the Jewish culture the scenes play out amidst are His). And He literally does not appear in the book of Esther; not once is the Lord’s name brought up.

However, the Lord does play a very important role in both stories, and it’s the same role He plays in most of our stories as well. It’s a much more relatable role, too – I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had God part any bodies of water for me, nor has any prophet ever performed any miracles (and the Lord knows I could use a good miracle cure for my TAM!). But I recognize His appearance in these two books because I see those appearances in my life as well:

The Lord shows up in the books of Esther and Ruth in the role of coincidences

Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, who moved to Moab with her husband Elimelech and her two sons when the famine in Israel got too severe for them. Ruth and another Moabite woman named Orpah (fun fact: this is who Oprah Winfrey was named after, but her mom flipped the letters on the birth certificate!) married the two sons, but both of them (and their father) were killed somehow – Scripture doesn’t say, and it’s not important to the story. After a stirring speech saying how she won’t abandon her mother-in-law, Ruth travels with Naomi back to Israel.

Coincidentally, Naomi’s hometown is Bethlehem Ephathrah. When Ruth goes out to “glean” in the fields (pick up after the harvesters, as Mosaic law allows the poor to do), she coincidentally happens to select the field of Boaz, who not only coincidentally happens to be Naomi’s nearest kinsman redeemer (well, second nearest, but that’s not important right now), but also just happens to be the son of a foreigner himself (Rahab, from Joshua 2) and is thus sympathetic to Ruth’s plight. Long story short, Ruth and Boaz end up getting married, having a son, and that son ends up as the grandfather to David, the Goliath-slaying king of Israel and (coincidentally) in the family tree of Jesus Christ.

Esther is chock full of similar “random happenstances” – there just happens to be a vacancy in the king’s boudoir, and the young Esther is forced into “auditioning” to be the next consort to the king, which she just happens to win. Meanwhile, her cousin and guardian Mordecai just happens to not only become an enemy to the egotistical right-hand man of the king (Haman), because he doesn’t treat him with toady-like deference, but he also just happens to foil an assassination plot on the king early in the story. The push point in the story occurs when Haman decides to do away with Mordecai by getting the king to issue an extermination order to all of “Mordecai’s people” (i.e., the Jews), which unbeknownst to both the king and Haman includes Esther as well.

There’s an unusually blatant coincidence when Haman gets asked by the king what he should do to celebrate a man who was of great service to the king and had not been properly recognized. Thinking the king meant him, Haman launches into asking for a parade and a robe and the whole nine yards, and then has the rug pulled out from under him when it turns out it was Mordecai the king was planning this for. So in a made-for-sitcom moment, Haman has to do all those things he’d named for his mortal enemy. The climax of the story comes when Esther (having to step up and stop this order to save her people, because coincidentally she became queen for just such a moment) hosts a dinner for the king and Haman where she confronts Haman with her accusation and reveals that she, too, is of Mordecai’s heritage. While the king steps out to get the guards to take Haman away, the sniveler tries sniveling to the queen for mercy, and of course just happens to land on top of her, so when the king returns it appears as if he’s assaulting the queen on top of his other crimes.

Why do I bring all of this up? Why my sudden obsession with coincidences?

Because for most of us, coincidences are how God manifests Himself in our lives, too.

Look, life in 21st century America – or wherever you’re reading this – isn’t usually filled with talking burning bushes or folks turning water into wine. But I can testify to the remarkable number of times that God has made a check appear in my mailbox at precisely the time I most needed it, even if I had no idea that a check was en route. I can tell you about how a “hunch” led me to take the scenic way home, and that detour either saved me from a traffic snafu or brought me alongside something or someone I needed to see (or who needed to see me). I’ve written this very month about the choices of listening material made for me by factors above my pay grade which probably saved my life during bouts of desperation over my failing health.

God isn’t averse to doing BIG THINGS once in awhile, even today. Miraculous cancer cures still occur. Donald Trump became president. The Western Bulldogs won the Grand Final.

But far more often, He operates on our scale. Remember, we have a high priest Who was us for awhile. He understands what the power of a small miracle can do for a life.

As my best friend constantly reminds me (her sticky-note is staring me in the face at my desk right now!), Coincidence is just when God remains anonymous.

(But, then again… Who else COULD it be?)

Originally published on Friday, January 26, 2018

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