A Girl and Her Father

Of all biblical stories, Esther is among the best-known and most retold. There is good reason for this. It is a complete and satisfying tale, with peril and victory, with an underdog who wins, a villain who gets his comeuppance, and a brave, beautiful heroine. Its attraction is enormous, but a curious pattern emerges among the re-tellings. Even while staying faithful to the facts of the story, many re-tellings shift the dramatic and emotional center from Esther and Mordecai to Esther and Xerxes. The story of Esther is commonly told as a romance, but in the Bible, the relationship that matters most is the one between Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai were cousins, but their relationship is defined by the fact that Mordecai adopted Esther after her parents died, taking her in and raising her. (Somewhat-irrelevant side note: This phenomenon – family members of the same generation but of vast age differences – occurred more frequently in ancient times than in modern, for various reasons.) Mordecai was, in effect, Esther’s father. This relationship drives forward the story: Mordecai’s concern for Esther leads to his vigils at the palace gate, through which he both saves the king’s life and incurs Haman’s animosity; it is Mordecai who explains to Esther (cloistered in the palace) the plot to annihilate the Jews and persuades her to act; Mordecai and Esther together save the Jews and later establish the celebration of Purim.

Esther and Mordecai are also at the heart of the story’s spiritual and emotional power. Esther commands the fasting and prayer in preparation of her bid to save the Jews; Mordecai makes the immortal statement that she became queen “for such a time as this.” It is their lives, their family, and their people brought beneath the shadow of ruthless slaughter. It is their relationship – and emphatically not the relationship between Esther and Xerxes – that is demonstrated to be one of mutual affection: Mordecai walked in a courtyard of the palace every day to find out how Esther was after the king’s officials took her; Esther was “in great distress” at the news of Mordecai’s distress.

Esther’s relationship with Xerxes was, of course, marriage – but marriage to a despot of ancient Persia, and that is a very qualified thing. He practiced, and pretended, no sexual fidelity toward her; consider that he slept with all her rivals for the queenship and then kept them as concubines within his palace. It is evident, too, that Xerxes and Esther didn’t really live together. They only visited at such times when Xerxes wished it – and he could go whole months without wishing it. No detail more sharply illuminates their relationship than the fact that Esther was deathly afraid to go to Xerxes without his summons. In the pivotal moment, Xerxes treated her with regard, but to the end their interactions were those of an absolute sovereign and a favored inferior. Esther was Xerxes’ queen more than she was his wife (though that also, to be fair, had its privileges). It should be noted, too, that Xerxes was an alien to the spiritual concerns of Mordecai and Esther and wholly safe from the death that threatened both of them. Xerxes is an ambivalent figure at best, and a hero on no consideration.

Why, then, do interpretations of the story so often fix on the supposed romance between Esther and Xerxes? The answer is simple, a truth that has long frustrated readers who prefer fantastical stories: People would rather hear about romance. To many people, a romantic relationship – even one as distant and asymmetrical as the marriage of a Persian despot and his queen – is inherently more interesting than a father-daughter relationship, even if it saves a nation from genocide.

Three Rules for Biblical Novels

It is natural – perhaps even inevitable – that the Bible inspire its own small genre of literature: biblical fiction, novels based on the people and events of the Bible. This idea has always appealed to me, but in reality, such novels have usually left me disappointed. I have read only two biblical novels that struck me as truly superior, and perhaps two others that came close. All the others I have read – and I read a fair number, before I conceded to the odds and gave up – ranged from poor to forgettably good.

As a genre, biblical fiction has its own peculiar challenges. And perhaps, as a reader, I make more demands of it than others would. Here, after reflection, are my three rules for biblical novels.

Fidelity to the Bible. The definition of fiction is that it is fictional; in accepting biblical novels, I accept their fictional element. I know the difference between a historical novel and a biography, between a movie based on a true story and a documentary about a true story. It doesn’t bother me that someone should write a historical novel of scriptural events, a story based on the true stories of the Bible.

But the fictional element should consist in elaborating on the true stories, not in changing them. Biblical novels should remain true to the Bible – not just in facts or events, but in its whole spiritual tenor.

Convincing and compelling elaborations. A biblical novel takes a story told in a few pages – sometimes only a few paragraphs – and tells it again in a few hundred pages. This requires significant elaboration. The elaboration must be true to the story, as I already said – keeping with the spirit as well as the letter. But it must also be compelling.

I have read biblical novels where characters stiffly act out their parts, without the sense of life and independent animation that, while always false, is the art and pleasure of the novel. Sometimes the elaboration falls flat, and of events as well as characters.

This is one of the peculiar difficulties of biblical fiction (though a similar one is found in, of all things, franchise novels). When writing a novel about the great men and women of the Bible, your portrayal must ring true with what we already know, and yet go beyond it. You must give life to characters you did not invent, rhyme and reason to events you did not choose.

When I read a rare excellent novel about King David (and what rich material his life provides), I thought to myself, “I don’t know if that’s the way David was. But it’s the way he might have been.”

So may all biblical novels impress us.

Fidelity to history. Biblical fiction must be regarded as a kind of historical novel, and therefore must be written with an eye on history. Canaan at the time of Gideon is a sketchier region of history than, for example, first-century Jerusalem, but do the research anyway.

I once read an author describe how she quit reading a novel about Joseph because of the appearance of steel knives. I wouldn’t go that far, and anyway it’s not relatively minor anachronisms that principally concern me. It’s the failure to make characters – inhabitants of places and of cultures so alien – children of their times.

One example: It is hard to find a novel about King David where a character does not outright state the superiority of monogamy. Now, David’s life does demonstrate the griefs of polygamy, and I yield to no one in condemning the selfishness and injustice of that form of marriage. But I always wonder at the casual condemnations of characters supposedly living in David’s world – would it really be so easy for them to see?

“It requires a fine effort of the imagination,” G. K. Chesterton once said, “to see an evil that surrounds us on every side.” And the evil of polygamy surrounded such people on every side. I don’t say it is impossible for one of them to see it as an evil, but I want to know how a flower like that grew out of such thin soil. At least I want the impression that it did grow out of thin soil.

These, then, are my three rules for biblical novels: fidelity to the Bible, fidelity to history, and compelling and convincing elaboration of both. I know it’s a tall order, but there are novels that deliver.

Such as the two I referenced earlier. These are The Miracle Maker, by Murray Watts, and The Stones, by Eleanor Gustafson. Just in case you were curious.