In the third year of his reign, King Ahasuerus dethroned Queen Vashti through a decree proclaimed in all his kingdom for her refusal to appear before his guests, thus enforcing male authority in all households within the Medo-Persian Empire.
A few years later, when his wrath subsided and he remembered this episode, Ahasuerus was advised to seek a new queen from among “all the beautiful young virgins” in the kingdom (vs. 2). The suggestion could have only been pleasing to a self-seeking king (which has been evidenced in chapter 1) who gave the plan the green light.
Let’s not brush over this too quickly. What this plan meant, in practice, was that all the beautiful young women in the empire would be uprooted from their families, cultures, and people, to be, for the rest of their lives, sex slaves. This may appear to be a harsh characterization, but that is what basically defined the role of a concubine. Since women married fairly young in those times, and since we know the girls sought were virgins, it would be safe to assume that those brought to the palace were teenagers. In our culture and terminology, they may well have been minors.
Life in ancient Medo-Persia was so far removed from what most of us experience as life today that it is difficult to grasp what such a change would entail for a young woman. Of course, living at the palace likely had some advantages too—especially material. For some of the girls, the comfort and luxury may have been a sufficient consolation; for others, the displacement likely remained a deep wound. The text is silent on the women’s feelings. There is no indication of opposition, just as there is no indication of consent. What is clear, however, is that consent wasn’t sought, and that they didn’t have a choice in whether to come or not.
As in chapter 1, the women are a silent character. The passive role of the women is evident in the usage of passive verbs when referring to them: they were to be sought (vs. 2), be given (vs. 3), were gathered (vs. 8), [Esther] was taken (vs. 8), was given (vs. 13). Women were a commodity to be transported without consent—an action well in alignment with the treatment of women in the first chapter by the king and his closest officials.
From among the women, one stands out, and the narrator makes sure we notice her from early on. He pauses the flow of the story at the moment when the king agrees with his advisors, in order to introduce a parenthesis that offers additional details about this girl. Named Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew), she is presented in relation to her uncle, Mordecai, who in turn is presented as part of a genealogy, and so the text invites us to consider some historical details.
First, we learn that Mordecai is a descendant of Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin, which was carried away along with Judah’s king, Jeconiah, under Nebuchadnezzar. We know from history that the Babylonian captivity was in 597 BCE. As an additional point of reference, Daniel was also brought to Babylon during this captivity, along with Mordecai’s great-grandfather.
We also learn from the text that Mordecai raised his cousin (i.e., his uncle’s daughter) Hadassah, who was an orphan. The fact that she was an orphan is emphasized in the story through repetition: “she had neither father nor mother,” and “her father and mother died.” (v. 7). Likewise, her cousin’s care for her is underlined through repetition: “Mordecai had brought up Hadassah,” “Mordecai took her as his own daughter” (vs. 7), and “[Mordecai] had taken her as his daughter” (vs. 15).
A difference in age is evident, though not specified. What is clear is that a special bond characterized the relationship between Esther and Mordecai. Her identity is rooted in that of Mordecai and her people, as she is introduced in relation to him and the Jewish nation.
One more detail is given to us about Esther: “The young woman was lovely and beautiful” (vs. 7). This is important, for young and beautiful women were what the king sought. Thus, we expect to learn next what indeed happened: “…when many young women were gathered at Shushan the citadel, under the custody of Hegai, that Esther also was taken to the king’s palace, into the care of Hegai the custodian of the women” (vs. 8). She is passed on from the custody of her cousin into the custody of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the king’s harem.
It is worth pausing at this point to mention two things: First, Esther is the only woman named in this story. Second, the book bears her name. How this anonymous young girl became such a prominent character in a book that opens with the person of a mighty king is a process worth observing closely, and this we shall do in upcoming articles.
The narration continues to zoom in on her, and thus we learn that she gained the favor of many. Three times this idea is reiterated in the story:
- The young woman pleased him [Hegai], and she obtained his favor (vs. 9)
- Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her. (vs. 15)
- She obtained grace and favor in his [the king’s] sight (vs. 17)
That a woman can gain the favor of the key characters in this story (Ahasuerus and Hegai), and of “all who saw her,” is truly remarkable. She must indeed have been a special person in aspects that extended beyond her physical beauty.
Esther seems to not only be able to gain the favor of people, but she also displays wisdom: she knows who to trust and whose advise to follow. Both men who acted as her custodians, Mordecai and Hegai, offer her advice. She listens to both, with good outcomes.
Following her cousin’s advice, Esther kept her Jewish identity and family ties secret during the entire time she was at the palace (vs. 10). Once again, his genuine care for her is evident in the fact that he inquired about her wellbeing daily (also privileged by the proximity to the palace, seeing that he lived in the capital) (vs. 5, 11). Given his incredible commitment to her, it is not difficult to see why she would trust him and follow his advice. The bond between the two, clearly emphasized from the beginning, will prove to be providential in astonishing ways.
Esther also took Hegai’s advice when her turn came to go to the king (vs. 15). Having established Esther as his favored candidate, Hegai anticipates her rising to the status of queen by going the extra mile in providing her with care: seven excellent maidservants, supplementary beauty preparations, and lodging in the best place in the house of women (vs. 9). When Esther went to the king, she “requested nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the custodian of the women, advised” (vs. 15).
Once again, we find Esther taking the advice of a caretaker who had proven his loyalty and genuine interest in her wellbeing and success. Esther trusted the wisdom of someone who understood the local context at the palace and who was familiar with the king’s character and preferences, and thus decided that she needed nothing in addition to what the person who provided her with additional care suggested. We are not told what she took, but it is in this context that we learn of her gaining favor in the eyes of all who saw her—as well as in the eyes of the king.
The beautifying process is detailed just before, and included twelve months of preparation, after which each girl, having taken whatever she chose from the women’s quarters, had one night with the king. This was deemed sufficient for him to decide who would become the future queen of his empire (vs. 12-14).
It may be worth noting that when Esther goes to the king, she is referred to as “Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai” (vs. 15) The reader is reminded of her Jewish identity and family ties, which she herself kept secret at the palace. Esther is not just any woman.
She is a Jew of Benjamite descent, and her role in the book in reference to her people cannot yet be glimpsed. The month and year when Esther went to the king is provided (vs. 16), leaving no doubt that her encounter with Ahasuerus is not inconsequential: Ahasuerus makes Esther queen and throws a feast, “the Feast of Esther,” to celebrate the new empress.
The story of Esther’s selection as queen is filled with anticipation as the narrator describes with interest her person, including relevant details of her life story. We know that she is a beautiful and lovely young orphan woman, raised by her cousin Mordecai, who seemed to easily gain the favor of all.
What this young woman will be able to achieve in the most powerful empire at the time is a story to amaze children at bedtime and inspire young adults to understand what God calls them to do in their own time and context. It is a moving story of unwavering faith in a living God—a faith capable of changing the times and customs in the most unusual place, and under the most challenging circumstances.