Esther Bible Story

Part one, Setting the Scene, is here.

Taken: Esther in the Harem (Esther 2)

Vashti’s departure makes way for a new queen. And sometime later, when Xerxes has cooled off, his attendants suggest to him,

“Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. . . Let the king appoint commissioners in each province of his kingdom, so that they may gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem at the fortress of Susa. . . . Then the young woman who pleases the king will become queen instead of Vashti.” Esther 2:2-4 CSB

Note that the king’s attendants say, “all the beautiful young virgins.” Excess and farcical extravagance are repeated ideas in the book of Esther. Josephus writes that four hundred such virgins were added to the harem in this way. (Antiquities 11.6.2 §200)

These young women, girls really, probably had no say in such a process.[1] They weren’t volunteering for a wonderful opportunity. They weren’t competing for a marvellous prize. Most could have been taken against their will and against the hopes of their families who might never see their girls again.

Life inside a harem was heavily supervised and greatly restricted, and it was competitive. And having sex with a toughened warlord like Xerxes sounds like an unappealing prospect. He was no Prince Charming. Even keeping in mind that the values in modern western culture are very different from those in the culture of ancient Persia, it’s hard to say if joining Xerxes’ harem held any appeal to any of the girls except perhaps to those who had experienced extreme adversity and were grateful for the luxurious seclusion of palace life.

In Esther 2:8 we read that Esther is one of the virgins “taken” (laqakh, לָקַח) to the palace in Susa. When we look at this with modern eyes and with modern sensibilities, we realise she has been trafficked. “Taken” is a keyword in chapter two of Esther. The reflexive use of the Hebrew verb laqakh is applied three times to Esther: she was “taken” in by Mordechai as a foster child, which was presumably a good thing; she is “taken” to the king’s harem; and later she is “taken” before the king.[2] Some scholars caution against reading too much into the word laqakh. It is a common word and can be used in benign contexts. But it does indicate that young Esther has little agency of her own.

Esther is portrayed as passive and compliant when she enters the harem. She obeys Mordecai who tells her not to disclose her Jewish race. And she obeys Hegai the eunuch in charge of the harem who quickly takes a shine to her and treats her well. Or was Esther being shrewd? Perhaps she realised that the best way to survive the harem was to listen to Mordecai who had experience with palace politics and to Hegai who knew all about life in the harem.

Esther makes the best of her situation and when her extravagant course of beauty treatments is complete, she is taken to Xerxes’s bed.[3] As providence would have it, she wins Xerxes’ favour. But what was it about Esther that he found so appealing? Was it her attractive personality? Was it her sexual expertise? Was the king simply smitten by her good looks?[4] We are not told the reason.

Josephus presents the king and the situation in a positive light: “When Esther had come to him, he was pleased with her, and fell in love with the girl, and married her, and made her his lawful wife …” (Ant. 11.6.2) But so far, in all of this, we not given even the smallest glimpse into Esther’s thoughts or feelings.

Mordecai and Haman (Esther 3)

A few years go by and the story moves on.[5] One time when Mordecai is sitting by the King’s Gate, he overhears two eunuchs plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai passes on this information to Esther who passes it onto the king. The two eunuchs are dealt with and details of the episode, including Mordecai’s role as informant, are recorded in the royal annals. This record will later cause Mordecai to be honoured and Haman to be humiliated.

It is in chapter three of Esther that we are introduced to Haman. He is a powerful figure and has become the highest-ranking political advisor to Xerxes. All the royal officials bow to Haman but, for some undisclosed reason, Mordecai refuses.[6] Haman is enraged and plots to kill not only Mordecai but all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. Four times in Esther, Haman is described as the “enemy of the Jews” (Esth. 3:10; 8:1; 9:10, 24).

Haman goes to king Xerxes and tells him that the Jews are a threat to his realm. And Haman’s plot becomes law.

The royal scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and the order was written exactly as Haman commanded. . . . It was written in the name of King Ahasuerus [i.e. Xerxes] and sealed with the royal signet ring. Letters were sent by couriers to each of the royal provinces telling the officials to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jewish people—young and old, women and children—and plunder their possessions on a single day, the thirteenth day of Adar, the twelfth month. Esther 3:12-13 CSB

In the Septuagint, the king’s letter is recorded (Greek Esther B:1-14)

“For such a time as this” (Esther 4)

Chapter four of Esther opens with Mordecai learning of Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews. Mordecai is distressed and mourns loudly and publicly in sackcloth and ashes. This gains the attention of Esther’s attendants. They tell her about Mordecai’s behaviour, and the queen becomes distraught. She sends clothes to her uncle which he doesn’t accept; he remains in sackcloth.

So Esther summons Hathack, one of the king’s eunuchs who attend her, and orders him to find out why Mordecai is mourning. Michael V. Fox observes that in Esther 4:5, “Esther does three things that foreshadow her role as national leader: she sends, she commands, she inquires.”[7]

Mordecai tells Hathack why he is mourning and gives him a copy of the decree to show Esther. Hathack reports back to Esther and tells her everything Mordecai had said including her uncle’s plea that she go to Xerxes and beg for mercy so that the Jews might be spared.

But there is a problem. It was against Persian law for anyone to appear before the king unbidden, and this law had a death penalty for those who disobeyed and displeased the king.

Esther explains,

“All the royal officials and the people of the royal provinces know that one law applies to every man or woman who approaches the king in the inner courtyard and who has not been summoned—the death penalty— unless the king extends the gold scepter, allowing that person to live. I have not been summoned to appear before the king for the last thirty days.”  Esther 4:11 CSB

Mordecai interprets Esther’s explanation as cowardice and responds with his famous speech.

“Don’t think that you will escape the fate of all the Jews because you are in the king’s palace. If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s family will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” Esther 4:13-14 CSB

Mordecai does not mention God here, or elsewhere, but he has confidence that the Jews, God’s people, will be saved. And it seems to be up to Esther.

The tables are turned. It is Esther who is now instructing Mordecai and she says,

“Go and assemble all the Jews who can be found in Susa and fast for me. Don’t eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my female servants will also fast in the same way. After that, I will go to the king even if it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16 CSB

These are the brave and determined words of a heroine.

God is still not mentioned in the Hebrew text, but Josephus makes it clear in his retelling of the story that, as part of the fast, God was sought and prayed to by Esther and by Mordecai. The Septuagint even records Mordecai’s and Esther’s prayers (Greek Esther C:1-30).

Esther’s prayer also reveals how she feels about being Xerxes’ wife and queen:

“I detest sharing the bed of this uncircumcised king or indeed of any foreigner. You know my trouble: I hate the crown that is on my head when I appear in public. I despise it as I would a menstrual rag, and I don’t wear it when I am in private. . . . From the day of my crowning until now, your servant hasn’t had any joy except in you, Lord, God of Abraham.” (Greek Esther C:26-29 CEB).

These words help to answer a few disturbing questions some readers may have about Esther’s morality and the situation she is placed in. Her words help her reputation.

Chapter 4 in the Hebrew Bible, however, simply closes with the line, “So Mordecai went and did everything Esther had commanded him” (Esth. 4:17 CSB).

Tension is building in the story, and in part 3 we see Esther in action.


Footnotes

[1] Girls of marriageable age in the ancient world were much younger than brides today in the western world. The Greek word korasion (singular; korasia plural) can refer to a little girl or a girl of marriageable age, and it occurs several times in Esther 2 in the Septuagint (Est. 2:3, 4, 12). Esther is referred to as a korasion (“girl”) in 2:7 and again in 2:9 where she is also given seven korasia as maids. Esther may have been as young as 12 years old when she was taken. Jairus’ daughter is identified as a korasion in Matthew 9:24 & 25 and in Mark 5:41 & 42, and we are given her age; she was twelve years old (Mark 5:42; Luke 8:42).

[2] Wendy Amsellem, Vashti and Esther: A Feminist Perspective, MyJewishLearning.com

[3] Karen Jobes writes, “After twelve months of preparation, the woman was given ‘anything she wanted’ to take with her to the king. The phrase is vague and its meaning uncertain. It may refer to jewelry and clothing, but also to aphrodisiac potions or other such items to enhance pleasure.” Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary; Zondervan Academic) Kindle Edition, location 1882.

[4] Did the king choose his queens solely on looks? Perhaps. Josephus states that Vashti “exceeded all other women in beauty.” (Ant. 11.6.1 §190)

[5] Karen Jobes provides a time frame for elements in the story.

Vashti refused to come to King Xerxes in the third year of his reign, 483 B.C. Esther was made queen in the seventh year of his reign, 479 B.C. (2:16–17). During the intervening years Xerxes was off fighting a disastrous war with Greece.
[And]
Esther had been queen for five years when Haman skillfully manipulates the king to gain support for his evil plan.
Jobes, Esther, Kindle locations 1594 & 2065.

[6] The Hebrew Bible does not give a reason for Vashti’s refusal of the king’s summons in Esther 1, and it does not tell us why Mordecai did not bow to Haman in Esther 3. Was pride, or male ego, behind the mutual hatred between Mordecai and Haman, or something deeper? Mordecai is a descendant of Kish, the father of Saul, king of Israel (Esth. 2:5; cf. 1 Sam. 9:1-2). Haman is a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites (Esth. 3:1). Saul had disobeyed the command of the prophet Samuel by not destroying all the Amalekites, and he spared the life of king Agag. Saul lost his crown because of his disobedience (1 Sam. 15:1-35). In the book of Esther, Haman loses his position as viceroy which is given to Mordecai. This reversal may be seen as correcting a centuries-old failure.
Josephus gives a slightly vague explanation of why Mordecai didn’t bow to Haman: “But Mordecai was so wise, and so observant of his own country’s laws, that he would not worship the man” (Ant. 11.6.5 §210).

[7] Michael V. Fox, “The Women in Esther.” The Torah.com

IMAGE CREDIT

Photo by Unviajesinmaleta via Pexels

You can support my work for as little as $3 a month.
Become a Patron!


Further Reading

Michael V. Fox, “The Women in Esther,” TheTorah.com

Esther’s Story

(1) Setting the Scene (Introduction and Esther chapter 1)
(2) For such a time as this (Esther chapters 2-4)
(3) Esther in Action (Esther chapters 5-10)