DIG: As the king’s “search” unfolds for Miss Persia, how does it compare or contrast to Isaac’s “search” for a wife (see my commentary on Genesis Fw – Isaac and Rebekah)? Of what significance is the yearlong preparation period? Do you think king Ahasuerus kept his distance from the contestants? Why or why not? What does the text suggest? How was Esther’s reign similar to that of Joseph and Dani'el?
REFLECT: It is easy to look at other people’s decisions and size them up, think, and know that we clearly know right from wrong, and if we were in their shoes, we would have known them both and done the right thing. We believe God will give us the wisdom to know what to do and moral strength to do it. But life isn’t always that tidy. Do you make moral judgments about the actions of others? When was the last time you were on the horns of an ethical dilemma yourself? Did anyone make any judgments about your decision? How did it make you feel?
King Ahasuerus spared no expense to prepare his women for one night in his bed. For twelve months they were lotioned and perfumed. Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to king Ahasuerus, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics (2:12). Some question the historical accuracy of Esther in that a year of beauty treatments seems far fetched. King Ahasuerus was an egomaniac who had unlimited wealth to feed his fantasies. The opulence and degradation of that time is hard for us to imagine today. The beauty treatments were meant to enhance the attractiveness of the women, but in reality, the length of time it took to prepare them for their one-night-stand with the king was probably more about his ego than their readiness.
And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given to her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace (2:13). The residence for the wives and concubines of the king were separated from the rest of the palace court. There were three sets of living quarters: one for the virgins who had not yet been sent for by the king, one for the concubines, and one for the queen and the other royal wives. This was one busy guy! The first is mentioned in 2:8 where Esther was entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. The second is mentioned here. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name (2:14). The third is mentioned in 1:9, and was under the charge of the queen herself.
After spending one night in the king’s bed, the women were returned to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem of concubines. There she would spend the rest of her life alone with the other women in practical widowhood. Her life had been hijacked by the king’s pleasure. She could not leave the harem to marry or return home to her family. In all likelihood, she would never see the king again, unless he specifically asked for her by name (literally summoned to his bed by written memo). There were so many women and he drank so much that it was doubtful he could remember the names even if he wanted to. Children conceived by the king on these one-night-stands were raised to serve their father in high positions, but they could not ascend to the throne.
Esther is finally introduced to the narrative. When the turn came for Esther to go to the king for her one-night-stand it was the tenth month of Tebeth (the word Tebeth is found only in the book of Esther and nowhere else in the TaNaKh), in the seventh year of his reign (December 479/January 478 BC), five years after Vashti had been deposed (2:15a and 16). The names of the months in the book of Esther are those adopted by the Jews in Babylonia. The passive voice used here suggests that she went, not that she was eager to go, but that it was beyond her control. The Bible says nothing about how she felt about her situation.
When she went she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested (2:15b). It is said that some of the girls took advantage of this to deck themselves out with many precious diamonds and jewels. But Esther wisely trusted in Hegai’s expert knowledge of the king’s desires rather than her own instincts. Her respect contrasts with Vashti’s defiance and implies a different ending.
And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her (2:15c). This marked the turning point for Esther. She chose to play the game. She lost her way when she accepted the culture’s view that beauty was all that she had to offer. She forgot she was Hadassah – a daughter of the covenant, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah. Her purpose changed from pleasing God to pleasing the king. Warned by Mordecai to conceal her Jewish identity, she managed to elude detection and won high marks from everyone inside the palace because she was so pleasing. Hegai, the king’s eunuch who supervised the women’s care, picked her out from all the other women as the favorite and took extra measures to promote her candidacy. She complied with everything he said.
Esther didn’t merely survive her abduction into the king’s harem, she made the most of it. She auditioned for the queen’s crown by having sex with a man who was not her husband. Then after winning the crown, she married a pagan. She was beautiful, pleasing and she was losing her way. In all her splendor, the future queen was being lulled to sleep.23 Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins (2:17a). Providence!
How did she win his favor in just one night? Did ADONAI give her favor with the king? The Bible doesn’t say. But one thing we do know is that because Esther evidently did whatever it took to please a lascivious pagan king, she won the position of queen, through which she later saved the whole Jewish nation from which the Messiah later came.24
This happened around the time when, back in Esther’s homeland, Ezra the priest was taking drastic measures in Jerusalem to restore the purity of her fellow Israelites. He broke up families with children and literally insisted on divorces between Israelite men and pagan Gentile women to ward off ADONAI’s anger for their blatant disregard of His Word (Ezra 9:1-5 and 12). The Torah prohibited intermarriage with Gentiles (Deuteronomy 7:3). How would Ezra have judged this Jewish queen?
Meanwhile, back in Persia, Esther kept her secret in the closet. Being a third generation exile made the cover-up much easier. She probably learned Persian as a child, so her speech did have the telltale Hebrew accent that normally exposed a person’s foreign ancestry. She grew up in Persia and she talked and dressed like a native. For five long years she accepted the sexual mores of the pagan world around her and enjoyed the luxuries of her privileged lifestyle. In short, she was trying to live in two worlds. She came from a background of Torah observance, but the whole emphasis in the king’s harem was on physical beauty. Esther fit right in with that pagan culture.25
So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti (2:17b). The author carefully avoids the word “marriage,” although it is implied. Although the author does not tell us what Esther thought of her “marriage” to Ahasuerus, she apparently did not protest. Should she have? Would you have? Why? How? When?
Perhaps Esther hated her circumstances with all her heart. Possibly she felt that life in the harem violated every conviction and moral principle Mordecai had instilled in her. Maybe she wondered how ADONAI could have let such a horrible thing happen to her. On the other hand, perhaps Esther loved life in the harem. Possibly the sensuality of harem life appealed to a part of her human nature. Maybe she was swept off her feet by the attention of the most powerful man in the empire. Conceivably she knew that her lifestyle violated the Torah, but didn’t really care. Maybe she thought this was the best thing to ever happen to her. She had just won the Persian king lottery! Would such an attitude have pleased the LORD? Was Esther in God’s will or not?
Some excuse Esther because her marriage to the king was beyond her control. Somehow I think that virtue would have been lost on Ezra. Or they say that marrying Ahasuerus was the lesser of two evils, and in spite of the sin involved, it led to the greater good for God’s people. Really? Is that what you would teach your children? God will bless it in the end anyway, so go for it? Can you really use Esther as a positive role model up to this point in the story? How could you possibly use this episode from Esther’s life to teach virtue to your teenage daughter? What message would she get? Make yourself as attractive as possible to sway powerful men? Use your body to advance God’s kingdom? Do the ends really justify the means?
She did not get to be the queen by consistent obedience to the Torah, the way, for instance, Joseph did in Egypt when he refused the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife and spent several brutal years in an Egyptian prison as a result. Esther may well have been a virtuous woman obedient to the Torah; but even if she was, the author chooses to hide her virtue in a morally ambiguous and complex situation. He does not allow us to come to simple conclusions about her life in light of Scripture. The author skillfully describes her complex life in real terms because that’s the way life is in this fallen world.
Esther may have looked back on this episode in her life with shame and regret, or she may have looked back on it with a clear conscience, knowing that she acted as wisely as she knew how at the time. In either case, each one of us also has both kinds of episodes in our lives. Esther’s story shows that we can give them to the LORD and move on.26
Some doubt the historicity of the book of Esther because Persian kings collected their harem indiscriminately, but they usually took wives only from one of seven noble families; therefore, they say that Esther’s marriage to Ahasuerus seems unlikely. The sudden decision on the part of Ahasuerus reveals that the sight of Esther overwhelmed him. Readers can only imagine. But more importantly, we cannot overlook the providence of God. What He had done with Pharaoh and Cyrus probably reflects what He did with King Ahasuerus as well. ADONAI had influenced that pagan king for His ultimate purposes.
Then the author briefly describes Esther’s coronation. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality (2:18). In later years, when people recalled this feast, or banquet, they would call it by this name.
During the coronation there was an apparent gathering of the unsuccessful contestants to be chosen as queen, or harem of virgins at the king’s gate. Esther wasted no time in appointing Mordecai to an official position in the Persian judicial system before the final ceremonial parade that concluded the coronation activities where he was sitting (2:19). His being there shows how he could have overheard an assassination plot against the king (2:21-23), and how a feud started that would threaten the entire Jewish nation.
But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up (2:20). The purpose of the parenthetical statement in this place is to make it clear that Mordecai was not known to be a relative of the queen, and therefore, conspirators were not likely to be on their guard against him. For the next five years, Queen Esther was the perfect woman – the fairest in the land, dutifully complying with the wishes of her husband and king, and never, ever, making waves. Remarkably, she even managed faithfully to follow the instructions that came from Mordecai, her father figure, who kept an eye on things from the sidelines. That fragile arrangement was bound to collapse and did – in a single day (3:12-15). But instead of destroying her life or getting her in trouble, the crisis shook her to the core, and proved to be her greatest strength.27
Throughout the narrative of Chapter 2, the hand of God is understood to be the force behind the development of the story. The first readers of Esther must have been amazed when they realized this important truth. The Jewish people were going to be victims of genocide. Satan was giddy with joy because the very future of the Messiah, redemption itself, hung in the balance. Since there was no chance for a Jew to become king, Esther was brought to the royal court to become queen. As Joseph was introduced to the court of Pharaoh and Dani'el to the court of Nebuchadnezzar, Esther came to the court of Ahasuerus for a similar reason. Joseph’s leadership meant food for his famine-stricken family and their eventual prosperity. Dani'el’s leadership led to a new status of acceptance of Jews in Babylonia. As we move along in the story, eventually Esther’s leadership would yield similar results. The common element in all three is that it was God who brought about those results.28