It is now the winter of 479-478 BC. You are a young woman living in an empire where women have very few, if any rights. You are a member of a group of outsiders whose ancestors had been forcibly relocated to the area where you are now living. Both of your parents are dead. You would have been totally alone if not for the kindness of another family member who had taken you in when you were a little girl and raised you as if you were his own daughter.
But now, you are no longer a little girl; in fact, you have now grown to become a strikingly beautiful young woman. You have gone on to become a young lady with a gorgeous face, a beautiful figure, and a certain ”look” about her- the kind of look that would caused other people to notice. The kind of look that could draw the attention of a powerful leader. The kind of look that might even lead to an “invitation” to appear on an ancient version of a dating reality show- and it just so happened that a certain monarch had an opening for someone just like you…
“After these things, when the wrath of King Ahasuerus subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her” (Esther 2:1).
The second chapter of Esther begins with the words, “After these things…” just as it says above. Because of this, it might be easy to assume that the account we read about in Esther chapter two takes place immediately after the events of chapter one. But the truth is that the events of Esther chapter two will actually take place a few years following the events of Esther chapter one.
You see, this chapter will later identify the time frame for these events as, “…Tebeth, the tenth month, in the seventh year of (Ahasuerus’) reign.“ (Esther 2:16 GW). This date is important because it tells us that the events of Esther chapter two will take place following King Ahasuerus’ defeat in his war against Greece in 480 BC. The turning point in this Greco-Persian war was a naval battle that took place in the waters near the island of Salamis, an area off the coast of Greece.
So what’s the big deal about that? Well, we’ll take a look at the outcome of that battle and talk about how it may have influenced the events of Esther chapter two next.
“After a while, King Xerxes got over being angry. But he kept thinking about what Vashti had done and the law that he had written because of her” (Esther 2:1 CEV).
In 481-480 BC, the Persian Empire led by King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) launched an attack against the city-states of Greece. The turning point for Persia in this military action was a naval battle that occurred near Salamis, an island off the coast of Greece. Here’s how one source describes the events that took place during that battle…
“(The) Battle of Salamis, (480 bc), (was a) battle in the Greco-Persian Wars in which a Greek fleet defeated much larger Persian naval forces in the straits at Salamis, between the island of Salamis and the Athenian port-city of Piraeus. By 480 the Persian king Xerxes and his army had overrun much of Greece, and his navy of about 800 galleys bottled up the smaller Greek fleet of about 370 (ships) in the Saronic Gulf.
The Greek commander, Themistocles, then lured the Persian fleet into the narrow waters of the strait at Salamis, where the massed Persian ships had difficulty maneuvering. The Greek (ships) then attacked furiously, ramming or sinking many Persian vessels and boarding others. The Greeks sank about 300 Persian vessels while losing only about 40 of their own. The rest of the Persian fleet was scattered, and as a result Xerxes had to postpone his planned land offensives for a year, a delay that gave the Greek city-states time to unite against him.” (1)
So Ahasuerus had been badly defeated and now with the passage of time,“he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.” (ESV). The problem was that when Ahasuerus banished Vashti, he made a mistake that is still common among people today- he allowed his anger to lead to a foolish decision and now there was no way to go back and change what he had done. This brings to mind the Biblical wisdom found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs where we’re told, “A person who has a hot temper will pay for it…” (Proverbs 19:19 GW).
In any event, it seems that the king had second thoughts about banishing Vashti, his beautiful (and now former) queen. However, the king’s attendants had an idea to fix this problem- and it was an idea that Ahasuerus was sure to like.
(1) Battle of Salamis. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/518945/Battle-of-Salamis)
It seems that King Ahasuerus was not very happy about the way things had worked out with Vashti, his former queen. This was a concern for the king’s servants, advisors, and other attendants because an unhappy king might start to blame others for his problems. He might accuse his counselors of offering bad advice or seek to express his anger by punishing an innocent servant. The truth was that an unhappy king might easily become a dangerous king- and that meant that something had to be done fast.
So here was the plan that the king’s ministers came up with…
“Then the king’s servants who attended him said: ‘Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king; and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather all the beautiful young virgins to Shushan the citadel, into the women’s quarters, under the custody of Hegai the king’s eunuch, custodian of the women. And let beauty preparations be given them. Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.’ This thing pleased the king, and he did so” (Esther 2:2-4).
So their solution was to suggest a beauty contest where the winner would be crowned as the new queen in place of Vashti. The “contestants” who would be competing in this “Miss Medo-Persian Empire” contest would all be unmarried, attractive young women in their late teens or early ’20’s. They would live in a separate building together and serve as members of the king’s new harem. And perhaps not surprisingly,“This advice was very appealing to the king, so he put the plan into effect” (Esther 2:4 NLT).
That brings us to the introduction of two people who will go on to become major characters in this account: a man named Mordecai and his adopted daughter named Hadassah, better known as Esther…
“In Shushan the citadel there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite. Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been captured with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.
And Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman was lovely and beautiful. When her father and mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:5-7).
While it might seem unnecessary to include this list of Mordecai’s ancestors, this account actually serves a valuable purpose- and we’ll look at that purpose next.
“At this time a Jew named Mordecai was living in Susa. His father was Jair, and his grandfather Shimei was the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. Kish was one of the people that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem, when he took King Jeconiah of Judah to Babylonia. Mordecai had a very beautiful cousin named Esther, whose Hebrew name was Hadassah. He had raised her as his own daughter, after her father and mother died” (Esther 2:5-7 CEV).
Mordecai’s great-grandfather was a man named Kish. Kish was one of people who had been deported from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas when the Babylonians invaded their land about one hundred years earlier. So just as we saw earlier in chapter one, these details about Modecai’s family help to remind us that Esther’s account isn’t some kind of fantasy, legend, or story that happened “once upon a time.” The events that we’re about to read of in the book of Esther were real events that happened to real people with real names in real time.
We’re told that Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, also known as Esther. Now the fact that Esther had two names was not unusual because Jewish people living abroad sometimes carried two different names during that time. The first name was associated with that person’s cultural heritage while the second name was more expressive of his or her adopted culture. Perhaps the best known example of this can be found in the Old Testament book of Daniel where four young men named Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were relocated to Babylon and given the names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (see Daniel 1:1-7)
In Esther’s case, she was known as “Hadassah” among the members of the Jewish community, a name that refers to the beautiful, fragrant mrytle tree. Outside the community however, she was known as “Esther,” a name that was probably derived from “Ishtar” the so-called Babylonian goddess of love. The name Esther means “star” and as we’ll soon see, this name certainly suited her personality and appearance.
Although Mordecai and Esther were cousins, we’re told that Mordecai also served as Esther’s foster father, or legal guardian because both of her parents had passed away. Now perhaps Mordecai simply thought that he was doing a good deed by adopting this little orphan girl, but this act of adopting his young cousin will eventually go on to have a tremendous impact on him and the rest of the Jewish people throughout the Persian Empire.
“Mordecai had raised Hadassah, also known as Esther, his uncle’s daughter, because she was an orphan. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was very attractive. When her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7 GW).
So over time, Mordecai’s adopted little girl had grown to become a young woman who “…had a beautiful figure and was extremely good-looking” (HCSB). And that naturally caught the attention of the men who were responsible for finding the best “contestants” for the king’s beauty contest…
“So it was, when the king’s command and decree were heard, and 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” (Esther 2:8).
One important thing to remember about these events is the fact that Esther didn’t volunteer for this assignment. She didn’t promote herself or ask to be included as part of the king’s decree. Instead, we’re told that Esther was “taken” to the king’s palace along with the other young women who had been selected. A look at the original language that was used to write the book of Esther tells us that this word can also be translated as “to seize,” “to snatch,” or “to take away.” So we know that Esther didn’t willingly choose to enter this contest because someone else forced her to do it.
“Now the young woman pleased him, and she obtained his favor; so he readily gave beauty preparations to her, besides her allowance. Then seven choice maidservants were provided for her from the king’s palace, and he moved her and her maidservants to the best place in the house of the women” (Esther 2:9).
We shouldn’t speed by this passage without stopping to think about the situation that Esther stepped into as she entered the king’s palace. First, remember that Esther had been taken away from her home, her community, and all the things that had been familiar to her. She would now forced to live among a group of other “supermodels,” a situation that surely led to a high levels of drama, competition, and infighting on a daily basis. And if that wasn’t enough, Esther also faced the realistic possibility that she could remain in this situation for the rest of her life if the king was not impressed enough with her “audition.”
“Hegai was very impressed with Esther and treated her kindly. He quickly ordered a special menu for her and provided her with beauty treatments. He also assigned her seven maids specially chosen from the king’s palace, and he moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem” (Esther 2:9 NLT).
Esther had now been removed from her friends, family, and everything that had been familiar to her. She had been involuntarily relocated to an area that housed the new additions to the king’s harem. Her new companions were the most beautiful women in the Persian Empire- and all of them were competing for a chance to be the new queen. This was the perfect recipe for conflict, infighting, and emotional dramatics. Yet despite these things, we’re told that Esther’s new supervisor “…was very much impressed with her…” (TLB).
So what was different about Esther? What was it that impressed her manager and set her apart? It couldn’t have been her physical appearance since she was already surrounded by a group of women who were just as attractive as she was. It couldn’t have been her money, or her status, or her family now that she had been separated from those things. What made Esther different?
Well, the most likely answer is that Esther must have possessed something else that the others didn’t have- and that “something else” must have been an inner beauty to match her physical appearance. You see, Esther was someone who must have been just as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Without that quality, there was little else available to set her apart from anyone else in the harem.
The New Testament book of 1 Peter talks more about this idea when it says…
“Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God“ (1 Peter 3:3-4 NLT).
The truth is that a physically attractive person can still be an ugly human being. That’s because real beauty starts from the inside out. You see, the women of the New Testament period would often dress up to show off their costly jewels and accessories, just as celebrities and others often do today. But these verses tells us that God is more interested in what someone is like on the inside and not necessarily with his or her outward appearance.
“Hegai, who was responsible for the harem, was very much impressed with her and did his best to make her happy; he ordered a special menu for her, favored her for the beauty treatments, gave her seven girls from the palace as her maids, and gave her the most luxurious apartment in the harem” (Esther 2:9 TLB).
It may be easy to assume that Esther was just one more beautiful woman in a group of dozens (or hundreds) of other beautiful women in the king’s harem. But Esther was different.
You see, an attractive person who is smug, haughty, or conceited doesn’t impress anyone- and Esther’s ability to gain favor with her supervisor tells us that she must have had something more going for her than just her personal appearance. Esther must have had an inner beauty that matched her outer beauty and as a result, she enjoyed a level of kindness and generosity that the others never received.
“Esther had not revealed her people or family, for Mordecai had charged her not to reveal it” (Esther 2:10).
Why would Mordecai order Esther to conceal her nationality and Jewish identity from others? Well, it’s possible that Mordecai wanted to protect Esther from any attitudes of prejudice or hostility that may have existed during that time. Remember that the Jewish community of Sushan began with a group of people who had been deported from their home country over 100 years earlier. Even though some Jewish people had eventually become very successful in these new surroundings, it’s likely that there were many native inhabitants of Sushan who still viewed people like Mordecai and Esther as outsiders who really didn’t belong. So it may be that Mordecai and Esther had to deal with the same kind of prejudicial attitude that we sometimes see in our world today.
It’s also possible that Mordecai felt that the time had not yet come for Esther to reveal everything concerning her real identity. Perhaps Mordecai didn’t intend for Esther to permanently hide her background but simply wanted her to wait for the right opportunity to do so. Since Esther had been born in Persia and grew up with the language and culture of that area, the subject of her heritage was unlikely to come up unless she chose to talk about it.
However, this also meant that Esther must have made a conscious choice to disobey the dietary rules and other laws that God had given to her ancestors. Since there seems to be no way that Esther could have followed the laws that God had given to Moses and still hide her Jewish identity, it’s likely that she was compromising her relationship with God, at least somewhat.
“And every day Mordecai paced in front of the court of the women’s quarters, to learn of Esther’s welfare and what was happening to her” (Esther 2:11).
Once a woman was taken into the king’s harem, she was not allowed to have contact with any men other than the king. The only exception were the eunuchs who had been given oversight responsibility for the women of the group.
Because of this, Modecai had no direct way of communicating with Esther after she had been taken away. So out of his deep love and concern for his adopted daughter, Mordecai tried to get as close as he could to her new address in the hope of hearing something about how she was getting along. And Mordecai didn’t just stop by once or twice and to see how Esther was doing. We’re told that he walked back and forth there every day out of his concern for her.
“Each young woman’s turn came to go in to King Ahasuerus after she had completed twelve months’ preparation, according to the regulations for the women, for thus were the days of their preparation apportioned: six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and preparations for beautifying women” (Esther 2:12).
Every woman taken to the king’s harem underwent a year-long program that was designed to make her look her very best. According to one source, the “oil of myrrh” mentioned here was “…a highly-fragrant resin and volatile oil used as a cosmetic… It is yielded by the cistus, known in Europe as the rock rose, a shrub with rose-colored flowers, growing in Palestine, and along the shores of the Mediterranean.” (1) So while the exact nature of these “preparations for beautifying women” (NKJV) are not entirely clear, it’s certain that these women received the “best of the best” cosmetic treatments available during that time.
“Thus prepared, each young woman went to the king, and she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the women’s quarters to the king’s palace. In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and called for her by name” (Esther 2:13-14).
Even though the lives of the women participating in this “contest” were strictly supervised, they each received one small area of freedom- and we’ll see why next.
(1) “Myrrh” Smith’s Bible Dictionary
“When a young woman went to the king, she could wear whatever clothes or jewelry she chose from the women’s living quarters” (Esther 2:13 CEV).
One area that provided the women of the king’s harem with a small amount of freedom involved the choice of clothing and accessories. These choices were important because they helped the king determine important things about each woman’s character, personality, and temperament. So once her hair, make-up, clothing, and beauty preparations were complete, each young lady got to spend one night alone with the king.
Now this may sound like a dream come true for some guys. For example, if you’re a guy, put yourself in the king’s position. First, you gathered the most gorgeous women available. And these were not just the best looking women in a village or a town- these were the best looking women in an empire that covered most of the known world.
These beautiful women then devoted an entire year to one thing- making themselves look even more beautiful. There was no work, study, or responsibilities of any kind- just spa treatments every day. When that was done, each young lady went on a personal shopping spree for whatever clothing or accessories she wanted from all the top designers of that time. And then she got to spend the night with you.
For some guys, that may sound like the greatest thing ever- but let’s really stop and think about this. First, remember that these girls had been taken from their homes and prevented from having any further contact with their friends or families. Next, every woman who had been chosen to join the king’s harem knew that she had been chosen specifically for one reason: her physical appearance. Her intelligence, her opinion, or her point of view mattered very little, if at all. Deep down, each woman knew that she served as little more than an object with one purpose- meeting the king’s physical needs.
After her night with the king, each girl returned to a separate living area to stay with the remainder of the king’s harem. If the king liked her enough to remember her name, he might call for her again sometime. But if the king had no further interest in her, she would never see him again- and that one single night would represent her first and last opportunity to have a physical relationship with a man. She would then live out the remainder of her life with the king’s other women as her youth and beauty slowly faded away.
So far from being a dream come true, we should view this practice for what it really was: an act of cruelty that denied basic human value and treated women simply as objects to be used.
“Now when the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his daughter, to go in to the king, she requested nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the custodian of the women, advised. And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her” (Esther 2:15).
One important thing to notice about Esther’s personality was her willingness to take advice. Esther wasn’t someone who “had all the answers” and she didn’t automatically reject the recommendation of someone who had more experience. Instead, Esther listened to her supervisor and took his advice in deciding how she should appear before the king. This may be one reason why “…Esther had favor in the sight of all who looked on her” (MKJV).
“So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king” (Esther 2:16-18).
Scholars can use the information in these verses to pinpoint the date of these events to sometime during the December/January period of 479 BC. This means that four years had now passed since Ahasuerus banished Queen Vashti from her position, and about one year since the king’s disastrous military defeat at Salamis. But all that was in the past now because the king had finally found someone special- and that someone was Esther.
However, it’s a little difficult to determine the King’s precise feelings for Esther. You see, we’re told that the King “loved Esther” but we should remember that it’s possible to use the word “love” in many different ways. For example, it’s possible for someone to say, “I love my girlfriend/boyfriend,” “I love ice cream,” “I love my pet,” and “I love snowboarding.” While someone may truthfully use the word “love” to describe his or her feelings in each of these examples, it’s pretty certain that most people do not love other human beings in the same way that he or she may love snowboarding.
Because of this, the king’s feelings for Esther have been translated differently in various Biblical versions- and we’ll look at some examples next.
“And the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the maidens, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti” (Esther 2:17 AMP).
Depending on which Biblical translation you may be reading, the king’s feelings for Esther are described like this…
- “The king loved Esther” (NKJV)
- “the king was attracted to Esther” (NIV)
- “Esther was more pleasing to the king than all the women” (BBE)
- “The king liked her more than any of the other women” (GNB)
This means that it would probably be wrong to think that the king saw Esther as his “one true love.” The king certainly thought highly of Esther and enjoyed being with her. In fact, he thought so highly of Esther that he chose her to be the new queen and threw a party in her honor. But the king certainly didn’t love Esther enough to disband his harem and limit his affections to her alone. That’s because the very next verse says this…
“When virgins were gathered together a second time, Mordecai sat within the king’s gate. Now Esther had not revealed her family and her people, just as Mordecai had charged her, for Esther obeyed the command of Mordecai as when she was brought up by him” (Esther 2:19-20).
These verses tell us that we have now jumped ahead to a later date in history to a time when King Ahasuerus had decided to add more young women to his harem. But this verse also provides us with an important detail that may not seem critical now, but will become very important later on: “Mordecai sat within the king’s gate…”
While “sitting at the gate” may not sound very significant today, this was actually something that was very important in the days of the Old Testament. You see, the “gate” of a city was the place where many of the business and commercial activities took place. The city gate was also the place where judges sat to render legal decisions.
Now the fact that Mordecai sat “…within the king’s gate” tells us that Mordecai had risen to a high level within the kingdom. In fact, this position indicates that Mordecai likely served as a judge or other judicial expert in matters involving the king. This job would naturally put Mordecai in touch with many people who were close to the king- and this eventually brought him into contact with some important information.
“In those days, while Mordecai sat within the king’s gate, two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, doorkeepers, became furious and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus.
So the matter became known to Mordecai, who told Queen Esther, and Esther informed the king in Mordecai’s name. And when an inquiry was made into the matter, it was confirmed, and both were hanged on a gallows; and it was written in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king” (Esther 2:21-23).
While it might seem nice to have the kind of life that King Ahasuerus enjoyed, the truth was that it could be very dangerous to be a king in those days. For instance, a king had to always be on the lookout for guys like Bigthan and Teresh or anyone else who might desire to kill him and take over his throne. Because of this, it was common for a king to employ a cupbearer, or a person who had the responsibility of watching out for the king. The cupbearer’s responsibility also included tasting any food or wine before it was served to the king to make sure that someone hadn’t poisoned it first.
So while the king enjoyed the benefits that came along with his status as a monarch, he also lived with the real possibility that every day might be his last if he wasn’t careful- and in the end, Ahasuerus had reason to be concerned. History records that he was later assassinated in his bedroom in 465 BC.
Now we’re not told exactly what happened to make Bigthan and Teresh so mad. We only know that something occurred that made these men furious, angry (CEV), or hostile (GNB) towards King Ahasuerus. That anger led them to look for a way to permanently end the king’s leadership- and the king as well.
However, Ahasuerus had the right man in the right place at the right time: “Mordecai found out about their plans and asked Queen Esther to tell the king what he had found out” (Esther 2:22 CEV). So as a result of Mordecai’s information, the king started an internal investigation that verified the truth of what he had been told. As a result, Bigthan and Teresh paid for their rebellion with their lives.
But what about Mordecai? What did he receive for potentially saving the king’s life? Well, Mordecai was rewarded with a simple entry in the king’s logbook- and nothing else. No reward, no recognition, and no honor of any kind- at least not yet.
“In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s officials from those who guarded the door, became angry and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. But the plot became known to Mordecai, and he told Queen Esther, and Esther informed the king in Mordecai’s name. Now when the plot was investigated and found to be so, they were both hanged on a gallows; and it was written in the Book of the Chronicles in the king’s presence” (Est 2:21-23 NASB).
It could have been very easy for Mordecai to become angry or bitter about the lack of recognition he received. He could have become disillusioned and cynical over the lack of appreciation that was shown to him. After all, Mordecai had saved the king from those who wanted to kill him- wasn’t that even worth a “thank you?”
But there’s nothing to suggest that Mordecai felt angry or resentful over the king’s failure to reward him. In fact, there’s nothing to indicate that Mordecai even felt disappointed at this lack of recognition. It seems that Mordecai simply felt that he had done what was expected of him and then returned to the business of everyday life.
In this respect, Mordecai provides a good example for God’s people today. His example tells us that good deeds may sometimes go unseen or unappreciated by others. Because of this, it’s important to think about the real motivations behind our actions. For instance, do we do right to honor God or to simply gain the recognition of others? Do our words and actions demonstrate an internal reverence for God or an attitude that’s molded by popular opinion?
Remember that a life that shows love and respect for God is important to Him even if we don’t receive the recognition of others. It’s been said that God’s opinion is the only one that really counts in the end and that’s why we should let Him be concerned about any recognition that may or may not follow from others. The New Testament book of Colossians talks a little more about this idea when it says…
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for people. Remember that the Lord will give you as a reward what he has kept for his people. For Christ is the real Master you serve” (Colossians 3:23-24 GNB).
So as we close out this chapter, the king has now chosen a beautiful new queen but doesn’t realize that he owes her uncle a really big favor. And just because Mordecai hasn’t been rewarded for his good deed yet doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t be rewarded.