Chapter 2

Esther 2:

1) After this, when King Ahasuerus’ wrath had cooled, he thought over what Vashti had done and what had been decreed against her.


COMMENTARY:  Oops.  Now comes the sobering morning after, cleaning up the party-mess.  He’s got to deal with having made himself a bachelor king.  A harem of concubines doesn’t count.  He needs to get a legitimate heir, or else succession-wars between the various concubines’ offspring will eventually tear up the kingdom.  And for that he needs a legitimate queen.



2Then the king’s personal attendants suggested: “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king. 3) Let the king appoint emissaries in all the provinces of his realm to gather all beautiful young virgins into the harem in the royal precinct of Susa. Under the care of the royal eunuch Hegai, guardian of the women, let cosmetics be given them. 4) Then the young woman who pleases the king shall reign in place of Vashti.” This suggestion pleased the king, and he acted accordingly.


COMMENTARY:  Now there’s a nice, shallow answer!  Pick a wife based on beauty, with no other criteria.  Not only is this king shallow, but so are his advisors.  What a contrast to Tobias admiring Sarah for her wisdom!  Not to mention the folly of not trying to forge a new alliance with a strategic match.



5) There was in the royal precinct of Susa a certain Jew named Mordecai, son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, 6) who had been exiled from Jerusalem with the captives taken with Jeconiah, king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had deported.


COMMENTARY:  Here we see one of the reasons for considering The Book of Esther an edifying fiction.  Going into exile with Jeconiah would make Mordecai about a hundred years old.  Spry fellow, I must say!


Interestingly, Mordecai is a Babylonian name related to their chief deity, Marduk.  Nobody in Judah would have named a baby Mordecai, but they might in the Babylonian captivity.  We might have a grain of truth here behind the fiction, a real person around whom stories constellated—The Book of Esther might well be an historical novel.



7) He became foster father to his cousin Hadassah, that is, Esther, when she lost both father and mother. The young woman was beautifully formed and lovely to behold. On the death of her father and mother, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.


COMMENTARY:  Esther also has a Babylonian name, related to their goddess Ishtar, but in addition she has a private Hebrew name, Hadassah.  This seems consistent with a family passing for Babylonian.


I wondered about Mordecai.  In chapter A we found him quartered with the eunuchs, and now we learn that his daughter is adopted.  So I did some research and found my suspicions likely.  


It turns out that the Biblical word “saris” can be translated as either a high-ranking official or a eunuch, since Babylonians, Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians, and to some extent the Urartus, Medes, and Hittites, routinely castrated those in positions close to the King.  Moreover, the latter-day kings of Israel, Judah, and Samaria, according to some scholars, did likewise.  Most European translators, squeamish about the whole concept, have chosen the former meaning, unless they were talking about the court of somebody that they wanted to depict as decadent, but it was rare to be one and not the other—including captives who’d had no choice in this estate.  A functionally male official was by no means unknown, but they were in the minority. 


So what does this say about Mordecai?  That the readers of his day would see the reference to Esther being adopted as a confirmation that he was indeed part of the castrated majority rather than the exception.  The story had no other reason to include that detail.

This matters because the Book of Deuteronomy forbids eunuchs from entering the Assembly of the Lord.  (In a bit of overkill, it also forbids the descendants of eunuchs!)  However, during the Babylonian Captivity, Isaiah, with the authority of his status as a prophet, reversed that, saying,

“4)  For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

who choose what pleases me

and hold fast to my covenant—

5)  to them I will give within my temple and its walls

a memorial and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that will endure forever.”

Why the change?  Because early on the only eunuchs among the Israelites were those who voluntarily submitted to castration to become priests or special devotees of imported goddesses.  It was a sign of apostasy.  But after the captivity many involuntary castrations took place at the bidding of conquerors.  (And it usually did not mean a nice, anaesthetized snip, but was accomplished brutally by crushing.)  So the Bible goes from banning apostates to welcoming home rape victims.


In that context, then, The Book of Esther serves the function of presenting us not only with a heroic woman, but a heroic eunuch, to bring Isaiah’s innovation home to the heart, in a way that only storytelling can accomplish.

(I should mention that the same chapter of Isaiah, 56, also welcomes foreign converts, thus freeing Israel from rules that had devolved into racism.  Now I can see that this was also one of the functions of the Book of Judith, to show welcome to a worthy foreigner.  Both books combine to broaden the minds, hearts, and souls of those who received them.)



8) When the king’s order and decree had been proclaimed and many young women brought together to the royal precinct of Susa under the care of Hegai, Esther also was brought in to the royal palace under the care of Hegai, guardian of the women.


COMMENTARY:  Nobody asks the women’s families if they’d like to volunteer.  As we saw in Tobit, devout Israelites would not voluntarily make such a match.  But as a subject people, they had to deal with it.  The King took whomever he pleased. 


However, women of that day were accustomed to arranged marriages, anyway, and so this meant a loss of freedom for the parents but no real change for the proposed brides themselves.  And they were not simply brought in and violated, but courtship had to take place, with careful steps and rules.  Hegai had the authority to see to that.  Indeed, Esther might have been safer here than in the streets.



9) The young woman pleased him and won his favor. So he promptly furnished her with cosmetics and provisions. Then choosing seven maids for her from the royal palace, he transferred both her and her maids to the best place in the harem.


COMMENTARY:  This was the best outcome, under less than ideal circumstances.  She is still not yet a wife.  She has time to get used to the idea.



10) Esther did not reveal her nationality or family, for Mordecai had commanded her not to do so.


COMMENTARY:  So yes, that confirms what their names hinted at before.  They are passing.  They’re doing what they have to do to get by. 


She also conceals her relationship to Mordecai himself, because that could complicate things dangerously.  Jealousies, envies, and intrigues can quickly turn fatal in a royal court.  Especially since the main point of castrating officials not serving in the harem is to deprive them of heirs and thus cut down on motivation to stage an overthrow.  Mordecai has good reason to make sure that nobody knows he has a daughter.



11) Day by day Mordecai would walk about in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was faring and what was to become of her.


COMMENTARY:  Concealing their family ties also makes it possible for Mordecai to keep an eye on his daughter’s well-being.  He must have been torn between hope and fear for her!



12) After the twelve months’ preparation decreed for the women, each one went in turn to visit King Ahasuerus. During this period of beautifying treatment, six months were spent with oil of myrrh, and the other six months with perfumes and cosmetics.


COMMENTARY:  I wondered why oil of myrrh?  So I looked it up.  It turns out that among its many properties, oil of myrrh can simultaneously act as an acne treatment and a hydrating agent, being both antiseptic and humectant—something rare to find in the same unguent.  Remember, we’re talking about young maidens, here, living in a desert climate, who could have “combination skin” problems.

As for the other six months, that’s when they learned the art of how to apply make-up and combine scents without making a stinking mess of it.  It was not uncommon, in antiquity, to apply different complementary scents to different parts of the body...but it took some education to learn how to do it right—an education usually found only in harems, palaces and brothels.  Olfactory fatigue can quickly make a perfume fade from our awareness, but this way a woman could simply change posture and bring a new scent into play before shifting back, to keep it varied.  Modern perfumers solve olfactory fatigue instead by layering scents, so that as one wears off it reveals the next one under it—something that most people don’t even notice happening, though they enjoy the benefits.



13) Then, when each one was to visit the king, she was allowed to take with her from the harem to the royal palace whatever she chose.


COMMENTARY:  This served as a test, to see whether she had by now developed good judgment in which make-up and perfumes most suited her chemistry and complexion, and in what proportions.



14) She would go in the evening and return in the morning to a second harem under the care of the royal eunuch Shaashgaz, guardian of the concubines. She could not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and had her summoned by name.


COMMENTARY:  A royal harem actually contained multiple harems within the whole.  (Harem, by the way, means “sacred” or “safe space”.)  The chief woman, usually the King’s mother or grandmother, but sometimes an elder sister or an aunt, had her own suite and her own staff.  The rest of the females of the royal family--sisters, aunts, cousins, daughters and nieces--shared a harem of their own.  Then they had quarters for the wives, usually of royal or noble descent themselves, whose offspring would be heirs.  Then the concubines’ quarters, those whose status was not great enough for their offspring to inherit anything but a fine education, whatever presents they might receive from a doting father, and maybe a favored appointment when they grew old enough—or nothing at all, if they or their mother proved displeasing.  Harems also often quartered unmarried female employees of the court, such as maidservants and cooks, or visiting females, in a section of their own.  Children also lived in all of these harems with their mothers, including prepubescent boys.

I’m not sure which harems the potential brides lived in.  Maybe they set up one special for candidates, where they received the beauty treatments and training, and if they passed muster they moved on to the wives’ or concubines’ quarters.

Interesting, that Ahasuerus has no interest in the lineage of his potential bride (which makes it possible for Esther to conceal her family.)  Beauty is his only criteria, and if he wants a woman badly enough, his marriage will be ennoblement enough.



15) As for Esther, daughter of Abihail and adopted daughter of his nephew Mordecai, when her turn came to visit the king, she did not ask for anything but what the royal eunuch Hegai, guardian of the women, suggested. And she won the admiration of all who saw her.


COMMENTARY:  At this point she is docile and obedient, not yet formed in character.  This book tells the story of her awakening.  But even in her docility she shows wisdom, according to her circumstances.  Other women, suddenly faced with a wealth of unfamiliar cosmetics and perfumes, might go wild with them just because she can.  Instead Esther relies on an expert, somebody who has spent years seeing women come and go and what worked or did not for each—someone whom the others might dismiss as just another servant.  But Esther would know from Mordecai to take the Guardian of Women seriously.



16) Esther was led to King Ahasuerus in his palace in the tenth month, Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.


COMMENTARY:  That date probably has some significance that I don’t even know how to research.  Number symbolism meant and means a lot to the Jewish community.  If anybody does know, please chime in!



17) The king loved Esther more than all other women, and of all the virgins she won his favor and good will. So he placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen in place of Vashti.


COMMENTARY:  If this were a Cinderella story, it would end right there.  But Esther is not some Romance Heroine to look pretty, marry the royal, and live happily ever after.  Her story has just begun.



18) Then the king gave a great feast in honor of Esther to all his officials and servants, granting a holiday to the provinces and bestowing gifts with royal generosity.


COMMENTARY:  Of course he did.  The boy loves any excuse for a party!



19) As was said, from the time the virgins had been brought together, and while Mordecai was passing his time at the king’s gate, 20) Esther had not revealed her family or nationality, because Mordecai had told her not to; and Esther continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions, just as she had when she was being brought up by him.


COMMENTARY:  This makes sense.  He knows the ways of the court.  And it gives her a secret edge.



21) During the time that Mordecai spent at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the royal eunuchs who guarded the entrance, became angry and plotted to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 22) When the plot became known to Mordecai, he told Queen Esther, who in turn informed the king in Mordecai’s name. 23) The matter was investigated and verified, and both of them were impaled on stakes. This was written in the annals in the king’s presence.


COMMENTARY:  So now we have the short version of what Chapter A gave us more thoroughly—minus the dream that alerted Mordecai to watch for trouble, yet adding the detail that he conveyed the message through Esther, now that the story has unfolded enough to put that in.  For me I find the story richer knowing about the dream. It does show that Esther has taken to court life and now knows the right place, time, and method to bring up something delicate with the king.

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