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
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
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Esther was led to King Ahasuerus in his palace in the
tenth month, Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.
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!
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.
course he did. The boy loves any excuse
for a party!
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
makes sense. He knows the ways of the
court. And it gives her a secret edge.
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
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.