Scripture: Esther 2:1–18 Background Reading: Genesis 38:1–30; Matthew 1:1–3
The Lapse of Time
As we begin to look at Esther 2, we quickly notice a lapse of time. The events recorded for us in this chapter do not follow immediately after those in Esther 1. We are reminded that royal decrees from King Xerxes went “throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast” (1:20). That obviously took a good deal of time and effort, giving the king opportunity to get over his intense anger. From secular sources we also know that it gave him time to wage an extensive military campaign against Greece. He had vowed earlier that he would burn down Athens and march across Europe. This, too, was a failure. His ego is badly bruised, so he “remembers Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her” (2:1). In his mind, all his troubles could be attributed to her. None of this was his fault. A king without a queen! Plus a failed military expedition! What an anomaly!
We know from Esther 1 that Vashti had been deposed in the third year of his reign. We know, too, that Esther does not become queen until the seventh year of Xerxes’ reign (2:16). That means that there are four years between those two events. What else is going on? What has transpired during those intervening years?
The Search for a Replacement
It is the “young men who attended him” who offer a solution. These young men are eunuchs, just as was the case in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. They suggest that searches be made throughout the empire for the most beautiful young virgins that could be found. They suggest that every province, from India to Greece to Egypt, be searched. “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king . . . and gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa” (2:2–3). Physical appearance was paramount. Virgin status was demanded and emphasized. With 127 provinces in the empire, this probably resulted in three hundred to four hundred young women being rounded up and taken captive. By camel, by horse, by donkey, or by foot they were taken to the capital. They were guarded by eunuchs so that their virginity would not be compromised. The king was fussy!
When Boko Haran does this in northern Nigeria, we recognize it as slave trade for sexual gratification. When ISIS does this in Afghanistan or Syria, we again howl in protest. This is evil! Incredibly evil! The same standard should apply to Persia and King Ahasuerus. The label of “oriental despot” is then well deserved. This is not a simple beauty contest to see who gets top billing. This is kidnapping on a massive scale. The parents of these young ladies, with a few possible exceptions, are not going to send their daughters to Susa with their blessing. They know how their daughters are going to be exploited, for they know why harems exist. Even King David and King Solomon were guilty of such behavior. This clearly flies in the face of all God’s commands. We cannot justify this.
The Appearance of Mordecai
Before we meet the next queen of Persia, we need to become acquainted with Mordecai. The first bit of information about him is that he is a Jew. He is living in the citadel of Susa and is one of those brought into Babylon as a captive from Jerusalem. If he were old enough, he probably could have gone back to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel and Jeshua in 538 BC, when Cyrus issued his edict, but he, like so many others, chose to stay living in Persia. The year is probably 480 or 479 BC, sixty years since Persia had conquered Babylon. We don’t know Mordecai’s age, but we know his lineage. He is a Benjamite and a descendant of Kish, the father of King Saul (1 Sam. 9:1–3). As the story unfolds, that will become part and parcel of his conflict with Haman, who is a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalekites (Exod. 17:8–16; 1 Sam. 15:1–10). More of that later, but we also need to note his name, a variation of the Babylonian god Marduk. The same was true for Daniel and his three friends, who were given names after the idols of Babylon (Dan. 1:6–7). He probably had a Hebrew name, too, but that is not important to the story line. He is a government official with a pagan name living in a corrupt, immoral culture. He works close to the house for the harem, so he can keep contact with his adopted daughter.
Mordecai had obviously done much to guard and guide this beautiful young lady, but only one thing is specifically mentioned: Do not tell anyone that you are a Jew. The text is explicit about his Jewish lineage but is equally specific about her not divulging her ancestry. Why? What dangers could be associated with that? As we read through the book of Ezra, we know that King Cyrus had bestowed unusual privileges, licenses, and wealth on those who chose to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:4–11; 6:4–12). We know, too, that there were numerous enemies of those returning Jews and that King Cambyses had used the military to stop the rebuilding of the temple. Persia was then and still is a pagan empire, with a wide variety of idols being worshipped. Yes, there were unusual demonstrations of God’s favor on his people, as demonstrated by Cyrus and Darius, but those were the exceptions and not the rule. The Persian populace, for the most part, are enemies of God and hate his laws and the people who worship him. The great conflict between the people of God and the followers of Satan is always there, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes open and flagrant.
Esther Pleases the King
Through Mordecai we become acquainted with Hadassah, better known as Esther. Her parents are both dead, but her cousin has taken her in as his own daughter. Her name is a Persian variation of Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess. The most obvious quality that she possessed was “a beautiful figure” that was lovely to look at. Lecherous eyes longed to see her. Among the hundreds of young virgins in the harem, she stood out and got the attention of the master eunuch, Hegai, “who had charge of the women.” Esther “pleased him and won his favor” (2:9). In contrast with the regimen imposed on Daniel and his three friends, who had to endure three years of preparation (Dan. 1:5), these young women had to submit to a beautifying process, “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments” (2:12). External beauty was priceless and paramount. Obedience was demanded, while wisdom was ignored.
In contrast with Daniel and his three friends, there is no indication that Esther or Mordecai objected to this process of cultural cultivation. There are no recorded protests or requests for exemption. As we read on, there is extensive description of the facilities for the king’s harem and the expectations of its members. If they please the king, they might get to sleep another night in his bed. If not, they are shunted off to less desirable quarters and are labeled as concubines. Concubines may never marry and will never become mothers. They are doomed to live as slaves to a vile master. On the basis of the text, both Mordecai and Esther appear to be compromised persons. Either they did not know the law of God, or they chose to ignore it. Either way, they are guilty. Sleeping with a pagan king outside the bonds of marriage is and was adultery. Becoming a willing accomplice in sex trafficking is evil. No prophets are sent to warn them or call them to repentance.
Where Is God?
As we reflect on the book of Daniel, we notice some significant differences. From the opening pages of Daniel, we see the hand of our sovereign God at work. God puts dreams into King Nebuchadnezzar’s head. God endows Daniel and his friends with uncanny wisdom. God presents his Son, Jesus Christ, as “the stone cut out of the mountain, not by human hands” (Dan. 2:34). God allows the three friends to be thrown into the fiery furnace so that King Nebuchadnezzar can see the Savior of his people at work. God punishes Nebuchadnezzar with insanity for the sin of pride. God is everywhere. In Esther, the opposite appears to be true. God is nowhere on the pages of this book, yet we ought to remember that he is sovereign everywhere all the time. He controls events and persons by his sovereign will, but he also allows people and nations to exercise their evil inclinations.
When we reflect on the background readings from Genesis 38, we see Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, engage in perpetually evil behavior. He is co-habiting with a Canaanite woman and producing multiple children by her. He leaves home and solicits sex with a street prostitute, who happens to be his daughter-in-law. Tamar becomes pregnant by him and produces twin boys. How evil can you get? Yet three of those persons appear in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:3). God allowed that behavior and had it recorded on the pages of Scripture, not to demonstrate his wrath against sin, but his mercy and his grace toward his chosen ones. God is doing something similar with Esther and Mordecai because the enemies of God want to exterminate the entire nation of Israel. We need to keep perspective if we are to understand the book and actions of Esther. God is going to allow Esther to please this immoral monarch in such a way that he chooses her from all the virgins to be the next queen of Persia. As Mordecai will later suggest, she was chosen for such a time as this (4:15). As a servant of the one who rules the nations with a double-edged sword, she will be the instrument used to save his people from genocide.
Where Are Ezra and Nehemiah?
Other enigmas that beg for resolution are questions about the silence of Ezra and Nehemiah. Both of these godly men live in Persia soon after Esther serves as queen and Mordecai serves as prime minister. Both of them must have celebrated the Feast of Purim on numerous occasions. Ezra appears on the pages of Scripture during the seventh year of King Artaxerxes, which translates as the year 458 BC, twenty-one years after Esther becomes queen. Ezra is a gifted scribe or writer, who is also the most qualified theologian, but he never mentions Esther or Mordecai or the Feast of Purim. Ezra writes extensively about the building of the temple and events surrounding it but never credits these two agents of God who are responsible for preventing the extermination of the Jewish people. Ezra is also God’s agent to teach the remnant in Jerusalem and Judah the elements of proper worship. That omission becomes even more puzzling if Ezra was the writer of the book of Esther, as Augustine and others surmise.
This mystery becomes even more pronounced when we realize that there is a gap of sixty years between the events that Ezra describes in chapter 6 and chapter 7 of his book. Those are the very years where Esther was queen and Mordecai “was second in rank to King Ahasuerus” (Esther 10:3). He must have known about them, yet he chose not to write about them. That mystery can be explained only by the reminder that “all Scripture is breathed by God,” as the apostle Paul reminded Timothy.
We note a similar pattern with Nehemiah, the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. Even though he recalls many of Israel’s flagrant sins, he, too, ignores the situation in the citadel of Persia. He, like Ezra, focuses almost exclusively on the spiritual needs and challenges in Jerusalem. Both of these theological giants concentrate their writings on the restoration of God-ordained worship in the Promised Land. The pattern reminds us of the contrast between Revelation 3 and Revelation 4. That third chapter is focused on the earthly situation in the seven churches, full of sin and shortcomings. Chapter 4, by contrast, elevates us into the throne room of heaven, where God is praised and worshipped. Ezra and Nehemiah are God’s appointed agents of restoration and renewal. Esther is a somewhat pathetic person needing reformation. All are part of divine revelation.
1. What characteristics do you associate with King Ahasuerus? Is he a good king?
2. What motivates the young men to orchestrate an empire-wide search for beautiful young virgins?
3. Would parents welcome the king’s agents who come looking for a potential queen? Would some parents relish that role for their daughters?
4. Why is it important that Mordecai be identified as a descendant of King Saul? Does that designation confer status for him? Or, does that denigrate him?
5. Should Esther have devised some plan to avoid becoming the queen? How might she have done that?
6. How is the sovereignty of God being demonstrated in this chapter? In this book?
7. Is it justified for both Ezra and Nehemiah to ignore the historical record of Esther and Mordecai? Was the Feast of Purim important to them? Was that feast important to God?