The Word Made Fresh
1After all this was done, the king’s anger subsided, and he pondered Vashti and what she had done, and the decree that had unseated her. The king’s attendants said, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. 3Let the king assign government representatives in each of the provinces of the kingdom and charge them with gathering the young women to the king’s harem in Susa. Place them under the custody of the king’s eunuch Hegai who will be responsible for seeing that they are given cosmetic treatments. 4Then, let the girl who pleases the king be made queen in Vashti’s place.” The king thought this was a grand idea, and he gave orders to do so.
5In the capital city of Susa there was a Jew named Mordecai. He was a Benjaminite, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, 6who had been among the exiles carried away from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, along with King Jeconiah of Judah. 7Mordecai had raised his cousin Hadassah, who was also called Esther. Her father and mother had died, and she had been adopted by Mordecai. She was a beautiful girl, 8and when the king’s order was circulated and many young girls were brought to Susa and placed under Hegai, Esther also had been taken to the king’s palace under Hegai’s custody. 9Hegai was pleased with her, and she quickly won his favor. He provided her with cosmetics and a special diet and paired her with seven other young girls whom he raised to a prominent place within the harem.
10Mordecai had instructed her not to reveal her family or her nationality, 11and every day Mordecai would come to the entrance of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was doing.
12Each girl, after twelve months of the beauty regiment, was given a turn to go in to King Ahasuerus. The beauty treatments consisted of six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics. 13As each girl went in to the king she was given whatever she asked to take with her from the harem. 14She would go in to the king in the evening and return the next morning to a second harem watched over by Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She did not go in to the king again unless the king was particularly pleased with her and summoned her by name.
15Then Esther, daughter of Abihail who had been raised by her uncle Mordecai, was invited to take her turn to go in to the king. She asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch had advised her to take. She was beautiful and admired by everyone who saw her. 16She was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. 17The king loved Esther more than all the others. Of all the virgins she was his favorite and he was devoted to her. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen in place of Vashti. 18Then the king gave a great banquet for all the officials and ministers. It was “Esther’s Banquet.” He also announced amnesty to all the provinces and distributed generous royal gifts.
19One day when the virgins were all together, Mordecai was sitting at the gate of the king’s palace. 20Esther had not told anyone that she was a Jew, for that is how Mordecai had instructed her, and Esther obeyed Mordecai after being chosen just as she had when he was raising her. 21During those days, while Mordecai sat at the king’s gate, two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, who were guards of the gates, became angry and planned to capture King Ahasuerus. 22But Mordecai got wind of their plans, and reported it to Queen Esther, who told it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. 23When the report was investigated and found to be true, both the men were arrested and hanged on the gallows. The whole affair was recorded in the book of the annals, and the king witnessed the entry.
1-4: The king is bereft of a queen, so the guys get together to decide what can be done. Somebody comes up with a brilliant idea: “Let’s have a beauty contest! Let’s bring in the prettiest girls from all over the empire and the king can pick the one he likes best!” The king likes the idea. They seem to have no doubt that the girls will all just love the opportunity to be in the king’s harem and get the chance to please the king, but make no mistake about it; this is a sexual contest to find the one who most pleases His Highness in the bedroom (a note: we know from ancient records that by law the king of Persia was limited in marriage to the seven noble families of Persia, so we have to wonder what exactly was to be her position in the royal household).
5-11: We meet Mordecai and Esther. The name Mordecai is not Jewish but is related to the name of the primary god in the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk. Mordecai himself, however, is decidedly Jewish, a Benjaminite descended from one Kish, who was among the initial exiles to Babylon during the time of Nebuchanezzar. He is “in the citadel,” which means that he is some sort of government official. He has raised his orphaned cousin Hadassah (her Jewish name, which means “myrtle”), a.k.a. Esther (a Persian name meaning “star,” but also related to the primary Babylonian goddess Ishtar). Esther is a real knockout, so she gets taken to the king’s harem and put under the supervision of Hegai, the royal hairdresser and cosmetologist. Hegai is a eunuch; you just can’t trust a regular fellow to be attending all the beautiful girls in the king’s harem. Hegai and Esther hit it off, and pretty soon she is his favorite, which puts her in a good position with regards to the contest. Mordecai has instructed her not to tell anybody she is Jewish, and Mordecai comes by every day on his way to work to ask how she’s doing.
12-14: After a year of pampering the girls, the contest begins. It is arranged so that each girl is led to the king’s bedroom, does her best to please him, and the next morning is escorted to a second harem of concubines. There she will stay for the rest of her natural life unless the king summons her again by name. The eunuch in charge of this second group of concubines is Shaashgaz, a strange name; it is perhaps what he exclaimed when they made him a eunuch.
15-18: Finally, Esther gets her turn, and that’s all it takes. The king is smitten by her and immediately declares the contest over. Esther is the one. He gives her Vashti’s crown – verse 17 is the last time Vashti will ever be mentioned – and throws a big banquet in Esther’s honor. Their wedding day is set aside as a national holiday, a day of amnesty in which taxes are remitted and the labor force can party. Queen Vashti was deposed in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus; Esther became queen in his seventh year – the whole story of the search for a new queen thus takes between three and four years!
19-23: So, it was that one day when Mordecai had dropped by as the girls were being rounded up at the gate to the palace grounds, he overheard two of the eunuchs plotting to do away with the king. Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells King Ahasuerus. The eunuchs are arrested, tried, found guilty, and hanged. The whole affair is recorded in the official court records. This is an important detail that will come up again later in the story.
Although we might treat the story of Esther as a sort of royal comedy, it is recorded in the scriptures as an explanation of the Jewish holiday of Purim, a celebration of their rescue from persecution. Purim is considered a minor festival, and is celebrated in the spring, around the middle of March. It is a celebration of the book of Esther.