Couples for Christ
November 25, 2007
Today we’re continuing our study of the book of Esther. Esther is a beautiful, engaging
story of romance and intrigue. It is also an inspiring story that reveals God’s sovereignty,
his control over the events of the world, his loving care for his people, and his
faithfulness in keeping his promises.
Last week, we covered Chapter 1. Who can give us a summary of Chapter 1? King
Xerxes is giving a banquet, he’s drunk, calls Queen Vashti to come and parade before his
drunken guests wearing her crown (maybe just her crown!), queen refuses, resulting in a
national crisis: if the queen won’t obey the king, then will any wife in the kingdom obey
her husband? As a result, Vashti is banished from the palace.
This week, we’ll be working through Chapter 2. Let’s begin reading in verse 1:
1 Later when the anger of King Xerxes had subsided, he remembered Vashti and
what she had done and what he had decreed about her. 2 Then the king's personal
attendants proposed, "Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king.
3 Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all
these beautiful girls into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under
the care of Hegai, the king's eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty
treatments be given to them. 4 Then let the girl who pleases the king be queen
instead of Vashti." This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.
Notice that first word, “Later.” According to verse 16, Esther was taken to Xerxes in the
seventh year of his reign, after nearly a year of preparation. According to verse 3 of
Chapter 1, the events of Chapter 1 occurred in the third year of Xerxes reign, so there is a
gap of about three years between the end of Chapter 1 and the beginning of Chapter 2.
Anyone remember what took place during that gap? The invasion of Greece. Xerxes
defeat by the Greeks. So at the beginning of Chapter 2, we see Xerxes, returned to his
palace in defeat, feeling lonely and sad, and missing Vashti. So what do his attendants
suggest? A national beauty contest, with Xerxes as the sole judge! They propose that a
search be made for beautiful young virgins throughout the empire, that those who were
selected be brought to the palace to receive beauty treatments, and that the king try each
one and select the “girl who pleases the king” to be the new queen. Now let me ask you:
If you were going to choose a new queen for your land, what traits would you want
to look for? Wisdom. Diplomacy. Character. But what is this process designed to
select for? Just one thing: physical beauty. What a clear illustration of the truth of 1
Samuel 16:7, which says, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man
looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
But, guys, despite all of this, what do you think that old horn doggie Xerxes thought
about this plan? According to the scripture, it “appealed to” him. I guess so!
Let’s continue on with verses 5 through 7:
5 Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named
Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, 6 who had been carried
into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those
taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah. 7 Mordecai had a cousin named
Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother.
This girl, who was also known as Esther, was lovely in form and features, and
Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
Here we meet the two protagonists of our story, Mordecai and Esther. What do we learn
about Mordecai here? He was a Jew. He served in the citadel of Susa, indicating that
he held some position within the government. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, the son of
son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish. His ancestors had been part of the 10,000
leading citizens of Judah carried away from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of
Babylon in 597 B.C. (2 Kings 24:12-4)
There are two different interpretations of Mordecai’s genealogy. One school holds that
Jair, Shimei, and Kish were the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of Mordecai, and
that Kish, the great-grandfather, is the one to whom the phrase, “who had been carried into
exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” applies. The other, more
intriguing interpretation is that that those named are more ancient ancestors. Anyone
know who Kish was? The father of Saul (see 1 Samuel 9:1). And Shimei? A relative of
Saul’s, whom David spared (see 2 Samuel 16:5-14). This interpretation is intriguing
because it sets the stage for the conflict between Mordecai, the descendent of Saul, and
Haman, the descendant of Saul’s enemy Agag, king of the Amalekites. However, it
presents a problem: if the ancestors mentioned are ancient, to who does the phrase “who
had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” apply?
Surely not Mordecai, since that would make him over 120 years old at the time of these
events. Possibly, it refers to Jair, the last in the line mentioned before Mordecai. Or it
could be just a general reference to the family having been carried into exile.
Interestingly, there is independent historical evidence of Mordecai’s existence. A
cuneiform tablet found in Borsippa near Babylon mentions a scribe by the name of
Mardukaya, an accountant to the satrap Ustannu of Baylon, who served in the court at
Susa during the early days of the reign of Xerxes. Many scholars think it’s the same guy.
Going back to verse 7, what do we learn here about Esther? She was Mordecai’s cousin.
She was an orphan (she had “neither father or mother”). Her Hebrew name was Hadassah,
and he Persian name was Esther. She was beautiful (“lovely in form and features”). She
had been raised by Mordecai “as his own daughter” after her parents died.
It’s worth taking a minute to reflect on the names of our heroes. The name Mordecai is
thoroughly gentile, being derived from the name of the Babylonian God Marduk. The
name Hadassah is a Hebrew name, meaning “myrtle,” an evergreen shrub used for its
violet flowers and for making perfume. Her Persian name, Esther, is thought to be a form
of the Persian word satarah, which means a star. Some, however, think the name Esther
is derived from the name of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar.
Like Esther, Mordecai may have had a Hebrew name as well, but if so, it is unknown to
us. Certainly, it was common for the Jews in exile to have two names. Can you think of
any examples? Daniel had the Babylonian name Belteshazzar. His friends in exile—
Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah—are better known by their Babylonian names:
Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego. Joseph had the Egyptian name Zaph-e-nath Pan-e-
ah. So it’s not uncommon for Mordecai, a Jew, to have a gentile name. However, the
fact that the author fails to mention a Hebrew name for Mordecai is likely a sign that
Mordecai was a thoroughly assimilated and likely very secularized Jew. Similarly,
Esther’s Hebrew name may have been a relic from her childhood, and her Persian name,
Esther, may have been given to her by Mordecai when she became a part of his
Let’s move on:
8 When the king's order and edict had been proclaimed, many girls were brought
to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the
king's palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. 9 The girl
pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty
treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the
king's palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem.
Verse 8 says that “many” girls were brought into the king’s harem. The Hebrew historian
Josephus says the number was 400; the Greek historian Plutarch says 360. At any rate, it
was a large number. And Esther was included in that group. Here’s a question: Did
Mordecai want Esther to be chosen? Almost certainly so. If not, how hard would it
have been for Esther to avoid being selected? Easy—just scar her in some way. And
while that might seem extreme, it might have been an appropriate response for a devout
Jew whose daughter was about to be taken into the harem of a pagan king. Why would
Mordecai have wanted Esther to be chosen? To enhance his standing. If she was
chosen, she would be at least in the king’s harem, if not perhaps the queen. And he was
like her father. To relieve him of responsibility for her. If she were in the king’s harem,
she would be well cared for at no cost to Mordecai.
Instead of protecting Esther from being selected, we see in verse 10 that Mordecai told
her not to reveal her identity as a Jew:
10 Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because
Mordecai had forbidden her to do so.
Why do you think Mordecai would have forbidden Esther from revealing herself as
a Jew? Take various answers. In my opinion, this is just further evidence that Mordecai
was highly secularized. Throughout history, observant Jews have been regarded as
strange, unusual, and foreign, wherever in the world they have been. Likely, Mordecai
himself had given up the practices of his faith in order to blend in better in the court of
Susa. He likely instructed Esther to do the same, for the same reasons.
At any rate, we read that Esther “pleased” Hegai and “won his favor,” and that as a result
she was singled out for special treatment, including a special place to live, extra servants,
and special food. Because Esther hid her identify, she had no grounds for refusing the
“special food” provided to her by Hegai the eunuch, even though taking it would be a
direct violation of the Jewish dietary laws. How does this compare with the story of
Daniel and his companions? Who can tell us that story? Take various answers.
Esther’s willingness to keep her identity secret, to violate the dietary laws, places her in
direct contrast with Daniel and his friends who, in similar circumstances, stood true to
their faith and refused the special food offered to them by the king. And yet, God worked
through both Esther and Daniel to preserve his people.
Verse 11 says, “Every day he (Mordecai) walked back and forth near the courtyard of the
harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.” This may reflect
parental concern for Esther, or it may reflect his interest in seeing how well his plan to
enhance his standing through Esther was working out.
Let’s continue with verse 12:
12 Before a girl's turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve
months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of
myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. 13 And this is how she would go to
the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to
the king's palace. 14 In the evening she would go there and in the morning return
to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king's eunuch who was
in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was
pleased with her and summoned her by name.
The girls who had been selected for the harem went through extensive preparation before
their first (and perhaps only) night with the King, including six months of treatments with
oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and other cosmetics. When the night finally
came for her to go to the king, we read that “Anything she wanted was given her to take
with her from the harem to the king's palace.” What do you suppose this could mean?
Take various answers. Probably refers to clothing, jewelry. Then, equipped as she
wished, she would visit the king for one night. What do you supposed happened
during that night? Did they stay up late talking and eating? Take various answers.
No, these were clearly primarily sexual encounters. And if you have any doubt about
that, just look at what happened when the night was over: Instead of being returned to
the care of Hegai, who was responsible for the virgins, now that the girl was no longer a
virgin, she would instead go to a different part of the harem, where the king’s concubines
lived, under the care of a different eunuch, Shaashgaz. And there she would remain,
essentially a well-kept prisoner, until and unless the king asked for her again by name, for
another night of his sexual pleasure.
Clearly, Mordecai has sent Esther to a very uncertain fate. She had just one night to so
please the king—with her beauty, charm, wit, and sexual prowess—that he would choose
her over hundreds of other girls to be his queen. If not, she would be locked away in the
harem, as a concubine, a virtual sex slave to the king.
Let’s continue in verse 15:
15 When the turn came for Esther (the girl Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of
his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai,
the king's eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the
favor of everyone who saw her. 16 She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal
residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.
One thing Esther is good at is taking instructions! When her big night comes, she listens
to the counsel of Hegai about how she should dress and what she should take. The story
implies that he advised her to avoid extensive adornment but instead to rely on her
natural beauty and character to catch the king’s attention, as it apparently did for
“everyone who saw her.” And his advice was wise, as we read in verses 17 and 18:
17 Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and
she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal
crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 And the king gave a
great banquet, Esther's banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a
holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.
Esther’s “one night with the king” is enough to win her the prize of being queen. Having
chosen Esther, he crowns her, holds a banquet (number 4 so far) in her honor, and
proclaim a holiday (perhaps a tax holiday or a holiday from military service) throughout
Once again, although God is not mentioned anywhere in Chapter 2, we see His hand at
work, in a series of improbable events: first opening the door for a new queen, then
leading the king’s advisors to select a beauty contest, then having Esther chosen into the
harem, and then leading the King to select her above all the other contestants to be his
queen. Notice as well that God does not choose Esther because of her strong
commitment to her faith or to Him—instead, he chooses her despite her (and Mordecai’s)
apparent indifference to the law of God. He uses the gifts he has given her—beauty,
charm, wit—to place her in a position from which she can help him accomplish his
purposes. And, as we’ll see, as he is using her, he is also at work in her, changing her
from a secular beauty queen into a woman of courage and conviction.
OK, that’s enough for this week. Next week, Mark Shreve will be teaching, picking up
with verse 19. Then, the next week we’ll be having our Christmas celebration together.
I’ll plan to see you for that!