Week of April 22, 2018
The Point: God is always at work behind the scenes.
Esther Becomes Queen: Esther 2:1-18.
 After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.  Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.  And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the capital, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them.  And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.  Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite,  who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away.  He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.  So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women.  And the young woman pleased him and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem.  Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known.  And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her.  Now when the turn came for each young woman to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their beautifying, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments for women–  when the young woman went in to the king in this way, she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace.  In the evening she would go in, and in the morning she would return to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.  When the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her.  And when Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign,  the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.  Then the king gave a great feast for all his officials and servants; it was Esther’s feast. He also granted a remission of taxes to the provinces and gave gifts with royal generosity. [ESV]
We begin a six week study into the fascinating, but controversial, book of Esther. And the author of the book contributes to the controversy by choosing not to reveal any of the motivating factors behind the actions of Esther and Mordecai. There is much debate between commentators concerning the “spiritual” status of these two characters. Are they spiritual leaders who should be emulated or are they merely secular Jews who have compromised with the pagan environment in which they find themselves? We see a profound growth in Esther as a person from being a teenager taken out of her home and put in the king’s harem, eventually becoming queen, to a young women who shows tremendous courage and political savvy in dealing with the king and Harem. But the author says nothing about her spiritual relationship with God. Why is there no mention of God in the book while the clear, underlying theme of the book is God’s faithfulness to His promise to protect His covenant people from extinction? There is no explicit mention of either Mordecai or Esther praying to God in dealing with Haman’s threat to the Jewish people. The Jews are referred to as “Esther’s people” or “Mordecai’s people” but never as God’s people. What lessons are we meant to learn from this book?
“Background [2:1-4]. After Queen Vashti refused a command of King Ahasuerus and was deposed and sent away from the king’s presence, the king then sought another queen who is better than [1:19] Vashti. By better, the king’s advisors presumably meant someone more compliant than Vashti, someone who would toe the royal line and obey her husband. Yet strangely enough, in their search for a replacement it never seems to have occurred to those in charge to include a character assessment. Instead, only three virtues were necessary in this better woman: she had to be young, she had to be unmarried, and she had to be extraordinarily good-looking [2:1-4]. Since the whole purpose for existence in Persia was to serve the empire, no permission was needed for the empire to draft a young woman into this particular branch of the civil service. The empire didn’t care whether parents had other plans for their daughter. There was nothing sexist about this perspective, either: the empire would also happily draft people’s sons to serve as the king’s eunuchs, if it felt there was a need and if they were qualified. In the world of the Persians, everything anyone possessed, including one’s body, could be and was claimed by the empire if the empire wanted it. So the king appointed officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa [2:3]. These young women would live in secluded splendor for the rest of their lives. Probably very few of these women would have resisted the royal summons, and many would have regarded it as a wonderful opportunity to have a comfortable, if pointless, existence.
Mordecai and Esther [2:5-7]. In the midst of this all-consuming empire, two relatively insignificant people, Mordecai and Esther, step onto the stage. Mordecai was a descendant of Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin. He was therefore related to King Saul, a fact that will become significant later on in the story. One of his ancestors was carried off into exile in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. [2 Kings 24:14-15]. In fact, exile was the defining feature of Mordecai’s position, as Esther 2:6 makes clear: literally it says that his ancestors “had been exiled from Jerusalem with the exiles who had been exiled with Jehoiachin, king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled.” As a second or third generation exile, he would thus have known nothing other than life in Persia under the empire. Exile defined his existence. The clash of cultures that exiles like Mordecai experienced is evident already in the way he is introduced. On the one hand, he is identified as a Jew, with a kosher genealogy that stretches back to the golden days of Israel. More than one hundred years of exile had passed since the destruction of his homeland in 586 B.C., but he had still not been assimilated. Susa was his address, but it was not his home. On the other hand, however, his name is Mordecai, a Hebraized form of the Babylonian name marduka, which includes within it the name of the Babylonian god Marduk. This is not to say that Mordecai was a worshipper of Marduk; many faithful exiles had both Hebrew and Babylonian names. Daniel and his three friends were also renamed by their captives. However, Mordecai’s introduction expresses the ambivalence of his position as the citizen of two kingdoms. At home, he was Mordecai the Jew, faithful servant of the living God. At work, he was just plain Mordecai, faithful servant of the empire. Mordecai lived in the citadel of Susa, along with the imperial employees, rather than out in the city of Susa itself. The other member of his household was his cousin, whom he had taken into his care because she was an orphan. She too had dual names and a dual identity. She had a Hebrew name, Hadassah, which means “myrtle.” She had a kosher heritage; she was the daughter of Abihail. The empire, however, knew her by her Persian name Esther, or “Star.” She too, like all the exiles, had to live in two worlds. As her life unfolded, though, there would come a day when she would have to decide which of those two worlds defined her.
Going with the Flow [2:8-18]. Those two worlds collided one fateful morning in the citadel of Susa. Ahasuerus’s officials were collecting his new flock of young women, according to the edict that his advisors had framed for him. Esther was one of those who were taken [2:8]. We had anticipated this fate as soon as Esther was introduced to us as a woman who had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at. Esther quickly learned not simply how to survive, but how to thrive in her new situation: She was put in custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the women [2:3]. Esther pleased him and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem [2:9]. Esther learned that the harem was simply life in the empire in miniature: a relatively pointless existence, where life was regulated in all its details, and promotion depended not on talent or character, but on pleasing those in charge. Thus Esther learned to be a pleaser, first of all charming Hegai. Of course, Esther had some natural assets in this pursuit. She was, to use the Hebrew idiom, “good in his sight,” meaning physically attractive [2:9]. This idiom underlines the fact that the whole empire runs on the superficialities of what may be seen, not the substance of who people are at the core of their being. It is the opposite of God’s scale of values, which begins with the heart [1 Sam. 16:7]. But Esther’s competitors were good-looking as well; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been drafted in the first place. Esther didn’t merely “find favor” in Hegai’s sight, a more passive idiom; still less was favor in Hegai’s sight given to her as an unsought gift by God, as was the case with Daniel and his three friends [Dan. 1:9]. Rather, the writer uses an unusual idiom to tell us that Esther won his favor: she worked for her promotion in the house of women, by fitting into the agenda that the empire set for her. She was willing to let the empire define her reality. Resistance was not high on her program at this point; on the contrary, she seemed content, even eager, to be assimilated. In return for this compliance, Hegai rewarded Esther with special food and an early start to her beauty treatments [2:12]. These special beauty treatments included six months in oil of myrrh and six months in spices and ointments. It has been suggested that the women may literally have spent their time in these elements, with ointments being applied by means of a chemical bath or fumigation. The food they were given was likewise more than mere sustenance: it was intended to enhance their beauty, perhaps by fattening up these scrawny commoners. The similarity of Esther’s position to that of Daniel and his three friends, exiled and incorporated into the imperial system, highlights also what is different about them. Daniel and his three friends stood up to the empire, quietly but firmly requesting permission to be faithful to their own beliefs by not eating the royal food [Dan. 1:8-16]. They received permission to do so and God in turn blessed them, against all the odds. They remained unassimilated, and yet were nonetheless respected by the empire because of God’s direct intervention. Unlike Daniel and his three friends, however, Esther, had apparently no ethical qualms about eating the empire’s food and being used as the emperor’s plaything. And following Mordecai’s advice, her Jewishness remained perfectly concealed: Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known [2:10]. When, after a year of preparation, Esther’s turn finally came to go in to the king for her one-night audition, she was careful to follow Hegai’s instructions [2:15]. At this point in the story, Esther was the perfectly compliant child of the empire, the ultimate anti-Vashti, and her tactics appeared to be succeeding. Wherever she went, she was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her [2:15]. We are therefore not surprised to find out that Esther also charmed the heart of King Ahasuerus [2:16-17]. Here in Esther surely was the better woman than Vashti that the king had been seeking: as beautiful as the former queen, but much more compliant. What could be more perfect? The king “loved” Esther more than all the women; he had found what he was looking for. Ahasuerus made Esther queen in Vashti’s place, a substitution that is underlined by the reference to the royal crown and to a feast given in her honor [2:18]. The result of Esther’s promotion was happiness and blessing all around. When King Ahasuerus was happy, so was everyone else in Susa: there was a trickle-down effect of that happiness to his subjects as taxes were remitted and gifts handed out with royal generosity [2:18], the same phrase that described the distribution of the wine at the first feast [1:7]. Through all of this lengthy procedure Mordecai had been keeping a watchful eye on his cousin, advising her along the way. He daily visited the court of the harem to find out, doubtless through intermediaries and messengers, news of what she was doing and what was being done to her [2:11]. He was the one who advised her to keep secret her Jewish identity – not because the empire was inherently anti-Semitic, but because, in his opinion, one could never be too careful in a place like Susa. He knew the way the empire operated. Walls have ears, and information is power. Even after she became queen, it was because of Mordecai’s command that Esther kept her ancestry quiet [2:19-20].
Learning from Esther. We would hardly coin the slogan “Dare to be an Esther” at this point in the story. All that she has shown us so far is a sweet and compliant spirit toward those around her. Is that good or bad? In some ways, it is good insofar as she is respecting the family and civil authorities God has set over her. Children should, in general, obey their parents, and citizens should, in general, obey the empire’s laws. Yet there are times for throwing a “sanctified fit” over the unsanctified demands of one’s family, as Sarah did in Genesis 21:10, and the unsanctified demands of the empire, as Daniel and his friends did in Daniel 1-6. In both instances, God specifically endorsed His people’s refusal to submit to authority. There are times in each of our lives when we should refuse to conceal whom we serve. We are all too often motivated to conceal our faith, or to refuse to confront someone who needs to hear the truth, because we want to please people and avoid conflict. When we stand up for our faith, though, we need to be ready for the consequences of our actions. Sometimes the empire may surprise us by backing down, as in Daniel 1, when the four young Jews were allowed to dictate their own diet. More often, however, it will throw us into the fiery furnace or the den of lions, as in Daniel 3 and 6. If God chooses miraculously to rescue us, well and good. But if not, our God is worthy of such sacrifice, and we should offer it joyfully, rather than bow down to the idols that the empire presents to us for worship [see Daniel 3:18]. At this point in the story, Esther is certainly no Daniel. She is both in the world and of the world, fully complying with the empire’s outrageous demands with the goal of winning the “love” of an unworthy royal husband. She would perhaps have objected that she had little choice, but if someone is willing to suffer the consequences, full obedience to God’s law is always an option. Esther is certainly not a model for us in her compromise – yet we should not miss the fact that her history of compromise and sin will not disqualify her from the opportunity for later obedience, an obedience that will bring blessing for her people. Here is hope for all those who find themselves in difficult circumstances in the present because of their past sin and compromise. Here is hope for people who married a non-Christian husband or wife, even though they knew it was wrong. The person who chose a career based on all the wrong motivations, or who has wasted a lifetime in pursuit of the wrong goals can discover that God is sovereign even over those sinful choices and wasted opportunities. Perhaps He has brought us to where we are today so that we can serve Him in a unique way. If so, that doesn’t make those wrong decisions and sinful actions right. But it should cause us to give thanks to God that He is able to form beautiful pictures out of our smudged and stained efforts. Past failures do not write us out of a significant part in God’s script for the future.” [Duguid, pp. 18-31].
Questions for Discussion:
- Throughout this study of Esther, look for evidence of two things. First, God’s providential work in the events of this story in order to accomplish His plan. Second, how God’s providential work incorporates evil, human actions into His plan without approval of those acts. He still holds accountable those who commit these evil acts. Here in chapter 2, we see the empire’s outrageous demands for families to turn over their teenage girls in order to live the rest of their lives as concubines to the king. Yet God uses these evil actions to eventually accomplish His purpose by placing Esther in the position of Queen. Prayfully consider how God does this same thing in your life. How does this enable you to deal with the evil that you have to deal with in this life? How do you see God overcoming evil events in your life to bring about your eternal good?
- The story of Esther presents us with the moral dilemma of the ambivalence of being a citizen of two kingdoms. We are commanded by Jesus to be in the world but not of the world. We see Esther and Mordecai struggling with this distinction throughout the story. Here in chapter 2 we find Esther both in the world and of the world as she fully complies with the empire’s outrageous demands with the goal of winning the “love” of an unworthy royal husband. Be aware of this dilemma as you study the book of Esther over the coming weeks. Analyze your own life to see how well you are obeying Jesus’ command. Be ready for the consequences of your actions in seeking to not be of this world, following its humanistic world view.
Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Mervin Breneman, NAC, B & H Publishers.
Esther & Ruth, Iain Duguid, REC, P & R Publishing.
Esther, Karen Jobes, Zondervan.