Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: We’ll See Who’s Boss | Part 3: Selfish Aims
The beautiful girl Esther is now effectively a member of Xerxes’ harem, but a lot has to happen before he even meets her. The court official responsible for the harem—or at least for the “contest” to determine who replaces Vashti, the banished queen—who is named Hegai, oversees a preparation process for the women that takes a full year (Es 2.12). We’re told that it involves fragrances, but undoubtedly many other things were included; it was likely a “finishing school” to refine the women’s skills in beautification, in court decorum and culture, in sexuality, and in whatever else would please the king.
After the year of preparation, each of the women would spend a night with the king. This was clearly a sexual tryout, as well as an opportunity for Xerxes to engage the woman in conversation that would tell him something about her personal qualifications to serve in the official role of queen, which pertained only to the one woman so chosen from the harem. After that night, the woman would be a concubine (Es 2.14), available for the king’s pleasure at any time.
This was the way kings operated in the ancient Near East. They had exclusive rights to any woman they desired—and the glory of their kingdom was demonstrated, among other ways, by the size of the harem. It’s likely that a significant number of concubines never returned to the king’s presence after the initial sexual tryout; as we noted in the previous post, this meant “perpetual widowhood.” But they were fed, clothed, and sheltered, and their material circumstances were doubtless better than those of the common people, given that, theoretically at least, the king could request the presence of any of them at any time.
He’s the king. He gets what he wants.
When Esther’s time came, she delighted the king (Es 2.16-17). We’re not told what it was about her that took her to the top of the list, though the text does say that she “obtained favor in the sight of all them that looked upon her” (Es 2.15)—so physical attractiveness was certainly a significant factor. Given that Xerxes had observed his father’s rule as a younger man, and that he had been king for several years, he certainly knew what other qualifications were necessary in a titular queen and evaluated Esther for those as well. She likely would communicate with poise, confidence, and authority in court, as well as making a personal connection with the king. She was no jewel in a pig’s snout (Pr 11.22). She must have been quite a woman to evidence all that in a single evening.
The king is so delighted with what he has found that he proclaims an empire-wide celebration for the accession of the new queen. There’s a party in Susa, of course, but there’s also “a release to the provinces” (Es 2.18), which may have consisted of “either a remission of taxes [as reflected in the ESV and CSB] or a remission of labor (a holiday) [as reflected in the NASB, NIV, and NET].” Or perhaps a release from military duty. But all across the empire, people are celebrating.
The chapter closes with what sounds like an off-handed bit of court trivia. Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, is seated at the gate of the court (Es 2.21). As we’ve already noted, government officials often sat there, in order to be available for any command or need of the king. Maybe he’s the same “Marduka” named in a Persian text; maybe not. But from his strategic post he learns something: two high-ranking court officials are angry with the king and are planning to attack him physically. Whether Mordecai heard them talking—which is unlikely, if he’s a court official himself—or simply heard it through the grapevine, he reports it to his cousin, who is now the queen. She tells the king, and the conspirators are summarily neutralized (Es 2.23). And somewhere, deep inside the cogs of the bureaucracy, a scribal functionary presses a stylus into a clay tablet to record the event.
It will become apparent later that Xerxes doesn’t even remember this threat to his life. Apparently this sort of thing happened a lot. But somewhere, in a Persian warehouse archive, a nondescript clay tablet is filed on a shelf.
And the king, the supreme, the sovereign, lives on.
Part 5: A Roll of the Dice | Part 6: The Tease | Part 7: Any Old Tablet | Part 8: Mental Explosion | Part 9: What Goes Around | Part 10: The Missing Piece
Photo credit: Xerxes’ tomb; dynamosquito from France, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons