Esther: An Unlikely Queen

A jewish orphan girl is selected by the king of Persia to become queen of the greatest empire of its time? 

Written by Mike Biolsi on .

Notes

This morning we are going to look at Ezra chapter 6.5.

The final verses of chap. 6 take place in April 515 BC while the opening verses of chap. 7 begin with Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem in 458 BC, a gap of over fifty years. ~ CBS Study Bible

King Xerxes (Ahasuerus), ruled as king of Persia from 486 to 465 BC.

So, between the chapters, there is the story of Esther. How many of you are familiar with this story? David and I wrote a curriculum for the youth group on this book and it was a LOT of fun. Though we studied it and taught it together, going through it this time we seem to keep finding more and more to nerd out on!

We taught it twice with the YG!

One of the events that takes place at the end of the book is the feast of Purim. This past week, Thursday & Friday, were the festival dates for 2021, so they JUST celebrated this festival a few days ago! If you want to see some crazy stuff, google that after the message (but not during)!

During the festival, the entire book of Esther is read by Israelites every year - it is a festival requirement. People often bring noisemakers and boo the villains and cheer the good guys.

There are other things that make the book of Esther unique:

  • It is completely narrative.
  • It demonstrates the upside-down economy of God’s kingdom.
  • It is ONE of TWO books of the Bible that do NOT actually mention God!

›     DO you know the other?

How does a book that never mentions the God of the Bible end up in the Bible? It is because one of the deep rooted themes is the working of God even when He appears to be silent or distant.

If you have ever been through a season where God seemed silent, you may know this message well. If you are going through one of those seasons now, this book is meant to remind you that God is always present, and always working, even in the midst of persecution, oppression and displacement.

Historical Setting

›     TURN to the book of Esther. We are going to get there in a minute.

  • During the reign of King David (1010–970)  the kingdom of Israel expanded and was established geographically, Jerusalem is established as the capital and fortified.
  • Under King Solomon (970-930) the kingdom became famous, wealthy and opulent.
  • 959 BC the Temple was built.
  • Less than 400 years later, because of idolatry and apostacy, Israel was exiled to Babylon by God through King Nebuchadnezzar. The city of David and the walls he built were destroyed. The spectacular temple of Solomon was pillaged, burned and town down.
  • 538 BC Cyrus the Great of Persia destroyed Babylon and become the top power.

Isaiah 45:1–3 CSB

The Lord says this to Cyrus, his anointed, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and disarm kings, to open doors before him, and even city gates will not be shut: “I will go before you and level the uneven places; I will shatter the bronze doors and cut the iron bars in two. I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches from secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord. I am the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

Isaiah prophesied about this guy over 100 years before! God refers to Cyrus as his appointed one (Messiah!). How crazy is that?

536 BC Cyrus told the Jews they can go back to Jerusalem, but it was in ruins. About 50,000 people from the tribes of Benjamin, Judah and the Levites returned and rebuilt the temple.

Darius 1 overthrew Cyrus the great and married Cyrus’ daughter, Atossa. Darius & Atossa had a son, Ahasuerus, who took over the throne.

Esther 1:1–2 CSB

These events took place during the days of Ahasuerus, who ruled 127 provinces from India to Cush. In those days King Ahasuerus reigned from his royal throne in the fortress at Susa.

  • Ahasuerus = Aramaic/Hebrew
  • Xerxes = Greek
  • The Greek Septuagint calls him Artaxerxes 🗨(NOT the same Artaxerxes mentioned in any other translation!)

AHASUERUS THE KING (אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, achashwerosh). Ahasuerus is the Aramaic name for Khshayarsha, the king of Persia, whom the Greeks called Xerxes (b. 518 bc; r. 486–465 bc). Ahasuerus is the Achaemenid king in the Hebrew version of the Book of Esther; in the Greek (LXX) version, his name is Artaxerxes.  ~The Lexham Bible Dictionary

Ahasuerus and Xerxes are the same person, the Artaxerxes in our translations (and original Hebrew texts) refers to Xerxes’ son, NOT the king in Esther.

So the setting of the book of Esther is that both the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel were in exile. Jerusalem was destroyed.

However, under King Cyrus of Persia,  Jews from the tribes of Benjamin & Judah were allowed and ENCOURAGED to go back and rebuild the temple. And they DID.  50,000 Jews from the tribes of Benjamin & Judah, along with the Levites were living in Jerusalem, and Cyrus’ grandson is sitting on the throne of the Persian Empire. [Ezra chapters 1-6]

The Story

But I am keeping you from the best part… the narrative which is wonderfully crafted!

Esther 1:2–4 CSB

In those days King Ahasuerus reigned from his royal throne in the fortress at Susa. He held a feast in the third year of his reign for all his officials and staff, the army of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the officials from the provinces. He displayed the glorious wealth of his kingdom and the magnificent splendor of his greatness for a total of 180 days.

for about 6 months, there was a perpetual display of wealth in Susa. Most likely the nobles and officials came at different times to experience the festivities and see the splendor of the king.

Esther 1:5–9 CSB

At the end of this time, the king held a week-long banquet in the garden courtyard of the royal palace for all the people, from the greatest to the least, who were present in the fortress of Susa. White and blue linen hangings were fastened with fine white and purple linen cords to silver rods on marble columns. Gold and silver couches were arranged on a mosaic pavement of red feldspar, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. Drinks were served in an array of gold goblets, each with a different design. Royal wine flowed freely, according to the king’s bounty. The drinking was according to royal decree: “There are no restrictions.” The king had ordered every wine steward in his household to serve whatever each person wanted. Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women of King Ahasuerus’s palace.

Imagine, a week long festival where all the people, common and royalty, were welcome and were given free reign to drink as much as they want for  week!  And the decor! Wow… that is an amazing display of wealth!

Esther 1:10–12 CSB

On the seventh day, when the king was feeling good from the wine, Ahasuerus commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carkas—the seven eunuchs who personally served him—to bring Queen Vashti before him with her royal crown. He wanted to show off her beauty to the people and the officials, because she was very beautiful. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command that was delivered by his eunuchs. The king became furious and his anger burned within him.

I know that many of the women who are reading this passage are cheering the actions of Vashti. Was she just some decoration or prize for the king to simply parade her in front of all the people at a whim? What about her pride and dignity? What woman would want to parade herself around in front of a bunch of inebriated people just to please her drunken husband?

While that is the common sentiment that is often shared by those who comment on this passage, there is actually no grounds for assuming that position. Some Jewish rabbinic teaching suggests that Vashti came down with leprosy and therefore would not want to be seen in public. Others have suggested that Vashti would not want to leave her guests as she was entertaining the women of the kingdom, which seems more likely. All of this just reminds us that if we are trying to guess “why” she did not appear, we do not have that answer. If the author kept that detail out it is because it was not a primary focus of the story, and thus should probably not be ours. 

›     WHY do we feel like we have to have an understanding of her motives or whether or not the kings actions were right or wrong? That is NOT the point of the story but we seem obsessed with those details.

KEEP THIS IN MIND: While most are looking for moral rules and examples to imitate from the book of Esther, that is not the point of the book. It would be wise to avoid reading in to the book lessons on morality or motives as each culture and generation to do so will arrive at different lessons - all of which are destined to fall short of the main lesson of this masterful book.

In those days, ANYONE who refused a command of the king, queen or otherwise, was worthy of death. I believe Vashti understood that her decision could get her killed.

Esther 1:13–22 CSB

The king consulted the wise men who understood the times, for it was his normal procedure to confer with experts in law and justice. The most trusted ones were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan. They were the seven officials of Persia and Media who had personal access to the king and occupied the highest positions in the kingdom. The king asked, “According to the law, what should be done with Queen Vashti, since she refused to obey King Ahasuerus’s command that was delivered by the eunuchs?” Memucan said in the presence of the king and his officials, “Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king, but all the officials and the peoples who are in every one of King Ahasuerus’s provinces. For the queen’s action will become public knowledge to all the women and cause them to despise their husbands and say, ‘King Ahasuerus ordered Queen Vashti brought before him, but she did not come.’ Before this day is over, the noble women of Persia and Media who hear about the queen’s act will say the same thing to all the king’s officials, resulting in more contempt and fury. “If it meets the king’s approval, he should personally issue a royal decree. Let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it cannot be revoked: Vashti is not to enter King Ahasuerus’s presence, and her royal position is to be given to another woman who is more worthy than she. The decree the king issues will be heard throughout his vast kingdom, so all women will honor their husbands, from the greatest to the least.” The king and his counselors approved the proposal, and he followed Memucan’s advice. He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to each province in its own script and to each ethnic group in its own language, that every man should be master of his own house and speak in the language of his own people.

The author of the book of Esther seems to very much enjoy making the bad people seem extremely bad, and the good people extremely good.

The king is a drunkard with a bad temper. He is painted as a man who wants others to see his power and opulence and admire him as a leader. His lavishness is meant to elevate him as the most significant person in the known world. All of the descriptions of the colors of fabric, the gold drinking vessels, the unlimited wine are all meant to show his greatness.

When Vashti refused to appear, it made the most powerful man of that day look weak. So, what does he do? He asks his advisors for marital advice! The author is continuing to show the king as someone who lacks power and the ability to make any kind of rash decision.

Speaking of decisions, the king asked what the law says about this matter. You mean, the king didn’t know the law? Further mocking of the king by the author. And, when the advisors advise, there is no mention of any law, just ego. Apparently, the advisors picked by the king were either very much in tune with that the king was like, or they were very much like the king themselves - or both!

“Let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it cannot be revoked”

Once a king issued a decree it could not be changed. THIS is an important detail that will be significant later on in the story.  This statement regarding the law of the Persians is mentioned in this book as well as Daniel during King Darius’ reign:

Daniel 6:7–9 CSB

All the administrators of the kingdom—the prefects, satraps, advisers, and governors—have agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an edict that, for thirty days, anyone who petitions any god or man except you, the king, will be thrown into the lions’ den. Therefore, Your Majesty, establish the edict and sign the document so that, as a law of the Medes and Persians, it is irrevocable and cannot be changed.” So King Darius signed the written edict.

Vashti was no longer queen, she was no longer to enter the presence of the king. She got away with her life, but lost everything else that she once had including her honor.

The King’s Regret

Esther 2:1–4 CSB

Some time later, when King Ahasuerus’s rage had cooled down, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what was decided against her. The king’s personal attendants suggested, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. Let the king appoint commissioners in each province of his kingdom, so that they may gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem at the fortress of Susa. Put them under the supervision of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, keeper of the women, and give them the required beauty treatments. Then the young woman who pleases the king will become queen instead of Vashti.” This suggestion pleased the king, and he did accordingly.

Some time later… time passes. Again, we are not given the details, but this was probably at least a few years as Ahasuerus was busy fighting with the Greeks.

I am pretty sure it did not take years for his rage to cool down. The author is not trying to connect an amount of time with the kings anger subsiding. By connecting these two things (time passing and rage cooling down) we are again being reminded that the actions of the king against Vashti were rash and emotional, which certainly can make being around him a very uncomfortable thing! It is certainly not becoming of a king to act so emotionally.

Apparently, Ahasuerus got lonely, or regretful - but it says nothing other than he was thinking back on it. So an idea was presented, not by his advisors, but his personal attendants:

“The king misses Vashti, so let’s get him a new queen!”

Intro to Mordecai and Esther

There is an abrupt change of story line here. This is perfect for a play or movie. The king is in his palace in a somber mood, his attendants cheer him up with the idea of getting a new queen by presenting as many beautiful virgins as they could find and having a beauty pageant.

Then the story pans away from the palace to the streets of Susa, a veritable fortress. It goes down the alleys and past the markets and comes to focus on Jewish man and woman.

Esther 2:5–7 CSB

In the fortress of Susa, there was a Jewish man named Mordecai son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite. Kish had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the other captives when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took King Jeconiah of Judah into exile. Mordecai was the legal guardian of his cousin Hadassah (that is, Esther), because she had no father or mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was extremely good-looking. When her father and mother died, Mordecai had adopted her as his own daughter.

We meet for the first time, Mordecai and Esther - his adopted daughter/cousin.

The details we get on Mordecai are historic and positional:

Benjamin was the tribe that almost got wiped out by their brothers because of a horrible sin they committed. Mordecai’s grandfather, Kish, was taken into exile when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. That means that Mordecai is a 3rd generation exile and was NOT born in Israel.

Mordecai is Esther’s cousin. He is her legal guardian and had adopted her. 

›     If Cyrus allowed the tribes of Benjamin to return to rebuild the temple and live in their own land, WHY are Mordecai and Esther still in Susa?

Perhaps Mordecai liked his job? Maybe he really liked the only homeland he had ever lived in: Susa? Perhaps he felt like his position of being close to the King and the palace could be of value to the Jews? Maybe it was just too much work to pack and move 940 miles away!

We are not told WHY they are still in Susa, but we do know they had the choice to go Jerusalem and chose not to.   The only hint we get at this is from Ezra, where it says that the ones that returned were the ones GOd put it in their heart to return. So, I suppose we can assume God had not put it in Mordecai's heart? SO many details we wish we knew ;)

The details we get on Esther:

Then we get our first intro to Esther. Here is what we learn:

  • she had a nice body
  • she was really pleasing to look at
  • she was an orphan

That really is not telling us much, is it?

They are BOTH Jews, which is significant.

This is Jewish literature, from an unknown author, about life during the exile. However, this is written very much from a Persian perspective, not mentioning God and referencing the kingdoms, leaders, laws and vastness of the Persian empire. Introducing the Jewish characters helps us to start putting pieces of the puzzle together.

Esther 2:8–11 CSB

When the king’s command and edict became public knowledge and when many young women were gathered at the fortress of Susa under Hegai’s supervision, Esther was taken to the palace, into the supervision of Hegai, keeper of the women. The young woman pleased him and gained his favor so that he accelerated the process of the beauty treatments and the special diet that she received. He assigned seven hand-picked female servants to her from the palace and transferred her and her servants to the harem’s best quarters. Esther did not reveal her ethnicity or her family background, because Mordecai had ordered her not to make them known. Every day Mordecai took a walk in front of the harem’s courtyard to learn how Esther was doing and to see what was happening to her.

Mordecai was obviously concerned for Esther, as his checking in proved.

I cannot imagine how many concubines this would amount to over time? All of them were well cared for, but all of them lived in isolation from the king after their big night. I would imagine the harem was filled to all sorts of stories: excitement about maybe being picked, resentment about being take from home, perhaps even some women with other loves that had to leave them to be wit the king.

What more do we learn about Esther?

She was well liked. There was apparently more to Esther than her beauty. Hegai immediately liked her and gave her special treatment - better meals, hand-picked servants, special quarters, the works!

We also learn that she was willing to take advice or counsel from her cousin Mordecai. We will see this trait show up again.

WE DO NOT know if she wanted to go or was horrified at the idea. We do not know if the prospect of being queen thrilled her or terrified her.

Why The Secrets?

›     WHY did Mordecai want Esther to hide her nationality?

Well, we are not told why. Perhaps because Mordecai was a descendant of Saul (the first king of Israel). Or, perhaps because of the animosity that existed between many people groups and the Jews (like we read about in Ezra 3-6). I am not sure it’s just an ethnic concern, as women were collected from all 127 provinces which certainly would have included other non-Persian women. I also do not think that the king had an anti-Semitic bias because later on in the story he found out that Esther was Jewish and he did not have a problem with her remaining queen. 

Esther 2:15–18 CSB

Esther was the daughter of Abihail, the uncle of Mordecai who had adopted her as his own daughter. When her turn came to go to the king, she did not ask for anything except what Hegai, the king’s eunuch, keeper of the women, suggested. Esther gained favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her. She was taken to King Ahasuerus in the palace in the tenth month, the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. The king loved Esther more than all the other women. She won more favor and approval from him than did any of the other virgins. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen in place of Vashti. The king held a great banquet for all his officials and staff. It was Esther’s banquet. He freed his provinces from tax payments and gave gifts worthy of the king’s bounty.

This is the first REAL introduction we get to Esther! We learn that she is more than eye-candy. She was wise enough to take the advice of Hegai as well as to keep the command of Mordecai.

And we read that she won the approval and favor of the king and that… the king loved her more than all the other women. The point of this search was not just to find a woman, but to find one that stood above the rest and could serve as queen.

We do not know what happened to the rest of the women, by the way… another unfinished details to drive some of you crazy :)

The Challenges

While most look at this as a triumph, I have been wrestling with some cultural challenges of these circumstances:

FROM a PURELY LAW perspective, this is not kosher.  It is possible that there would have been Jews that thought what Esther did was abhorrent though I am not sure she really had much choice in the matter!

Esther is a 3rd generation exile who has never stepped foot in Jerusalem, nor known what it was like to worship in the temple or meet with other Jews to celebrate feasts. Esther would have heard stories (maybe) of what God had done for the Jews, but now, her people are scattered servants, not a chosen nation.

To see a JEW become queen of a Persian empire could possibly look like the total paganization of the Israelites? To be displaced and live in a foreign country is one thing, but to remain and marry into their kingly line crosses all sorts of lines. Where is the distinction between the “chosen” people and the “Gentiles”?  Instead of being a holy people - set apart from the nations for God’s purpose, have they simply become a part of the fabric of the pagan society.

While this could look like a very positive thing, I have a feeling that for those that knew Esther’s identity it was also a very dark day.

The story gives no hint of moral judgment about the actions of Esther, a young Jewish virgin who gave herself to a pagan, uncircumcised, Persian king. In the ethic of that era it was simply a given that kings had the right to collect a harem. More intriguing is the fact of God’s working through another “divine coincidence.” God’s sovereignty was at work through the encounter of a pagan king and a Jewish virgin, for it would lead to the rescue of God’s people. ~  CSB Study Bible

This is the marriage of a Jew to a Gentile, and God is going to bless it. It is a girl, from the tribe of Benjamin, and God is going to bless it. It is an orphan and an exile, and God is going to bless it.

The stage has been set for the rest of the story. So far, it is questionable whether we should celebrate or mourn the events of the first 2 chapters. Will this just be another story of an unfortunate exile who was separated from her family and abused by the system, forced to marry an overly-emotional, insecure, inebriated king? Or is this going to be one of those stories that shows that even during the darkest times there is hope, and that the message of the prophets is true and God is still present and working even if he is being silent?

PRAYER:

Father teach us to look beyond our circumstances to see you. Help us to be faithful to trust you even when we face challenging circumstances. Remind us that you are always in control and always working, even when we experience your silence.

Amen.

 
 
 

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