Read the Passage: Esther 2
Ahasuerus’ Pageant (2:1–11)
There is likely a 2-3 year gap between the first two chapters of Esther, which is signified by the phrase, “After these things” (Est. 2:1). During this time, the Persians had suffered a crushing military loss during their attempted invasion of Greece in 481 BC. After the Persians were defeated at the navel battle of Salamis, Ahasuerus returned home and “remembered Vashti” (Est. 2:1). Yet, in his drunkenness, since the king had passed an unalterable law stating that “Vashti shall come no more before [him]” (Est. 1:19), Ahasuerus was now alone. This prompted the king’s servants to suggest a pageant of “beautiful young virgins” (Est. 2:2), from which Ahasuerus could choose a successor to Vashti. The text explains that these virgins would receive a years’ worth of beauty treatments before they could see the king. Concerning the pageant idea, the text notes, “This thing pleased the king” (Est. 2:4).
Est. 2:5–7 introduces Mordecai, who we learn is Esther’s older cousin. In this passage we also meet the heroine of this book, Esther. The text reveals that Mordecai was not only Esther’s cousin, but also her guardian, for her parents had passed away. Moreover, by way of foreshadowing, we learn that Esther was “lovely and beautiful” (Est. 2:7). As could be expected, then, Esther was conscripted into the Ahasuerus’ beauty pageant. Observe many families would actually have wanted their daughters to be in the beauty contest, for it was a guarantee of lifelong material provision (even if they only ended up as a concubine). Furthermore, to win the pageant would open the door for other benefits, such as tax-exemption, government employment, and the like. Note the text records, at the direction of Mordecai, Esther had not revealed her Jewish heritage. This may have been due to certain anti-Semitic reports circulating within the empire at this time (cf. Ezra 4:6).
Esther’s Ascendancy (2:12–18)
In Est. 2:12–14 we learn several details about the practical aspects of Ahasuerus’ beauty pageant. First, every girl was prepared for a whole year before she could see the king. This included six months of treatment with oil of myrrh and six months of treatment with certain perfumes. Apparently, these therapies were designed to enhance the beauty of the already beautiful, virgin, pageant contestants. Second, when each girl went in to see the king, she was allowed to take with her anything she desired from the women’s quarters. This choice was evidently a factor in the king’s evaluation process. Third, the narrative records that once a girl had visited Ahasuerus, she would move from “the house of the women” (Est. 2:9), where the virgins resided, to “the second house of the women” (Est. 2:14), where the concubines were kept. These women would remain here, for their entire lives, until they were called for by the king.
At Est. 2:9, we saw that Esther “obtained . . . favor” in the eyes of Hegai, the custodian of the women, because she “pleased him.” No rationale is given for this unmerited favor, other than God’s providence. In an earlier time, note the similar providential favor experienced by both Joseph (cf. Gen. 39:2–3, 23; 41:37) and Ruth (cf. Ruth 2:12; 3:9). Given Hegai’s esteem for Esther, he advised her on what to bring when it was her turn to visit Ahasuerus. The text records these events happened in the seventh year of the king’s reign, which would have been 479 BC. This was about four years after the deposition of Vashti. Given her favored status, as could perhaps be expected, the text reports that Ahasuerus chose Esther to be his new queen, even proclaiming a national holiday and having a banquet, called “the Feast of Esther” (Est. 2:18), to celebrate the new queen.
Mordecai’s Discovery (2:19–23)
In Est. 2:19 the author refers to a second time when Ahasuerus had an assembly of virgin women. The text gives no reason for this subsequent beauty pageant; however, it may be that king desired to add to his harem, or even that this contest had become an annual event. As was noted at Est. 2:10, so at Est. 2:20 we read that Esther had not revealed her Jewish identity to anyone. At this time, we learn that two of the king’s eunuchs planned to assassinate King Ahasuerus. Esther’s cousin Mordecai learned about the plot to kill the king and reported this to Esther, who then told Ahasuerus. The narrative does not state the reason why these eunuchs desired to kill the king, nor does it explain how Mordecai learned about their plans. Nevertheless, the murderous plot was confirmed, which resulted in these men being hanged (or perhaps impaled) on the gallows. This event will become important five years after its occurrence (cf. Esther 6).
- In what capacities can a Christian, serving in a political office, let their faith be known? Are there any governmental roles in which a believer ought not to serve?
- What did Esther do to gain the favor of Hegai, the custodian of the women? Was Esther’s participation in the pageant inherently sinful?
- How can we explain God allowing Esther, a would-be Jewish heroine, to be in such a dysfunctional environment? Are beauty pageants inherently immoral?
- Can you recall any events in your own life, or in the lives of others, that can best be explained as the result of God’s providential favor?
- Why do you think Mordecai was not rewarded for his informing the king about the assassination plot (cf. Heb. 6:10)?