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The Miss Persia Pageant

Esther 2:1-18

Copyright © 2006 Jeremy Myers  

The book of Esther was written during a time when the Israelite people were asking the question, “Where is God?” It may have seemed to some of them—like it may seem to some of us at times—that God had forgotten them—or that he didn't care about them anymore.

They read the stories of Moses crossing the Red Sea and of Joshua praying for the sun to stand still, and of Elijah and Elisha raising the dead. And they looked at their own times, and saw none of these miraculous events, and they wondered—Is God still at work? Has he forsaken or forgotten us? Where is God?”

Many people ask this question today. When the world seems to be crumbling, when churches seem to be failing, when natural disaster after natural disaster ravages our world and every day we hear of a new disease or terror that is about to strip us of our health, we sometimes are tempted to ask “Where are you, God? Are you even at work anymore?”

And so the book of Esther is perfect for our time and place. Even though God is absent from Esther, this really is the genius of the book. Esther contains much hidden information—remember, Esther means “something hidden”—and God is the biggest piece of hidden information in the book.

He is so huge, that you cannot miss him. His presence is everywhere in the book, so much so, that the only way to include him, is to leave Him out. Are there signs and wonders and miraculous acts of God? Well, not as we might want or expect, but the almost unbelievable set of circumstances and human actions all point to a director behind the scenes.

In Esther, much like our lives today, God is not in the spotlight on the center stage, he is behind the curtain queuing the lights and prompting the lines. The book of Esther teaches us that if you have to ask where God is, you have already missed Him.

Chapter one revealed a proud and powerful Persian king acting in very foolish ways. It was the lifestyles of the rich and foolish. He had a huge party—180 days long—in which he was trying to gain support for a war against the Greeks. During the last few days of the party, he decided to show off the beauty of his wife—Queen Vashti.

She however, refused to reveal her face to the masses, because this would be considered improper and beneath her station as queen. The author the book humorously showed us that this proud king—trying to get the support of noble's and princes for a war—could not even get his own wife to obey him. He was, of course, not acting out of love.

So what does he do? He calls on the wisest men of the country to discuss what they should do about Vashti's conduct. They are afraid that the whole country will hear about it and start a women's liberation movement, so what do they do? Ironically, these wisest men of the country decide to make sure that the whole nation hears about Vashti's disobedience! They were afraid that the 127 provinces would hear about it—and so they make sure that everyone would! It was really quite ludicrous.

We need to keep the looming battle in mind as well. The king had gathered a huge army to attack the growing Greek city-states to the south. The famous historian of that time, Herodotus, claimed that he gathered an army of almost 5,000,000 men, but other more reliable sources say it was probably closer to between 1 and 2 million men.

It is in between chapters one and two of Esther that this war takes place. Xerxes has this party which resulted in him gathering a huge army of 1-2 million men. At the end of the party, he dismissed Queen Vashti from her post. Then he departed for his war. 

His wise counselors should have advised him against such a plan, because Xerxes suffered an enormous defeat at the hands of the Greeks. Of the 1 to 2 million men that left, only about 5,000 returned. Xerxes had to retreat home. It was disastrous.

But aside from that, imagine the social ramifications in Persia. First of all, a certain people group in Persia now outnumbered the Persians, namely, the Jewish people. Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish people, which we will encounter later, may have been acting more out of fear for his position and fear for what would become of Persia as  much as anything else.

But beyond this, there were now almost no eligible bachelors in the country, and most of the married men had been killed off as well. So the beauty pageant held for the king in chapter 2 might have been a way to “get rid” of all the single women in the country who had no one to marry.

But also, with such a huge and humiliating defeat, this war was the beginning of the end for the Persian empire.

So Xerxes returns home after this horrible loss of a 2 million man army, and of course, his counselors look for a way to make him feel better.

Let's pick up now in chapter 2 of the book of Esther to see how they do this.

1After these things, when the wrath of King Ahasuerus subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her.

So we see now that his anger has subsided—his anger at least over Vashti's refusal to obey him. He realizes, of course, that he has other things to worry about now—like the loss of his empire.

And now, it appears, he is beginning to regret his decision to demote Vashti within the harem. Not wanting the King any more depressed than he is, his advisors propose a way to try and lift the kings spirits.

2Then the king’s servants who attended him said: “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king; 3and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather all the beautiful young virgins to Shushan the citadel, into the women’s quarters, under the custody of Hegai the king’s eunuch, custodian of the women. And let beauty preparations be given them. 4Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.”

So, what are they proposing? They could have just proposed that Queen Vashti, by some loophole in the law system be reinstated as Queen. But they were wise enough to watch out for themselves and they knew that if she became queen again, she would most likely have them all killed. So instead, they propose what we see here.

Basically, it's a Miss America Pageant—though actually it would be a Miss Persia pageant—with the winner becoming the queen. And it probably was something very similar to our Miss America Pageants, except there was only one person in the audience—the king, and only one judge—also the king. The king wasn't just looking for a wife, he was looking for someone fit to be queen. She would have to be stately, and graceful and able to entertain and converse. She would have to be beautiful and talented as well.

So it was somewhat like our beauty pageants—except for one thing. Along with all of the other “categories” it appears, as we will see in v. 14, that there was the “In Bed with the King” portion of the contest. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. In the rest of verse 4, we read:

This thing pleased the king, and he did so. 

A proud and powerful king would like this idea. A beauty pageant of all the beautiful young unmarried women of the land—just for him. It would take his mind off the horrible outcome of his war, and provide him with a new wife and a large harem. So he followed the advice of his wise men. He is thinking only of himself. He is completely given to his passions.

By the way, in 2005, a king of sub-Saharan Africa, King Mswati III of Swaziland decided to do something very similar. He already had twelve wives, but wanted another, and so invited all the eligible young women of Swaziland to enter a contest to be his thirteenth wife. 50,000 virgins showed up for the competition. He showed up for the contest wearing nothing but a leopard skin loincloth, and had all 50,000 virgins dance in his royal stadium wearing nothing but beaded miniskirts.[1] Ironically, this is the way he celebrated a four year national ban against sleeping with virgins. Almost 40% of the people of Swaziland have HIV, and so in 2001, King Mswati banned all sex with female virgins. Now he lifted the ban by inviting all the virgins to his royal palace to dance topless before him. Most of the nation, and the world, was in an uproar.

That was probably very similar to how people viewed the events in Susa. This selfish, petty, proud, foolish, arrogant king had just gone off and killed all the men of the country in battle, and now he wants to take all the women too. Of course, there probably wasn’t that many young men left, so maybe that’s partly why the king does this. But think of the horror of being one of these young women being rounded up, never to see family or loved ones again, with nothing ahead of you but to spend your life as one of the king’s concubines.[2]

Meanwhile, in another part of the city…Verse 5,

5In Shushan the citadel there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite.

Here we come to a genealogical list. We 21st Century Americans tend to think these are boring and irrelevant, and so we mostly just skip over them and get on to the next verse. But no genealogical record in Scripture is without some sort of important insight into the story. Any Israelite would pick up on it, but we, most often because we are illiterate when it comes to the OT—do not.

In this verse, the key insight we are supposed to notice is that Mordecai was of the tribe of Benjamin. Why is this important? Well, who else, in Israel's past was of the tribe of Benjamin? King Saul. The first King of Israel. And in fact, the historian Josephus tells us that Esther was descended from King Saul. And by the way, Saul's father's name was Kish—and as we see in this genealogical record, so was Mordecai's great grandfather. They are two different men, but with the same name, which together with the fact that Mordecai is of the tribe of Benjamin points to the fact that Mordecai is a descendant of King Saul. This little detail is very important for the rest of the story. Like a good plot, we learn little bits of detail that seem trivial when we learn them, but become very important later.

Over in 2 Samuel 16:5-13, we learn another interesting fact about Mordecai’s lineage. You say, what does this have to do with anything? Well, again, remember that Mordecai's grandfather was a man named Shimei, who was most likely named after this Shimei. They were probably descendants of each other. Why is this important? Because did you notice how David responded to Shimei—and especially to the advice of Abishai?

If David had listened to his advisors and put Shimei to death, most likely there would be no Mordecai and no Esther in the citadel of Susa when they were needed. God is accomplishing His plan perfectly. So, we have Mordecai, a Benjaminite, a descendant of Shimei, a descendant of King Saul. All of this becomes very significant later.

Verse 6 gives us a little bit more information about Mordecai.

6Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been captured with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.

Some translations says “Who had been carried away” which makes some wonder whether the verse is referring to Mordecai or Kish. The NKJV clears things up by adding the word Kish. If it was Mordecai who was deported, this would make Mordecai about 115 years old and Esther about 80 years old. We know most likely that Xerxes would not pick a woman who was 80 years old to be his Queen, so it was probably Kish—Mordecai's great grandfather who was deported with Jehoiachin.[3]

In verse 7 we meet Esther.

7And Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman was lovely and beautiful. When her father and mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.

Here we learn the Hebrew name for Esther—Hadassah. Esther, remember, is her Persian name, and it means “something hidden.” Apparently her mother and father died when she was young—we don't know how—and so Mordecai basically adopted and raised her.

And remember how some commentators and pastors see Esther as a book portraying a sinful girl and a scheming older man? I do not believe this was the case. Here is the first reason. Some Israelites were allowed to return home to rebuild the temple, but they ran into complications and the rebuilding was stalled for about 60 years. It is very likely that Mordecai and Esther were not even alive when the edict was given to return. So to say that they were sinning in not returning shows a misunderstanding of the time period they were living in.

Furthermore, the prophet Jeremiah speaks figuratively of the people who were deported from Judah as being “good figs” (24:5). This would mean that Kish was a good fig, and the author of Esther seems to be implying in 6 that Mordecai was not just a descendant of Kish, but spiritually like Kish as well.

We should not condemn Mordecai and Esther for remaining in Persia. They really could not do anything else—especially since—as we will see—it is right where God wanted them to be.

8So it was, when the king’s command and decree were heard, and when many young women were gathered at Shushan the citadel, under the custody of Hegai, that Esther also was taken to the king’s palace, into the care of Hegai the custodian of the women.

The king sends out an order for all girls of proper age and looks to be brought to the city where he was staying. Probably about 360 of the most beautiful women in the country were brought to the palace.[4]

Now again, some argue that Esther was sinful in going and Mordecai was sinful in letting her go to the King. But the Hebrew here is very careful to tell us that they did not have a say in it. What does it say? Esther was taken to the king's palace. This is in the passive voice, meaning it happened to her. She did not choose to go, nor was she allowed to go by Mordecai, nor did he give her up. She was taken. She was probably about twenty-five years old.[5]

And like all the girls, she was placed under the care of Hegai. He is not to be confused with the prophet Haggai in the Old Testament. Different names, different men, different roles.

This Hagai, as we learn from verse 8, was the eunuch in charge of the King's harem. Now some women look upon the harem as a demeaning and sexist affront to women that the Biblical author should have denounced. Herododus, however, also reports that 500 young boys were gathered every year and castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Persian court.[6] One could argue that the women were better off. But let's see in verse 9 what Hagai thinks of Esther.

9Now the young woman pleased him, and she obtained his favor; so he readily gave beauty preparations to her, besides her allowance. Then seven choice maidservants were provided for her from the king’s palace, and he moved her and her maidservants to the best place in the house of the women.

This reminds us a lot of the story of Joseph. I think this is intentional—which is again a way of showing us that no judgment upon her is intended. Remember, Joseph was taken captive to Egypt and became a servant in Potiphar's house, where he quickly became the head servant. When wrongly accused by Potiphar's wife, he was sent to prison, where again, he received favor from all who interacted with him, and he gained status and privilege even in prison. As a result, God blessed him, and he eventually became second in command in all of Egypt.

It is like the promise that we see over and over again in Scripture that if we live in obedience to God, whatever we do will prosper. We saw it with Joseph, we see it now with Esther.

It is also interesting to see the number seven again. She is given seven maidens to serve her. Earlier we saw a feast of seven days, we saw seven eunuchs, then we saw seven advisors, now we see seven maidens. I’m not much in “numerology” but what does the number “7” represent in Scripture? It’s the number of perfection—the number of God—and everything is working out according to His plan.

Is God here? Yes. But he is hidden information in the book. In verse 10, we learn another piece of hidden information. Look there.

10Esther had not revealed her people or family, for Mordecai had charged her not to reveal it. 11And every day Mordecai paced in front of the court of the women’s quarters, to learn of Esther’s welfare and what was happening to her.

She didn’t let anyone know she was an Israelite. Why? Because Mordecai had told her not to. Why? We don't know. Maybe he understood the times and saw that there was much rising resentment and bitterness toward the Israelites. We just don't know.

What we do know, though from verse 11, is that he cared for her, and so whatever reason he had for her to hide her nationality, it was because he was watching out for her.

And how was she doing? The next several verses tell us.

12Each young woman’s turn came to go in to King Ahasuerus after she had completed twelve months’ preparation, according to the regulations for the women, for thus were the days of their preparation apportioned: six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and preparations for beautifying women. 13Thus prepared, each young woman went to the king, and she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the women’s quarters to the king’s palace. 14In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and called for her by name.

Those beautiful in form and feature of that time were not at all like what we think of today. We don't know, but they may very well have been what we would consider overweight. Obesity in some areas of the world was considered a sign of wealth. Also, the twelve months were needed so the girls could lose whatever tan they might have. They wanted to get the girls as white as possible because only those who worked in the sun—the common laborers—had tans.

So the girls would undergo all these beauty treatments and then, when a girls turn came, she would go before the king and spend the night with him. Then, after the night was over, she would return to a different part of the harem where she became a concubine. And she would not see the king again unless he was pleased with her, and he summoned her by name.

If anything, the author here is disgusted with the king. He has just taken all the most beautiful women of the country into his own harem, and he sleeps with them one by one, and if he is not pleased with them, well, too bad for her and for her family, but now that the king has slept with her, she has to remain in the harem.

It really was quite…selfish isn't even the word. In this case, I think we can all agree, that this man is a pig. He wallows in his own power, not caring how it affects anybody else. The author, says one commentator, “derisively depicts the sensual and sexual excess of the story's world by [ridiculing] the carnal self-indulgence of its ruler. The only criteria he and his courtiers have for the woman who will be queen are her beauty and her sexual prowess.”[7]

It was degrading to the women and quite destructive on their lives. Would Esther suffer this same humiliation?

15Now when the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his daughter, to go in to the king, she requested nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the custodian of the women, advised. And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her.

Not only is she beautiful, but we see here that she is also wise. She does only what Hagai, who probably knows the kings likes and dislikes better than anyone else—she does only what Hagai suggests.

Notice back in verse 13, the other girls were allowed to take anything they wanted. “Some interpreters suggest that each young woman was allowed to keep the jewelry and clothing that she wore that night as a ‘wedding’ gift from the king.” That is a nice way of saying she was paid by the king for her services.[8] Many women would choose the most expensive jewelry and probably as much as she could wear.

Part of the reason for this is because after spending a night in the kings bed, the woman was returned to the harem of concubines, where she would spend the rest of her life in luxurious but desolate seclusion. She could not marry, and could not even leave the harem to return to her family.[9]

But the author is very clear to contrast Esther with those other girls. She took nothing but what Hagai advised. They went in gaudy and glaring, flashy with showy extravagance in dress and adornment, but Esther went unpretentious and in simplicity. “She evidences here a refusal of pagan luxury that is in keeping with the actions and attitude of other figures” like Daniel who were also in captivity.[10] And how does she fare before the King?

16So 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. 17The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.

We see that this was in the seventh year of his reign. That party in chapter one was in the third year of his reign, and of course, the terrible defeat was sometime during those four years. So the date of her being taken to see the King was probably December of 479 or 478 BC.[11]

But we see that Esther pleased the King, and so she became queen. No real surprise for us.

18Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king.

He hosts a banquet here, and I want to clue you in right now, that most of the important events in this story happen at a banqueting table.[12] So pay attention whenever you see a banquet. And at this banquet, the king is happy. Everything is all right, now. He may have lost his whole army, but now he has a queen again.

I do want to point out, and I hope I do not confuse you by saying this, that Esther is sinning in this book. I don't want to excuse her completely. “By Law, Esther was not to marry a pagan (Deut 7:1-4), or have sexual relations with a man who was not her husband (Ex 20:14). While before she could be compared with Joseph, she can also be contrasted with Daniel who refused to eat the things from the Kings table (Dan. 1:5) because the food would include items considered unclean by the Jewish Law.”[13] In fact, she probably ate them partly because Mordecai told her to not let anyone know she was Jewish, so he is partly to blame also.

So before I said she was not sinning because she didn't revel in the opulence and lavishness of the court, now I say she is sinning. Which is it? Well, the text doesn't say and that is exactly the point.

“It is natural to pass judgment on [Esther and Mordecai], whether positive or negative, but in doing so we may miss the [most] important point. This deliberate silence is part of the message. Regardless of their character, their motives, of their [faithfulness] to God's law, the decisions Esther and Mordecai make move events in some…way to fulfill the covenant promises God made to his people long ago.”[14]

So their sin—or lack of sin—is not the point of the story. The point of the story is that God still used them in whatever state they were in. Are you holding back because you are not yet perfect? Well, keep striving onward, but don't miss out on what God wants you to do because you think he only uses perfect vessels. He can use you just as you are. We see it with Esther, we could see it with you.

John 17 tells us to be in the world but not of it. How did Esther do in this? Was she in the world but not of it, or did she go too far? Well, we could make judgments or try to excuse her, but let us turn the question around and point the finger at us. How are we doing?

Different Christians today have interpreted this in different ways. The Amish have enshrined the nineteenth century lifestyle as holy and attempt to avoid the modern world and its conveniences.

At the other extreme are Christians who eagerly participate in worldly culture without giving a thought to whether it is compatible with a Biblical worldview.

Those are the two extremes, but even in the middle—where most of us here today are—we often disagree on how to dress, whether it is OK to drink alcohol or not, what music, movies and other entertainment is appropriate, whether to run for public office, and on and on and on. These are the issues we have, and we are not even at risk for identifying ourselves as Christians as some people in the world are today.

Esther and Mordecai apparently had chosen to adopt the dress, customs, and practices of their Gentile neighbors, at least to the extent that they could successfully conceal their identity as Jews.

At what point does the assimilation of culture compromise our Christian faith and witness? Most American Christians today are indistinguishable from their unbelieving neighbors in dress, housing, professional vocations, entertainment choices, parenting styles and so forth. Does this mean we are compromising our faith?

Possibly, but not necessarily. And if a Christian living in a hostile land conceals his or her faith in Christ to avoid the threat of death, is that person being unfaithful to the Lord or simply prudent? These types of questions are ones over which equally committed Christians can, and often do, disagree.

But regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the story of Esther is a powerful encouragement to all of us. We can know that whether we are right or wrong, whether we are living with pure motives or impure, God is at work through even our most imperfect decisions and actions to fulfill his perfect purposes.

It is often easy to look at other people's decisions and judge them, thinking that we know clearly what is right and what is wrong and that if we were in their shoes, we would have known what was the right thing to do. It is easy to talk about ethical and moral issues in the abstract, because in any theoretical situation, we can define it so that the choices are clear.

But life is not that neat and tidy, is it? This episode from Esther offers us great encouragement and comfort when we find ourselves in situations where every choice is an odd mix of right and wrong. Only God knows the end of our story from the beginning, and we are simply responsible for living faithfully in obedience to His Word in every situation as we best know how.

Even if we make the “wrong” decision, whether through innocent blunder or deliberate disobedience, our God is so gracious and so powerful that He is able to use that weakest link in the chain of events so that his perfect will is accomplished in and through us. Esther's story shows that we can entrust our lives to the Lord and move on.

[2] Whitcomb, quoting J. G. Baldwin, 45.

[3] BKC, OT, 703

[4] Whitcomb, 50.

[5] Whitcomb, 49, making her twenty-six when she became queen.

[6] Jobes, NIV App, 95

[7] Bush, WBC, 369

[8] Jobes, 110.

[9] Jobes, 110.

[10] Bush, WBC, 369

[11] Whitcomb, 53.

[12] BKC, 704

[13] Jobes, 103.

[14] This and much of the following is taken from Jobes, 104-108, 112-115.




Copyright © 2006 TILL HE COMES


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