Notes (NET Translation)
1 When these things had been accomplished and the rage of King Ahasuerus had diminished, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decided against her.
2 The king’s servants who attended him said, “Let a search be conducted in the king’s behalf for attractive young women.
Like in chapter 1, the king is depicted as unable to make a decision without the counsel of others. In this case he needs advice on how to replace the queen.
[T]his method of procuring a queen is unprecedented in the ancient world. Typically, the queen was of noble rank, chosen for family or political connections. While she might be comparatively attractive, given the fact that she would have access to the best clothes, cosmetics, and hairstylists, beauty was not a qualification for queenship. Persian society was fiercely hierarchical, and people rarely crossed class lines in marriage. Among the later Achaemenid rulers, the purity of the royal line was so protected that there were even marriages of brothers and sisters, and even fathers with daughters. The procedure described here sounds more like the way one would choose a concubine, as when King David’s servants conducted a search in Israel to find a young woman to share his bed and keep him warm (1 Kgs 1:2-3).1
3 And let the king appoint officers throughout all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the attractive young women to Susa the citadel, to the harem under the authority of Hegai, the king’s eunuch who oversees the women, and let him provide whatever cosmetics they desire.
4 Let the young woman whom the king finds most attractive become queen in place of Vashti.” This seemed like a good idea to the king, so he acted accordingly.
5 Now there happened to be a Jewish man in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai. He was the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite, 6 who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives who had been carried into exile with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile.
The name Mordecai is derived from the name of the Babylonian god Marduk. Jews in exile could have both a Hebrew name and a Gentile name (e.g, in verse 7 we learn that Esther is also known as Hadassah). Mordecai’s Hebrew name, if he had one, is not known. “A cuneiform tablet from Borsippa near Babylon mentions a scribe by the name of Mardukaya; he was an accountant or minister at the court of Susa in the early years of Xerxes.”2
[Some belive the] writer is so confused over the time scale that he views Mordecai as one of the original captives in 597 B.C. (Esth. 2:5-6), which would make him more than 100 years old. The text, however, could equally refer to his great-grandfather, Kish, the relative pronoun being attached to the last name in the series (2 Chr. 22:9; Ezra 2:61).3
7 Now he was acting as the guardian of Hadassah (that is, Esther), the daughter of his uncle, for neither her father nor her mother was alive. This young woman was very attractive and had a beautiful figure. When her father and mother died, Mordecai had raised her as if she were his own daughter.
Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah, is the term for “myrtle,” a symbol of peace. The name Esther may come from the Old Iranian word for “star”. Original readers would have associated “Esther” with the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, who is associated with love and war. Midrashic and Haggadic interpreters found significance in the “unpointed Hebrew” of the name (אסתר, ‘str), in which can be found the idea of hiddenness–a theme in both the plot line and portrayal of God’s presence in the book of Esther.4
8 It so happened that when the king’s edict and his law became known many young women were taken to Susa the citadel to be placed under the authority of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the royal palace to be under the authority of Hegai, who was overseeing the women.
That Esther was taken does not mean she was forced to go against her will. At this point the women were essentially wives or concubines of the king. Jewish readers would not have liked that Esther was marrying a pagan (cf. Deut 7:1-4; Ezra 9-1; Neh 13:23-31; Mal 2:11-12).
9 This young woman pleased him, and she found favor with him. He quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her rations; he also provided her with the seven specially chosen young women who were from the palace. He then transferred her and her young women to the best quarters in the harem.
It is apparent from this verse that unlike Daniel, Esther does not request a kosher diet: to do so would make it impossible for her to conceal her Jewish identity, as she is said to do in the very next verse. Indeed, the juxtaposition of these two statements may well imply that the narrator is anticipating his audience’s response to Esther’s situation. This issue troubled ancient commentators, who insisted that she had not defiled herself with Gentile food. But also note that some Jews felt it was acceptable to suspend some of the Mosaic dictates in times of crisis. In 167 B.C., when the Jews were fighting for independence from the Greeks, the Hasmoneans deemed that it was acceptable to fight on the Sabbath day rather than perish (1 Macc 2:39-41).5
10 Now Esther had not disclosed her people or her lineage, for Mordecai had instructed her not to do so.
With women from all over the empire coming to Susa, Esther would not have stood out any more than the others so it would not have been difficult for her to conceal her Jewish identity. Mordecai may have instructed her not to disclose her identity because he knew there were people who hated the Jews (3:8-9; 9:16).
11 And day after day Mordecai used to walk back and forth in front of the court of the harem in order to learn how Esther was doing and what might happen to her.
12 At the end of the twelve months that were required for the women, when the turn of each young woman arrived to go to King Ahasuerus — for in this way they had to fulfill their time of cosmetic treatment: six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfume and various ointments used by women — 13 the woman would go to the king in the following way: Whatever she asked for would be provided for her to take with her from the harem to the royal palace.
While the text does not make explict references to sex, the language is charged with innuendo.
The idea of six months of cosmetic treatments to prepare for a single night with the king is ridiculously indulgent. Myrrh was an expensive spice with many different applications, and was not typically wasted. (Among other uses, oil of myrrh was the principal ingredient in the oil used for anointing the Israelite tabernacle and priests [Exod 30:23].) The “perfumes” mentioned here might have included frankincense, cassia, or aloe. They might have been applied in a number of fashions, most commonly as a liquid, or worn as a sachet. There is no logical reason, however, for these perfumes to be applied for a full six months. Albright suggested that the perfumes were burned as incense, and the fumes allowed to pervade the skin and hair. In any case, the treatments seem like a classic case of excess.6
In most modern translations, the “house of the women” is translated “harem,” while the “house of the king” is translated “palace,” so the women leave the harem and go to the palace. This translation gives the impression that the concubines were housed in a separate building from the king, which is highly unlikely. The “house of the king” is the palace complex, and the concubines would have dwelt in a section to which the king alone had access.7
14 In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to a separate part of the harem, to the authority of Shaashgaz the king’s eunuch who was overseeing the concubines. She would not go back to the king unless the king was pleased with her and she was requested by name.
The women who did not become queen became royal concubines.
15 When it became the turn of Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai (who had raised her as if she were his own daughter) to go to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who was overseer of the women, had recommended. Yet Esther met with the approval of all who saw her.
16 Then Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus at his royal residence in the tenth month (that is, the month of Tebeth) in the seventh year of his reign.
The date given corresponds to mid-December 479 BC to mid-January 478 BC. It took four years to find a new queen after Vashti was deposed.
17 And the king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she met with his loving approval more than all the other young women. So he placed the royal high turban on her head and appointed her queen in place of Vashti.
According to Herodotus (3.84), the king had to choose his wife from one of seven families. It is not clear from Herodotus whether this was a permanent rule or merely a temporary agreement to satisfy the six other conspirators besides Darius, who had dethroned the previous usurper. Certainly Darius himself married other wives besides one from the seven, and his son Xerxes, who succeeded him, was not the son of this wife.8
18 Then the king prepared a large banquet for all his officials and his servants — it was actually Esther’s banquet. He also set aside a holiday for the provinces, and he provided for offerings at the king’s expense.
The Hebrew word used for “holiday” is not found elsewhere. It could imply “a remission of taxes, an emancipation of slaves, a cancellation of debts or a remission of obligatory military service.”9
19 Now when the young women were being gathered again, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate.
The young women may be have been gathered again in order to move them to a new dwelling place. To say that Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate is to say that he was an official of some kind.
20 Esther was still not divulging her lineage or her people, just as Mordecai had instructed her. Esther continued to do whatever Mordecai said, just as she had done when he was raising her.
21 In those days while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who protected the entrance, became angry and plotted to assassinate King Ahasuerus.
22 When Mordecai learned of the conspiracy, he informed Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in Mordecai’s behalf.
Mordecai was in the right place at the right time. This is evidence of divine providence.
23 The king then had the matter investigated and, finding it to be so, had the two conspirators hanged on a gallows. It was then recorded in the daily chronicles in the king’s presence.
Based on archaeological evidence and the writings of Herodotus (3.125, 129, 159; 4.43), we should probably understand that the eunuchs were impaled on a stake (a possible meaning of the Hebrew). The record in the chronicles will resurface in 6:1.
Barker, Kenneth L. ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Brown, Raymond E. ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Greenspoon, L. “Esther.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.
Mays, James L. ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (Revised Edition). San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000.
Meeks, Wayne A. ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Tomasino, Anthony. Esther. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013.
Tenney, Merrill C., and Moises Silva, eds. The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 2: Revised Full-Color Edition. Zondervan, 2010. Kindle Locations 14076ff.; 14120ff.