Clever queen, foolish king
Main themes of the story
Christianity is sometimes accused of causing the terrible anti-Semitism that has shamed the modern world. This story shows it existed long before the birth of Jesus.
story has three episodes:
Vashti was banished, and Esther became Queen. See the Bible text at Esther 1 & 2
2 Esther saved Mordecai from HamanEsther 3-8:14
Mordecai offended a high court official called Haman, who decided to kill not only Mordecai but all the Jews in the Persian empire (the first recorded pogrom against the Jews). Esther turned the tables on Mordecai. She pleaded with the king at two banquets she gave, and Haman was horribly punished.
He was hanged on the very gibbet he had built for Mordecai.
saved the Jewish people Esther 8:15-10
For a short version of the story of Esther, see Bible People: Esther
See Maps of Bible Lands for the location of this story
story of Esther began at a magnificent banquet at the court of the
Persian king, Ahasuerus, usually thought to be the emperor Xerxes
ancient city where the story took place, contained the winter palace of
were two separate banquets being held: one for the king, his councillors and
all the men of Susa; the other given by Queen Vashti, for the women of
the court and nobility. You read Herodotus'
description of the great banquets of Xerxes in Herodotus Book 7,
section 116-123 or Book 9, section 82-83.
Having drunk too much wine, King Ahasuerus sent for the Queen to appear before the men at his banquet. She was noted for her beauty, and he wished to show her off to the men of the city.
But the Queen of the Persian Empire was chosen from among the seven most ancient and noble families of the empire, and Vashti was therefore of ancient and noble lineage.
She would not have enjoyed the prospect of being paraded in
front of a room full of drunken men - it was not a suitable thing for a
queen to do. Men and women often dined together in ancient
Persia, but as the dinner progressed and more wine was drunk, the wives left the dining area, and were replaced by concubines.
She refused to come.
the seventh day, when the King was merry with wine, he commanded the
seven eunuchs who attended him to bring Queen Vashti before the King,
wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials
her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come.
At this the King was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
may have thought she was being treated as a concubine, rather than as a
wife and queen. She behaved with haughty dignity when she refused the
king's command, but unfortunately her answer was given in front of the officers of the
empire, and she paid the price for humiliating the king.
Ahasuerus, still half-drunk, acted hastily. On the advice of cowed and inept councillors, he made the situation worse by issuing a public decree that Vashti was to be banished. This drew even more attention to the fact that Vashti had flouted his command, and made him look a fool to all his subjects.
At this stage
in the story, it becomes obvious that this is not a traditional story
about a good king. Ahasuerus was a despot who was also a fool. So a theme
begins to emerge: unlimited power, exercised without wisdom, is a
After a while Ahasuerus found that without Vashti, 'the beloved one', he was lonely. He could not call her back because his word, once spoken, was law. So his courtiers suggested a solution: to find another queen, a young and beautiful woman who would take Vashti's place.
the King’s servants who attended him said 'Let beautiful young virgins
be sought out for the King. Let the King appoint commissioners in all the
province of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the
harem in the citadel of Susa under custody of Hegai, the King’s eunuch,
who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetic treatments be given
them. Let the girl who pleases the King be Queen instead of Vashti.'
This pleased the King, and he did so.
A nation-wide search for a new queen began – the first recorded beauty contest in the world.
A young Jewess was among the candidates. Her beauty was so extraordinary that she 'pleased' even the chief eunuch Hegai, who had been castrated while still a young boy – there is a note of irony here.
wonders too at the background story to all this, whether
Hegai played some part in deposing Vashti.
To get an idea of the magnificent surroundings in which she lived, see the ruins of ancient Persepolis at Bible Archaeology: Palaces
was a symbol of Jews who lived successfully in an alien culture. As a
woman, she was not in a position of power, just as Diaspora Jews were
not members of the power elite. As an orphan, she was separated from her
parents, as Diaspora Jews are separated from their mother-country. With
both these handicaps, she had to use every skill and advantage she had,
as Diaspora Jews did. They, like Esther, had to adapt themselves to the
the start, Esther had been helped by her uncle Mordecai, but nobody knew
that they were related, or that Esther was a Jewess. Esther did not keep
the dietary laws of Judaism, or retain the practices of an orthodox
Jewess. God is never mentioned directly in the story. So the story is
not a 'religious' story as such, but a secular one, about
pragmatism in the face of adversity.
long after her installation as queen, Esther's uncle Mordecai found out
about a plot to assassinate the king. He told Esther, who in turn warned
the king. The plotters were hanged, and Mordecai's warning was recorded
in the court annals.
story that follows in chapters 3-8 gives details of a personal conflict
that escalates into a nation-wide pogrom against the Jewish people.
refused to bow to the highest court official, Haman the Agagite. In a
court with strict protocol, Mordecai's refusal to bow was a grave insult
that naturally infuriated Haman, and a feud started between the two men.
Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was
infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone.
So, having been told who Mordecai's people were, Haman plotted to
destroy all the Jews.
is no reason given for Mordecai's refusal to bow. It was not against
normal Jewish practice to bow to a ruler or his representative (see Joseph
and his brothers in Egypt, Genesis 43:26). But Mordecai's ancestor Saul
had been an enemy of Haman's ancestor Agag, king of the Amalekites (see
1 Samuel 15), and this may have been Mordecai's reason. In any case, he did
not follow the accepted practice, and thereby placed himself and others in
Haman's anger shifted. It had been focused on Mordecai, but finding that Mordecai was a Jew, his fury expanded to include the whole Jewish people. In a scene that formed a blueprint for anti-Semitic propaganda, Haman fed the mind of the king with ideas about a people who were different, who obeyed different laws, and who were a danger to the kingdom.
Jews, said Haman, must be eliminated for the good of the kingdom. The king
agreed, not knowing that Esther, his beloved queen, and Mordecai, the man
to whom he owed his life, were both Jews. A day was set aside for the
slaughter, and a decree issued to every corner of the empire.
absolute power of the king seems strange to us, accustomed as we are to
the democratic rule of law. But in many parts of the ancient world a king was thought of
as a living god. He was a sacred person who embodied, in his person, the state or
kingdom that he governed. His physical body was clearly not immortal, but
he was thought of as someone who was more than human, with a special and
unique connection with the immortal gods. Because of this, he could do
what he wanted even when, as in this case, it was clearly unjust.
This concept of sacral kingship was rejected by Israel. From earliest times it saw God as its ruler. Its laws came from God, not from the state. When it did have kings like David or Solomon, it emphasized their humanity. In the Israelite mind, kingship was very close to tyranny, and had to be constantly hedged around with precautions to stop it becoming despotic.
In the crisis that was about to engulf him, Mordecai turned to Esther. She alone could save the Jewish people from the stupidity and cruelty of her husband the king.
But there was a problem - Esther had not been summoned
into the royal presence for
thirty days, an ominous sign that she might be losing favour in his eyes.
To approach her husband without being first commanded by him was breaking the
law, and she would be punished by immediate death. She was aware of this
of course, but her reaction was fatalistic: 'If I perish, I perish'.
Esther said in reply to Mordecai 'Go, gather all the Jews to be found in
Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three
days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I
will go to the King, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I
perish'. Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had
enormous personal risk, Esther broke the law and went into the throne room
soon as the King saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his
and he held out to her the golden sceptre that was in his hand.
Ahasuerus seemed charmed by her unexpected appearance. Taking advantage of his good humour, she asked him if he and Haman would come to a banquet she meant to hold. He agreed.
nothing, believing he was being honoured by her invitation. He and the
king attended the banquet, and Ahasuerus promised Esther that she could
have anything she wanted – even half his kingdom. This was an
extravagant offer, highlighting the foolish recklessness of the king.
asked that the king and Haman attend a second banquet the next day. The
king agreed. In high spirits, Haman returned to his home and ordered the
erection of a gallows, to hang the enemy he hated, Mordecai. But during
the night, Ahasuerus could not sleep. He told his servants to read from
the records of his reign.
they read, he was reminded of the good deed of Mordecai. He realized he
had never rewarded him, and decided to remedy this. As it happened, Haman
was there, and the king asked him how he could reward someone who had been
a remarkable servant.
Haman came in, and the King said to him 'What shall be done for the man
whom the King wishes to honour?'
thinking the King was referring to himself, recommended extravagant
rewards. The King agreed, but then astonished Haman by telling him that it
was Mordecai he wanted to reward. Haman was mortified by his mistake, and
hated Mordecai even more. Zeresh, the wife of Haman, warned him, but he
was now so eaten up by hatred that he could not turn from the path he
Read Esther 7:1-10
Esther's banquet had been prepared. Ahasuerus was so pleased by it that
he again promised Esther anything she wanted. At this point, you might
find and read a story in Herodotus Book 9.109-113, where the
Persian king Xerxes makes a similar promise to his wife Amestris. This
story ends in torture and bloodshed.
response, Esther asked that her life be spared and her people saved. From
whom? asked the King. From Haman, replied Esther.
the King returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had
thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the King said
'Will he even assault the Queen in my presence, in my own house?'
Haman was trapped. He was taken out by the king’s servants and hanged from the gallows he had built for Mordecai - see Bible Heroes: Mordecai. He did not repent of his hatred for the Jewish population. He begged for his life, but gave no indication that he had experienced any change of heart.
Esther had saved Mordecai from Haman, but the Jewish population was still in danger.
Esther saves the Jewish population of Persia
pleaded with the King.
King held out the golden sceptre to Esther, and Esther rose and stood
before the King. She said 'If it pleases the King, and if I have won his
favour, and if the thing seems right before the King, and I have his
approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman
son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the
Jews who are in all the provinces of the King. For how can I bear to see
the calamity that is coming on my people? Or how can I bear to see the
destruction of my kindred?'
were again sent to every corner of the empire, halting the order of
execution on the Jewish population.
Esther had made not a single false move:
speech in 8:5-6 showed her skill in diplomacy.
The Jews were not only saved from death: they could also attack those people who had been their enemies, and could claim their property. On the very day that they were to have been annihilated, they turned the tables by destroying all those who had sought to kill them. Thousands were killed, including the ten sons of Haman.
that day on, the Jewish people kept the day as a special festival called
Purim. It was a day when gifts were exchanged among members of each
family, and presents given to the poor. It commemorated the day the Jewish
people were saved by Esther.
'The book of Esther reflects
the situation of the diaspora, and one of the reasons it was produced was
certainly to address the needs of the Jewish community living outside
'Although it seems that the
young women had no choice about the length and nature of their
preparation, when their turn arrived and they were moved from the harem to
the king's private quarters, they had some say about how they presented
themselves. Whatever the girl asked for may have included items of
clothing or jewelry or aphrodisiac foods (some of the descriptions of
preparations for love-making in Song of Songs provide possible insight
here). The writer does not supply the details but leaves that to the
readers' imagination. The provision of 'anything' contrasts with Esther's
modest request in verse 2:15, and is a feature of Esther's queenship - she
is often given the chance to ask for anything.'
Bible Study Resource for Women in the Bible: Esther - Bible Woman - Women of the Old
Esther and Mordecai: a queen saves her people