In chapter two of Esther we are introduced to the namesake of this book, Esther.
Esther, also known as Hadassah, is a young Jewish girl from the tribe of Benjamin. Following Queen Vashti’s refusal of his command to humiliate herself in front of his men, King Xerxes puts on a hunt for a new wife, bringing in beautiful girls from across his vast kingdom – and Esther is one of the chosen girls.
Rather like a Miss Susa competition, the girls are collected and put through beauty treatments before each one is brought before the king for a night, and one lucky girl gets chosen as queen.
Of course, such a competition might not be how the girls viewed it. It is doubtful that they were given a choice of going to the harem, and once there they have effectively become slaves belonging to the king. Any ambitions or plans they might have had for their own lives, thoughts of future marriage or children etc. have been forcefully ripped away from them overnight. They will be surrounded by other frightened girls, many speaking different languages they wouldn’t understand, trapped in a foreign environment away from their family and loved ones. There doesn’t seem much about their circumstances to describe as ‘lucky’!
Many of the girls would probably have been very frightened in the harem, not knowing what might happen to them. Some may have become bitter and resentful at what they have lost. And some may have been filled with ambition to make the most of their situation and vie hard to become Queen (think Mean Girls with attitude!) Put hundreds of girls together in a chaotic environment, and you can be sure that the one thing it wouldn’t be is peaceful!
What do we know of Esther?
The writer of Esther doesn’t give us many specific details about Esther, but that are a few things we are told, and a few others which can be picked up from the text.
- Esther was orphaned as a child, and later adopted by her cousin Mordecai. It is clear from the text that when Mordecai took her in he loved and cared for her as if she was his own daughter, for when she is taken away from him he walks daily to the palace to ask the palace guards and servants for news of Esther’s welfare (Esther 2:11).
- Esther is described as “lovely in form and features” (2:7). As she was chosen as one of the few hundred girls across all Xerxes’ kingdom to enter his harem, we can know she was very beautiful.
- Esther obeyed her adopted father Mordecai, taking his advice not to reveal her Jewish nationality (2:10). She trusted him to look out for her and give her good council!
- We don’t know Esther’s response to her entry to the harem. But it would seem unlikely that she was unpleasant to be around, being bitter, angry, frightened or scheming. Instead we see that she ‘won the favour’ of Hegai, the eunuch placed in charge of the girls, who subsequently ‘provided her with beauty treatments and special food’, assigned handmaidens to her and moved her to the ‘best place in the harem’ (2:8-9). Something about how Esther responded caught his attention.
The time comes for Esther to go to the king, and there Esther wins Xerxes’ favour also, as he chooses her to be the new Queen.
Zooming out to the big picture!
Esther’s life, young though she is, has been full of ups and downs. Orphaned, then adopted. Forcefully removed from her home and her domestic ambitions for marriage and family, and placed in a harem full of strangers. Finding favour with those in authority over her, but still forced into a marriage with a pagan King. Elevated to the highest position a woman could occupy, that of Queen to the most powerful man for miles around, but viewed as property belonging to her husband.
Yet through it all, even as her story takes another dramatic twist or turn, God has been in control the whole time. We can see God’s hand moving in Esther’s life, as well as the lives of the other main characters, to bring her to this position, for a very important mission that we’ll see in the following chapters.
When our own lives go through tumultuous changes, disasters or unexpected twists, we would do well to remember the story of Esther. With our perspective focussed on our lives and our immediate circumstances, it can be hard to understand why God allows us to go through trials. Yet we must trust that though we may not yet be able to see the end result – and sometimes we may never know it – God has His hands just as surely on our lives and is working out His plans.
Zooming out to see the big picture from God’s perspective, we know that God works all things for the good of those who trust in His name. Perhaps He is moving us into a position of influence, perhaps He is bringing us into someone else’s life, maybe He is putting things in place to prepare us for the future. We don’t know! But what we can know is that God holds all things in his hands, and that He is for us. Whether our lives are on an upward or downward turn, at the end God is always in control.