After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.
Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away. He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter. So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. And the young woman pleased him and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem. Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known. And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her. – Esther 2:1-11 ESV
The story begins a new chapter. The king has had time for his anger to abate and to think about what he has done. Queen Vashti has been banished from his presence and he is now having second thoughts about his decision. She was obviously beautiful and now that he is sober, he is experiencing regrets about having issued his decree. But no worries, he is surrounded by those who are more than willing to help him get over any remorse he may be feeling. After all, he is the king and he can have whatever he wants. So he is given yet more advice in how to deal with his problems. Yes, Queen Vashti was beautiful, but she was also replaceable. He could have his pick of any woman in the kingdom and no one could refuse him. So he listens to his advisors and issues a command to “gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel” (Esther 2:3 ESV). He will choose his new queen from among the many viable candidates. Not only that, he will enjoy the company of all the others as they join his royal harem.
These opening lines of chapter two portray the power and the immoral decadence of King Xerxes. Women are nothing more than possessions, intended for his pleasure and examples of his power and wealth. These young women will be forcibly removed from their families and treated like personal slaves of the king. In fact, when the author says the girls were “gathered together” (verses 3 and 8), the Hebrew word he uses is qabats. It literally means, “to grasp with the hand.” They are going to be snatched up and placed at the disposal of the king, to do with them as he sees fit. They will become his personal play things, his sexual slaves.
But there is something else going on in this story. The king’s power is on display, but there is another power at work behind the scenes. Once the decree has been made and the gathering of the virgins begins, we are introduced to two new characters. Esther, a young Jewish girl, is living with her older cousin, Mordecai. We are told that he is a Hebrew, of the tribe of Benjamin “who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away” (Esther 2:6 ESV). He was an exile, part of the group who had been taken captive when Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Judah and the city of Jerusalem. The phrase “carried away” is used three times in verse six and it is the Hebrew word, galah and it means “to carry away into exile.” The book of Jeremiah records the details of this event.
This is the number of the people whom Nebuchadnezzar carried away captive: in the seventh year, 3,023 Judeans; in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar he carried away captive from Jerusalem 832 persons; in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive of the Judeans 745 persons; all the persons were 4,600. – Jeremiah 52:28-30 ESV
Mordecai is an exile, part of the Hebrew contingent who had been taken captive and forced to live in Babylon, far from their homeland and loved ones. And Mordecai has the added responsibility of caring for his orphaned younger cousin, Esther. We are not told what happened to her parents, but only that they had died. And as a result, she had become Mordecai’s ward. We are also informed that she “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” (Esther 2:7 ESV). This particular trait was going to make her a prime candidate for King Xerxes’ kingdom-wide “talent search.” And she would soon find herself “snatched up” and living in exile from her uncle and family, as part of the king’s harem.
So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. – Esther 2:8 ESV
There is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in this passage. Mordecai had been carried away into exile years earlier. Now Esther is being carried away into another form of slavery and exile as part of the king’s harem. There was nothing Mordecai could have done to prevent his capture and exile. And there was nothing Esther could do to stop what seemed to be the inevitable. And yet, there is something going on that is far greater than the personal whims of a pagan king. There is a divine plan being put into place that is perfect in its timing and that supersedes even the will of the king. He only thinks he is in control.
Esther catches the attention of Hegai, who was in charge of the king’s harem. She is given special treatment and advanced to the top of the long list of potential candidates to be the next queen. Is it all the byproduct of good genes? Is this just good fortune or a case of fate? It would be easy to see all of this as simple coincidence, but the author will not allow us to reach that conclusion. As Esther’s fate unfolds, she is under the watchful eye of her uncle. He has instructed her to hide her Hebrew identity. We are not told why he made this decision. But it seems that Mordecai knows there is something greater going on in this story. He appears to have a sense that this is far more than fate or kismet. His God is at work. Mordecai may not know exactly what God is up to, but he seems to know that there is a greater force at work than that of the king.