Esther Becomes Queen (Esther 2) December 2
Chapter 2 begins with a search for a replacement for Vashti as chief wife. The king's harem is said to be under the custody of Hegai (verse 3). "The eunuch's name [in Hebrew] is spelled...Hege...in v. 3 but...Hegay...in vv. 8, 15. Herodotus (9.33) mentioned a eunuch of Xerxes with a similar name" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verse 3).
The whole process of finding and adding women, including Esther, to the harem evidently took a few years, as the later elevation of Esther in verse 16 to the position of chief wife does not occur until the winter of the seventh year of the king's reign (479 B.C.)—around four years after the deposing of Vashti in 483 or 482. There is most likely a historical reason for the delay. Indeed, this skip forward in the time frame actually helps to confirm the identification of Ahasuerus as Xerxes. For it was during this very period, from 481-479, that Xerxes the Great launched his monumental campaign against Greece—as had been prophesied in Daniel 11:2.
"Like his father, Xerxes seemed irresistibly drawn to the west and the conquest of Greece, so after reorganizing his armies and navies he moved west in 481 [with one of the largest assembled forces in ancient history—a million or more men]. The badly divided Greek states were unable to achieve an effective coalition and at first were badly mauled by the superior Persian forces. Even the redoubtable Spartans were defeated at [the famous battle of] Thermopylae though they fought to the last man. At [the naval battle of] Salamis [in 480], however, Xerxes underestimated their almost fanatical courage and as a result lost more than two hundred Persian ships.... Xerxes then left for Persia, having placed his general Mardonius in command of the Persian troops still remaining in Greece.... Mardonius suffered one setback after another until he lost his life in the battle of Plataea [in 479]. The final blow ending Xerxes' aspirations to conquer Greece was administered at Mycale in 479. The Greeks had now destroyed two of the Persian armies and forced a third to return to Asia" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, pp. 498-499). After Xerxes' return to Susa, Herodotus says that he consoled himself over his defeat by sensual indulgences with his harem. This fits exactly with the time that he went and selected Esther from his harem to replace Vashti.
In verses 5-7 of chapter 2 we are first introduced to Mordecai and Esther. Their presence at Susa "suggests both the wide distribution of the Jewish Diaspora a century after the fall of Jerusalem and the fact...that the majority of the exiled Jews remained in lands of their captivity even when they had opportunity to leave [and return to the Promised Land]. Their assimilation into their new world is also clear from the very names of the principal protagonists in the story. 'Mordecai' is a Hebrew transliteration of the Babylonian divine name Marduk.... His cousin's name is similarly pagan in its overtones. 'Esther' is a form of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and war" (p. 501). Some explain the name Esther as coming from the word for "star," but it should be realized that the name Ishtar shares the same derivation—referring specifically to the planet Venus (the goddess Venus and the goddess Ishtar in fact being one and the same).
Esther also bore a Hebrew name, Hadassah, meaning "Myrtle." This is the name by which she was probably known to the Jewish community. If Mordecai had a Jewish name, it is not recorded. "Jewish people in antiquity customarily had two names when they lived in regions distant from Israel. One would be their secular name, a name understandable in their adopted culture, and the other would be their sacred name given in Hebrew" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 7). Yet why the secular names borne in the case of Mordecai and Esther are overtly pagan has been a source of controversy. Some fault the protagonists themselves in this matter. Yet it could have been their parents who chose these names. Moreover, the names may have been viewed as merely common or secular and not really considered as pagan. Consider that parents today may name a daughter Diana without any thought to that being the name of a pagan goddess—though that would seem to be less likely in a society more seriously attentive to such deities. Another possibility is that the king is the one who later gave the protagonists the particular names at issue—and that they are referred to by these names where they are introduced in the account even though they did not actually come by them until later. Recall that Daniel and his three friends were given pagan names by Nebuchadnezzar.
In the case of Esther, though, some have pointed out that the Jews would have understood this name as sounding like the Hebrew for "Hidden." It is possible that this was a clever subterfuge—bearing a name familiar among the Babylonians yet having a Jewish meaning, indeed one that pointed to her "hiding" her identity. Still, this would not have been a typical Jewish name—particularly as it was the name of the chief Babylonian goddess, which the Jews would have well known.
Whatever the reason for bearing them, we might wonder why the gentile names are the ones used almost exclusively throughout the account. Here again is a reason some fault Mordecai and Esther and view the book of Esther negatively. Yet as noted in the Bible Reading Program's introductory comments on Esther, it could well be that the book was written as a Persian state chronicle. This would adequately explain the use of the non-Hebrew names. Still, we should bear in mind the stated fact that Mordecai charged Esther not to reveal her Jewish identity (verse 10). That instruction, however, was specifically for her life in the harem and at court rather than in interaction with the Jewish people. Mordecai may have felt that with revelation of Esther's true identity she would risk discrimination and possibly physical harm. Nevertheless, this has also been a source of criticism—along with Esther's consent to marry a pagan gentile king. It seems apparent that Esther was somewhat neutral about the possibility of being the king's wife, being resigned to leave matters in God's hands. She neither tried to escape the process nor aggressively sought extra measures to impress the king. We should consider that women in that age and culture of arranged marriages rarely had much of a say as to whom they married. And in this case Esther was under compulsion to marry the absolute ruler of the Persian Empire.
Of course, it is not necessary to justify everything that Mordecai and Esther decided or did. Having lived so long in a foreign culture, more than a century at this point, it is likely that the Jewish people had lost some of their moorings with regard to the Mosaic religion. Mordecai and Esther's understanding of the truth, along with that of most of the exiles, was probably somewhat deficient. We can look to the right choices that they later made as giving us more of the lessons of the story. Interestingly, Mordecai would later openly declare himself as a Jew. And in acting to save her people, it was necessary for Esther (Hadassah) to at last reveal herself as a Jewess, as we will later see. Both of them will grow in a spiritual sense over the course of the story.
More important, though, is to realize that God is able to use circumstances to bring about His intended outcome. Esther was certainly a beautiful young woman (verse 7). But that alone did not make her queen of the realm. We are probably quite safe in assuming that it was God who guided the king to select her as his principal wife. Interestingly, some who maintain that Esther means "Hidden" point to this name, being the biblical book's title, as denoting how God is present throughout the story though not explicitly mentioned.
Mordecai remained constantly concerned over Esther's welfare—and she continued to follow his instructions and may have given him an official position. Expositor's notes on verses 19-20: "Mordecai's position at the gate was not that of an 'idler' but represented some kind of duty or official position he occupied. He may have been appointed to this position by Esther to give him easier access to the royal quarters.... Men who 'sat at the gate' were frequently elders and leading, respected citizens who settled disputes that were brought to them."
While he was going about his duties, Mordecai either overheard or was informed of a plot to assassinate Xerxes. The conspirators "were eunuchs, guards of the door—i.e., men who protected the king's private apartment—who had become angry with Xerxes. The cause of their anger with the king is not stated. Mordecai got word to Esther about the plot; and she relayed the information to the king, giving credit to Mordecai, without mentioning their relationship. Plots against Persian monarchs were not uncommon. Xerxes was in fact assassinated [years later] in his bedroom in a similar situation in 465 B.C. in a conspiracy" (note on verses 21-22).
The plotters of chapter 2 were put to death and the whole account written in the imperial annals in the presence of the king (verse 23). It is remarkable that Mordecai was not rewarded for his actions at this time. Perhaps the king was distracted. In any event, it appears that divine providence was setting the stage for the king to realize the need to reward Mordecai at a more opportune moment, as we will later see.