After a cooling off period, King Ahasuerus’ wine induced fury subsided. After public punishment was meted out in response to public offence, the king grieved the decision to depose his erstwhile queen in private. A poignant indication and reminder, that public action and private feelings are often at odds where wine is implicated. This particular hangover is a double downer as a result. The king’s attendants attenuated as they were by reason of duty and attachment, to his moods were quick to notice. It is quite possible that the usual inducements to rally him met with limited success on account of his remorse. Given the king’s extended funk, a more elaborate means of delivering a psychological fillip was devised.
The king’s closest aides, spurred on by the twin imperatives of the recent decree and the royal distemper, reached a quick consensus. They advised the king to authorize an empire wide search for the next queen. Specifically, beautiful young women, who were virgins, were to be selected by specially designated officials, brought to the palace and placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch in charge of women. A successor to Vashti was to be selected from this rather large, diverse and naturally endowed demographic. The elaborate nature of the enterprise did not end with the comprehensive recruitment of a potential replacement.
Each woman was to undergo a whole year of preparations before the audition with the king. This wasn’t just a beauty contest; it was an extensive and rigorous preparation for a demanding and highly coveted position and responsibility. The immediate antecedents of the enterprise, the reason for and manner of the former occupant’s removal must have loomed large. Beauty was in demand, but so was a demonstrable and dependable obedient disposition. That there was to be no repeat of the Vashti incident must have weighed heavily on the officials tasked with the effort. This was an effort to mitigate the recent previous episode of national disgrace and prevent any future occurrence of the same.
It bears mention that casting the net this wide for a successor was probably unusual in a time and place where alliance building, consolidation of wealth, geopolitical considerations and grand policy calculations typically provide the reason for royal matrimonial choices, and thus necessarily limit that choice to a few select and privileged damsels. In this instance, these considerations were either subsumed or irrelevant, or perhaps both. In any case, the direct outcome of the king’s adoption of his aide’s proposal was that Esther, an orphaned Jewish virgin, living with her uncle, Mordecai, became eligible. She was as the narrative asserts fine of form and face, but her greatest asset lay in her obedient constitution.
Some consideration should be given to another piece of irony. Looked at from the perspective of the democratization of the selection process, the removal of Vashti served to usher in a new paradigm in which aspiration, qualification and temperament trumped a more narrow traditional criteria. As a result, many more women who would otherwise not have had an opportunity of this sort were suddenly eligible. The effect of this on this cohort must have been considerable. It must have been at the very least a hot topic. One wonders too what effect it might have had on many a budding romance, all over the kingdom, particularly for those who now had the kingdom to aspire to and had a shot at it.
Esther was taken together with other promising candidates into the custody of Hegai, the palace official in charge of preparing the women. She quickly distinguished herself and earned the favour of Hegai who gave her premium accommodation and a complement of servants, seven in number. The disposition that endeared her to her uncle, it seems, earned her the trust of Hegai, who saw in her an ideal candidate for the position in the post Vashti era. This happy state of affairs might have been enjoyable for Esther were it not for the intrusion of the instruction of Uncle Mordecai that she should not under any circumstances reveal her Jewish ancestry and background. The likely deleterious impact of the considerable anti-Semitism of the day, a matter that would shortly take on more urgent and sinister proportions, on Esther’s chances was foremost on Mordecai’s mind.
One wonders how a young lady in Esther’s situation might have walked that tightrope. Keeping her identity secret from her immediate staff of seven women must have required the skill level of an undercover agent. Indeed, that was the point. She was effectively undercover. Given the prominence she attained and her preferment by Hegai, Esther must have been an object of curiosity among the other contestants and palace officials. And yet, her discretion, tact and wisdom were a match for that challenge. Her ‘cover story’ must have been tight. She never let her guard down. A testament to the training she received from Mordecai. Imagine the irony then; Mordecai was Esther’s guardian and uncle as well as her handler. Mordecai was also a minor official in the king’s service. If the quality of Esther’s conduct was impressive, the quality of the relationship she had with Mordecai was equally so. It was in keeping with this that Mordecai made a circuit of the harem everyday, seeking information and reassurance on two heads – that Esther was faring well and that her secret was safe. A sterling relationship it was, a good thing that was too, for the affairs of state and the very survival of the Jewish race was to rest on the strength of that relationship
Imagine then the turmoil in Mordecai’s mind, arising from the juxtaposition of his hopes for her success and his fears for her safety, as he made his daily round of the harem. The anxiety and stress must have been considerable. And if we admit Mordecai’s state of mind, how shall we think of our Esther, right in the thick of things? How resolute she must have been! How brave! Her entire family had been reduced to just one surviving relative from whom she was now separated. She must have felt deeply isolated and alone. Add to this the imperative of keeping a secret, which required her to limit interaction with others, some of whom may have liked her genuinely. The demands of obedience and the long-term strategy for success required this young lady to deepen the isolation that her unfortunate circumstances imposed on her. An exile of circumstance and choice was she.
Whereas, the official preparation for each aspirant was a year, broken into two six month periods – six months with ‘oil of myrrh’ and six months with ‘spices and perfumes’, the next step in the process, an all night audience with the king, must have created a backlog. If there were an audition every night of the year, the king would only be able to see only a couple hundred young ladies per year. Given the likelihood that the contestants were in their thousands, the waiting period between the end of official preparation and the all important audience with the king must have taken a few years on average, with the effect that whereas, Vashti was deposed in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus, Esther did not get her turn until the seventh year.
When Esther’s turn came, a considerably older and wizened woman prepared to go into the king. Owing to the time spent preparing and waiting, she must have developed her own ideas about the whole process. Such a resolute and perceptive young woman would not have spent the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in preparation and waiting without developing some ideas and opinions. It was the stipulation that when the time came for any aspirant to audition for this role of a lifetime, she was to be given anything she requested for, to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. Faced with this option, Esther restricted herself to what Hegai, her benefactor and mentor, advised her to take. Her obedient orientation persisted and thrived through this tasking season of her life. The narrative notes that as she went through those fateful final preparations, under the close attention of Hegai, Esther found favour with everyone who saw her.
It turned out that King Ahasuerus was no exception. The attractiveness, comportment and charm of Esther captured his heart and imagination. He preferred her over and above all the other aspiring virgins. King Ahasuerus crowned Esther and made her Queen in place of Vashti and threw a banquet to celebrate her. It is worth noting that her obedience and deference to Hegai, including her decision to take his advice proved wise, for who would have known what would please the king in a woman more than Hegai, whose job it was to superintend the king’s women? More notable too is that Esther kept the secret of her Jewish origins and background from both Hegai and King Ahasuerus, just as Mordecai instructed. Even at her moment of success, she still had to hold her nerve.
Shortly after, the narrative takes a rather interesting turn. Mordecai became aware of a plot by two of the king’s guards, Bigthan and Teresh to assassinate the king. How Mordecai came to know of this coup plot must be a matter of fascinating debate. It would not be out of place to assume that as an official in the palace, and perhaps because of his particular skill in acquiring sensitive information, a skill that was to be deployed later to greater effect, Mordecai was well placed to learn of the plot. His resolute, consistent and dogged information gathering during the period of Esther’s stay in the palace harem speaks to his disposition and intelligence gathering methods. It is likely that he painstakingly pieced together the plot and identified the culprits before entrusting the information to Esther, who in turn told the king, giving appropriate credit to Mordecai. The matter was investigated and Mordecai’s intelligence checked out. Bigthana and Teresh were executed and Mordecai’s contribution to the king’s welfare was recorded. Even so, Mordecai was not immediately recognized or rewarded.
That was still to come.