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Esther, at the time, probably was a new name originating from Persia, and given to her upon her introduction into the royal harem (see note in Daniel). Her proper Hebrew name was Hadassah 'Myrtle.' As to the significance of Esther, it is the equivalent of Ishtar, the great Babylonian goddess. In Greek, Astar, Esther is named after Venus, the star. She was the daughter of Abihail, a Benjamite, and uncle of Mordecai (Esth. 2:15). Her ancestor Kish had been among the captivities taken from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.
Being an orphan Esther was reared by her cousin Mordecai who held an office in the royal palace at Shushan. When in the harem King Ahasuerus Xeres I (486-465 BCE) divorced his queen because she refused to show herself almost naked before his guests. She would not submit to his drunken demands, claiming to be a person, not a toy. Xeres therefore chose women from his harem to satisfy him, and eventually select the next queen. The woman in charge of the women, Hegai, was to select the best for the king to choose from, but his was the final decision. Each visited the king, if he liked her she was called back. In the end Xeres loved Esther most of all.
Esther had grace above all the other women and won the king's favor. He made her queen placing the crown upon her head (Esth 2:8-17) around 478 BCE. In obedience to her cousin Mordecai, Esther kept secret her parentage and ancestry (Esth. 2:10).
However, Haman, the, Agagite, angered because he thought Mordecai had not given him just respect, represented to the king that the Jews scattered throughout his empire were a pernicious nation. After which Xeres gave Haman full power to kill the Jews and confiscate their property (ch. 3). Esther being informed of this situation by Mordecai, knew she also would probably be found out but most of all desire to help her people decided to approach the king. This was a forbidden act, no one approached the king unless summoned (4:16). But she did so and gained favor in his sight. She told him her request. Her request was that the king and Haman would attend a banquet which she was planning to give for Xeres that day. They accepted her invitation and at the banquet the king again announced his willingness to grant Esther any request she might make. She invited them to meet with her the following day to hear her request.
At the banquet the next day Esther made known her request to the king and Haman and proceeded to denounce the latter. She told how Haman was killing the Jews within the empire, and declared her own ancestry. Haman had already asked the king's permission to execute Mordecai and built the gallows. Xeres had gave his permission and issued an edit for the execution of Jews. Under imperial law the king could not resend the edit, but he could and did authorize Jews to have weapons in order to defend themselves. Also, he ordered Haman hung on the same gallows as Mordecai was to be hanged. The Israelites were saved after Mordecai was given Haman's position, an event marked by the festival of Purim.
There is much criticism concerning the history of Esther as well as the Biblical Book of Esther. Historically Ahasuerus has just one wife, Amestris. This may be true, but kings having harems and concubines often had secondary wives beside their legitimate wife; Esther could have been a secondary wife. If so, she had great charm and influence upon the king.
Another thing noticeable within the Esther story, even though the Jews declared themselves God's chosen people they adjusted to circumstances like others. Mordecai who obtained an office within the royal court told Esther not to disclose her ancestry when entering the harem, indicating he had not either, not quite straightforwardness. Esther, no doubt under these circumstances, did as the other women regarding satisfying the king's sexual wishes. Her taken name Esther, equivalent to Ishtar, reinforces these assumptions. Under such conditions, it is difficult for an objective reader to understand how so many Jews clung to their belief that their God was the one true God, and not at least question the possibility that other gods might be valid. However, Jews and Christians are told, and believe, that since Esther was docile to her cousin's counsel, and a good wife to the king thus saving her people she was in the remnant of the Jews. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger's Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 325-326
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