Almost nothing is clear in Esther chapter 2


After being introduced to Ahasuerus and his fool-hardy disastrous treatment of Vashti, the book of Esther notifies readers briefly about the Judean heroes of the tale, Mordecai and Esther. Ahasuerus carries out the suggestion of his servants[1] to seek a virgin to replace Vashti whom he discarded.[2] We are not told what happened to the seven advisors who suggested to Ahasuerus to remove Vashti. Just as we are not informed what transpired with Vashti, we are told nothing about the advisors: did the king dismiss or even kill them when he sobered and realized he had overreacted?[3]

Esther is one of the many maidens in his kingdom who is chosen. She is taken, either by force or voluntarily, the book does not reveal which,[4] and is sent with other virgins to Hegai the king’s chamberlain for a year’s treatment in various oils and anointments until she is fit to appear to the king. The book does not divulge how the ointments work or how long its aroma lasts. Hegai is enchanted with Esther and gives her special treatment. When the time arrives for her to meet the king, she relies on Hagai’s advice on what to wear and how to act. Ahasuerus also likes Esther, makes her his queen, and has another banquet to celebrate Esther.[5] Mordecai tells her not to reveal “her kindred nor her people.”[6]                

Mordecai discovers a plot against the king “when the virgins were gathered together a second time,” when Mordecai “sat in the king’s gate.” He reveals the plot, it is investigated, found to be true, the two plotters are killed, and Mordecai’s act is “written in the book of the chronicles before the king.”

Chapter two parallels chapter one. In one, Ahasuerus celebrates with a banquet in his third year (for an undisclosed reason – perhaps because his country was now at peace) and in chapter two he celebrates with a banquet for Esther (perhaps because he now has peace of mind in having selected a wife who meets his sexual desires). Both feasts focus on women: in one on Vashti; in two on Esther. Both have rebellions: in one, Vashti disobeys the king; in two, a pair of plotters seek to kill him. The two have decrees: in one, the decree is to gather virgins; in two, to bring them a second time.

There is much in this chapter that is obscure, including the following:


The book describes Mordecai as ish Yehudi, which is obscure. Many think it means “Jewish.” However, ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, and other commentators explain that it should be defined as Judean. As Rashi put it “All who were exiled with the kingdom of Judea were called Judeans by the non-Judeans, even if they were from another tribe.[7]

Verse 2:5 states Mordecai was “the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish.” The Babylonian Talmud[8] identifies Kish as the father of King Saul, which ibn Ezra rebuffs.  Kish and Saul lived about five centuries before Mordecai and if the book wanted to give Mordecai pedigree it should have mentioned the king not his father. Thus we have no idea who Shimei and Kish were.[9]

Verse 6 mentions that Mordecai “had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with Jeconiah King of Judah.”[10] This occurred in 597 BCE. Does this mean that Mordecai was one of the exiles of 597 or that he was descendant from these exiles? Ibn Ezra seems to understand that Mordecai was one of the men who were exiled. Ibn Ezra also understood that Mordecai had an official position as a Persian judge that allowed him entry into Ahasuerus’ palace courtyard before Esther was crowned queen. The Persian court believed him when he reported that two conspirators wanted to murder Ahasuerus because they knew Mordecai had served on the high court in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin.[11]  This is unlikely. If Ahasuerus of Esther is Ahasuerus II, called Artaxerxes who reigned from 464-424, Mordecai would be over 150 years old. Ibn Ezra contends he was older than 90. This is not the only strange interpretation in ibn Ezra’s commentary to Esther. He also mentions a rabbinical view that Mordecai and Esther were married.[12] Since this is contrary to the plain meaning of the story of Ahasuerus seeking a young virgin, ibn Ezra may have mentioned this notion only to add spark to his commentary, not because he believed what he wrote.[13]

Verse 7 states that Esther had two names: Hadassah and Esther, but the name Hadassah is not mentioned elsewhere in this book. Why? When Esther entered the palace and hid her origin, did she change her name to Esther? Did she always have two names as do many Jews today who live outside of Israel, a Hebrew name and one that fits in with the local culture? Hadassah is based on the noun hadas, myrtle, a sweet smelling plant. Should we see the parallel between Esther’s name and her and other virgins being placed in ointments for a year to make them smell sweet?

Verse 7 relates that Mordecai omein et Hadassah. Does omein[14] mean “brought up” as the JPS interprets it or adopt? If the latter, this is the only instance in Scripture where the Bible mentions the adoption of a girl.[15] This verse also narrates that Mordecai was the dod of Esther. The word has many meaning, including “relative,” “uncle,” and “friend.” Which is appropriate here? This passage also asserts that Mordecai took Esther l’vat, which is usually rendered “as a daughter,” but many rabbis[16] read l’vat as if it is l’bayit, “as a house,” with “house” being a metaphor for wife: that Mordecai married Esther. This is strange because only virgins were assembled for the king.

Mordecai instructed Esther not to reveal that she was a Judean,[17] according to ibn Ezra, because if she told officials that she was a Judean, she wouldn’t have been chosen as the queen. He and others, such as Gersonides, suggest that this idea came to Mordecai as a prophecy or dream. Gersonides explains that Ahasuerus would not have wanted a woman as his queen who came from a small nation. Ibn Ezra reports that there are rabbis who thought Mordecai acted correctly in telling Esther not to reveal her antecedents while others insisted that he acted improperly because he wanted her to be selected and she would not have been selected if Ahasuerus knew she was a Judean. Ibn Ezra also wrote that by not revealing her identity Esther could more easily observe Jewish laws such as the Sabbath. Isaac ben Moses Arama failed to see the logic: how would Esther not revealing that she was a Judean make it easier for her to observe Jewish practices?[18]

While Mordecai told Esther not to reveal she was a Judean, he did not tell her not to reveal she observed Jewish religious laws. Why? This raises the question: did Esther observe Jewish laws, such as only eating kosher foods while she was in the palace? C. A. Moore[19] notes that the Bible does not even hint that she obeyed the laws and she probably did not. Esther was unlike Judith in the Apocrypha and Daniel[20] who openly displayed their Jewishness regardless of the consequences. Bothered by this, the Septuagint adds that Esther’s marriage was part of the divine plan and Mordecai also told her “to fear God and to do his commandments” and “she did not change her way of life.”

Esther was placed in the charge of Hegai who oversaw the treatment of all of the virgins who would appear later to the king. How should Hegai’s name be spelt in Hebrew, with the final letter being an aleph as in verse 3 or a yud as in verse 8? When verse 9 states that Hegai liked Esther and gave her special treatment, was Hegai’s interest self-interest: Hegai knew the king and realized she was just the type of woman Ahasuerus wanted, so he treated her nicely so that she would reward him later when she was the queen? When this verse says that Hegai gave Esther seven maidens to serve her, should we understand that this was special treatment and he did not give maidens to the other virgins?

In verse 15, when Esther said to Hegai that he should decide for her how she should dress and act when she appears to Ahasuerus, was she being smart since she knew that Hegai knew what Ahasuerus liked and could tell her what would be most effective in getting Ahasuerus’ approval? Or, did she so dislike her situation that she didn’t care how she appeared before the king?

Verse 11 describes Mordecai walking daily “in the court of the women’s house to know how Esther did and what would become of her,” how could he do this, no one had access to the harem, not even a court official? When verse 19 indicates that Mordecai sat in the king’s gate, does this mean that he had a governmental position? If so, was he just now appointed to this position? Did this position help him discover news about Esther?

How did Mordecai discover the plot of the two conspirators?[21]  Why did the conspirators want to kill the king? How did they plan to do so?

Verse 19 – “And when the[22] virgins were gathered together the second time – is strange. This occurred after Esther was chosen as queen. Many imaginary reasons have been advanced to explain the second round of virgins. Paton mentions more than a dozen,[23] including that these were virgins who were part of the original selection who arrived at the palace late, some courtiers disliked Esther and suggested to the king to try out other women even after his marriage to Esther, and Ahasuerus was so hedonistic that he continued to acquire women as concubines. Gersonides[24] suggests that the king continued to sleep with virgins to make sure he made the right choice in Esther. Rashi offers his view that Ahasuerus was bothered that Esther refused to reveal her antecedents and hoped to compel her to speak by sleeping with other virgins. Is it significant that in 3:11 Esther tells Mordecai that she is not allowed to approach the king when she wants, only when the king summons her, and the king hasn’t summoned her for a month? Do 1:19 and 3:11 suggest that Ahasuerus lost interest in Esther?

In short, these selections show the obscurities in Esther’s chapter two and the widely divergent attempts by rabbis and scholars to unravel what they think are true.


[1] The Hebrew is na’arei, “the servants of.” But naar is used frequently in the Bible to indicate a close associate and advisor. Joshua is described as a naar in his relation to Moses. The Septuagint Ezra tells about King Darius seeking advice from three na’arim (plural of na’ar). Josephus, Antiquities 11, 3, 2 is similar. Y. Klein, page 236.

[2] People may want to compare this story of the gathering of virgins to the famed tale of “Thousand and One Nights” where Shekriya fascinated the king and kept her head while the other virgins are killed after being with the king a single night. Also similar is the story of King David in I Kings 1, where the aged king is advised to assemble many virgins and select one to lie with him to keep him warm.

[3] Many commentators stress that Ahasuerus regretted his decision, including Josephus, Antiquities X1, and the two Targums.

[4] Bothered by this obscurity, the Septuagint adds Esther’s lament that she was forcibly taken to the king who she despises. Ibn Ezra to 2:16 also contends Esther was forced to attend.

[5] Unlike the banquet in chapter one, this feast for Esther is called a “Great Banquet” in verse 18. Should we understand that Ahasuerus was more lavish with this feast than the one that lasted six months? If so, does it indicate that he felt better about the purpose for this feast: he was celebrating the acquisition of a beautiful woman?

[6] Significantly, Mordecai does not mention “religion,” which fits the secular nature of the book.

[7] Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin. The term Judean was latter shortened to Jew.

[8] Megillah 13b. Kish is mentioned in I Samuel 15 and Shimei, a Benjamite like Saul, is in II Samuel 16. Haman is described in chapter 3:1 as an Agagite. What does this mean? Saul fought against the tribe of Amalek and captured its king Agag. The Talmud takes the position that Agagite refers to this king and Haman was his descendant. The rabbis see Saul, a Benjamite, failing to exterminate all of the tribe of Amalek, while Mordecai, also a Benjamite and Saul’s descendant, finishes what Saul started, the extermination of the tribe. This is another example of an obscure verse being interpreted by an idea that is not hinted in the text.

[9] Y. Klein, page 237.

[10] The story of the exile is told in II Kings 24.

[11] This is an anachronism. There was no Sanhedrin – a Greek word – before the Greek period which began after 320 BCE,

[12] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 118b. Also Rashi.

[13] Ibn Ezra did this kind of thing quite often.

[14] The Holy Scriptures, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960, page 998.

[15] Y. Klein, page 239.

[16] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 118b.

[17] Verse 1:10.

[18] Torat Chayim, page 59.

[19] Page 22.

[20] Daniel 1:8-15.

[21] Verse 22. As stated previously, Babylonian Talmud Megillah 13b contends that Mordecai had served in the Judean Sanhedrin and was able to speak and understand seventy languages and when the plotters thought he could not understand the language they spoke, they were mistaken.

[22] JPS translates inserting “the,” but “the” is not in the Hebrew. If “the” is appropriate, to what is it referring?

[23] Pages 186-188.

[24] Pages 188 and 189.