Queen Esther in the Bible

This article is part of a series about the queens in the Bible.

Who is Queen Esther?

Esther is only mentioned in the book that bears her name. The Book of Esther is also called Megillat Esther or The Scroll of Esther. There is enough information in the Book of Esther to teach us a lot about her life.

As we will see in Esther 2:7, she is first called Hadassah and then Esther. So what is her name?

There are those who suggest that Hadassah was her Hebrew name based on the plant called hadas (one of the 4 species that are waved on Sukkot). They also say that Esther was her Persian name which means “star.”

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Genealogy of Queen Esther

Megillat Esther reveals to us who was her father. This gives us a hint about some of her other ancestors.

Esther Chapter 2

5. There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital, and his name was Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjamite;
6. Who had been exiled from Jerusalem among the captives exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled.
7. And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maid was beautiful and of good presence; and, when her father and her mother died, Mordechai adopted her as a daughter.

15. Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordechai, who had adopted her as his daughter …

We can conclude from verse 2:15 that Esther’s father was Abihail who was the brother of Mordechai’s father, Yair.

In the case of Mordechai we are told the names of his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. It’s unusual to mention so many generations.

In 2 Samuel 9 we are told that the father of Saul (Israel’s first king) was Kish. Is the father of Saul also the great grandfather of Mordechai?

King Saul died in the year 2884 from the creation. Verse 2:6 tells us that Mordechai was among those “exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah.” That exile happened in the year 3327 which is 3327 – 2884 = 443 years later!

It’s possible to say that in the lineage of Mordechai that not every generation is listed but only the most prominent ones. In other words, when the verse says “son of” it does not mean literal “son of” but rather “descendant of.”

It seems the intent of these verses is to teach us that Mordechai was a descendant of King Saul. Therefore, Esther also was descended from Saul.

Where was Esther From?

When we first meet Esther we are told that she is living in Shushan the capital of Persia with Mordechai.

Where was she born?

The exile of the Jewish people to Babylon (which was later conquered by Persia) lasted 70 years. The events recorded in Megillat Esther happened near the end of those 70 years. Therefore, it seems likely that Esther was born in Babylon or Persia.

There is a discussion of Esther’s age in Midrash Rabbah:

Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 39:13

As it is written: “And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther.” Rav says, ”She was 40 years old.” Shmuel says, “[She was] 80 years old.” The sages say, “[She was] 75 years old.”

Should we understand this midrash literally or symbolically?

These sages suggest various ages for Esther, ranging from 40 – 80 years old. Even if we accept that the age is meant literally, when was she that age? What event in Megillat Esther are they referencing? Presumably, it would be close to the time when Esther is first mentioned.

Some of the commentators suggest that the idea that Esther was 75 comes from the fact that the gematria (numerical value) of her name is 75.

The Gematria of Hadassah

The name Hadassah in Hebrew is spelled hey-dalet-samech-hey. Each Hebrew letter has a unique numerical value, so here is how we calculate the gematria of her name:

  • hey = 5
  • dalet = 4
  • samech = 60
  • hey = 5
  • Total = 5 + 4 + 60 + 5 = 74

Clearly, 74 is not the same as 75!

Sometimes the calculation of a gematria allows the word itself to count as 1. In this case we then have 74 + 1 for the word equals 75.

However, one commentator on this midrash suggests a different approach. He says that Esther was 74 when she was first taken into the king’s palace. But then there was a preparation period of one year before she was sent into the king’s presence. In other words, Esther was 75 when she became queen.

Maybe the midrash is teaching us something about Esther rather than her age.

Here is what Pirkei Avot says about various ages in a human life:

Pirkei Avot 5:21

He* used to say: “At the age of … twenty for pursuit; at thirty for vigor; at forty for understanding; at fifty for counsel; at sixty to be an elder; at seventy for grey hair; at eighty for strength …”

* There is a dispute if this Mishnah should be attributed to Rabbi Yehuda ben Tema or Shmeul HaKatan.

Perhaps Midrash Rabbah is suggesting that Esther had the power of understanding like a 40 year old, the grey hair or dignity of a 70 year, and the strength of an 80 year old.

I would also suggest that the sages who state that she was 75 or 80 years old have another purpose. They could be hinting that just as Mordechai was born in the Land of Israel, so too was Esther born in the Land of Israel.

They could be saying this because they believe only if Esther was from the Land of Israel could she fulfill her mission as queen.

Who is the King in the Book of Esther?

The king in the Book of Esther is King Ahasuerus. He assumed the throne of the Persia-Media empire after the death of King Cyrus.

According to the Jewish calendar (the number of years since creation), he reigned from 3393 – 3407 for a total of about 14 years.

In the historical records, there is no known Persian king called Ahasuerus. It seems that Ahasuerus is the name used in Jewish writings for Xerxes I.

It’s worth noting that the Book of Esther was originally written and publicized in Persia and would have been seen by the ruling authorities. This indicates that Xerxes I did not object to being called King Ahasuerus.

Why Did Esther Become Queen?

Esther was not the first woman to be married to King Ahasuerus. Before Esther there was Vashti.

Megilat Esther opens with King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti hosting large parties in the palace. The king ordered Queen Vashti to appear before him and the guests at his feast.

Here’s what happened:

Esther Chapter 1

12. But the Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command by his eunuchs; and the king was very angry, and his anger burned in him.

15. What shall we do to the Queen Vashti according to law, because she has not performed the command of the King Ahasuerus by the eunuchs?

19. If it please the king, let a royal command be issued by him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it can not be altered, that Vashti is to come no more to the presence of King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.

King Ahasuerus accepted the proposal stated in verse 1:19. As a result, Vashti was executed.

But, soon, King Ahasuerus started missing Vashti.

Esther Chapter 2

1. After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus was appeased, he remembered Vashti, and what she had done, and what was decreed against her.
2. Then said the king’s servants who ministered to him, Let young virgins of good presence be sought for the king;

4. And let the girl which pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti. And the matter pleased the king; and he did so.

His servants suggested that there should be an empire-wide beauty contest to choose a new queen.

Mordechai tried to seclude Esther to keep her from being part of the beauty contest. However, eventually she was also taken by the king’s servants.

Queen Esther’s Beauty Treatments

Esther was taken to the section of the palace where the young women were being prepared to appear before King Ahasuerus.

Esther Chapter 2

9. And the girl [Esther] pleased him [Hegai, the overseer of the women], and she won his favor; and he quickly gave her her ointments, and her appointed portions, and seven maids, chosen to be to given her, from the king’s palace; and he advanced her and her maids to the best place in the harem.

There was an established regimen that the young maidens were expected to follow.

Esther Chapter 2

12. And when every maid’s turn had come to go in to King Ahasuerus, after she had been twelve months, according to the manner of the women, for so were the days of their purifications accomplished, namely six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet perfumes, and with other ointments for women;
13. Then thus came every girl to the king; whatever she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace.

In general, each of the young women were eager to be part of the beauty contest and were hoping they would be chosen to be the next queen.

Though Esther did not want to be chosen, she was in no position to completely refuse to cooperate. Here’s what she did:

Esther Chapter 2

15. Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordechai, who had adopted her as his daughter, came to go to the king, she asked for nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the keeper of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her.

She did not refuse the minimum requirements, but did not ask for anything special in an attempt to make herself more appealing to the king.

crown for a queen in the Bible

Queen Esther’s Crown

Despite her reluctance and minimal cooperation, Esther was chosen by King Ahasuerus.

Esther Chapter 2

17. And the king loved Esther above all the other women, and she found grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.

The text of Megilat Esther does not reveal to us any details of Esther’s crown.

Archaeologists have identified some crowns worn by Persian kings. However, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of what crown queens wore during this time period.

We do know that Queen Esther had special royal garments that she wore at times:

Esther Chapter 5

1. And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther clothed herself in royalty, and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s palace; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal palace, opposite the gate of the house.
2. And it was so, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight; and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter.

Where did Queen Esther Live?

At the time of Queen Esther the capital of the Persian Empire was Shushan.

Esther Chapter 2

8. So it came to pass, when the king’s command and his decree were heard, and when many girls were gathered together in Shushan the capital, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was brought also to the king’s palace, to the custody of Hegai, guardian of the women.

From the wording of several verses in Megillat Esther, it seems that Queen Esther lived in the king’s palace. In other words, there is no reason to assume that she had a separate dwelling place outside of the palace.

Esther Chapter 5

4. And Esther answered, If it seems good to the king, let the king and Haman come this day to the banquet that I have prepared for him.

9. Then went Haman out that day joyful and with a glad heart; but when Haman saw Mordechai in the king’s gate …

Queen Esther had invited King Ahasuerus and his chief minister, Haman, to a meal. We read in Esther 5:9 that after the banquet “Haman saw Mordechai in the king’s gate.” We can conclude from this that Esther’s rooms were part of the palace complex.

This idea is confirmed a few verses later:

Esther Chapter 7

7. And the king arising from the banquet of wine in his wrath went to the palace garden; and Haman stood up to beg Esther the queen for his life; for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the king.

The event recorded in Esther 7:7 is the second banquet that Esther hosted. When King Ahasuerus left the banquet table, he went into the palace gardens. Again, a strong confirmation that Esther’s rooms were in the palace complex.

Why Did Queen Esther Fast?

According to the Book of Esther, she was not aware of Haman’s decree to destroy the Jewish people.

However, Mordechai was aware of the decree and started mourning immediately after he learned about it.

Mordechai gave a copy of the decree to one of Esther’s servants (Hatach) to deliver to her.

Esther Chapter 4

8. Also he gave him the copy of the written decree that was issued at Shushan to destroy them, to show it to Esther, and to declare it to her, and to charge her that she should go to the king, to make supplication to him, and entreat him for her people.
9. And Hatach came and told Esther the words of Mordechai.
10. Again Esther spoke to Hatach, and gave him a command for Mordechai;
11. All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, know, that whoever, whether man or woman, shall come to the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is a law; to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live; but I have not been called to come to the king these thirty days.

Mordechai wanted Esther to speak to the king to have the decree repealed.

Esther sent a message back to Mordechai explaining her situation. No one was permitted to approach King Ahasuerus without prior approval. There was a potential death penalty for disobeying this rule.

Esther then added that she had not been invited to see the king for 30 days. What did she mean? There are two main opinions.

Some suggest she was telling Mordechai that she was certain that it wouldn’t be long before she would see the king again. Surely, there was no rush and she could speak to the king then.

Others suggest that she was afraid that the king no longer desired her. If that was the case, then he would not permit her to approach him and plead for the Jewish people.

Esther was hinting to Mordechai that in either case the risk of approaching the king without an invitation was too great.

Mordechai disagreed and made himself clear to Esther:

Esther Chapter 4

12. And they told Mordechai Esther’s words.
13. Then Mordechai commanded to answer Esther, Think not yourself that in the king’s palace you shall escape, any more than all the Jews.
14. For if you remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your father’s house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Mordechai told Esther that being close to the king would not save her from Haman’s decree. And he added that she was in her position as queen so that she could intervene on behalf of the Jewish people.

Esther accepted Mordechai’s rebuke.

Esther Chapter 4

15. Then Esther bade them return Mordechai this answer,
16. Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maids will fast likewise; and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.
17. So Mordechai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.

Esther was still concerned that the king would not accept her. Therefore, she asked Mordechai and all of the Jews in Shushan to join her in a 3-day fast.

The purpose of the fast was to ask for God’s mercy that she would be successful when she approached the king.

There is an additional idea associated with this fast. One of the reason the Jews in the Persian Empire were faced with Haman’s decree is because they participated in the king’s feast described in Esther Chapter 1. Esther is asking the Jewish people to fast as a way of repenting for that sin.

How Long did Esther Live?

As I mentioned above, there are opinions that Esther ranged in age from 40 to 80 at the time of Megillat Esther.

I could not find any other mention of how many years Esther lived.

Esther the Prophetess

According to the gemara Megillah 14a, Esther was one of seven prophetesses.

Megillah 14a

Our Rabbis taught: Forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel and they neither took away from nor added anything to what is written in the Torah except only the reading of the Megillah [that is, Megillat Esther].

The gemara does not list the 48 prophets. However, it does list the 7 prophetesses and explains how we know each of these women was a prophetess.

Here’s what is written about Esther:

Megillah 14b

Esther, as it is written, “And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther clothed herself in royalty.” (Esther 5:1) Surely it should say “royal apparel.” What this shows is that the holy spirit [Hebrew: ruach hakodesh] clothed her.

Thus according to Jewish tradition, Esther experienced “ruach hakodesh.” But this is a level of divine inspiration that is less than being a prophet.

Midrash Seder Olam Rabbah (Chapter 21) suggests that Esther 9:29 shows that Esther was a prophetess:

Esther Chapter 9

29. Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordechai the Jew, wrote with all authority, to confirm this second letter of Purim.

This approach is based on the idea that the “letter” Esther and Mordechai wrote is actually Megillat Esther and that it was written with divine inspiration. Seder Olam is saying that only a prophetess would have this ability.

Esther’s Children

According to Jewish tradition, Esther and Ahasuerus had a son called Darius the Persian.

Note on the Name Darius

There are two kings mentioned in the Bible with the name Darius. The earlier one is known as Darius the Mede. He is the king who conquered Babylon as is recorded Daniel chapters 5 and 6.

Darius the Persian became king after the death of Ahasuerus.

Darius the Persian is mentioned in Ezra 4 – 6 a few times. He gave the final approval to finish building the Temple in Jerusalem.

Queen Esther and the Jewish Holiday of Purim

The holiday of Purim is not commanded in the Torah.

Mordechai and Esther perceived the lasting significance of the events they participated in. Therefore, they urged the Jewish people of their time to adopt an annual celebration of those events.

Esther Chapter 9

20. And Mordechai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus, both near and far,
21. To establish this among them, that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly,
22. Like the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned to them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.
23. And the Jews undertook to do as they had begun, and as Mordechai had written to them;

They were not totally successful with their first letter. Hence, Esther wrote a second letter.

Esther Chapter 9

29. Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordechai the Jew, wrote with all authority, to confirm this second letter of Purim.
30. And he sent the letters to all the Jews, to the one hundred and twenty seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, in words of peace and truth,
31. To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordechai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, with regard to the fasting and their lamenting.
32. And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book.

Notice that verse 9:29 includes both Esther’s royal title and a mention of her father. It seems she is emphasizing all of her qualifications to justify her request that Purim should become a permanent part of the Jewish calendar.

After this letter the sages of their time accepted Esther’s plea. They made Purim an annual celebration. Ever since the Jewish people have never failed to celebrate Purim with great joy.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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