Esther Presented to Ahasuerus, Rembrandt (1606-1669)

“It happened in the days of Ahasuerus – that Ahasuerus who reigned over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia.” (Esther 1-1)

The story of Esther, as given in the book bearing her name, is as follows- The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, had deposed his queen Vashti because she refused, during a festival, toshow at his command her charms before the assembled princes of the realm (i. 10). Many beautiful maidens were then brought before the king in order that he might choose a successor to the unruly Vashti. He selected Esther as by far the most comely. The heroine is represented as an orphan daughter of the tribe of Benjamin, who had spent her life among the Jewish exiles in Persia (ii. 5), where she lived under the protection of her cousin Mordecai. The grand vizier, Haman the Agagite, commanded Mordecai to do obeisance to him. Upon Mordecai’s refusal to prostrate himself, Haman informed the king that the Jews were a useless and turbulent people and inclined to disloyalty, and he promised to pay 10,000 silver talents into the royal treasury for the permission to pillage and exterminate this alien race. The king then issued a proclamation ordering the confiscation of Jewish property and a general extermination of all the Jews within the empire. Haman set by lot the day for this outrage (iii. 6), but Mordecai persuaded Esther to undertake the deliverance of her compatriots.

Haman and Mordecai.

After a three days’ fast observed by the entire Jewish community, the queen, at great personal risk, decided to go before the king and beg him to rescind his decree (iv. 16). Ahasuerus, delighted with her appearance, held out to her his scepter in token of clemency, and promised to dine with her in her own apartments on two successive nights (v. 2-8). On the night before the second banquet, when Esther intended to make her petition, the king, being sleepless, commanded that the national records be read to, him. The part which was read touched upon the valuable services of Mordecai (vi. 1 et seq.), who some time before had discovered and revealed to the queen a plot against the king’s life devised by two of the chamberlains (ii. 23). For this, by some unexplained oversight, Mordecai had received no reward. In the meantime the queen had invited the grand vizier to the banquet. When Haman, who was much pleased at the unusual honor shown him by the queen, appeared before the king to ask permission to execute Mordecai at once, Ahasuerus asked him, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor?” Haman, thinking that the allusion was to himself, suggested a magnificent pageant, at which one of the great nobles should serve as attendant (vi. 9). The king immediately adopted the suggestion, and ordered Haman to act as chief follower in a procession in honor of Mordecai (vi. 10).

The next day at the banquet, when Esther preferred her request, both the king and the grand vizier learned for the first time that the queen was a Jewess. Ahasuerus granted her petition at once and ordered that Haman be hanged on the gibbet which the latter had prepared for his adversary Mordecai (vii.). Mordecai was then made grand vizier, and through his and Esther’s intervention another edict was issued granting to the Jews the power to pillage and to slay their enemies.

Before the day set for the slaughter arrived a great number of persons, in order to avoid the impending disaster, became Jewish proselytes, and a great terror of the Jews spread all over Persia (viii. 17).

The Jews, assisted by the royal officers, who feared the king, were eminently successful in slaying their enemies (ix. 11), but refused to avail themselves of their right to plunder (ix. 16). The queen, not content with a single day’s slaughter, then requested the king to grant to her people a second day of vengeance, and begged that the bodies of Haman’s ten sons, who had been slain in the fray, be hanged on the gibbet (ix. 13). Esther and Mordecai, acting with “all authority” (ix. 29), then founded the yearly feast of Purim, held on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar as a joyous commemoration of the deliverance of their race.

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