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Queen Esther

      Esther is a Biblical figure, and there a book in the Bible named after her. She was a Jewish slave in Persia about 470 B.C. and was adopted by her uncle after the loss of her parents. She was a very beautiful woman, so lovely that she captured the king's heart and became queen. From this influential position she risked her life to save her people from destruction. The presentation below is coordinated with some beautiful historical artwork, and gives her story the attention that it deserves.

T he story begins with King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, 485-464 B.C.), of Persia. Towards the end of a long party, he drunkenly requested that his beautiful wife, Vashti, appear before the populace and officials wearing nothing but her crown.

 "On the seventh day., when the king was merry with wine, he instructed.. to bring Queen Vashti into his presence wearing the royal crown, that he might display her beauty to the populace and the officals, for she was lovely to behold." [Est 2:10-11, NAB]
Gottlieb MAURYCY GOTTLIEB
Ahasuerus
1876; Zyd wieczny tulacz
V ashti disobeys the order, and refuses to appear. In response, the king divorces her.

 "But Queen Vashti refused to come at the royal order.. At this the king's wrath flared up, and he burned with fury." [Est 2:12, NAB]

"Let an irrevocable royal decree be issued by him.. forbidding Vashti to come into the presence of King Ahasuerus and authorizing the king to give her royal dignity to one more worthy than she." [Est 2:19, NAB]

Chagall MARC CHAGALL
Ahasuerus Sends Vashti Away
1960; Mourlot 251
Color lithograph
Galerie Art Chrudim, Czechoslovakia

A hasuerus was thus left without a wife. In pursuit of a new one, many pretty girls were taken into his harem, and among them was Esther. After a year's preparation there was held a beauty contest, and he liked Esther the most.

 "The King loved Esther more than all other women, and of all the virgins she won his favor and benevolence." [Est 2:17, NAB]
Gelder AERT De GELDER
The Jewish Bride (Esther Bedecked)
1684; Oil on Canvas
Pinakothek, Munich

E sther was orphaned at an early age, and had been adopted by and brought up in the family of her older cousin Mordecai. He, like many other Jews, was a captive of Persia. Esther's Jewish hertitage was unknown to Ahasuerus.

 "[Mordecai] was foster father to Hadassah, that is, Esther, his cousin; for she had lost both her father and mother. The girl was beautifully formed and lovely to behold. On the death of her father and mother, Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter." [Est 2:7, NAB]
Castagno ANDREA DEL CASTAGNO
Queen Esther
c. 1450; Fresco transferred to wood
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

S oon thereafter king Ahasuerus appointed one Haman his first minister. Mordecai was among the spectators at the palace gates when the new first minister was entering the palace; everyone bowed, but Mordecai refused. Haman was infuriated and plotted to kill not only Mordecai, but all the Jews in Persia. Unknown to Haman, in his decree to destroy the Jews he had also ordered the death of the king's wife.

 "We hereby decree that all those who are indicated to you in the letters of Haman, who is in charge of the administration and is a second father to us, shall, together with their wives and children, be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without any pity or mercy, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of the current year." [Esther 3B:6, NAB]
Rembrand REMBRANDT
Haman Sets Forth to Honour Mordecai
c. 1665; Canvas
Hermitage, Leningrad

W hen the terrible decree was issued, Mordecai applied to Esther for help.

  "Do not imagine that because you are in the king's palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape" [Est 4:13, NAB]

 "..I will go to the king, contrary to the law. If I perish, I perish!" [Est 4:16, NAB]
Gelder AERT De GELDER
Esther and Mordecai
1685; Oil on Canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

T he law in Persia stated that, "any man or woman who goes to the king in his inner court without being summoned, suffers the automatic penalty of death, unless the king extends to him the golden scepter, thus sparing his life." [Esther 4:11, NAB].

    "'What is it, Esther?' he said to her. 'I am your brother. Take courage! You shall not die because of this general decree of ours. Come near!' Raising his golden scepter, he touched her neck with it, embraced her, and said, 'Speak to me.'
  She replied, 'I saw you, my lord, as an angel of God, and my heart was troubled with fear of your majesty. For you are awesome, my lord, though your glance is full of kindness.'
  As she said this, she fainted."
[Est 4D:9-15, NAB]
Rubens PETER PAUL RUBENS
Esther Before Ahasuerus
1620; (medium?)
Akademie der bildenden Kunste, Vienna.


  [EDITOR'S NOTE: At this point, try and put yourself in Esther's shoes, and appreciate the stress that she must have endured. The lives of all the Jewish people, including her, were in her hands. She was about to challenge a decree of death issued by the king; recall what happened to Vashti when she disobeyed! Furthermore, in breaching the issue in court, she was publicly pointing a finger at Haman, revealing her heritage, and ultimately forcing her husband Ahasuerus to choose between his wife and his most trusted advisor. In this context Esther's behavior is perhaps better understood.

  Click on and look closely at the following Francken painting; the moment of accusation is well captured in in his work. Esther gestures; Haman reacts as if hit with a blow, hands thrown back, recoiled in his chair, the gaze of the king fixed firmly upon him; in that instant he knew that his life was on the line.]

E sther in her turn asked the king to make a banquet and invite Haman, who at first was much pleased with the queen's attention. But during the banquet his delight turned to dread when Esther revealed her Jewish origin and told the king about Haman's plan to kill her people.

    "'If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, I ask that my life be spared, and I beg that you spare the lives of my people. For my people and I have been delivered to destruction, slaughter, and extinction. If we were to be sold into slavery I would remain silent, but as it is, the enemy will be unable to compensate for the harm done to the king.'
  'Who and where,' said King Ahasuerus to Queen Esther, 'is the man who has dared to do this?'
  Esther replied, 'The enemy oppressing us is this wicked Haman.'"
[Esther 6:3-6, NAB]
Francken FRANCKEN, FRANS II
Feast of Esther
c. 1635; Oil on copper
National Gallery, Prague

T he angered king left the banquet room to consider the question, and Haman threw himself on the couch next to Esther, pleading with her to have mercy on him. When the king returned, in addition to Haman's decree effectively ordering his wife Esther to death, it looked like Haman was now attempting to violate her. The king's temper flew, and Haman was dead momentarily.

    "Harbona, one of the eunichs who attended the king, said, 'At the house of Haman stands a gibbet fifty cubits high.' The king answered, 'Hang him on it.' So they hanged Haman on the gibbet which he had made ready for Mordecai, and the anger of the king abated." [Est 7:9-10, NAB]
Michaelangelo MICHAELANGELO
The Punishment of Haman
1508-1512; Fresco
Sistine Chapel, Vatican

T he Jewish population was saved, and the holiday of Purim was established as a memorial to this triumph.

    "Then Mordecai said: 'This is the work of God. I recall the dream I had about these very things, and not a single detail has been left unfulfilled--the tiny spring that grew into a river, the light of the sun, the many waters. The river is Esther, whom the king married and made queen. The two dragons are myself and Haman. The nations are those who assembled to destroy the name of the Jews, but my people is Israel, who cried to God and was saved.'" [Est 10F, 1-6, NAB]
Lastman LASTMAN, PIETER PIETERSZ
The Triumph of Mordecai
1624; Oil on Panel
Museum het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam


Click here to read the full story from the New American Bible.