They were left behind. That’s not the way we see it, because we know the end of the story. But that was their experience. The “good” Jews, you see, had left. Three separate calls to leave exile—that’s right, three calls to “come out of ‘Babylon’”—had resulted in thousands of Jews returning to Judea and Jerusalem. And although those who remained may have been looked upon as “less devout,” even “less Jewish,” and they may well have felt left out, left behind, for some it was probably the right decision. After all, Mordecai—so far as we know, single—had Hadasseh to think about.

How could he, a single man, care for an orphan girl, make a living, help construct the walls, and bear arms at all times as men had to do in the hostile environment that surrounded Jerusalem for years during its rebuilding? Whatever regrets he may have had, he made the right choice, remaining in Susa. He had a good job in the royal bureaucracy, even if some of his Jewish friends thought him somewhat disloyal to his people and less faithful to God for doing so. Perhaps he comforted himself that Daniel had served Kings who sometimes did evil things, but that did not satisfy his critics. Some of his Jewish detractors might have asked if he really fancied himself as a Daniel. Of course not. But if Daniel had been right to serve pagan rulers in large matters, Mordecai should be able to serve such leaders in small ways. So they remained exile. And then came the summons.

We know that news of Queen Vashti’s defiance, and then banishment, had spread throughout the Persian Empire, because Esther, chapter 1, tells us so:

“If it please the king, let a royal commandment go from him, . . . that Vashti may never again come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate to another who is better than she. When the king’s decree which he shall make is published throughout all his kingdom (for it is great), all the wives will give their husbands honor, both great and small.”

This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did according to the word of Memucan: for he sent letters into all the king’s provinces, into every province according to its writing, and to every people in their language, that every man should rule his own house, speaking in the language of his own people. —Esther 1:19-22.

It is difficult not to be amused at these powerful men, afraid that their wives will rise up in rebellion because of a single act of disobedience on the part of the Queen. And one has to wonder how wise it was to send out a proclamation which, in effect, broadcasts the Queen’s mini-rebellion. It’s kind of like an elementary teacher telling a new class all the mischief they should not commit: it ends up giving them ideas of misbehavior that they wouldn’t have come up with on their own. Foolish or not, that’s what they did.

With the position of Queen open, and at the advice of these same tremulous wise men, Ahasuerus sent messengers out to scour the land for beautiful young women to fill the office Vashti had vacated. Hadasseh was beautiful, and so she was sent to the palace to prepare for her audience with the King.

The maiden was fair and beautiful . . . . So, when the king’s commandment and his decree was heard, and when many maidens were gathered together to the citadel of Susa, to the custody of Hegai, Esther was taken into the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women. . . .
Esther had not made known her people nor her relatives, because Mordecai had instructed her that she should not make it known. —Esther 2:7, 8, 10.

When or why Haddasseh began going by the name Esther we are not told. By the time she arrives at the palace in Susa, that change takes place. Perhaps it is part of her concealment of her ethnicity. We do not know. It may be that Mordecai and Esther themselves no longer lived as practicing Jews. Mordecai, after all, is a form of Marduk, the name of Babylon’s great god. The Persian Empire was an ancient rarity, for it did not equate religion and state. The Persians allowed freedom of religion. Babylon, by contrast, when Babylon conquered a nation, they believed that their war god, Marduk, had conquered the other nation’s god.

In any case, no one knew precisely what it meant to live as a Jew in Exile, since no Temple was available for sacrifice or feast days. God had condemned Jereboam for setting up a place of worship other than in Jerusalem, complicating the whole matter. And another reason so many faithful Jews returned to Jerusalem, and why those who did not were considered perhaps not as righteous. But, as we have pointed out, prudence really dictated that Mordecai and his young charge remain in Susa.

Esther was taken into the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women.
The maiden pleased him, and she obtained kindness from him. He quickly gave her cosmetics and her portions of food, and the seven choice maidens who were to be given her out of the king’s house.
He moved her and her maidens to the best place in the women’s house.

We often hear that “beauty is skin deep,” but that is backwards. Prettiness is skin deep. True beauty radiates from the inmost being and thence out through the skin. Hegai’s treatment of Esther identifies her as a true beauty. The man— a eunuch—is the master of the king’s harem, surrounded by physically attractive women. Yet Hegai “quickly” gives Esther cosmetics and provisions and ladies in waiting, and the best place in the women’s house, because she pleased him. In that population of pretty girls and women, it must have been Esther’s beauty of demeanor and character set her apart. And the narrative will soon verify her winsome character.

Read other posts in the “Matriarchs and Prophets” series.