Esther's Erased Identity in the Royal Harem
Esther enters the harem along with a company of other young virgins. Here she will undertake a convoluted process to attain the status of queen. While there is no extrabiblical source that specifically refers to Esther or her story, Herodotus, an ancient historian, and a variety of other ancient texts offer enough evidence of surrounding events to confirm this book is real and fits this period in history.1 Without specific historical references, we gather knowledge from the extrabiblical sources that we do have concerning culture, customs, and daily life that shed light on Esther’s life in the royal palace.
Whereas the advisors who appear before the king and counsel with him enjoy their own sense of honor in the presence of the king, women of the harem share no such privilege. They were not held in what we would consider to be high esteem within culture of the Persian court and certainly would not have possessed individual honor or authority.
Women in the harem were forbidden from public contexts unless summoned, treated as objects, and transformed from “young women” to “concubines” after they served their purpose. After a sexual encounter with the king, they would essentially become widows living their lives out in the harem. The concubines were apparently separate in some way from the virgins who had yet to visit the king, unless they were summoned to the king by name, in which case they were to go at once.2
Life in the harem was highly controlled environment, monotonous at best, and typically fraught with competition and conflict. Women of different ranks, background, and statuses were all housed together along with numerous female maids and slaves, which undoubtedly contributed to the drama of the environment. Intense regulations were enforced for the well-being of the king, his personal safety, and the preservation of his purity. Some historical accounts describe the concubines as sleeping during the day because they spent most nights in the presence of the king with music and singing.3
To say that a woman in the harem simply loses the modicum of independence enjoyed by women compared to others outside the palace is an understatement. These women’s bodies, time, pleasure was not their own. They were certainly not afforded their own choices. Here they are not persons. They are décor. They exist for the pleasure of one man, and their life’s striving is to gain his favor.
For Esther, harem life carries an even more insidious form of assimilation. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin turned adopted father, warns her not to make it known that she is a Jew. The Jewish people are exiles, considered shameful. It could be that Mordecai did not want her citizenship status to harm her success in the harem or, worse, endangered her. Haman, awarded the highest position in the royal court aside from the king, despises Mordecai and all of the Jewish people. It is unlikely that anti-Semitic sentiments in the royal court were isolated to him. Ahasuerus’ military defeats may well have contributed to an intolerance for other people’s and religions, resulting in a government primed to persecute and eradicate an entire people group.4
In contrast to Vashti, Esther is presented as being more passive and subservient in her first appearances in the book. Essentially, it is her subservience to follow the advice given her that results in her winning a place of honor, which she would later use to her advantage.5 Hegai, the king’s eunuch in charge of the women, offers Esther guidance then her own maids and the best place in the harem when she heeds it. Esther “gains favor” because she navigates the politics and relationships in the harem well, but she must employ her own wits and wisdom to succeed with the king.
Ahasuerus had many other virgins to fulfill his desires yet when Esther “came to go in to the king” she must have shown some sort of quality beyond sexual gratification that appealed to the king for she alone won his grace and favor. Esther is clearly a woman with a more (perceived) pliable disposition than Vashti’s and elevated qualities in comparison with the rest of the harem. As a result, she will be a queen who will reflect honor upon the king in the eyes of the court and is celebrated by him.6
We cannot ignore the stamping down of her own personhood, religion, and ethnic identity Esther was required to do in order to not only succeed but survive in the royal palace. I believe that any minority group can recognize, on some level, the pressure to leave behind the differentiators of gender, race, religion, ethnicity in order to succeed in some context. Indeed, while I can recall the hurt I experienced when told I was not a “woman preacher” but a “preacher who was a woman,” (to me, erasing the unique challenges I have experienced as a clergywoman) I have also placed this burden erasure on others when I have (foolishly) proclaimed to not see color.
There is no loss quite so particular as the repressing of yourself in order to fit into a relationship or society that will not tolerate, much less welcome, you.
In kind, there is no harm you can do to another quite like demanding their assimilation for your comfort.
Long before Esther must use her favored relationship with the king to save her people, she experienced the sting of erasure. Ahasuerus takes far more than her home twice over and her independence. Without knowing, or likely even caring, he removes what makes Esther both an individual and a participant in her own community. When she rescues her people, it is because she names herself a Jewish woman and stands in solidarity with her people.
Esther’s own act of restoring her name and identity will be the means by which she rescues herself, Mordecai, and the Jewish people.
The next installment of Esther’s story will explore the dynamics of how she approaches Ahasuerus, makes her appeal, and, at last, wins her victory over Haman.
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Elaine Phillips, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “Esther,” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010). See Phillips’ section “The Historicity of the Narrative” for more information on ancient historical accounts corroborating the events of the book of Esther.
Phillips, 572, 617.
This section largely gleaned from Ilse Seibert, Woman in Ancient Near East, (London: George Prior Publishers, Ltd, 1974), 41-43.