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Highlights of life in a Persian harem during the time of Esther

The harem was a tradition with Iranian [Persian] dynasties and aristocracy as well. Herodotus (1.135), who wrote in the time of Artaxerxes, testifies that each (notable) Persian man had several wives, and a still larger number of concubines.

  • Some royal and aristocratic women received an arduous education.
  • Some learned such skills as horsemanship and archery, and even participated in hunting.
  • They appeared in public, traveled with their husbands, participated at feasts, held vast estates and workshops, employed large numbers of servants and professional laborers, and at times wielded political power.
  • The chief consort, the wife, who as a rule was the daughter of a Persian prince and the mother of the heir to the throne, controlled the household.
  • These ladies were subject only to the king; each had her own living quarter, her own revenue and estates and a large number of servants, which included harem eunuchs and concubines.
  • The royal harem included three more groups of women, living in separate dwellings.
  • First were the “ladies” of the household, legal wives other than the Queen or the mistress of a noble house.
  • The second group consisted of unmarried princesses and the married ones who lived with their own family.
  • The third group of harem women were concubines, beautiful girls bought in slave markets, or received as a gift, or collected from different parts of the empire (Esther 2.2-3;), and even captured from rebellious subjects. While still virgins, they were kept and groomed in the harem’s “first house of women” (Esther 2.9), and trained as musicians, dancers and singers in order that they might entertain their king or the magnate lord at banquets or throughout the night.
  • 557 - Harem women.

    557 – Harem women. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Any child born to such a concubine was regarded as inferior to the “rightful” offspring, and the Greeks came to call them, nothus “illegitimate.”

Excerpted from HAREM i. IN ANCIENT IRAN, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/harem-i

The complete article contains numerous citations.

Introducing Esther

Many people are familiar with the beautiful story of Esther—the brave young Jewess who put her life on the line to save her people. She is the stuff Hollywood is made of. In fact the 2006 movie, One Night with the King, was ninth on the list of highest-grossing motion pictures during the week it was released. This film received a 2007 CAMIE Award.

But who was she really?

A  Jewess

Edith Deen, in her book All the Women of the Bible (1955), introduces her as first “one of the humblest of figures, an orphan Jewess. But four years later she rises to the position of a queen of amazing power, a power which she manages to use wisely” (147).

Herbert Lockyer comments she “was related to a family carried away captive with Jeremiah, about 600 BC and was born of this family preferring to remain in the land of captivity rather than return to Jerusalem” (All the Women of the Bible, page 52).

An exile

Her Hebrew name was “Hadassah,” meaning “myrtle.” “Esther” is a Babylonian name meaning “star.” The Woman’s Study Bible mentions that a common practice during the Diaspora was to give an individual both a Babylonian and a Hebrew name (see note for Mordecai, Esther 2:5). Another example of this practice is found in Daniel 1:6-7.

An orphan

Esther 2:7  says that Hadassah had neither father nor mother.  Her cousin (or uncle, as Josephus puts forth) Mordecai took her as his daughter.

A beautiful virgin

When King Ahasuerus (afterwards referred to as Xerxes throughout) had a potential image problem due to the actions of his wife, Vashti, his counselors urged him to depose her and look for a new wife. An edict followed requiring virgins from all over the empire be brought to the capital city of Susa and the king’s palace so that a replacement could be chosen. Esther found herself among them.

Josephus records there were four hundred girls brought to the palace and Esther “was the most beautiful of all the rest, and that the grace of her countenance drew the eyes of the spectators principally upon her” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 11, Chapter 6, 199).

A member of the royal harem

Esther 2:2 Let the beautiful young virgins be sought for the king:

“This was the usual way in which the harem or seraglio was furnished: the finest women in the land, whether of high or low birth, were sought out, and brought to the harem. They all became the king’s concubines: but one was raised, as chief wife or sultana, to the throne; and her issue was specially entitled to inherit.” (from Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

A queen

Having gone through the preliminary procedures required for entering the harem, Esther was selected as the king’s favorite, and became his queen. An indication as to her royal functions is contained in Esther 1:9, where Queen Vashti “also made a feast for the women in the royal palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.” Queen Esther herself prepared banquets and entertained (Esther 5). Most importantly, she fulfilled the king’s desires.

In summary

The Woman’s Study Bible offers this observation concerning Esther:

“She was courageous and self-sacrificing (4:14, 16).

She was cleaver (5:3, 4; 8:3).

She was used of God to save her people.”

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