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Gender Bending in Esther 2

November 4, 2008

One of the little oddities in Esther 2 is the strange phrase used to describe the encounter between the king and each of his new ladies. On the surface, the escapade of the king with every attractive, eligible young woman seems like the ultimate show of masculine virility. However, a closer look at the text reinforces the weak portrayal of Ahasuerus in Esther 1 and seems to effeminate the king further.

Verse 2:12 begins “When the turn of each young woman came to enter to King Ahasuerus…”. A close look at the Hebrew find the construction of בוא אל being used to express the woman “entering to” the king. HALOT defines this usage as “cohabitation.” (1.c. p.113) Similar constructions are found in e.g. Gen 16:2; 29:21; 30:3; 38:8. Of course, “cohabitation” is a nice way of putting things, the text literally says “he came (in)to her.” Much like the encounter in Esther 2, these other passages refer to sexual intercourse.

However, what is starkly difference is who is coming to whom. In all other texts where this construction is attested, it is the man who is doing the action. It is only here in Esther that the woman is doing the action. Only here is the woman “coming to” the man.

(Bush, in his Word Biblical Commentary on Ruth & Esther, mistakenly states that 2 Sam 11:4 has the woman as the subject. However, the verbal form is different [Hiphil rather than Qal]; and the following verb states explicitly that David lay with Bathsheba — not the other way round. [p.365])

What is the significance of this? Perhaps nothing. It could simply be that this late, post-exilic text uses a different idiom to refer to sex. Yet I don’t think that’s the case.

The text has already shown Ahasuerus to be a rather inept fellow who has essentially called a cabinet meeting to deal with his first wife in chapter one. The text here seems to be pushing this idea further, further weakening the king’s virility. It’s hard not to find traces of Said’s Orientalism in Esther’s portrayal of Ahasuerus. A portrayal of Persia that runs from Herodotus through 300.

This is the one of a series of posts on Esther inspired by my cell’s close reading of the text. Some will be academic, some will be pedantic. Hopefully all will be edifying.

  1. Polycarp permalink
    November 8, 2008 10:11 am

    I am not a fan of anything Hebrew, but how does your idea compare with vs17 when the women were called virgins? Also, does this mean that the Esther story means that the Queen prostituted herself out?

    Could this be one of the reasons why it took so long for Esther to be recognized as canonical?

  2. November 8, 2008 5:23 pm


    Virgin is a slippery word to use in Hebrew. Fred Bush has a whole discussion on it in his commentary, and I’d recommend it to you. That the women are still referred to as “virgins” after having had their night with the king doesn’t negate the sexual connotations of the text.

    Prostitution is usually defined as illicit sex for personal gain (usually economic). Since Esther’s sex was with the king and the king makes the law, it’s hard to call it prostitution.

    While Esther’s relations with the king probably gave early exegetes pause, the larger barriers to canonicity are the facts that the book never mentions God and that it’s protagonists don’t act religiously (e.g. Esther doesn’t attempt to keep Kosher like Daniel does).

    Thanks for your questions.

  3. Polycarp permalink
    November 8, 2008 10:45 pm


    Thanks for the answers. I admit, I had to go and reread Esther in the ‘light’ and it does add another dimension to it. I guess that since the women could have been considered concubines, legally it was not for gain, just the King picking his favorite from what he already had, unless I am missing something.

    Thanks for the post.


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