When Darius, the great king, died, his son Xerxes, who is called in the Bible Ahasuerus, took his place upon the throne of Persia. Ahasuerus was not, like his father Darius, a wise man. He was hasty in his temper and did many foolish acts.
At that time the palace where the king of Persia lived was no longer at Babylon, but at a city named Shushan, among the mountains of a region called Elam. King Ahasuerus held at Shushan a great feast with his nobles. When the king and his company were all drunken with wine, he sent for his queen, Vashti, that he might let all the nobles see how beautiful she was. Among the Persians it was held to be very wrong for a woman ever to allow her face to be seen by any man except her husband. Queen Vashti refused to come to the feast that these drunken men might stare at her. This made the king very angry. He said that because Vashti would not obey him, she should not be queen any longer, and he put her away from him and from his house.
After this King Ahasuerus thought to choose another woman to be his queen instead of Vashti. He sent commands throughout all the kingdom that in every land and province they should find the most beautiful young women and bring them to the royal city of Shushan. There the king would see them all, and among them he would choose the one that pleased him best, and would take her as his queen. So from every land in the great empire of Persia the loveliest young women were brought to Shushan, and there they were left in the care of Hegai, the chief of the king’s palace.
At that time many Jews were living in the cities of Persia, for we have seen that only a small part of the Jews went back to the land of Israel when King Cyrus allowed them to return. (See Story Thirteen in this Part.) There was a Jew living in Shushan, named Mordecai. He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, and came from the same family and line with Saul, the first of the kings of Israel. At the house of Mordecai lived his cousin, a young girl named Hadassah, or Esther, a name which means “Star.” Her father and mother had died, and she had been left alone; so Mordecai took her to his own house, and brought her up as his own daughter. Esther was very beautiful, and was as lovely in her heart as she was in her face. Among the other beautiful young women she was taken the to the palace as one of those who were to be brought before the king.
When King Ahasuerus saw Esther, the Jewish girl, he loved her, and chose her out of all the young women to be his queen, and set upon her head the royal crown of Persia. Esther was taken into the king’s palace; rooms and servants were given to her, and she lived in the state of a queen. When the king wisher to see her he sent for her, and she came to his room. No one could go to the king or could see him unless sent for. And if any one, man or woman, came before the king without being called, that person was seized by the guards, and was led away to death, unless the king held out toward him his golden scepter, the rod which he held.
In the palace Mordecai could no longer meet his cousin Esther, for no man except the king could enter the rooms set apart for the women. But Esther from her window could see Mordecai as he walked by, and by her servants she could send word to him, and in the same way could hear word from him. Mordecai loved the lovely young queen who was to him as a daughter, and every day sat at the gate of the palace to hear from her.
While Mordecai was sitting by the gate he saw two men who were keepers of the gate often whispering together. He watched them closely, and found that they had made a plan to kill King Ahasuerus. He sent word of this to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king of it. The men were taken, and, as Mordecai’s word was found to be true, they were both slain by being hanged on a tree. And an account or story of all their plan, of how they were found out by Mordecai the Jew, and how they were punished by death, was written in the book of records of the kingdom.
After this a man named Haman arose to great power in the kingdom. The king have him a seat above all the other princes, and asked his advice in all matters, and allowed Haman to do whatever he pleased. Of course everybody in the palace showed great respect to Haman, the man who stood next to the king. When he came near, all the men in the palace and in the city bowed down before him, and many fell on their faces, even in the very dust. But Mordecai was a worshipper of God, and he would not fall upon his face before any man. Haman noticed that there was one man who did not bow down, as did the others around him. He said to his servants, “Who is that man sitting by the gate, who does not bow down when I pass by?”
They answered Haman, “That is Mordecai the Jew.”
But they did not tell Haman, for they did not know, that Mordecai was the cousin of Queen Esther, and that the queen of Persia herself was a Jewess.
When Haman found that Mordecai was a Jew he became very angry, not only at Mordecai, but at all his people. He hated the Jews, and he resolved to have revenge on Mordecai, and on his account to make all Mordecai’s people suffer. Haman went in to the king, and said to him, “O King Ahasuerus, there is a certain people scattered abroad through your kingdom and apart from all other peoples. Their laws are different from those of every other nation, and they do not keep the king’s laws. It is not well to allow such a people to live. If it is pleasing to the king, let a law be made of putting them to death, and will place the money in the king’s treasury.”
The king, living in his palace and never going out among his people, knew nothing of the Jews, and believed Haman’s words. He took from his hand the ring on which was the royal seal, and gave it to Haman, saying:
“Do as you please; write whatever law you wish, and stamp it with the king’s seal. The money is yours, and I give this strange people to you. You can do with them as you please.”
Then, by Haman’s command, a law was written, and sealed with the king’s seal, that on a certain day, which was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, all the Jews in every part of Persia might be slain. Any one who chose to kill them might do so; and those who kill them might take for their own all their money, the gold, and silver, and garments which they might find in the houses of the Jews.
The copies of this law were sent to every city of the empire of Persia, to be read everywhere, so that all might know that the Jews were to be destroyed. Everybody who heard of it was filled with wonder, for no one knew of any evil against the king that the Jews had done to deserve death. They could not understand why the law had been made; but everywhere the enemies of the Jews made ready to destroy them, that they might have the Jews’ riches; for in those times, even as now, there was great wealth among the Jews.
The news of this terrible law came to Mordecai, as it came to all the Jews in Shushan. Mordecai tore his clothes, as was the manner of those in deep grief; he put on garments of sackcloth; he covered his head with ashes, and he went forth in front of the palace, crying a loud and bitter cry. Queen Esther saw him and heard his voice. She sent one of her servants, named Hatach, to Mordecai, to find why he was in such deep trouble. Hatach came to Mordecai, and Mordecai told him of the law for killing the Jews on a certain day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, and gave him a copy of it to show to Queen Esther; and he told Hatach to ask the queen, in his name, to go in to King Ahasuerus and beg him to spare the lives of her people. Queen Esther heard Hatach’s words, and sent this message to Mordecai:
“It is the rule of the palace that if any man or woman shall go in to the king in his own room, without being sent for by the king, he shall be slain unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter. But I have not been called to meet the king for thirty days.”
When Mordecai heard this message he sent word again by Hatach to Queen Esther:
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you are safe, and shall escape the fate of your people. If you keep still, and do nothing to save your people, God will surely save them in some other way; and you and your father’s family shall be destroyed. Who can tel whether God has not raised you up and given you your royal place for such a time as this?”
Then Esther sent this answer to Mordecai, “Go, and bring together all the Jews in Shushan, and let them all pray for me, eating and drinking nothing, for three days. I and my maids in the palace will pray and fast also at the same time. And then I will go in to the king, even though it is against the law; and if it be God’s will that I should die in trying to save my people, then I will die.”
When Mordecai heard these words he was glad, for he felt sure that God would save his people through Queen Esther. For three days all the Jews in Shushan met together, praying; and in the palace Esther and her servants were praying at the same time.
The third day came, and Esther dressed herself in all her robes as queen. She went out of her own rooms, and across the open court, and entered the door in front of the throne where the king was sitting. The king saw her standing before him, in all her beauty, and his heart was touched with love for her. He held out toward her the golden rod or scepter that was in his hand. Esther came near, and touched the top of the scepter. The king said to her:
“What do you wish, Queen Esther? It shall be given to you, even to the half of my kingdom.”
But Esther did not at once ask for all that was in her heart. She was very wise, and she said, “If it pleases the king, I have come to ask that the king and Haman, the prince, shall come this day to a dinner that I have made ready for them.”
The king said, “Send word to Haman that he haste, and come to dine with the king and queen.”
So that day King Ahasuerus and Haman sat at the table with the queen. She was covered with a veil, for even Haman was not allowed to look upon her face. While they were sitting together, the king said, “Queen Esther, is there anything that you wish? It shall be be given to you, whatever it is, even to half of the kingdom.”
“My wish,” answered the queen, “is that the king and Haman shall come again to a dinner with me to-morrow.”
Haman walked out of the palace that day happy at the honor that had come to him, but when he saw Mordecai sitting by the gate, and not rising up to bow before him, all his gladness passed away, and he was angry in his heart. When he came to his own house he told his wife Zeresh, and his friends, how the king and the queen had honored him, and then he said, “But all this is as nothing to me when I see that man, Mordecai the Jew, sitting at the king’s gate.”
But his wife said to him, “That is nothing. Before you go to the feast to-morrow, have a gallows made, and then ask the king to command that Mordecai be hanged upon it. The king will do whatever you wish, and then, when you have sent Mordecai to death, you can be happy at your feast with the king and the queen.”
This was very pleasing to Haman; and on that very day he caused the gallows to be set up, ready for hanging Mordecai on the next day.
It so happened that on that night the king could not sleep. He told them to read in the book of records of the kingdom, hoping that the reading might put him to sleep. They read in the book how Mordecai had told of the two men who had sought to murder the king. The king stopped the reading, and said, “What reward has been given to Mordecai for saving the life of the king from these men?”
“O king,” they answered, “nothing has been done for Mordecai.”
Then said the king, “Is any one of the princes standing outside in the court?”
“Yes, O king,” was answered; “the noble Haman is in the court.”
Haman had come in at that very moment to ask the king that Mordecai might be put to death. The king sent word to Haman to come in, and as soon as he entered said to him, “What shall be done to any man whom the king wishes especially to honor?”
Now Haman thought within himself, “There is no man whom the king will wish to honor more than myself.” Then he said, “The man whom the king wishes especially to honor, let him be dressed in the garments of the king, and let him sit on the horse that the king rides upon, and let the royal crown be set upon his head; let him ride through the man street of the city, and let one of the nobles call out before him, ‘This is the man whom the king delights to honor.'”
Then the king said to Haman, “Make haste, and do all this that you have said to Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate. See that nothing is left out of what you have spoken.”
Haman was astonished, and was cut to the heart, but he did not dare speak as he felt. He obeyed the king’s command, sent for the king’s horse, his robes, and his crown; dressed Mordecai like a king, mounted him on the horse, and went before him through the street of Shushan, calling aloud, “This is the man whom the king delights to honor!” And after that Haman hid his anger and his sorrow of heart, and sat down to the feast in the queen’s palace. He had not said a word to the king of having Mordecai hanged upon the gallows which he had set up the day before.
King Ahasuerus knew very well that his queen had still some favor to ask; and at the feast he said to her, “What do you wish, Queen Esther? Tell me, and I will give it to you, even though it be half of my kingdom.”
Then Esther saw that her time had come. She said to the king:
“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please you, let my life be given me, and the lives of my people. For we have been sold, I and all my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. If only we had been sold as slaves, I would have said nothing; but we are to be slain, in order to please our enemy.”
Then said the king, “Who is the man, and where is he, that has dared to do this thing?”
“The enemy,” said Queen Esther, “is this wicked Haman!”
As the king heard this he was so angry that he rose up from the table, and walked out into the garden. In a moment he came back and saw Haman fallen down upon his face, begging the queen to spare his life. The king looked at him in anger, and the servants at once covered Haman’s face, as of one doomed to death. One of the officers standing near said, “There stands the gallows, seventy-five feet high, which Haman set up yesterday for Mordecai to be hanged upon it.”
“Hang Haman himself on it,” commanded the king. So Haman died upon the very gallows that he had made for Mordecai.
And on that day the king gave Haman’s place to Mordecai, and set him over the princes. He gave to Mordecai his own ring, with its seal. And all the family of Haman, his sons, were put to death for their father’s evil-doing, according to the cruel usage of those times.
The law for killing the Jews on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month had been made and sent abroad; and no law of the Persians could be changed. But though this law could not be taken back, another law was made that the Jews could defend themselves against any who might try to do them harm. When the day came most of their enemies feared to harm the Jews, for now they were under the care of the king, and Mordecai, a Jew, stood next to the king; and such of their enemies as tried to kill them on that day were soon destroyed.
So everywhere, instead of sorrow and death, on the thirteenth day of the twelth month, the Jews had joy and gladness. And on the day following, the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, the Jews kept a feast of thanksgiving to God for his mercy in saving them from their enemies. The same feast was kept on that day, every year afterward, and it is still kept among the Jews in all lands, and is called the feast of Purim. On that feast the story of Esther, the beautiful queen, is read by all the Jewish people.