Who says she was? There is no indication in the text that she had any type of choice in accepting Achashveirosh as her husband. The clear implication is that it was in fact solely Achashveirosh’s choice as to whom he wished to marry – with the girl chosen not having any say in the matter, that is whether she would like to or not. The verses in Esther, Chapter 2 speak of the officers of the king collecting girls to present to the king with Esther 2:14 indicating the sad fate and any girl not chosen, i.e. to be part of the king’s guarded harem. There is really no indication of choice.
Reading between the lines, one could perhaps still maintain that there may be some indication that a woman would still want to have been chosen. In the preparation time before meeting the king, the women were given anything they wished to highlight their beauty (Esther 2:13). In making such a request, a woman was obviously hoping to be picked. In regard to Esther, though, Esther 2:15 states that she emphatically did not request anything. The actual indication, as such, regardless of what may have been the case with the other women, is that Esther did everything she could to avoid actually being chosen.
This is all from the simple reading of the text. The Rabbinic literature on the subject clearly further indicate that Esther had no desire to marry Achashveirosh and that her participation in the marriage was solely because of the fear that otherwise she would be killed. From a halachic perspective, her relations with Achashveirosh were deemed to be akin to rape. See, for example, T.B. Sanhedrin 74b. Simply, she did not want to be Achashveirosh’s wife; she was forced to become the queen under the threat of death.
This actually forces us to recognize the personal tragedy of Esther’s life and how much she sacrificed herself for the benefit of the nation. This recognition is specifically noted in the manner in which the ending words of Esther 4:16 are read in the synagogue. The tune that is used is not the regular tune for the reading of the Megilla but rather the tune for the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) on Tisha B’Av. She sacrificed her personal and spiritual quality of life for her nation.
The reason that these few words are particularly singled out is because up until this point, Esther only came to the king when she was summoned. Any sexual relations with Achashveirosh were, thus, clearly initiated by him, effectively against Esther’s desire. In this case, she would be the the one initiating contact with the king which, invariably would include sexual relations. This yields a major discussion in Jewish Law about how Esther could do this, however a powerful mitigating factor was the fact that this was undertaken to save the nation. Nevertheless, we recognize Esther’s specific personal tragedy of having to undertake this action – even to save the nation – by reciting these words in the sad tune that marks the tragedies of our history. See, further, T.B. Megilla 15a.
So in answer to your question – there really is no question because Esther did not want to marry a non-Jewish king.
One final note, though, it is also understandable that you may have thought that she did because that is clearly the way the story is presented in its fairy tale rendition found in the general market place. I recently saw a Hanna-Barbera cartoon on the Book of Esther and it clearly presented Esther as wanting to be queen. It should be noted, though, that this cartoon series about Bible stories was actually developed by Christians and presents the text with that slant. (I really noticed this in a cartoon from the same series about Moshe that had a cross in the hat worn by the cartoon Moshe.) It is important to recognize that presentations on the Bible in the general media do not necessarily present a Jewish perspective and, even more so, that the difference between a Jewish and a Christian perspective – even on the stories that both religions may share – can be vastly different. This case of Esther is but one example of this.
It's possible that Esther didn't really have a choice as to who she would marry. Furhtermore, one might be able to make the argument that her act of marriage, given the threatening environment the Jews found themselves in, could be considered a form of pikuah nefesh (saving a life). One might recall the steps Jews took to preserve their lives in Muslim and Christian ruled countries during the medieval period. Then, as well during the Spanish Inquision and the Crusades, Jews took it upon themselves to convert and assume an identity not of their own in order to preserve their lives and that of their family members.
Your question is a fascinating one; why would a nice Jewish girl, who we know is willing to risk her life to rescue her people, violate this most basic of Jewish rules? Alas, the book of Esther doesn’t directly address the question and as with so many issues in the Book of Esther, the deeper we dig, the more complicated the answer becomes.
The rabbis (Jewish textual experts) were clearly bothered by Esther’s marriage to Ahsuerus and they turned to midrashim (sacred stories) for an explanation. In the Talmud we read that not only was Mordecai Esther’s uncle, he was also her husband, so that her “marriage” to Ahsuerus was but a ploy to save the Jewish people. There is biblical precedent for this, because in the book of Genesis we see both Sarah and Rebecca join Pharaoh’s household, as consorts, in order to protect their households (not that the rabbis aren’t bothered by this.) According to this explanation, her willingness to marry the king is an act of self-sacrifice for her people. It is a disturbing explanation, but is one of the choices Jewish tradition offers us.
Another explanation by the rabbis is that she is not acting as a free agent, but is drafted into the king’s household, effectively against her will. We are told how beautiful Esther is and the implication is that she would naturally be among the young women who are “assembled” for the king. We are told that she is “taken” into the king’s palace. Nowhere do we see her seek to go there. Here the answer to your question would be she was not willing to marry the non-Jewish king, but was forced to.
A Reform perspective on your question would encourage us also to examine the text from a literary and historical perspective. Indeed, the rabbis were of the opinion that author of the Book of Esther strives not to offend the non-Jewish rulers of Persia. God is not mentioned in the book and the king’s cruelty and foolishness is dealt with by farce, rather than straight forward declarations (contrast this with Pharaoh in the Exodus story.)
It is unclear what the place of Jews in Esther’s Persia is. On the one hand, Esther is a Persian name and it appears Esther is so acculturated that she can pass for being Persian; at no point does she seem distressed at moving into a non-Jewish environment. When the Jewish people are threatened with extermination her uncle has to point out to her that she too will be killed. It’s as if she’s so at home in Persian society that the thought hasn’t even crossed her mind. By contrast, there are signs that things are not so good for the Jews. We see this in Mordecai command that she hide her Jewish identity and the willingness of Persians to join in attempt to slaughter of Jews.
Esther’s passiveness about her Jewish identity is very alarming, but one of reading the story is that hers is a journey of discovery where she awakens to her people and her capacity for courage. Esther’s willingness to marry a non-Jewish king may be a sign of how assimilated she was and only when her people face a crisis of survival was she transformed.
As was implied earlier, her marriage may also be an an indicator of her powerlessness. In this reading, Esther’s story begins as a tale of slavery and rape and only through her and Mordecai’s wiles, is it transformed into one of bravery and triumph. The other explanation, that she was Mordecai’s wife but had to be a kind of Jewish Mata Hari in order to save the Jewish people, is more than a touch disturbing, but it makes us realize how dangerous a world it was for Jews and what kind of sacrifice it took for Jewish leaders, like Mordecai and Esther, to navigate their way through it. One might also take her initial passiveness as a sad indicator that the women of her day were, by and large, powerless.
In conclusion, there is no simple explanation to your question about why Esther was willing to marry a non-Jewish king. The marriage may be read as a harbinger of many different things. But these many explorations of the question also reflect how sophisticated and riveting the Book of Esther is.
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