Did King Ahasuerus sleep with all of the virgins before he chose which one to marry?
The book of Esther records that after Queen Vashti refused the command of King Ahasuerus (King Xerxes) to appear before a group of people, the king became “very angry and his wrath burned within him” (Esther 1:10-12). Verse 19 reports that since she refused to display her beauty to the crowd, she could no longer come before the king. She lost her position as queen.
Then Esther 2:2-4 tells that the king appointed overseers to bring “every beautiful young virgin” to the king’s harem. Eventually, the king would pick his new queen from among these young virgins. This brings us to our question, “Did King Ahasuerus have sex with all the virgins before marrying one?”
“Every Beautiful Young Virgin”
Esther 2:8-11 reports what happened next.
So it came about when the command and decree of the king were heard and many young ladies were gathered to the citadel of Susa into the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s palace into the custody of Hegai, who was in charge of the women. Now the young lady pleased him and found favor with him. So he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and food, gave her seven choice maids from the king’s palace and transferred her and her maids to the best place in the harem. Esther did not make known her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had instructed her that she should not make them known. Every day Mordecai walked back and forth in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and how she fared. Esther 2:8-11 (NASB)
We are told “many young ladies” were brought to the harem at the citadel of Susa. We do not know how many virgins were brought to the harem for King Xerxes’ “beauty pageant.” Archaeologists have discovered the harem or the “women’s quarters. The following is a photograph of a reconstruction of the harem or the “house of the women” in Persepolis.
One section of the harem or house was for the virgins and the other for the concubines. The women’s quarters were rebuilt by Xerxes, according to inscriptions found there. The quarters consisted of two sections arranged in the shape of an “L” which were adjacent to Xerxes’ palace on the southern and eastern sides. Two stairways connected these quarters to the palace. It is very likely that one section housed the maidens while the other housed the concubines. Guard rooms were discovered near the entrance, as unauthorized entry was forbidden and punishable by death. This discovery affirms the historical accuracy of the book of Esther as will be further discovered in verses 13-14.
Did King Ahasuerus Have Sex with All the Virgins?
Esther 2:12-13 tells us that each women was given twelve months to prepare herself for the king.
Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women — for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women — the young lady would go in to the king in this way: anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. Esther 2:12-13 (NASB)
When it was time for each young virgin to go in to the king, she could take anything that she desired with her. It is important to notice that two times we are told each young lady would “go in to” the king.
In verse 14 we are told,
In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. Esther 2:14 (NASB)
That is, each young lady would “go in to” the king at night and return to the second harem in the morning. The second harem, would be the other section of the women’s quarters.
So, did King Ahasuerus have sex with all of the virgins before choosing one to marry? Since the Bible does not explicitly tell us that the king had sexual relations with each young lady, we cannot definitely say, “Yes!” or “No!” But most likely, “Yes” is the correct answer. Most likely, he had sexual relations with each young virgin. It was part of the selection process of choosing his next queen.
There are several important applications from this passage. The first one is that just as King Ahasuerus apparently had sex with many women in search of his queen, both men and women do the same today in the process of finding a future spouse. The only difference is that King Ahasuerus’ virgins may not have had a choice. Yet, many of these women were probably highly motivated to please the king because of the potential reward of becoming his queen. But the disgust that we feel for the king should also be extended to some of the women who willingly participated. The entire “beauty pageant” is disgusting. The entire was displeasing to God. The sexual relationship was designed to be between a male and a female in the context of marriage for life.
Second, these passages do not support polygamy. This passage is simply a report about what King Ahasuerus and these women did. One of them became his queen. The remaining women became his lifelong concubines. In the Old Testament, a concubine was a second class wife by law. So, the king had sex with all of his wives, but only one was his queen. But the record of what an unbelieving king and these women did does not mean that God approved.
1. Yehuda Landy. Purim and the Persian Empire. Feldheim Publishers. 1999. p. 69.