Girl Power, Singles’ Sex and Single Mothers in Ancient Israel
About 500 BCE King Xerxes ruled over a huge Persian empire stretching from Egypt to India. Early in his elite Paris escorts, he organized a seven day semi-drunken feast for men to celebrate his glory and power. His wife, Queen Vashti, conducted a separate feast for women. On the seventh day of the feast, high on wine, he sent seven eunuchs to escort the queen to his party so that the guys could see how beautiful she was. He directed her to wear her crown, but it is not clear if he wanted her to wear anything else.
Numerous commentators believe she was expected to appear naked. Many of the men had probably already viewed her fully clad and would doubtless have appreciated a more revealing picture of her beauty. In any case Vashti refused to go.
After counselling with his wise men Xerxes dismissed her as queen. He then had the problem of finding another queen – and wife. His personal attendants suggested he conduct a beauty contest involving the most attractive young virgins to determine who should be queen. The king readily accepted this advice. He appointed commissioners in each of the 127 provinces of his empire to find beautiful virgin women to send to the capital city, Shushan, for assessment. Part of the assessment process required each virgin to spend a night with the king. It would have been an arduous task for the king because, according to Josephus, 400 virgins were sent in from the provinces. This story, along with what followed, is reported also in the biblical book called Esther.
Eventually the king selected a clear winner and, unbelievably, she turned out to be a Jewish girl called Esther who was “lovely in form and features”. (2:7 NIV)
Before going further we may wish to reflect on the moral fibre of these two queens. It would seem that the Persian Queen Vashti was taking a stand on principle and was treated very harshly because of it while Esther, as a young Jewish girl, seemed to have no qualms about having sex with the king. It was, of course, only a matter of singles’ sex because the king had divorced Vashti.
The penalty for adultery in Israel was death, but what about singles’ sex? One biblical passage (Exodus 22:16,17) indicates that the penalty for singles’ sex was that the errant pair had to marry, provided dad permitted, and the guy had to pay the bride price.
Thus the insertion of the penis into the vagina constituted a marriage proposal and the girl was assumed to have accepted the proposal unless she screamed loudly as in a rape case. (Deuteronomy 22:25-28) If dad did not permit the marriage the guy still had to pay the bride price because his daughter, as a non-virgin now, had been devalued in the marketplace. This in itself would give the guy some cause for restraint in pursuing his sexual activities.
There is also a chance the girl could become a single mother as a result of the sexual marriage proposal but presumably the father, having banned the marriage, would feel some responsibility to support the mother and child.
We would, of course,see these provisions as very primitive and quite unacceptable; but it is helpful to remember that there would be nowhere near as many single mothers, much less sexually transmitted disease, and possibly fewer divorces under the Jewish system because dad (whose dull perceptions would surely have been enlivened by mum) might identify possible future problems and ban an unsuitable marriage.
By the way, Xerxes’ research with the 400 virgin girls could have answered a question some girls ask today: What are the chances of getting pregnant after the first sex experience (unprotected)? Sex with 400 girls could have produced a significant number of single mothers.
Doubtless Esther didn’t scream when the king copulated with her because she was likely to have her head cut off if she did, and in any case she was willing to marry him in harmony with Jewish law. In fact it was probably in the providence of God that she became Queen of Persia because, as readers of the book of Esther will know, years later a day was fixed on which all Jews everywhere in the kingdom were to be massacred. Hitler wasn’t the first to plan a holocaust for the Jews.
In this crisis Esther sought a special appointment with the king without saying why. He loved her so much that he told her he was prepared to do anything for her, even up to offering her half his kingdom. (7:2) That was real girl power!
When she made her plea for the Jews he readily cancelled the massacre and hanged the culprit who planned it.
Doubtless many readers won’t believe a word of this story. But they need to explain why Jews still celebrate the Purim holiday one day each year in commemoration of the signal triumph engineered by Esther. The Wikipedia article “Amestris” acknowledges the possibility that Amestris, the wife of Xerxes and mother of his successor Artaxerxes, could have been identical to the biblical Esther.
Other Jewish women also demonstrated girl power. Deborah was one of the rulers of Israel before there were any kings. She also acted as a judge and prophetess in Israel. At one stage she commissioned a man called Barak to assemble an army to repulse a military threat to Israel. Barak was not game to do it unless she came with him. So she did, and they won a signal victory.
Ruth had a biblical book named after her. Miriam and Huldah were prophetesses. Because the non-Jewish prostitute, Rahab, believed that God was with Israel she played a decisive role in Israel’s capture of Jericho. Abigail averted by tact and skill a very nasty situation between David and an arrogant fellow called Nabal. She later became King David’s wife and queen. There were, of course, numerous other queens including the notorious Jezebel. A lady called Jael thoughtfully hammered a nail through the temple of Sisera, an enemy of Israel, while he slept — and he died.