Councelors and concubines: Life in an ancient royal palace (Esther 2)

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Illustration: Ancient concubines

Piecing together the nature of palace life in the ancient world is fraught with difficulties, since what was true for one place  and time may not have been so for another. Not all ancient courts, for instance, followed the same rules. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw together some general tendencies about ancient Near Eastern palace life from various examples from the Biblical world.

Counsellors and High Officials

As advisors to the king, counsellors and courtiers were held in high esteem. Their advice influenced the king and the court in many matters; this influence could be either for evil (2 Chronicles 22:3 ff) or for good (e.g. Baruch used his influence to read Jeremiah’s prophesies not only to the people but to his fellow officials as well, Jeremiah 36:5 ff). High officials were expected to be “wise” but in the ancient Near East wisdom involved not only education or good judgement but also an ability to rea omens and practice divination (as was the case in the examples of Joseph’s and Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams or solve riddles).

The fundamental duty of royal counsellors was to give the king advice that would enable him to retain his power and prestige. Thus a wise counsellor could make or unmake a king, and the counsellor’s prestige (and sometimes his life!) depended upon whether or not the king regarded his advice as sound  (see 2 Samuel 15:32-17:14). King Xerxes’ officials advised him to remove Vashti from her position as queen and to replace her with another queen, lest other women hear of her actions and treat their husbands with contempt and the king himself became an object of scorn (Esther 1:13 ff).

The Royal Wives and Concubines

The king maintained separate quarters from the women; at Mari, the queen was also housed separately from the concubines and other women. The concept of “harems” and “concubines” have derogatory connotations in modern times, but this was not the case in the ancient Near East. “Harem” simply referred to the palace women (including concubines and slaves) or to the area where they lived. Persian royal women not only could attend banquets (2:10-11) but also accompanied the king on hunts and even on military campaigns.

Concubines in the Persian period included foreigners – daughters of other kings with whom alliances had been made. The fact that they had their own attendants indicates that they were not of low social station, though within the royal family they possessed only the rights of secondary wives. In some contexts access to the palace concubines was equated with the right to the kingship (cf. 2 Samuel 3:7, 16:21-22, 1 Kings 2:22 ff), so the harem was guarded by a eunuch or other official. While the access of the concubines to the king was limited (Esther 2:14, 4:11), this was not a function of their status; no one of any position could approach a Persian king without having been summoned (4:11). Officials, however, could not meet with royal women alone (e.g. Mordechai sent word to Esther about Haman’s plot via the eunuch Hathach; 4:5-9). In the Assyrian court the penalty for a courtier attempting to meet alone with a royal woman was death.

Royal women could use their influence to intercede with the king, particularly on behalf of or for the benefit of family members. In this way Esther was able to reveal a plot against the king that was discovered by Mordechai (2:21-23), as well as to intercede on behalf of her people when Haman tried to destroy them (7:1 ff). Queens, in addition to supervising household management and overseeing the hare, also owned and managed estates and oversaw work details.


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