The Book of Esther (Part 1a: Marital Conflict at the Medo-Persian Court)

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The Book of Esther (Part 1a: Marital Conflict at the Medo-Persian Court)

PC: Sebastian Voortman via Pexels

Earlier this week, I opened my Bible to the first chapter in Esther and read the title: “The King Dethrones Queen Vashti.” Growing up in the church, this is the typical summary of the narrative I’ve heard. In the study below, I will disagree with the common plot suggestion, and propose that a close reading of the text points to a different emphasis in the story—albeit a subtler one. Before we go into the analysis, it is helpful to read the story. I have bolded the words that indicate power and regality, and these will be the first stop in our study, given their glaring presence.

 

(1) Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia), (2) in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the citadel, (3) that in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants—the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces being before him— (4) when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.

 (5) And when these days were completed, the king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel, from great to small, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. (6) There were white and blue linen curtains fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillarsand the couches were of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble. (7) And they served drinks in golden vessels, each vessel being different from the other, with royal wine in abundance, according to the generosity of the king. (8) In accordance with the law, the drinking was not compulsory; for so the king had ordered all the officers of his household, that they should do according to each man’s pleasure.

(9) Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women in the royal palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.

(10) On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, (11) to bring Queen Vashti before the kingwearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold. (12) But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.

 (13) Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times (for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice, (14) those closest to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who had access to the king’s presence, and who ranked highest in the kingdom): (15) “What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus brought to her by the eunuchs?”

(16) And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: “Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. (17) For the queen’s behavior will become known to all women, so that they will despise their husbands in their eyes, when they report, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she did not come.’ (18) This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus there will be excessive contempt and wrath. (19) If it pleases the king, let a royal decree go out from him, and let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it will not be altered, that Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. (20) When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small.”

(21) And the reply pleased the king and the princes, and the king did according to the word of Memucan. (22) Then he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province in its own script, and to every people in their own language, that each man should be master in his own house, and speak in the language of his own people.

 

As you can see, a significant part of the narrative consists of words that denote power and regality. Here is a tiered list of these words:

  • King – 29x
  • Queen – 8x
  • Royal – 5x (royal wine, royal palace, royal crown, royal decree, royal position)
  • Princes – 5x
  • Provinces – 5x
  • Command/ed – 4x
  • Kingdom – 3x
  • Officials – 3x
  • Feast – 3x
  • Palace – 2x
  • Decree – 2x
  • Served/Servants – 3x
  • Citadel – 2x
  • Reign/ed – 2x

Aside from these, the following words used once add even more dimension to the emphasis on power: throne, powers, nobles, riches, glorious, splendor, excellent, majesty, court, garden, white and blue linen curtains, cords of fine purple linen, silver rods, marble pillars, couches of gold and silver, mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble, unique golden drinking vessels, abundance, crown, ranked highest, empire.

 

A clear picture emerges that this story revolves around kingly power. The king is mentioned a whopping 29 times, making him the central character. Aside from this, we learn of a queen, princes, officials, and servants; of an empire governing over many provinces, a kingdom, a citadel, a palace, a court, and a garden. We get a grasp of this king’s wealth as we envision “couches of gold and silver,” “marble pillars,” “white and blue linen curtains” hanging on “silver rods,” and a marble pavement with an impressive chromatic scheme: black, white, and turquoise. This palace is any artist’s dream. As a host or guest, not only would you sit on golden couches (I can’t even imagine that), you would drink from vessels of gold—each one uniquely crafted.

 

We are in one of the most remarkable places on earth–in Sousa, the capital of the illustrious Medo-Persia, somewhere at the peak of the empire. What is going on in this story, and why is this display of abundance peppering the text?

 

Characters and Characterization

The answer comes up when we study the characters in the story–a fairly numerous list for such a short text:

  1. King Ahasuerus
  2. Queen Vashti
  3. Memucan
  4. Seven eunuchs: Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas,
  5. Seven princes/wise men: Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan
  6. Officials
  7. Servants
  8. Powers of Media and Persia
  9. Nobles and princes of the provinces
  10. People present in Sousa, “from great to small”
  11. The women (who feast with Vashti)
  12. Noble women of Persia and Media
  13. all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus
  14. All women of the empire
  15. All wives
  16. [all] Husbands
  17. every people
  18. each man

 

This list of characters includes different groups of people, from the king to all the people in the Medo-Persian empire, suggestive of the relevance of the story for the entire kingdom. Something notable is the gendered reference to several groups. On one hand, we have references to the king, the wise men/princes, nobles and princes of the provinces, the eunuchs, Memucan, husbands, and each man. On the other hand, we have references to female characters and groups of characters: Queen Vashti, the noble women of Persia and Media, all women of the empire, all wives. For better clarity, here they are in a table, listed according to the emphasis in the story.

 

 

Male Characters Female Characters

 

King Ahasuerus

 

Queen Vashti

 

Memucan

 

Seven princes/wise men: Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan

 

Seven eunuchs: Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas

 

Powers of Media and Persia
Nobles and princes of the provinces

 

The noble women of Persia and Media

 

All husbands All wives

 

Each man All women of the empire

 

The women at the feast

 

 

It is evident from even a cursory look at these lists that gender is a key aspect of this passage, already suggestive of the plot.

 

King Ahasuerus (as the narrator makes sure to clarify) is the very one “who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia” (vs. 1). At that point in time, he was probably the most powerful man on earth. Initially pictured seated on his throne in the capital of Sousa, Ahasuerus is said to have thrown an extensive feast for the officials of his provinces, as well as his servants.

This indicates great generosity until we read his motives: to show “the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all” (vs. 4). In other words, he spent six months showing off his wealth. The main purpose of the feast was precisely this: to show off. The extent and lavishness of the feast leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that, indeed, he had much to brag about. The description of his palace gives the impression of an overabundance of wealth.

 

After the one hundred and eighty days, he holds another feast, this time for everyone in the capital, “from great to small.” The setting is the very garden of his palace, and everyone in the city is invited! Once again, the impression the king leaves is of someone of great generosity. In fact, he is even described in such terms in verse 7 where we learn that, in his “generosity,” he offered his many guests “royal wine in abundance.” Aside from this description of the king, only one other word is used to directly characterize the king, this time an adjective: furious. He was generous in offering his guests wine, and furious when Vashti refused to show up.

 

Vashti enters the scene as a queen bound to remain a silent character through the entire story. While the men feasted with the king, the queen hosted a private event for the women. The gendered feast likely points to customary division, and it is significant that this is the only detail we are given about the event, as well as about Vashti.

 

By the end of the banquet, the king, “merry with wine,” asked seven eunuchs (customarily in charge of the royal harem) to bring Vashti to his feast. It is unclear how exactly she was to appear before the king and his guests. The text mentions that she was to appear “wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold” (vs. 11). Since only the crown is mentioned in reference to her wearing something, some see in this text a call for her to appear wearing nothing but the crown. Others argue that there isn’t enough textual evidence for such an interpretation.

Whatever the command may have implied, it is evident that her appearance would have been to some extent indecent, given that men and women attended separate events. As a woman, the prospect of being summoned to appear before a gathering of drunk men in order to show her beauty must have been appalling. She refused. (If you have a hard time understanding this, have a chat with a good female friend.)

 

The king, whose heart had been “merry with wine,” now burned with anger (vs. 12). The queen’s response turned his elation into fury. His prideful nature is just as clearly on full display in this story as his display of power. From the very beginning of the story, we learn that his sole purpose in throwing extravagant feasts was to show off his possessions. In his clouded state of mind, he treated the queen like he treated the wealth of his empire: as his possession. As we shall see shortly, however, it didn’t take a drunk mind to regard women as possessions in the Medo-Persian Empire.

 

Vashti, however, seemed to regard herself differently. She acted as a human being in charge of her own person and will, and chose to say no. The plot stands on the edge of a knife. The king has been refused and is furious. What will he do?

 

One question to ask is what someone could do in such a situation. Historical research suggests that, indeed, Ahasuerus’s request was out of conformity with the norms of the court. “The celebration was double; for, as according to the Oriental fashion, the sexes do not intermingle in society, the court ladies were entertained in a separate apartment by the queen.” Matthew Henry also writes, “It was against the custom of the Persians for the women to appear in public, and he put a great hardship upon her when he […] command her to do so uncouth a thing, and make her a show.”

Furthermore, Brown suggests that that “the refusal of Vashti to obey an order which required her to make an indecent exposure of herself before a company of drunken revelers, was becoming both the modesty of her sex and her rank as queen; for, according to Persian customs, the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze. Had not the king’s blood been heated with wine, or his reason overpowered by force of offended pride, he would have perceived that his own honor, as well as hers, was consulted by her dignified conduct.”

 

By the laws of the land, the king had broken the rule. The queen refused to respond, and thus she dishonored the king’s command to dishonor herself. What an intricate situation!

 

Returning to the question of what someone could do, one would certainly hope that a viable behavior for someone who wronged another is to recognize his or her error and take responsibility. While less could be expected of an intoxicated mind, this is nevertheless the right thing to do, and being in a state of confusion does not minimize the fault of refusing to take responsibility. All too often tragedies occur because of this exact type of situation.

 

As in many similar situations, the victim becomes the perpetrator. This episode is the classic case of the victim being accused, and, in an ironic twist, of the wronged becoming the culprit—all because her husband refused to acknowledge his error.

 

The king proves twice that he is unable to manage his marital relationship properly. First, he accuses her for a reasonable response to his unreasonable request. Secondly, he doesn’t engage in any further dialogue with her. Vashti is not given the opportunity to explain her choice.

This is likely because the king is not so much preoccupied with what is right and wrong, or with mending an error, or with strengthening a relationship. He is preoccupied with his self. Pride has taken a hit, and the king acts entirely out of his wounded feelings. A dialogue occurs among a group of men, who decide the fate, not only of Vashti, but of all the women in the empire. We shall begin here in part b of this article.

Click here to read the rest of Adelina’s series on the book of Esther

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.

  • Thank you for this very insightful explanation of Esther 1. I have felt for many years that Vashti has been wrongfully vilified both then and now. Unfortunately, many modern-day Christians overlook the pride of the king and the inappropriateness of his drunken command to echo the words of the king and his companions in accusing Vashti of disobedience and attempting to stir up disobedience in wives everywhere.

    Yet if we do not understand what actually occurred in Esther 1 between the king and Vashti, and what was culturally appropriate for that time and place, then we cannot fully grasp what Esther risked when she went before the king later, publicly and unsummoned, and just how significant the king’s reaction to her action was. The contrasts between the two incidents are striking and very important.

    • Adelina Alexe

      Thank you for your comment, Jacquelyn! It is indeed unfortunate that, for too long, the victim has been accused and the perpetrator not held accountable. You’ve pointed out some very good connections that will be brought out in future articles. We appreciate your engagement!

  • rachelcabose

    It occurs to me that another time in scripture when a similar incident happened (a woman parading herself in front of a king and his drunken guests) it resulted in the beheading of John the Baptist.