Solving the Problem
As we saw in part 1 of this two-part article on Esther 1, Vashti refuses to come before the king when unwisely summoned, and the king is furious. This relational dynamic is certainly part of the problem in this narrative. However, the problem goes deeper and is elucidated by the only dialogue in the story, which occurs between Ahashuerus and Memucan.
Let’s turn our attention to the seven wise men—the seven princes who “had access to the king’s presence, and who ranked highest in the kingdom” (vs. 14). It is to them that the king turns for advice, and it is from them (specifically from Memucan) that the solution arises. Since there is no indication of time lapse in the text, I will assume that the dialogue follows Vashti’s refusal immediately, in which case the king’s state of mind remains one of confusion. Memucan’s suggestion, which becomes the adopted solution, is the following:
(16) 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. (Esther 1:16-20, emphases mine)
While it is difficult to assess his true motives, we recognize that Memucan accomplishes two things with his speech:
- He flatters the king—just what someone with wounded pride could use.
- He uses the opportunity to enforce the dominance of men over women throughout the entire Medo-Persian empire. In order to achieve this, he uses fear-mongering and paints the imagined great evil which would result from this particular situation, whereupon women will now “despise their husbands in their eyes” (vs. 18), and “there will be excessive contempt and wrath” (vs. 18)—clearly, a great tragedy from a man’s perspective. How to avoid such a calamity? Make an unchanging law forbidding Vashti to come before the king. As a result, “all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small,” (vs. 20), and each man [will] be master in his own house (vs. 22). The purpose of this obedience is clearly stated—that the man be master in his house. To be clear, what this law implies is that a wife’s disobedience is criminalized. It is hard to not see the sexual overtones of the Vashti episode, so I’ll let the reader read between the lines and see where domestic abuse fit in this scenario.
Looking back to this from a contemporary standpoint, Memucan’s words strike us as anything but wise. Coerced respect is anything but respect. As we shall see shortly, his words are also anything but wise according to Scripture. Relationships simply don’t work like that. They never have, and never will, because they were never meant to. Part of this has to do with the fact that men and women are created as equal, self-governing creatures that possess will, neither of which should ever become the possession of the other. From ideal to reality is a long stretch, though, and the Bible is littered with proof of this—as is our daily life. Nevertheless, knowing God’s ideal is very important.
God’s Ideal for Marital Relationships
To begin, we notice that this story includes several allusions to Genesis 1-3. For instance, a clear parallel between Esther 1 and Genesis 1-3 is the disobedience of a woman—in both cases with repercussions over entire kingdoms.
In Genesis 3, Eve’s disobedience led to a curse over all the women who would be part of humankind. It is interesting to note also that the curse of Eve involves Adam ruling over her. In a fallen world, the equality the human race cherished in Eden before sin is hard to come by, at least without a refining of the character through God’s grace. It takes a genuine relationship with God—the kind that engenders humility and a willingness to acknowledge the other as God’s creature—to see that the woman is made perfect and equal to her counterpart.
In Esther 1, Vashti’s disobedience led to a decree which made husbands in the Medo-Persian empire masters over their wives. Fueled by fear, power, and greed, Memucan seized the opportunity to elevate men and subjugate women. When the goal is supremacy, the means don’t matter anymore. It is the unwritten law of a sinful mind.
Another allusion to Genesis 1-3 rests on some parallelisms between Ahasuerus and God. As with God, Ahasuerus is the owner of a large empire. In Genesis 1, God is Creator of the earth—its king and its owner. The exuberant, newly-created world tersely described in Genesis 1 is an incredible place worth of admiration and worship. In Esther 1, Ahasuerus is portrayed as the king of Medo-Persia, the greatest empire of the time. There is no economy of words suggesting his power and wealth, and his ownership is stated both directly and implicitly.
Perhaps the clearest allusion to Genesis 1-3 is the expression “on the seventh day.” Genesis 2:2-3 reads:
(2) And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. (3) Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” (NKJV)
This verse indicates the end and celebration of the six days creation, and how God, the Creator-King, spent that day: He rested, blessed and sanctified it, and marked it as a special meeting time with humans.
On the other hand, we read of Ahasuerus, who, after six days of feasting, “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, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold” (Esther 1: 10-11).
While both Ahasuerus and God are kings over vast kingdoms, God’s character is vastly dissimilar from the earthly king of Medo-Persia. On the seventh day, Ahasuerus endorsed a law that enabled the domination of men over women, likely including and encouraging domestic abuse. On the seventh day, God sanctified the Sabbath as a commemoration of creation, making it a special meeting time between He and His people (also referred to in Scripture as “the bride”).
While the earthly king refuses to take responsibility for his mistake and blames the woman–his wife (in which sense he can be likened to Adam)–who is the only one punished, the King of Creation is fair in His assessment of sin, unfolding curses that will touch both parties culpable for sin: both the woman and the man.
In some ways, Esther 1 reads like a distorted version of Genesis 1-3, which shows what happens when the power is in the hands of earthly kings more preoccupied with self-aggrandizement than with the wellbeing of those in his kingdom. Ahasuerus displays his glory by displaying power. He maintains this glory by legalizing the dominion of men over women. God displays his glory by creating a world of loving relationships. How much further apart could these passages be?
Plot and Irony in Esther 1
In verse 8, we read that “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.” No law regulated men’s drinking of wine.
Ironically, the drinking of wine leads to a law that enables the dominion and abuse of men, as we read in verses 19-22: “…let a royal decree go out from him […] that Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus […] When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire […] all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small.” Then he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, “…that each man should be master in his own house.”
As I mentioned in the introduction to part 1, the plot of this story is deceitfully simple at the surface. The narrative is not about Ahasuerus dethroning Vashti, although this aspect is certainly significant. The plot of this story comes through in the only dialogue, which is all about how to ensure the supremacy of men throughout the empire. Thus, the story is not about one relationship, but about all gender relationship in Medo-Persia.
The king has demonstrated, through an impressive display of wealth and power, that there is no one better than him in the world. Vashti, on the other hand, proves no longer suited for the royal position, which should be given to “another who is better than she” (vs. 19). In a world ruled by men, such are the values and expectations ascribed to men and women.
Yet Genesis 1-2, to which this story alludes, indicates a very different relationship: one where two equal beings, both created perfect, are to tend the garden together. This is the difference between God’s view of relationships and a corrupted humankind’s view. The ownership of both men and women, as the Creation story indicates, belongs to God, and tragic things are bound to occur when one human being takes ownership over another.
It is in this context that the story of Esther unfolds. It is in this context that the role of Esther will be played out. We will further explore these factors in upcoming articles, seeking to learn how the involvement of this Creator God influenced the events at the Medo-Persian court.