Remember the Dillard-Longman Outline:
I. The Feasts of Xerxes (1:1-2:18)
II. The Feasts of Esther (2:19-7:10)
III. The Feasts of Purim (chapters 8-10).
This post looks at the first set of feasts: The feasts of King Ahasuerus, aka Xerxes I.
The book begins, ”Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants.” This is clearly an appropriate way to begin a historical chronicle. What remains to be seen at this point in the book is whether it is a prophetic history or a wisdom historical chronicle. The scope of his rule was from modern day Pakistan in the Indian subcontinent to northern Sudan in the continent of Africa. Thus there is nowhere for most of the Jewish people to flee. Susa was one of the captial cities where Persian kings sat. It was the usual seat of royal authority during the winter. See Daniel 8:2 and Nehemiah 1:1 for other references to Susa, before and after this time respectively. Since Ahasuerus became king in November 486 B.C., the events in Esther take place over about ten years beginning circa 483 B.C. There was a war council in 483 B.C. for the purpose of preparing to invade Greece. This is further background to the purpose for the 180 day feast. This would certainly explain then why the king was showing off his ”royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days” to the ”army of Persia and Media.” He wanted a united nation for the planned invasion of Greece and showing his wealth was a good reminder that he could reward them for it.
Persian kings typically had multiple wives and concubines. The book of Esther tells us that the name of his wife considered the Queen at the time was Vashti. On the seventh straight day of drinking wine, the King sent for his Queen to come show ”her royal crown” (probably a headdress) ”in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty for she was lovely to look at.” He had sent seven eunuchs to bring her likely because they would have carried her on a royal litter. However, here at the climax of his effort to bring the Persian and Mede nobles together for this fight Queen Vashti refused.
Karen Jobes paints the scene well in her commentary where she further notes that the description of the King’s wealth would have been seen as ironic to the original audience of the book. It was ironic because the King returned from battle with Greece militarily defeated and monetarily depleted. Thus the original readers of this book would have seen this description as a foreshadowing of his reversal of fortune. She also tells us that it is common for interpreters to use this text to preach against the evils of alcohol and against the rebellion of wives. Perhaps this is the instinct of the interpreter who believes the book is meant to be wisdom literature. The difficulty in such an approach is that the text does not tell us to take away any of these lessons. In the context of the book the most important observation would be that the King was not safe to be around since he was powerful and made decisions while impaired. This is clearly an important point considering what happens later.
The major problem with what Queen Vashti had done is that the King had lost face in front of his royal administration during a war council. It was a major political embarrassment. The book then is not about how Vashti was a bad wife and Esther was a good wife. In fact, the book focuses on their roles as Queens rather than as wives to the King (a distinction that Jobes explains at some length). The significance of this passage thus far then has been to highlight the way that in God’s providence the wheels are in motion even in very political decisions of pagan kings to ensure the ultimate deliverance of God’s people.
The invitation for Queen Vashti to come to the King’s banquet also serves then as a foil to our invitation to the Messianic feast. Duguid explains that both are lavish feasts but God does not summon the bride (the church) in order to ”expose her to shame but to lavish his grace and mercy upon her.” The consequences for not heeding the call are similar – if you refuse it then like Vashti you would experience banishment. But the Kings in question are very different. To be sure both have issued “decrees” that women are to honor their husbands but in Christ husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church.
Speaking of the decree regarding wives honoring their husbands the text tells us that this was the solution suggested by the King’s seven closest advisors (they ”saw the king’s face”). These were the only people who could come to the king unannounced and uninvited, which not even the Queen could do. The text tells us that they ”knew the times” – which means that they practiced astrology and the like to determine what to do. The decree suggested included forbidding her to enter the King’s presence, taking away her title as Queen, and giving that title to another. Also significant is that this would be ”written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed.”
All this is satirizing the Persian men for thinking that by decreeing that women are to honor their husbands they have made any difference. Jobes notes that Memucan’s proposal is not that different than what Haman does in Esther 3:8. That is, in both cases an individual takes their own fears and describes them as issues for the good of the kingdom and thus get the King to do something they want. Jobes helpfully adds, ”Ironically, by accepting Memucan’s advice, the king ends up publicizing his embarrassing plight by ordering throughout the empire what he himself could not accomplish in his own palace, that every man ‘should be ruler over his own household’ (v.22). Afraid that all the women of the empire will hear about Vashti, he ends up assuring what he fears by sending a dispatch to every province of the empire! The blindness in Memucan’s advice as this scene unfolds gives it a depth of irony and even humor.” She explains by quoting Fox, ”The author teaches us to make fun of the very forces that once threatened—and will again threaten—our existence, and thereby makes us recognize their triviality as well as their power.” The fact that they are laughing about it all may suggest that this was written a generation or more after the events described. In any case, it is fitting for a feast like Purim that is meant to be joyful.
Jobes also says, ”The author of Esther is revealing the workings of worldly power and mocking its ultimate inability to determine the destiny of God’s people. At that time and place, worldly power was held by Persian men. The author chooses to include and highlight an incident involving the interaction between men and women because in this story powerful Persian men are outwitted by a Jewish woman.”
This episode opening the book of Esther shows us the sad state of affairs in Persia. The King and his closest advisors had to demand the respect of their wives, which respect means little when it is demanded. The King makes monumental decisions based on his advisors’ own personal fears and whims. Persian affairs of state were discussed and decided while drunk rather in a sober state of mind. The King also shows that he is unpredictable and even capricious.
This brings us then to Esther 2. Jobes gives us more of the backstory explaining that Esther became Queen in the seventh year of the King’s reign: 479 B.C. Therefore, the major defeat of the Persians by the Greeks has already happened. Greek Historian Herodotus says that Xerxes indulged himself in excess as a result including some relationships with officers’ wives that eventually would lead to his assassination in a bedroom in 465 B.C.
What happens next in Esther is that the King decided to gather all the beautiful young virgins to his harem in Susa and to choose one of them to be the new Queen. This was the advice of ”the king’s young men who attended him.” Ordinarily the wives of Persian kings came from one of the noble families, especially often from the families of the seven closest advisors. But given the events that have just taken place, this is not apparently much of a concern to these men who attended to the king.
Then the text introduces us to Mordecai. He was a Benjaminite. And the way the text reads most naturally would make him the unlikely age of over a hundred years old when he served the King. He would have to be that old to have been living at the time of the exile in question. It is possible to read the line as saying that his grandfather Kish had been the one taken into exile. Jobes suggests that we simply understand it the way that Scripture often describes the solidarity of Israel with her ancestors. Thus Mordecai is connected by the text with the Exile. Such is God’s providence. In other words, when the king of Judah went into exile so did his people – including those not yet born in Babylon and Persia. The fact that Mordecai was of the tribe of Benjamin and a descendant of a man named Kish helps the reader to make an analogy between Mordecai and King Saul, which is important when we come to Esther 3:1. It was King Saul, the Benjaminite son of Kish, who failed to devote to destruction the family of Agag.
And we meet ”Esther” – although that is not her real name. Her Hebrew name was Hadassah. Esther may be the transliteration of the name of the Babylonian goddess of love and war named Ishtar. If so, it is fitting since we see Esther acting much like a goddess of love and war. Since this fits her so well it may explain why we remember her as Esther rather than Hadassah. Mordecai may very well be the transliteration of Marduka (worshiper of the Babylonian god Marduk). Like Daniel and his friends, the characters in Esther have received Babylonian names reflecting Babylonian deities. Jobes suggests various ways to understand this including that it would show to the world how Marduk and Ishtar are not as powerful as the God of the Jews (whom we have seen goes unnamed in the whole book). Since Esther is also called Hadassah in the book we can expect a clash of these two identities. Jobes says, ”At the beginning of the story, Esther’s identity as a Jewess and her identity as the Persian king’s consort are not integrated. She cannot be both at the same time. At the end of the story, both of her identities have merged through the events of the story” as seen in Esther 9:29.
In any case, the book invites reflection on the topic of the people of God relating to the pagan culture in which they live. However, the book does not openly answer the question as to how to do so.
In order to understand the scene of what happens with Esther it is important to understand that the virgins of the empire were prepared for a whole year for this one night with the king. Then they were usually banished from the king’s presence into the harem unless he decided to summon her to return. And apparently Esther pleased the King so well that he ”loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great feast for all his officials and servants; it was Esther’s feast” (Esther 2:17-18a). Such will be the way that Jesus will see His church – a beautiful bride prepared and that he loves. And yet like the feast the differences are obvious.