This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. 2 In those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3 in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, 4 while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred eighty days in all.
5 When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.
9 Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
Roll them bones!
Oftentimes we get too uptight about approaching a Biblical story and we forget the way they are approached by people throughout the generations. Esther is a story told at the Jewish festival of Purim, which quite likely has its origins in Persian or Babylonian celebrations[i], and it is heard with raucous laughter-it should be a fun story perhaps shared over wine or beer. Are there things we can learn from this story: Absolutely, but we should be aware that God is never mentioned in the book, nor are there any indications (other than fasting which was widely practiced beyond Judaism) of any Jewish practice. It is the story of excess and foolishness, of the people of God who are trying to navigate living in the world where they are mixed in with everyone else, trying to make their way in the world of the Medes and Persians. There are things to learn from all of this, but also we need to learn to laugh at the story, to find humor where there is humor. Even Martin Luther who I respect greatly wished the book of Esther did not exist, perhaps this was a moment when Luther was taking himself too seriously.
First, Ahasuerus is probably to represent King Xerxes of Persia, and some translations will automatically change Ahasuerus to Xerxes, but this not intended to be a historical work as much as a story, and the fact that the story was linked with a festival is probably the main reason it was included in the canon. It is a story of excess and the excess begins with a six month long party (take that college students) yet unlike a college student the king has the financial wherewithal to finance a six month long party where the wine flows liberally and people are able to recline on couches of gold and silver in addition to the other lavish surroundings. This is a scene that puts the largest royal banquet in Game of Thrones to shame, and while a banquet that lasts for seven days seems excessive to us in the West for whom eating is functional, I am reminded that for many cultures something like a wedding will last days or even as long as a week.
All this lavishness sets the scene for the king’s command sent through seven eunuchs to retrieve his extremely beautiful wife (who is throwing her own party with the women) to display her before his officials and those with him at his banquet. This is not a fair world, in our society it would not be uncommon for a woman to refuse a drunken request but this is an extremely patriarchal world which women did not have a great deal of freedom, and even queens are only queens so long as it pleases the king. But the amazing happens, Vashti refuses, the king is enraged and the stage is set for the unfolding of a new drama. It will be set with overreactions and a paranoid defense of the patriarchal order (can’t have a queen who disobeys a king, what would that do to the fabric of society-it is a fear we will see expressed.) Most modern women and many men have some empathy for Vashti, but the reaction of the men in the court of Ahasuerus will be much different.
[i] I owe this observation to Sidnie White Crawford, (Actemeier, Elizabeth et. al. 1999, 3:860). This is not a unique phenomenon, Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter at the times when they are celebrated as a way of displacing holidays celebrated by the people that Christianity was spreading to. Or think of the conjunction of All Saints day (November 1) with All Hallows Eve (or as we call it today Halloween).