Esther 1-2 – Parties That Bring Change

1:1-3 – The stage is set.  According to Adele Berlin, chapter one “portrays the Persian court in all its decadent lavishness” and “sets the tone of the book” which is a “tone of excess, buffoonery, and bawdiness” (3).  This would characterize Xerxes and Haman, but does not seem to accurately describe either Mordecai or Esther.  The author of Esther lays out the pomp and “glory” of Xerxes (derived from the Persian khsyay’rsha) in all of his supposed power by establishing the extent of his domain.  He apparently reigned in Susa (cf. Dan.8:2; Neh.1:1) during this account which normally served as a winter palace among the four capitals of the Persian rulers (Susa, Ecbatana, Babylon and Persepolis).  The 127 “provinces” (compare the 120 “satrapies” of Dan.6:1; cf. Ezra 2:1) give particular emphasis to the supposed greatness of the king who threw a banquet in his third year (483BC) for all his officials.  This may have been to determine the best course of action against the Greeks that Xerxes would carry out in the upcoming years before returning in defeat in approximately 480-479BC.

1:4-9 – A Party in Persia.  Perhaps the 180 days mentioned in verse 4 refers only to these meetings with the officials as well as the demonstration of Xerxes opulence.  At the end of that time, he threw a party for seven days by inviting everyone.  The descriptions of the location for the feast are unparalleled in Scripture except by the descriptions of the construction of both the Temple (1 Kings 6-7) and the Tabernacle (Exo.26, 36).  This creates an aura of greatness concerning the scene and also suggests that at the time of the writing of Esther the glory of that scene had passed, but the Temple had been rebuilt (though all of this remains completely unspoken).  The wine flowed freely (or “as befits a king” – Bush 348) at this party and it was, according to Herodotus, customary for the Persians preferred to make important decisions when drunk (1.133).  It is important to the narrative that Queen Vashti gave her own banquet as a separate affair from King Xerxes.
1:10-22 – The King and Queen at Play.  On the final day of the party, King Xerxes  called for his Queen to be brought before him and his whole party to show her off, but Vashti refused and so Xerxes was furious.  So Xerxes sought the advice of his counselors who proposed that in order to save face Xerxes should send out an unrepealable decree (cf. Dan.6:9,13, 16) against Vashti appearing ever again before the king, so that other women will not treat their husbands like Vashti has treated Xerxes.  This is exactly what Xerxes does, but instead of this saving face it ironically reveals the very thing he wished to hide…that Vashti had scorned him.  This is part of the satirical nature of this account (Bush 355).  Further, the lists of the Persian names of the seven eunuchs sent to fetch Vashti (1:10) and the seven nobles asked for advice (1:14) all may be intended to sound “ludicrous to Hebrew ears” (Bush 350).  Whether this edict was ever even enforceable does not even seem to enter into the equation for the advisors and Xerxes, however the Hebrew may suggest that the goal of the edict was assure of husbands of their wives’ respect (1:20) and of ruling their houses (1:22) than that this should be the actual edict (Berlin 20).  Why might Vashti (who after verse 19 is never again referred to with the title “Queen”) have not appeared before Xerxes?  Should we moralize this account to either vilify her for not honoring her husband or should we honor her for not appearing?  Or should we simply recognize that whatever her reason it ultimately did not matter to the author other than to set the stage for someone else to become Queen in her place without any comment as to the wrongness or rightness of any of these actions?
2:1-14 – The Search for a Queen.  Xerxes later seemed to wish he still had his Queen, but since he had decreed that she could never return to him, he sought the advice of his counselors again.  And they advised that he should issue a decree to find among the most beautiful young women of the empire one who “pleases” him to be made queen in place of Vashti.  These women would be put into the harem of the king and would have one night to impress the king after undergoing extensive (one year according to the text of which six months were aromatic in nature) “beauty treatments.”  Suddenly a man by the name of Mordecai is introduced and his lineage is signified as being from the tribe of Benjamin with Kish (the father of Saul[?] in his family tree; cf. 1 Sam.1:9).  He is further connected as either one of the exiles from the time of Jehoiachin (cf. 2 Kings 24:6-17) in 597BC (but this would make him about 120 years old) or as a descendant of one of the exiles.  It is very significant that Mordecai is called “a Jew” (Heb. yehudi) which refers to the ethno-religious origin rather than to the tribal origin (Judah) since he was from Benjamin.  “Mordecai’s most outstanding characteristic” is not his morality, but “his Jewishness” (Berlin 24).  He had adopted his orphaned cousin Hadassah (meaning “myrtle”), daughter of Abihail (2:15; 9:29), whose notable characteristics here are her beauty and body (2:7) and whose name is everywhere else called Esther (from either Babylonian “Ishtar” the goddess of love and war or from Persian stâra for “star”).  The women chosen for the harem were all appointed to Hegai the King’s eunuch who provided for their preparations and who favored Esther.  Mordecai would regularly check on her during all of this time and in the days to come as he had also tried to protect her (knowing what might lay ahead for them?) by telling her to keep her ethnicity a secret.  Can we appropriately accept the actions of either Mordecai or Esther in her allowing herself what will become of her in the life with a gentile King? (cf. Deut.7:3; Ezra 9:12; 10)  In what sense must each of us seek to obey the Lord in a world where it is not always easy to do so?   “Regardless of their character, their motives, or their fidelity to God’s law, the decisions Esther and Mordecai make move events in some inscrutable way to fulfill the covenant promises God made to his people long ago” (Jobes 103).
2:15-18 – A Queen is Found.  Esther chose to make herself appealing by doing what she was told.  This brought favor from those she was surrounded by (cf. Gen.39:4; Dan.1:9).  She was taken to Xerxes after three more years some time in either December of 479BC or January of 478BC.   The king was particularly please with Esther though we are not told exactly why.  Certainly something about her pleased him more than all the other women he had taken to “try out” as a potential queen.  So another banquet was held and this one was in honor of Esther as the new queen.
2:19-23 – A Plot is Foiled.  Mordecai served somehow in the administration (which is what it means to sit at “the king’s gate”) and overheard an assassination attempt was going to be made on Xerxes life.  Rather than use this as an opportunity for a new king he told Esther who told the king and this will prepare for the events in chapter 6 when Mordecai will eventually be rewarded for this deed according to the reading of the annals of that day.  The two potential assassins were “hanged” but this more than likely does not refer to either impalement or to crucifixion, but to exposure of their bodies post-mortem (Berlin 32; Bush 373; cf. Gen.40:19; Deut.21:22; Josh.8:29; 10:26).
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2 thoughts on “Esther 1-2 – Parties That Bring Change

  1. David W. Chapman in his book "Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion" writes, "In Esther Rabbah, Queen Vashti refuses to appear naked before the king." I cannot glean such a rendition from the text of the OT, but I suppose Chapman has his sources, which he cites on pg 192 of his book. It's a viewpoint I had never heard of before. Interesting if nothing else.

  2. I didn't include it in my notes, though I mentioned it last night for the Bible study that there is a rabbinic midrash (Esther Rabbah is one of them and Targum Rishon the other) that refers to Vashti being required to appear before the banquet of Xerxes only wearing her crown. This is extrapolated from the fact that the text only mentions that she was explicitly to appear with her crown (that's rabbinic reading for you). And thus she refused to appear. One of them also states that this was because she had abused her Jewish women servants by making them work on the Sabbath in the nude. This is one of those things I would have liked to have included, but with the weekly crunch for time to produce notes for the study I've found I still have to be selective. I should still consider including those in my finished notes that will be posted though.

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