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Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Esther
By Linda Day
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
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Ahasuerus's Royal Parties (1:1-8)
The book of Esther commences by describing two parties: one for public officials and one for the general populace, both thrown by the king, Ahasuerus. These are the first of a progression of drinking parties occurring throughout the book of Esther. Ahasuerus first throws a party for the palace officials and employees (vv. 2-4). Immediately upon its completion, he gives another party, grander in scope but shorter in duration, this one in the royal garden's courtyard (vv. 58). Details of time, place (for the second), guest list, and duration are observed by the narrative.
The function of this episode is introductory. In a basic sense, the description of these two parties gets the plot moving: the parties provide the opening for the significant events concerning the queen in the following section. This section also gives the reader an impression of what the palace environment is like. As most of the action of the book transpires within the palace walls, such information is necessary for proper understanding of the story's events. It also functions as a foretaste of things to come, an introduction to certain of the main themes that will be found throughout the rest of the story: partying, royal pomp and appearance, being in the presence of the king, and obedience.
This section serves, furthermore, as an introduction to the character of King Ahasuerus. On the one hand, one sees the generosity of this monarch. He gives parties in the grandest style, sparing nothing for his guests. On the other hand, this generosity has a purpose and a price, for Ahasuerus's design in having so many people come to the palace is to elicit their admiration, that they might see "the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty" (v. 4). Ahasuerus wants to show off. Materialism and power are important to this king, and, moreover, that his officials recognize this power and wealth. One might compare King Ahasuerus's concerns with the model of kingliness put forward in other parts of the Hebrew Bible; his concern is not at all with the wisdom, just sovereignty, piety, and compassion a ruler is to embody and by which a ruler is to be evaluated (cf., e.g., Deut 17:14-20; Pss 72, 101; 2 Sam 23:3-4). One might also note that this is a fairly young king; he has been ruling only some two-odd years (v. 3). Perhaps his desire to impress others through a display of wealth is a sign of his immaturity. As this story progresses, this inexperience will become even more evident as Ahasuerus feels the need to rely greatly upon the advice of his counselors and advisors.
The first of the many decrees of the king that occur throughout the story is mentioned here. At the second drinking party, the guests literally imbibe at Ahasuerus's demand: "The drinking was in accordance with the decree, without restraint" (author's translation) and "the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace" (v. 8). The characters' actions of trying to impose their will upon others propels the plot here and elsewhere (Fox 2001, 17). This description may reflect the Greek historian Herodotus's account of the practice of guests at Persian banquets having to drink whenever the king drank. More likely, however, it reflects Ahasuerus's intent that people drink as much (or as little) as they desire. This remark sets the tone of permissiveness that will run throughout the subsequent events.
Social position is clearly important from the very beginning of this story; the Persian Empire is revealed as based upon a system of political hierarchy, as is evident through this pairing of parties. The first party is for members of the palace system who are officially affiliated with the king, literally, "his officials and his servants." The terminology may reflect different categories of individuals, greater and lesser officers of the king. If so, the second party mirrors similar social categories; "both great and small" are invited, but now from among the general population of the citadel. Those residing outside of the citadel receive no celebration at all. The duration of the drinking parties is vastly different, an incredible half a year, "one hundred eighty days in all," for the royal employees but a mere seven days for the general population. Though the location of the first party is not mentioned (perhaps it is in the palace, a place with which the royal officials would be familiar), the general population is not permitted in the palace but kept outside in its garden court. Already King Ahasuerus demonstrates a certain egalitarianism, in inviting both the lowest and the highest of each category to his drinking parties. Yet segregation within Persian society, indicated here by those with and without access to the king, is also clear.
The theme of royalty is likewise introduced in this initial episode. The "citadel" (vv. 2, 5) probably indicates the high place in the center of the city of Susa, the royal part of the capital city where the palace complex is located, separate from the general city (cf. 3:15; 4:1; 8:15). Not only do the events take place in a royal setting, in the palace, but the very authority of King Ahasuerus is stressed. The point of the drinking parties is so that he can show off "the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty" (v. 4). The prevalence of the term malkût, here and throughout the story, especially indicates this theme. Malkût, which occurs thrice in this section, signifies something to do with royalty. Here it refers to the royal throne (v. 2), to the royal wine served at the second drinking party (v. 7), and to royal power (v. 4). Elsewhere in the book, the term malkût denotes a royal position of authority or power (1:19 [the second occurrence]; 4:14; 5:1), the political or geographical domain (1:14, 20; 2:3; 3:6, 8; 9:30), the royal house or palace (1:9; 2:16), the royal crown (1:11; 2:17), royal clothing (6:8; 8:15), and a royal edict (1:19 [the first occurrence]). The effect of these numerous references to aspects of royalty, initiated in this section, is to render an impression of exceptional political power and influence.
Verses 6-8 are especially noteworthy. The second drinking party is described in some detail, in far greater detail than is typical of biblical narrative, which tends to be laconic in its depictions of physical surroundings. Verse 6 consists of a series of descriptive terms in quick succession. In the Hebrew text, the verse begins immediately with the description of the white hangings (the NRSV's "There were ...," beginning the sentence, is added). The nobles of Persian society would have been accustomed to the palace appointments and would not note the physical surroundings in such great detail. Rather, the recounting in these verses gives the impression of coming from the point of view of one of the "small" ones of verse 5, who is experiencing the royal palace area for the very first time and is overwhelmed by its opulence. Not being able to contain her or his awe, this one lists breathlessly and excitedly item after item that she or he sees, in rapid succession, hardly pausing for breath. And the perspective is notably a domestic one; it is the décor (household furnishings) and the dinnerware that are noted instead of, for example, the architectural or engineering aspects of the palace complex that would have been similarly awe-inspiring.
Verse 6 contains numerous rare words for which it is difficult to ascertain exact meanings. Four of the terms occur only here in the Hebrew Bible (karpas, "cotton curtains"; bahat, "porphyry"; dar, "mother-of-pearl"; soharet, "colored stones,"), one appears only here and another place in the book of Esther (hûr, "white [fabric],"), and four others are used only a few times in the Hebrew Bible (bûs , "fine linen"; galîlîm, "rings"; e, marble" or alabaster; rispâ, "mosaic pavement"). Though scholars may not know precisely to what each Hebrew term refers, the overall impression is an overwhelming sense of great luxury and beauty. Visually thematic, the colors are a preponderance of reddish-purple and white: the white cotton, the fine linen that is probably white byssus, the marble or alabaster stone, and the mother-of-pearl, in combination with the violet hangings (tekelet, translated in the NRSV as "blue"), the purple cords, the porphyry (a purplish or reddish stone), and the (presumably red) wine (v. 7).
This description provides overtones both of the Jerusalem temple and of international trade. Two of the terms in verse 6 are frequently used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the priestly tradition, to refer to fine fabrics used in temple hangings (tekelet, "violet hangings"; 'argaman, "purple"). These terms, along with "fine linen" (bûs), are also used, particularly in the prophets, to refer to textiles acquired in commercial transactions from other places in the ancient Near East. Both of these aspects together function in particular ways. They provide a sense of how cosmopolitan Ahasuerus's kingdom is, having items from all over the known world, which prefigures how the palace administration will show itself to welcome persons from various places and cultures. The narrator of the story can also be seen as wanting to portray Ahasuerus's environment in religious language, his palace as a temple. From the point of view of the Israelites in diaspora who are living in Susa and attending the second drinking party, the religious overtones of this terminology would bring home to them quite clearly the loss of the temple, reminding them that they are living in a place where the glories of the temple are replaced instead by only the glories of state. The international overtones, moreover, would give those Israelites the visceral sense of being in a foreign place, now that they see those exotic items of which they had previously only heard. The choice of terminology in this verse also prefigures the exaltation of Mordecai later in the book. Three of the same terms (hûr, "white [fabric]"; bûs, "fine linen"; and 'argaman, "purple") are used to describe Mordecai's fine raiment after he has been promoted by King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther (8:15).
Theological and Ethical Analysis
This introduction sets up a story world without God. What is revered and obeyed is the state, not God or priests or Torah. The physical is what is presented as important in this environment, not the spiritual; personal wealth, not personal piety. Earthly happiness rather than eternal happiness is the ideal. Such a this-worldly approach is reminiscent of the book of Qoheleth's admonition to eat, drink, and be merry in the face of life's enigmas (Qoh 2:24-26; 3:12-15; 5:18-20; 9:7-8). In this world, it is government, not religion, that has the greatest effect upon the lives of the people. In modern terminology, one might say that the Persian Empire represents not just a separation of church and state, but an environment in which there is no "church." In a certain sense, King Ahasuerus's debauchery might be read as demonstrating the dangers of such a "godless" society.
One cannot help but question the sense of responsibility represented in the figure of Ahasuerus. He appears as an individual with a compromised code of ethics and a questionable moral fiber, at least with regard to his regnal duties. For six months he has all the province governors and the army residing in Susa. Whereas his celebration is most likely a holiday welcomed by his invitees, it leaves the entire empire without administrative support and military defense for an entire half year. Who knows what needs might arise out in the provinces while their leadership is partying several hundred miles away? By this act, Ahasuerus demonstrates a certain disregard for the Persian population at large.
The king's actions represent a display of ostentatious wealth. He himself overindulges. In addition, he tries to impress others with money and gifts, choosing, in effect, to buy their affection, respect, and loyalty rather than to gain their respect through being a good ruler. A life of wealth and power seems to be what is important to Ahasuerus—or at least that is the picture he outwardly presents to the world. The reader does not see into any inner life that the king might have; it is all surface, for outward show (cf. Levenson 1997, 45-47). Far from the values presented by the Persian ruling class are the prophetic admonitions against wealth and its misuse (e.g., Amos 4:1-3; 6:1-8; Isa 2–3; 28:1-4). The beginning of the book of Esther presents a picture of conspicuous consumption, at least for the ruling class. Any society in which wealth leads to consumerism and "keeping up with the Joneses," the acquisition of expensive items for the mere sake of having them and showing them off to others, might see itself in this portrayal of the Persian court and its ruler.
Yet one should not judge the actions of this inexperienced king too harshly. On the one hand, the reader cannot help but wonder how many of the poor could have been fed with the money used to throw these two parties. On the other hand, however, the royal actions represent a recognition of the importance of beauty in life. This episode presents a certain ambiguity; it can be read as a picture either of excess or of abundance (Bechtel 2002, 21). With his second party, Ahasuerus gives to the common folk in the citadel more elegance than they would see in their everyday lives, bringing beauty into the lives of those who might not typically encounter it. Furthermore, with his generosity he creates an atmosphere of abundance for subjects who otherwise would not experience such bounty—even if it lasts only for the seven days of the royal party. As the Persian subjects appear to be regularly taxed (2:18; 10:1), the administration's activities represent the dilemma faced by every political administration when determining how to disburse its treasury. For what should taxpayer money be spent? How does a government adjudicate among the competing needs of its peoples? One might argue that a society needs to support the fine arts, that beauty possesses the intangible benefit of enriching the lives of those who experience it. Though the parties serve to bolster the ego of the king, in so doing they also bring joy to the people.
Vashti's Refusal (1:9–2:4)
The focus in this episode begins with Vashti, as she throws yet a third drinking party, this one specifically for women (1:9). Her refusal to cooperate when Ahasuerus requests her presence at his party initiates the problem that the remainder of this episode will resolve. The royal advisors suggest solutions to which the king agrees, and they are executed throughout the kingdom.
Most of the action is seen from Ahasuerus's perspective, starting from his decision to send the seven eunuchs for Vashti (1:10-12). The setting shifts at 1:13 to center upon Ahasuerus's conversation with the advisors. A great amount of narrative space is awarded to a direct quotation of Memucan's counsel (1:16-20), and later of the attendants' counsel (2:2-4). Indeed, these are the only instances of direct speech that the reader hears; the queen's and the king's statements are only recorded indirectly (1:10, 12, 13, 22; 2:4; 1:15 also more likely reflects the reported, not the direct, question of Ahasuerus). The narrative exhibits a fine example of satire through Memucan's speech, which represents the situation in disproportion to its actuality. Ahasuerus's recognition of the need for a new queen is a separate scene (2:1-4), but it is not clear how much time elapses between the sending of the edict about Vashti's banishment and women's subservience (1:21-22) and his subsequent recollection about Vashti (2:1).
Vashti, though a key player, is not heard throughout this entire episode. The narrative reports merely that "Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command conveyed by the eunuchs" (1:12). Nor is any explanation given as to why Vashti does not come at her husband's request, though interpreters have surmised a variety of possibilities: she is to wear only her crown and nothing else (according to the Megillah and the Targums), only concubines are to attend men's parties (according to Greek beliefs about Persian customs), or her dignity will not permit her to parade herself before drunken men. A further possibility is that perhaps she is too occupied with the duties of hosting her own party and simply does not wish to desert her guests. As understanding Vashti's motivation is quite a large gap for the reader to fill—one might argue that it is essential to understanding this character—it is curious why the author chose not to reveal her thoughts. Thus Queen Vashti slips into and out from this story quickly and quietly; this is the first and only instance where she is involved. By the end of this episode she is exscribed, literally written out of the story (Beal 1997, 25). Yet Vashti's presence continues to echo throughout the subsequent events. As one of the two female characters in the book, she functions as a foil, a comparative figure to Esther, the second queen. The narrative explicitly makes this comparison at 2:17, and through the remainder of the story one cannot adequately evaluate Esther's choices apart from Vashti's choice.
The events in this episode begin a progression of movement from Susa to the provinces. News of Vashti's action is the first pronouncement that goes out in this story, as 1:17 anticipates how "the matter of the queen will go forth to all the women" (author's translation). The second missive is the letter that Memucan proposes (1:19). These two occurrences begin a steady stream of communications that travel from the palace to the countryside: Haman's decree (3:12-15), Mordecai's counter decree (8:9-14), and Esther and Mordecai's legislation about Purim (9:20, 30).
Excerpted from Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Esther by Linda Day. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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