Sunday, February 19, 2017

Queen Esther: A Destiny Fulfilled. Day 2, Queen Vashti Disobeys The King

Queen Esther:
A Destiny Fulfilled
Day 2
Queen Vashti Disobeys The King

Today we learn who the first wife of Xerxes I was and how she fell out of favor with her husband.

"This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: At that time King Xerxes ruled from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present." (Esther 1:1-3) By the time of Xerxes, the capital of Babylon had been moved from the city of Babylon to the city of Susa. Xerxes' palace was there and like many ancient kings, he was eager to demonstrate his power and wealth by supplying his top officials with rich foods and free-flowing wine for an extended period of time.

"For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty." (Esther 1:4) If his war against Greece takes place between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, one of the motives for the feast may have been to prop up the men's morale, secure their support, and encourage them to fight for the glory of their kingdom.

"When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king's palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa." (Esther 1:5) It was important to secure the allegiance of the common people as well, for he would spend four years recruiting and conscripting men into his army.

No expense was spared in the courtyard of the palace. "The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king's liberality. By the king's command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished." (Esther 1:6-8) With seven days of continual drinking, we can see why so many couches were necessary at this feast! 

"Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes." (Esther 1:9) The wives and concubines of the king were housed in a separate section of the palace where each woman was provided with her own private quarters. According to historians, Persian women were allowed to hold money and property in their own names and were at times even involved in the political careers of their husbands. While not granted equal rights with men, Persian women enjoyed more freedom than that of many other women of ancient times. They were supplied with a high level of education and training in the arts, and they traveled in the entourage of the king wherever he went and enjoyed various cultural experiences. Vashti would have had the freedom to throw lavish parties anytime she chose and would have been able to spend money at her own discretion without asking the permission of her husband the king. 

Xerxes has been feasting and drinking for a total of 187 days now and does not have his wits about him, so he makes a poor decision. "On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him---Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas---to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at." (Esther 1:10-11) The king is sloppily drunk by now and gets the bright idea of parading his queen before all these men. He sends the eunuchs (the only type of men allowed into the women's quarters) to fetch his wife. It's not enough for him that he has made an obscene display of his wealth before all the nation for over six months in order to prove he is the greatest king on earth. He now feels compelled to prove to everyone he has the most beautiful wife on earth. 

An ancient Jewish legend states that the men were arguing over which nation produced the most beautiful women, at which point Xerxes decides to settle the matter by showing them the most beautiful woman he has ever laid eyes on. I picture him lying on his couch with his eyes narrowed to slits in that common expression of inebriation, red-faced with wine, slurring his words and saying, "You don't think Persian women are the most gorgeous girls on the face of the earth? I'll prove it to you! Yeah, I'll prove it to you...Hey, eunuchs! Go and get the queen and tell her to put on her prettiest crown and come out here so I can show these guys who is the most beautiful woman in the world!"

Some scholars have proposed the idea that the king ordered Vashti to appear wearing only her crown, but most of the reputable commentaries and study guides I consulted say this is not indicated by the original text. I tend to believe Vashti was expected to appear before the king and his guests in the finery she was already wearing, but with the addition of the royal crown, which she was likely not wearing at her private party in the women's quarters. I think Xerxes wanted her to make an impression that would take the men's breath away, and he felt the addition of the crown would add to her already majestic appearance.

Things do not go according to plan. "But when the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger." (Esther 1:12) Wives of high officials in Persia were expected to be intelligent and educated and capable of making decisions regarding their own money and property. They were not expected to be mere sex symbols. Vashti was not brought up to be the kind of woman to flaunt herself in a lascivious manner. She knows she is worthy of honor in her own right and she respects herself too much to be objectified in this way. She will not allow herself to be exposed to the whistles and catcalls of a courtyard full of drunken men who will be undressing her with their eyes and lusting for her in their hearts. No man who respects and loves his wife would ask such a thing, so she refuses her husband's request. 

Xerxes' rage is so great because his embarrassment is so great. He has spent an untold amount of money and a great deal of time proving to his people that he is the greatest king on earth and now his own wife humiliates him in the presence of all these men. How will he ever live it down? How will he lead soldiers into war if he can't even lead his wife to the garden? In their intoxicated state, some of the men may have dared to laugh at this turn of events. The lavish party which was intended to be the talk of Persia for many years to come is going to be the talk of Persia for an entirely different reason, a reason which puts the king in a bad light. If he can't control his household, how is he expected to control the nation? If his wife disobeys him, why should men obey his orders on the battlefield? He knows he must come up with some way to soothe his wounded pride and salvage his reputation. In tomorrow's study his wise men will propose a solution which sets the stage for a young orphan girl named Hadassah to become Esther, Queen of Persia.

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