The last episode in the Old Testament story takes place in Persia, in Susa, the winter capital and royal residence. (In the summer, Susa was unpleasantly hot and thus inappropriate for a capital.) The king is Ahasuerus—more popularly known by the Greek version of his name, Xerxes. The episode begins in the third year of his reign (Es 1.3), which was 483 BC. The Greek historian Herodotus records that after his conquest of Egypt, which would have ended about this time, Xerxes convened an assembly of his nobles and announced his desire to invade and conquer Greece (Histories 7.8). Whether this is the occasion for the party in Esther 1 is just conjecture, but the timing seems about right, and it would make sense for Xerxes to display his wealth if he wanted to convince his nobles to support an invasion of Greece.
In any case, it was some party. The palace and banquet hall at Susa have been excavated, and the roofed hall was about the size of a football field. The hundreds (thousands?) of guests could eat, and drink, as much as they wanted. For six months. This king’s resources—and therefore his powers—are endless.
In a climactic, boastful display of power and pride, Xerxes calls for his wife to parade in front of his guests.
And she refuses.
The text doesn’t tell us why. Perhaps she was expected to appear nude. Perhaps she was pregnant; if the biblical Vashti is the same as Amestris, she was the mother of Artaxerxes, who would have born along about this time. Or perhaps she just didn’t want to be paraded around in front of a pampered, privileged, drunken mob.
But refuse she does. And so “Xerxes’ action is a parody on Persian might, for the powerful king could not even command his own wife” (HCBC). Xerxes, determined to punish her, seeks counsel from his advisers. Their immediate reaction shows that they are as self-obsessed as Xerxes himself; if Vashti can refuse her husband’s command, then—horror of horrors!—our wives can too. So, they advise, pass a decree—which in Persia is unalterable—banishing Vashti. It’s a broken world if a decree issued in drunkenness binds the rulers’ hands forever.
And the decree goes out “into all the king’s provinces” (Es 1.22), translated into all the recipient languages with the efficiency of the United Nations or the BBC. We won’t have anyone, not even the queen, disregarding the power of the One Great King, Xerxes.
It’s a big empire, stretching from India in the east to Ethiopia in the west (Es 1.1). But the Persians had ways of getting the message out efficiently. They had a sort of “Pony Express,” which Herodotus describes in something approaching wonder. Allegedly the riders could deliver a message from Susa to Sardis, in western Turkey, in 9 days or less. That’s 1200 miles.
Well. I guess we’ve solved that problem. Nobody’s bigger than Xerxes. Nobody tells him what to do. Not even his wife. Nosiree.
To be continued.
Part 3: Selfish Aims | Part 4: The King Gets What He Wants | Part 5: A Roll of the Dice | Part 6: The Tease | Part 7: Any Old Tablet | Part 8: Mental Explosion | Part 9: What Goes Around | Part 10: The Missing Piece