Pomp and Circumstance
The operative word in the first chapter of Esther is excess. We begin to suspect this in the very first verse. A king named Ahasuerus (literally "Mighty Man”) is said to rule over one hundred twenty-seven provinces ranging from India to Ethiopia. (For a discussion of the historical identity of this king, see Introduction, p. 2-3). He sits, not simply on his throne, but on his royal throne (v. 2). His royal throne is located, not simply in the city of Susa, but in the citadel or acropolis of Susa. Whether one interprets this as a fortified compound or in more palatial terms, the sense still seems to be of an elite location.
This prime piece of real estate is then described as the setting for the lavish banquet (literally "drinking party”) that the king hosts for "all his officials and ministers.” The guest list burgeons almost beyond belief to include no less than "the army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces.” Furthermore, the feast is said to last for a grand total of one hundred eighty days. It takes this much time, evidently, for the king to display the full extent of "the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty” (v. 4).
To be fair, we ought to pause at this point to ask a question: Are we to understand this as excess or abundance? Perhaps it is wrong to put a negative spin on what could be interpreted as a straightforward description of the grandeur of Ahasuerus’s court.
One could make a case for abundance if it were not for the cumulative effect of the account. At every opportunity the author chooses the extravagant over the straightforward. The number of provinces is generally thought to be vastly exaggerated, since by all other accounts Persia had no more than thirty during this period (see Introduction, p. 3). The author is equally extravagant with words, never missing the opportunity for extra nouns and adjectives, especially if they have something to do with pomp and circumstance. (If nouns and adjectives had calories, the calorie count in verse 4 alone would be well over anyone’s recommended daily allowance!) Finally, the author makes no attempt to mitigate the obviously absurd dimensions of the king’s party. As commentator Jon Levenson rightly wonders, "Who was minding the store during this drinkfest of half a year’s duration?” (45).
At first glance the author’s style seems to imitate Ahasuerus’s own "more is better” philosophy. Closer consideration, however, raises the question of whether the tone is not tongue in cheek. Are we really to believe that the author of the book of Esther did not see any logistical problems with a banquet of this size and scope? Are we really to believe that this author does not sense a certain absurdity in the over-the-top descriptions of Ahasuerus’s splendor? Or is it possible that this author’s tone is ironic, and therefore critical? Just because Ahasuerus is described in lavish terms does not necessarily imply the author’s approval.
As suggested in the Introduction (pp. 4-5), an understanding of the book’s form is crucial for making interpretive decisions about this book. Adele Berlin’s suggestion that the book of Esther may actually be a "burlesque,” that is, a kind of comic lampoon, is quite compelling (xix). She makes her case by way of a thorough review of other relevant literature from the ancient world, particularly Greek stories about the Persian court. Since the Greeks and the Persians were enemies during this period, one would hardly expect them to flatter Persian rulers. Just so, one would hardly expect a story written by Jews for Jews about their Persian overlords to be full of unmitigated admiration.
That the Bible should contain a lampoon of a foreign ruler is not a new idea. Other "obtuse foreign rulers” come to mind: Balak (Num. 22-24), Eglon (Judg. 3), and the Pharaoh of the Exodus stories (see Brenner, 42-51). These examples illustrate the varying degrees to which comedy comes into play, however. Even if we recognize some level of the burlesque in the book of Esther, it remains to be seen how fully it will play out with regard to the character of Ahasuerus. As we continue to read, we need at least to consider the possibility that Aha-suerus’s splendor may be more than a little tarnished by the author’s tone, and that what appears to be a characterization of abundance may, in fact, be a characterization of excess.
After one hundred eighty days we would expect both guests’ appetites and the king’s vanity to be sated. But verse 5 tells us that while the days were completed (literally "full”), the diners were not. Ahasuerus hosts yet another party, this time of seven days’ duration. If the emphasis of the first banquet was quantity, the focus of the second is quality. Even the guest list is a kind of distillation of the larger population, with only the residents of the citadel of Susa being present. It is a garden party set in the court of the king’s palace, with all manner of luxurious decorations set out especially for the occasion. Quality has not displaced quantity, however, for the "royal wine [is] lavished according to the bounty of the king” (v. 7). By this time we have formed a fairly definite impression of the scale of Ahasuerus’s bounty. But the author does not risk leaving the details to our imagination. Drinking, we are told, is "by flagons, without restraint” (v. 8). Indeed, the king’s only command is for self-command; he orders "all the officials of his palace to do as each one desire[s]” (v. 8).
The royal liberality even spills over to the ladies in waiting. Verse 9 notes that Queen Vashti also gives a banquet for the women of the palace. No further comment is made as to the nature of this gathering, but its mention may comment indirectly on the character of the king’s banquet. While it was not uncommon for women and men to feast together in ancient Persia (see chapters 5 and 7 for examples), Ahasuerus’s seven-day garden party is, apparently, "for men only.” Or at least, the queen and the women of the court are not welcome. We can only speculate as to whether other women are present. As Levenson notes, "The absence of women at Ahasuerus’s banquets enhances the perception that these were really just overdone ‘stag parties,’ with all the licentiousness and disrespect the term implies” (46).
Vashti Sparks a State Crisis
It hardly seems necessary for the author to tell us that the king’s heart is "merry with wine” by the seventh day. Yet perhaps it goes to state of mind since in Hebrew the "heart” is the seat of both the emotions and the intellect. In fact, the heart is also the wellspring of the will, and Ahasuerus’s merry heart "wills” Queen Vashti to come to the men’s banquet wearing the royal crown. The author makes no secret of the king’s motives: he wants to show her off (v. 10). Indeed, he has saved the best for last. Vashti is the prime piece of property that will "crown” his 187-day display. In the style of excess to which we have now become accustomed, he sends, not one, but seven eunuchs to fetch her.
There is only one problem: She won’t come.
Wondering over the root of Vashti’s disobedience, the rabbis suggest that perhaps Vashti is being ordered to wear only the royal crown here (Esther Rabbah III 13, p. 54; Pfisterer Darr, p. 169). Given the nature of the festivities to which she has been summoned, however, it seems unnecessary to speculate beyond the obvious. (Would you go?) In any case, the author does not seem especially interested in her rationale for refusing Ahasuerus’s summons. No matter how curious we as readers are about Vashti, the narrative’s focus is inexorably on Ahasuerus. The point to which the whole narrative builds is this: In spite of the king’s immense wealth and power, he cannot control his own wife. One woman pulls the rug out from under the most powerful man in the world...and she does so while his whole world is watching.
Queen Vashti’s refusal is a humiliation that is both public and absolute. (Imagine the unlucky eunuchs returning with the news!) Ahasuerus’s rage literally "flames” forth. Seven sages are summoned to help Ahasuerus deal with the emergency. (Note the parallel to the seven eunuchs earlier in the chapter.) Whether these men are lawyers or astrologers is not clear. Modern rulers have demonstrated their dependence on both, and perhaps these men were some combination of the two. No matter what their exact credentials, however, the king obviously relies on them for advice. The fact that they are named adds to the gravity (mock gravity?) of the situation. In what is to be the first of several such incidents in the book, a personal or domestic dispute has mushroomed into a political crisis. No less than seven special prosecutors are required to arraign the recalcitrant queen and counsel the king on damage control.
Ahasuerus’s question in verse 15 deserves specific comment. "According to the law,” he asks, "what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” It seems odd that he does not know the laws of his own empire well enough to negotiate this fairly straightforward infraction. Further, the inclusion of the phrase "conveyed by the eunuchs” seems extraneous. Yet, since this chapter’s theme centers on power versus powerlessness, the eunuchs may well be the author’s way of underscoring Ahasuerus’s own political impotence (see the Introduction, p. 12-13).
Memucan’s advice in verses 16-20 comprises the largest block of direct speech in the chapter and, indeed, one of the largest in the book. On the one hand, it is a brilliant stroke of psychology. By interpreting Vashti’s defiance as a crime against everyone in the empire, he deftly deflects the focus from the king. Suddenly, Ahasuerus is no longer the only man who is humiliated; every man in the realm is potentially vulnerable. In the space of a few sentences, Memucan manages to "take the heat off” Ahasuerus. On the other hand, one wonders if there is more than diplomacy at work in Memucan’s response. His nervous prediction of copycat crimes in every household may well reflect real male insecurity. Judging from the alacrity with which his proposals are lapped up by both the king and the other officials, one gets the impression that they are all genuinely frightened.
The scale of Memucan’s suggestion is consistent with the pattern of excess we have already identified in the book. This time the excess is not in terms of possessions or power, but of action. One woman defies her husband. Suddenly there is a national crisis, and law is being rushed through the legislature. (As to whether this law is irrevocable, see p. 71-72.) Furthermore, this legislation is not limited to the one defiant woman, but is instead extended to every woman in the empire. Letters are sent "to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house” (v. 22). How the legislators expected to enforce this sweeping command strains credulity. Excess everywhere abounds.
Irony is in plentiful supply as well. As a public relations strategy, Memucan’s approach leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of confining the damage, the decree actually publicizes the king’s humiliation. Memu-can worries that "there will be no end of contempt and wrath” when the women of Persia and Media hear of the queen’s behavior (v. 18). But the passage and publication of the decree virtually guarantees that they will hear of it, and in their own languages, no less! Carey Moore both concedes the irony and suggests an explanation for this. He writes, "that [Ahasuerus] should have brought into full play the communications system of the entire Persian Empire for such a purpose is ridiculous. Then again, drunken men sometimes are ridiculous” (Esther, 14).
There is a textual issue in verse 22. The Hebrew (MT) adds this phrase to the end of the verse: "and speak according to the language of his people.” Although we have become accustomed to the ridiculous, this seems extreme even for Ahasuerus. Some scholars have explained it as a reference to the complications of communication that arose in international marriages (see Neh. 13:23ff.). The confusion is best resolved, however, by seeing this final phrase as a scribal error echoing the earlier reference to the languages of the various letters. It is significant that the phrase does not appear in the Septuagint (LXX). Thus, even though the notion of a law ordering every man to speak his own language at home seems almost as funny as one that commands every man to be master in his own house, we should probably make do with one less laugh.
The question of whether and how much to laugh is an important one at this juncture. Even if one accepts the generally comic form of the book, there is a dark side to this edict that foreshadows other more serious edicts to come. This will not be the last time that an excess of pride and anger result in something that is oppressive. Even though this first edict is conceived in absurdity, it is born in cruelty. Women all over the Persian Empire will suffer for the arrogant extremes of Ahasuerus and his advisors. Perhaps the form of the burlesque blunts the pain, but there is a sense in which all of this book’s humor is —sometimes literally—gallows humor. We not only laugh until we cry; we laugh so that we will not cry.
These observations are especially relevant for interpreting Ahasuerus’s character. Berlin points out that he bears a striking resemblance to the stock character of the buffoon in Greek comedy (xx). While it is true that his "antics add an extra comic element,” it is also true that Ahasuerus is a dangerous man. Some of his danger derives specifically from his absurdity. This is the man, after all, who is ostensibly in charge of the entire Persian Empire, and by extension, the fate of all the characters we care about. Esther’s fear in approaching him later in the book is very real, as is the fearful result of his trust in Haman. Ahasuerus may not mean to do wicked and destructive things, but he does them nevertheless. (Intentionality is probably what sets him apart from Haman later in the story.) In short, Ahasuerus may be a buffoon... but he is a dangerous buffoon.
This example underscores, once more, how crucial it is to make some conscious decisions about this book’s form before attempting to apply it to contemporary life. Preachers and teachers who vacillate are likely to send some very mixed and quite possibly dangerous messages.
Another example of a possible interpretive pitfall lies in what happens when Esther is read from a first-world context. Accustomed as we are to admire the "lifestyles of the rich and famous,” it is hard not to admire Ahasuerus’s success. We read the lavish descriptions of his court and secretly want what he has.
Yet once again, this reaction may not be what the author hopes to elicit. While there may well be a certain level of aesthetic appreciation for the luxuries described, the Bible is uniformly cautious about wealth and power without moral discernment. The psalmist pleads, for instance, "Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways” (Ps. 119:36-37). Joyce Baldwin observes that "Jewish listeners, brought up on the Prophets, were sure to be making their own observations, and silently assessing the injustice of a system that created so great a gulf between rich and poor” (55). Levenson, as well, points out that this narrative is
so focused on the external trappings that it leaves the perspicacious reader wondering what the internal life of Ahasuerus can be like. On this, there is not a word, but contextualized within the moral universe of the Hebrew Bible, especially its wisdom literature, this enormous emphasis on wealth and status cannot speak well for the man who holds the world’s most powerful office. (45)
In short, those of us who preach and teach this text cannot take for granted that our listeners will understand the irony and the critique that are embedded in its telling. If the first step is to call attention to the author’s comic tone, then the second is to make it clear that humor can also convey some very serious points.
Chapter 1 ends with the king rushing to reach the post office before it closes. Within the space of a few verses the high and mighty Ahasuerus has been defied, manipulated, and roundly humiliated. While this much is obvious to his advisors, his citizens, and now to us, the readers, Ahasuerus seems largely out of touch with reality. It is a characteristic that will surface again and again in subsequent chapters.