Commentary on Esther 1

Notes (NET Translation)

1 The following events happened in the days of Ahasuerus. (I am referring to that Ahasuerus who used to rule over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces extending all the way from India to Ethiopia.)

It is now established that the Ahasuerus mentioned in Esth. 1:1 (KJV and other versions) is the king of Persia usually known as Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.). The Hebrew form of his name . . . corresponds to the Persian Khshayarsha, and the Septuagint translator, without the benefit of access to Persian inscriptions, quite reasonably identified the name with Artaxerxes (cf. also Jos. Ant. 11.6.1). The Persian equivalent of this name, however, is Artakhshathra, which is not close to the Hebrew form in this book.1

“Esther 1:1 mentions 127 provinces, whereas Herodotus (Hist. 3.89) speaks only of 20 satrapies. Inscriptions of Darius vary between 21 and 29 provinces. There is no doubt that the larger regions, whether called satrapies or provinces, were divided into smaller units, and the small unit of Judah is regularly designated by the same word as is used in Esth. 1:1.”2 For example, Nehemiah 1:3 and 7:6 use the word “province” (medina) to refer to the province of Judah, which was only a small subsection of the satrapy Abar-Nahara. In Esther 3:12 and 8:9 the administrators of the satrapies are distinguished from the governors who administer the provinces, suggesting that provinces are subdivisions of satrapies.

The foundation inscription of Xerxes’s palace in Persepolis gives the names of the countries he ruled over and includes both India and Ethiopia (Cush). “India” refers to the northwestern region of the Indus River Valley (modern-day western Pakistan) while “Ethiopia” corresponds to modern-day southern Egypt, Sudan, and northern Ethiopia.3 The description of the vastness of the empire emphasizes the king’s majesty.

2 In those days, as King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa the citadel, 3 in the third year of his reign he provided a banquet for all his officials and his servants. The army of Persia and Media was present, as well as the nobles and the officials of the provinces.

Susa was one of four capitals in the Persian Empire, the others being Babylon, Ecbatana, and Persepolis. The citadel of Susa was the upper city, the fortified center of government.4 The third year of Xerxes corresponds to 483 BC.5

If Xerxes is the king, it is possible to bring together the biblical and secular records. In the third year of his reign, he called together all the leading men to discuss a campaign against Greece (Herodotus, Hist. 7.8), where his father, Darius, had been defeated at Marathon in 490 B.C. This assembly could correspond to the one described in Esth. 1, which took place in the third year (1:3). Although the search for Vashti’s successor begins at this time, Xerxes does not marry Esther until the seventh year (2:16). In the intervening period he was occupied with the Greek campaign, taking four years to collect his armies (Herodotus, Hist. 7.21). He was ultimately defeated by the Greeks at Salamis in 480. The biblical dating indicates that he married Esther on his return. Haman’s plot against the Jews took place in the twelfth year, which means that the biblical story ends about 473. There is no record of how long Mordecai and Esther remained in power.6

4 He displayed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor of his majestic greatness for a lengthy period of time – a hundred and eighty days, to be exact!

The descriptions “of the king and his banquets, the extent of the Persian Empire, and of the royal court and its festivities set an opulent stage for a story in which power and wealth are at stake for those engaged in court intrigues”7 and serve as “a backdrop to the decidedly shabby treatment that will be meted out to one of the subject races of that empire, the Jews.”8

There is nothing in Esth 1:3-4 to indicate that the banquet itself must have lasted 180 days; the text merely says that for 180 days, the king displayed the wealth of his kingdom. The text could mean that the king took his officials on a six-month tour of the kingdom, which was followed by a seven-day feast.9

5 When those days were completed, the king then provided a seven-day banquet for all the people who were present in Susa the citadel, for those of highest standing to the most lowly. It was held in the court located in the garden of the royal palace.

6 The furnishings included linen and purple curtains hung by cords of the finest linen and purple wool on silver rings, alabaster columns, gold and silver couches displayed on a floor made of valuable stones of alabaster, mother-of-pearl, and mineral stone.

7 Drinks were served in golden containers, all of which differed from one another. Royal wine was available in abundance at the king’s expense.

8 There were no restrictions on the drinking, for the king had instructed all of his supervisors that they should do as everyone so desired.

9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in King Ahasuerus’ royal palace.

Herodotus and Ctesias of Cnidus state that Amestris was Xerxes’s queen. Vashti is unattested in any other ancient sources. There have been three major approaches to the Amestris/Vashti problem. Anthony Tomasino believes none of them are satisfactory.

The first approach is to identify Vashti as Amestris. Some who take this approach think Amestris is a distorted Greek version of the name Vashti. Others who take this approach think Vashti (based on the Persian word meaning “beloved”) is a title for the queen rather than a proper name. Tomasino says the main difficulty with this hypothesis is that the book of Esther demands that Vashti was deposed before Xerxes left for his Greek campaign but, in Herodotus (9.107-109), Amestris is acting as queen after Xerxes returns. After the return from Greece, Herodotus also mentions that Xerxes had an affair with his niece (who was also his daughter-in-law) and tried to keep it a secret because he feared Amestris. Amestris learned of the affair, had Xerxes hand over the woman’s mother, mutilated the woman, and then sent her back to her husband. If Amestris had been deposed from her place as “head wife” she would not have been entitled to such jealousy and would not have been allowed to carry out such cruel vengeance on the king’s sister-in-law. Moreover, Amestris continued in the capacity of queen mother after Xerxes’ death. She had fourteen noble youths buried alive with her after her death as an offering to the god of the underworld (7.114). A dishonored and deposed woman would not have been able to perpetrate such an atrocity on members of the nobility.

The second approach is to identify Esther as Amestris. Tomasino rejects this hypothesis because Herodotus tells us that Amestris was the daughter of Otanes, a general in Xerxes’s army. The story of Amestris mutilating the mother of her rival also makes her out to be more cruel than how Esther is portrayed.

The third approach is to hold that Esther, Vashti, and Amestris were all wives of Xerxes. There is little reason to doubt that Xerxes had multiple wives. Tomasino believes the problem with this hypothesis is that, while the king may have had multiple wives, there was only one queen. Herodotus only knows of Amestris as queen. Esther initially speaks of Vashti as the queen and then Esther as the queen.

10 On the seventh day, as King Ahasuerus was feeling the effects of the wine, he ordered Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti into the king’s presence wearing her royal high turban. He wanted to show the people and the officials her beauty, for she was very attractive.

The king is literally said to be “good of heart”, meaning cheerful or pleased.10 Eunuchs typically oversaw the royal harem. The sending of seven eunuchs is excessive. The king intends to show Vashti off as one more of his possessions. The text does not mean that Vashti was to appear wearing only her royal high turban.

12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s bidding conveyed through the eunuchs. Then the king became extremely angry, and his rage consumed him.

The reasons for the queen’s refusal are not stated.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the refusal is that suggested by Bickerman. Bickerman notes that in Persian feasts, once the drinking became serious, the queen would leave. The concubines and courtesans would then be summoned to entertain the guests (cf. Dan 5:2, 10, which indicate that the queen was not present at Belshazzar’s feast, though his concubines were). Concubines were the lowest level of royal wives, and these women were specially trained to entertain the king and his guests with music and dance. Vashti probably felt that being put on display before the king’s guests reduced her to the status of a concubine. The fact that she was told to wear the royal crown added insult to injury: the royal crown was a sign of her status, while the king’s summons seemed to deny that status. Vashti’s refusal was not a blow for women’s rights, but for the dignity of the royal office. It might be significant that the word order in Vashti’s title is reversed here: when summoned, she is called “Vashti, the queen”; when she refuses, she is called “the queen, Vashti.”11

Xerxes, the most powerful man on the planet, is angered that his will is publically flouted by an inferior.

13 The king then inquired of the wise men who were discerners of the times – for it was the royal custom to confer with all those who were proficient in laws and legalities.

14 Those who were closest to him were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan. These men were the seven officials of Persia and Media who saw the king on a regular basis and had the most prominent offices in the kingdom.

15 The king asked, “By law, what should be done to Queen Vashti in light of the fact that she has not obeyed the instructions of King Ahasuerus conveyed through the eunuchs?”

16 Memucan then replied to the king and the officials, “The wrong of Queen Vashti is not against the king alone, but against all the officials and all the people who are throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.

17 For the matter concerning the queen will spread to all the women, leading them to treat their husbands with contempt, saying, ‘When King Ahasuerus gave orders to bring Queen Vashti into his presence, she would not come.’

18 And this very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard the matter concerning the queen will respond in the same way to all the royal officials, and there will be more than enough contempt and anger!

19 If the king is so inclined, let a royal edict go forth from him, and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media that cannot be repealed, that Vashti may not come into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king convey her royalty to another who is more deserving than she.

Vashti’s unelaborated refusal forms an amusing contrast to the histrionic reaction of the king and his counselors. Although the outcome is (perhaps) tragic for Vashti — though we observe that her punishment never to come again before the king (1:19), is conceivably her dearest wish — it is in other respects pure farce. It involves the whole elaborate machinery of Persian law and administration — to say nothing of the postal service — in asserting the right of every man in the empire to be master of his own house. And it is implied that the story of Vashti’s independence will spread like wildfire throughout Persian lands, every wife in the empire waiting only for this sign from the empress to break out in long-stifled rebellion against her husband.12

20 And let the king’s decision which he will enact be disseminated throughout all his kingdom, vast though it is. Then all the women will give honor to their husbands, from the most prominent to the lowly.”

21 The matter seemed appropriate to the king and the officials. So the king acted on the advice of Memucan.

The text hints at the fact that though the king is cloaked in the symbols of power he is actually malleable and controlled by others.13 The king lacks the power to get his wife to do as he asks and makes a rash decision about the queen’s future based on the advice of others. “It is ironic that Vashti is rejected for disobeying the king by refusing to appear when summoned, while in 4.16-5.1 Esther, who refused to obey royal law and stay away until called, is rewarded for disobedience.”14

22 He sent letters throughout all the royal provinces, to each province according to its own script and to each people according to its own language, that every man should be ruling his family and should be speaking the language of his own people.

The men of the empire are to do what the king himself could not do: rule his family. The phrase “should be speaking the language of his own people” may mean that they should read the letter in his own language so that his wife will understand it.

Bibliography

Barker, Kenneth L. ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Brown, Raymond E. ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Mays, James L. ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (Revised Edition). San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000.

Meeks, Wayne A. ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Tomasino, Anthony. Esther. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013.

Tenney, Merrill C., and Moises Silva, eds. The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 2: Revised Full-Color Edition. Zondervan, 2010. Kindle Locations 14076ff.; 14120ff.


  1. Tenney 2010, Kindle Locations 14125ff. 
  2. Tenney 2010, Kindle Locations 14214ff. 
  3. Tomasino EEC 1:1 
  4. Tomasino EEC 1:2 
  5. Tomasino EEC 1:3 
  6. Tenney 2010, Kindle Locations 14136-14143 
  7. Meeks 738 
  8. Mays 354 
  9. Tomasino EEC 
  10. Tomasino EEC 1.10 
  11. Tomasino EEC 1.12 
  12. Mays 354 
  13. Meeks 738 
  14. Meeks 738 
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