These events happened in the days of King Xerxes, who reigned over 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia. [Esther 1:1 (NLT)]
While translations like the NIV and NLT call him Xerxes, he’s called Ahasuerus in translations like the ESV and RSV. When the king’s Persian name of Khshayârshâ was translated into Hebrew, it became Ahasuerus but, when it was translated into Greek, Khshayârshâ became Xerxes. Regardless of the translation, Xerxes and Ahasuerus are one and the same and we encounter him in the book of Esther.
Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) depicts Xerxes as a cruel, arrogant, incompetent, and fickle monarch known for his harsh temper, excessive drinking, extravagant banquets, and philandering (he pursued both his brother’s wife and niece). When we meet the king in the first chapter of Esther, his behavior matches history’s assessment of him. As one of the wealthiest (and probably one of the most pompous and arrogant) men in the world, he’d been hosting six months of celebrations for his nobles, officials, and military leaders as a way of displaying his great wealth and, perhaps, to assure them of his victory before setting out to conquer Greece. As the festivities wound down, the king held a lavish grand-finale seven-day banquet for all the men in the palace. In a different part of the palace, his wife, Queen Vashti, held her own banquet for the women.
After a week of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) realized he’d flaunted all of his treasures save one—his beautiful queen—and he commanded that she come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was instructed to wear the royal crown. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear the crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinic tradition interpreted this to mean only her crown. Regardless of whether the king meant naked or dressed, Persian modesty would have prohibited Vashti from presenting herself that way before a group of men. While it might be asked of a concubine or dancing girl, Vashti was a Persian princess and the queen. It wasn’t fitting for her to parade around like a piece of meat and be ogled by a group of drunken rowdy men. To wear her crown while doing so was even more demeaning. Knowing full well the consequences of denying her arrogant husband, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.
This may have been the first time anyone dared deny Xerxes anything. As he always did when making any decision, the king immediately asked his advisors what to do. Fearing that all the wives of Persia might think they could defy their husbands if word got out that the queen successfully did so, they recommended immediately dethroning Vashti and banishing her from the king’s presence forever. Xerxes sent out an unprecedented and irrevocable decree ensuring that “husbands everywhere, whatever their rank, will receive proper respect from their wives” that proclaimed every man ruled his own home and could say whatever he pleased. Whether Vashti lived the rest of her life isolated in a corner of the harem or, as rabbinic tradition holds, was beheaded, her fate was meant to be an object lesson for all women to be submissive and obedient to their spouses.
Esther was Vashti’s opposite. A Jewish commoner, she was passive. Once in the harem, she continued to follow her uncle Mordecai’s directions “just as she did when she lived in his home.” When it was her turn to go to the king, she “accepted the advice of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem and asked for nothing except what he suggested.” Perhaps Xerxes selected Esther as much for her submissiveness as her beauty.
When Esther balked at approaching Xerxes about the plight of the Jews, Mordecai asked if she might not have been made queen specifically for that task. Like Esther, perhaps Vashti was made queen for the moment she exhibited courage by standing up against her bully of a husband. In Vashti’s example, Esther saw a strong woman whose self-respect and character meant more to her than her crown or life. If Vashti risked everything by standing up for herself, could Esther do anything less than stand up for an entire race? The passive orphan girl garnered the strength and courage to confront Xerxes—even though it could result in her death. Vashti failed but Esther didn’t. Nevertheless, I wonder, would Esther have tried had it not been for Vashti’s brave example?
What about us? Could God have placed us in a precarious position for such a time as now? Perhaps, it’s time for us to make our voices heard—to speak up for sake of others, to take a stand for righteousness, or to refuse to take part in something that is wrong.