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The Queen You Thought You Knew
Video 2 of 6
Let’s consider this question carefully by actually putting ourselves in Esther’s shoes, and evaluating her actual options. If she would try to speak up now, what would she actually say? What grounds would she use to argue that the Jews should be spared?
So, one possible tactic she might use is to try to argue for the Jews on moral grounds. She could say something like this:
“Sire – a moral travesty is being carried out in the kingdom. An entire people within the empire has been unjustly accused; they stand to be wiped out in a day of genocidal madness. We cannot let this stand. In the name of justice, truth, and the Persian way – please rescind this terrible decree.”
What are the chances that would succeed?
Not very good. The king has decreed genocide against an entire people – and he’s done it all with a disinterested wave of his hand. “Here, take my ring, Haman; do what you like; just don’t bother me with these kinds of trivialities again; I’m late for lunch.”
If that’s the way the king responded to Haman’s request for license to kill, clearly, the “moral travesty” approach is likely to fail. The king is not all that interested in morality. If that’s not going to work then, what are Esther’s other options?
If she can’t ask the king to save the Jews on objective grounds, she can ask him to save them on subjective grounds. The king loves her, let her ask him to spare her people for her sake.
It seems simple enough. Why doesn’t she just do that? Why does she back off entirely and invite him to dinner instead?
Esther knows something that is giving her pause. She knows the terms on which she came to be queen…
If the king is apathetic about the Jews, there was one thing he was not apathetic about, one thing that had made him flaming mad - Vashti refusing to be put on display, and that was the end of Vashti when that happened. Esther knows about that history. She understands the implications of that event for her own relationship with the king and for what she can plausibly ask of him.
To understand what’s going on here, I think we actually need to go back for a minute and confront some issues we raised earlier concerning the king and Vashti.
We asked earlier why the king would ask Vashti to display herself so publicly at the culmination of his party. I want to make an argument though that the king, even though he might have been drunk here – he still had a plan.
The king had a plan because the king had a problem. Just read the first verse of the Megillah:
It happened in the days of Achashverosh – he was the Achashverosh who ruled from India to Ethiopia, the megillah says, over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces. (Esther 1:1)
Why is that introduction so important? Because Put yourself in the king’s shoes. It is the year 400 BC, or thereabouts. For centuries, the Babylonians had been the preeminent world power – but your people, the Persians, they swept in and defeated them in a lightning strike. The Persians became the largest empire the world had ever seen. And then you, Achashverosh, you find yourself sovereign over a breathtaking hundred and twenty-seven provinces. What is your number one problem right now?
How do you keep all of this together?
There is no Internet, no telephones, no planes, no cars, no trains. You’re in charge of a global empire -- how, exactly, are you supposed to make sure that the various regional provinces remain loyal to the crown?
If the first verse of the Megillah sets forth Achashverosh’s problem, the very next verses set forth his answer. Parties.
In the first year of his reign, [The King] made this huge part feast for all of his noblemen, all of his princes, the entire armies of Persia and Media, there were officers of the king there, he was showing off the riches of his glorious kingdom, the honor of his excellent majesty, many days, one hundred and eighty day long. (Esther 1:3-4) That’s what this party was.
We asked earlier why the Megillah would elaborate so much in these verses about the pomp and circumstance of Persia. The answer is that the megillah wants to tell a story. Who gets invited to the feast? The nobles and the princes of all the provinces, the armies of Persia and Media. There are all these governors here, the middle management of these little provinces scattered throughout the realm, they’re all coming to Shushan, the king’s new capital city. And at the feast, the king shows off the splendor, the glory, the might of the new empire. There are tapestries and linens, gold, wine flowing in the streets, excess everywhere.
The king knows something, he knows that the sparkle and sheen of the empire’s economic and military might, leavened with a healthy dose of wine, will do more for his hold on power than any repressive laws, taxes, or forced loyalty program could ever do. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this new glorious Persia?
And, as Achashverosh’s feast draws to a close, he sends for Vashti, asking her to appear before everyone. There was one thing, according to the text, that she was specifically asked to wear. The queen needs to be brought before the king wearing her royal crown! And note whom the king sends to fetch Vashti wearing her crown. The verse gives us the name of the 7 closest advisors that the king dispatched to go get her. And, now, look at who the verse who is the intended audience for Vashti’s beauty? The king put her on show for a very specific population:
“… to display her beauty before the nations and the princes…” (Esther 1:11)
What is Achashverosh doing here?
Let’s reflect for a minute on who, or what, a king is. As head of state, he wields enormous executive power. In the ancient world, the king’s word was law. But the king is more than just a powerful executive, he’s also living symbol of the nation he represents.
Remember Macbeth and Hamlet? Shakespeare refers to kings in his plays simply as “Norway” and as “Denmark.” The name of the nation becomes the name of the king. The king is a flesh and blood embodiment of the nation he represents, he’s a potent distillation into one man of an entire people. A nation looks at its king and sees itself.
So if the king is a symbolic embodiment of his country, what is the Queen?
The queen is the feminine embodiment of her country. In her persona, in her beauty, her grace, and radiance, resides the beauty, grace, and radiance of an entire people. Achashverosh’s queen, she’s Mother Persia. At the culmination of his final party, he is showing off the most impressive, symbol of his new empire – the beauty of Persia, embodied in the beauty of his queen, Vashti. Yes, the king is tipsy from the wine – and yes, he is objectifying his wife - but this objectification serves a political purpose, too. It’s an affair of state going on here, presided over by the king’s cabinet. The princes and provincial governors throughout the realm will look with pride upon Vashti, they’ll revel in the beauty that is Persia’s.
So Vashti refuses to come – and for this, for her sin, she forfeits her crown. The king begins a national search for the girl fit to be his new bride.
And it’s worth noting that he doesn’t seek to marry the daughter of a neighboring monarch or restrict his search to women of good Persian ancestry. This is really an equal-opportunity beauty contest. Any girl could become the new queen. And perhaps that is only fitting, because once chosen, the queen will implicitly represent them all.
In the end, Esther is the king’s pick.
Why Esther? We don’t really know. The only overt information the text gives us is this line:
…she found favor in the king’s eyes (2:17).
But the text tells us one other important tidbit. Esther’s cousin and mentor, Mordechai, he had insisted throughout the whole beauty contest process that Esther not reveal to the King her true identity, the fact that she’s a Jew.
But let me ask you something. Have you ever wondered exactly how Esther got away with this? You know, eventually, at some point, Achashverosh was going to ask her: “So Esther, where are you from?” Let’s say she smiles shyly and doesn’t say anything. So the king asks again, “No, seriously, where are you from? You have this really intriguing accent...” How is Esther going to actually get away with this?
But, amazingly, she actually manages to become queen without ever revealing her family, her birthplace, or her national identity. How did she do that?
The king was looking for a woman who would effortlessly and unreservedly slip into the role of Mother Persia, who would become the feminine symbol of his new empire. Esther’s very refusal to talk about where she came from might have played into the king’s vision of the perfect queen: she could be from anywhere – or everywhere. She could be anything he wanted her to be.
But then Mordechai comes to Esther with a heart-stopping request. He tells her that, for the good of her nation, she has to go to the king and tell him that she is a Jew, she has to beg him for her people’s lives.
Esther goes to Achashverosh. He tells her she can ask for whatever she wants, even half the kingdom. But Esther hesitates. Why did she avoid seizing the moment? - Let’s come back to that question now!
Well, the answer is now evident. Mordechai’s request has actually put her in a virtually impossible situation. Knowing what she knows about how the king views her, about how she assisted in cultivating that image, about what happened to Vashti – what’s she going to do, tell him that it was all a farce? That yes, she believes in your empire – long live the king, and all that – but look, I have higher priorities. My people (yes, I do have a people) are in danger; would the king please help me out and save them?
If Esther turns around and reveals an intense affiliation with the Jews, her people, she is likely to have her head handed to her. “What, it’s not true, Esther? Your loyalty lies with your own provincial sect all along? Whose queen are you, Esther – ours, or theirs?”
Mordechai made clear to her that silence is not an option. But what can she possibly do?
Join me as we keep digging a little bit more to uncover Esther’s strategy and try to answer our initial questions, we’re going to try to make sense of all those strange behaviors on the part of all these protag, Esther, the king and Haman, and we’ll try to find out why Esther was so much more than the queen you thought you knew. See you in Video 3.
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