The Biblical story of Esther begins around the year 483 BC but to get an idea of how and why her story unfolded the way it did, we need to go back and look at some things that happened long before Esther was ever born.
You see, back in the days when King Solomon reigned over Israel, the nation of Israel was at the absolute height of it’s power. Solomon’s great empire extended beyond the modern-day borders of Israel into areas of what we know today as the countries of Egypt, Syria and Jordan (see 1st Kings 4:24). In fact, God made Solomon’s reign so prosperous that the Old Testament book of 1st Chronicles tells us, “While Solomon was king of Israel, there was silver and gold everywhere in Jerusalem, and cedar was as common as ordinary sycamore trees in the foothills” (1st Chronicles 1:14 CEV).
Unfortunately, all that great prosperity eventually came to an end. The Scriptures tell us that Solomon turned away from God in his later years and that led to the beginning of a long, slow decline for the nation and it’s people. A quick look at the Old Testament book of 1 Kings tells us how this happened….
“The LORD did not want the Israelites to worship foreign gods, so he had warned them not to marry anyone who was not from Israel. Solomon loved his wife, the daughter of the king of Egypt. But he also loved some women from Moab, Ammon, and Edom, and others from Sidon and the land of the Hittites. Seven hundred of his wives were daughters of kings, but he also married three hundred other women. As Solomon got older, some of his wives led him to worship their gods. He wasn’t like his father David, who had worshiped only the LORD God” (I Kings 11:1-4 CEV).
That was a bad move…
“In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done…. The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, ‘Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants'” (I Kings 11:6, 9-11 NLT).
Following Solomon’s death, the Scriptures tell us that his son Rehoboam became the next king of Israel. His poor leadership decisions led to a breakup of the entire country- and we’ll see how that happened next.
Following King Solomon’s death, the Scriptures tell us that his son Rehoboam became the next king of Israel according to 1 Kings 11:43. Unfortunately, Rehoboam didn’t carry the same leadership qualities of his father Solomon and that led him to make some serious mistakes.
One of Rehoboam’s mistakes involved a decision to act on the unwise advice of the guys that he grew up with instead than the wise counsel of the men who had previously advised his father (you can see 1 Kings 12 for the whole story on that). That decision eventually caused the nation to break up and split into two separate groups. The first group was known as the Northern Kingdom which continued to use the name “Israel.” The second group was known as the Southern Kingdom, an area that came to be identified as “Judah.”
If you go on to read through the history of the Northern and Southern kingdoms in the Old Testament book of 1st Kings, there’s something that should become obvious right away: many of the leaders in both kingdoms were people who led seriously ungodly lives. Although a few of the leaders in the Southern Kingdom did turn out to be good kings, most of them were not. On the other hand, all of the leaders in the Northern Kingdom turned out to be bad. In fact, the Old Testament books of 1st and 2nd Kings uses the same phrase over and over to describe the actions of these leaders: “…he did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
As a result, God allowed a group known as the Assyrians to come in and take control of the Northern Kingdom. This was bad news for the people of Israel because one source tells us, “Archaeologists have discovered that the Assyrians were merciless and savage people. The Assyrian army was ruthless and effective. Its cruelty included burning cities, burning children, impaling victims on stakes, beheading, and chopping off hands.” (1)
The Assyrians rounded up the people of Israel and took them back to Assyria where they were held as captives. The last inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom were taken away to Assyria around 722 BC and they never returned again. That left the southern kingdom of Judah as the last remaining link in that area to the people that God rescued from slavery in Egypt so many centuries before. Unfortunately, the citizens of Judah didn’t learn from Israel’s bad example and we’ll see what happened to them next.
(1) “Assyria” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
Although the people of the Israel had been taken away captive to the land of Assyria, the people of the southern kingdom of Judah still remained in the land that God had promised to give to their ancient ancestors. Unfortunately, the citizens of Judah didn’t learn from Israel’s bad example. They also refused to honor God in the way they lived and that caused God to give them the following message…
“The Lord said through his servants the prophets: ‘Manasseh king of Judah has committed these detestable sins. He has done more evil than the Amorites who preceded him and has led Judah into sin with his idols. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.
I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and hand them over to their enemies. They will be looted and plundered by all their foes, because they have done evil in my eyes and have provoked me to anger from the day their forefathers came out of Egypt until this day'” (2 Kings 21:10-15)
Time finally ran out for the people of Judah around 586 BC and 2 Kings 25:8-12 tells us how that judgment went down…
“On the seventh day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, an official of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the Lord, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.
The whole Babylonian army, under the commander of the imperial guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile the people who remained in the city, along with the rest of the populace and those who had gone over to the king of Babylon.”
History tells us that the people of Judah were actually deported from that area three different times: once in 597 BC, again in 587 BC and once more in 581 BC. So the once great city of Jerusalem had now been reduced to a pile of rubble by the invading Babylonians.
But this story was far from over.
The nation of Assyria had already deported the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel while the Babylonians had taken out the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The wall surrounding the capital city of Jerusalem had been broken down, the buildings had been reduced to a pile of rubble, and everything resembled an uninhabited ghost town. So things were looking pretty bleak for God’s people, but things were about to change.
In approximately 549 BC a man named Cyrus became the leader of a new emerging world power- the Medio-Persian Empire. Cyrus then went on to conquer the Babylonians around 539 BC and firmly established his place as the leader of this new world empire.
Following his conquest of the Babylonians, Cyrus gave permission for the people who had been taken captive from Judah to return home again. The Scriptures tell us that a man named Zerubbabel took advantage of this opportunity to lead about 50,000 people back to that area around 538 BC (see the Old Testament book of Ezra chapter two for the story). Although Zerubbabel led many thousands of people back to their ancient homeland, many more decided to remain in Persia- and that’s where Esther’s story will take place about 60-70 years later.
One of the major differences between the Old Testament book of Esther and other books of the Bible is the fact that God’s name is not mentioned once throughout the entire book. But while God’s name is never directly mentioned in the book of Esther, it’s hard to read though this book without seeing the effect of His behind-the-scenes presence. However, it’s also possible that God’s name was omitted from the book of Esther for a specific reason.
You see, the fact that God is never directly mentioned by name throughout the book of Esther may actually be intended to remind us of something important: even though it may not appear as if God is directly involved in our daily lives, this doesn’t mean that He isn’t involved at all. Esther’s story tells us that God may actually choose to get involved in the events of our lives in a way that doesn’t draw attention to His presence.
Another interesting thing about the book of Esther is that Esther isn’t even mentioned until we get to chapter two. Instead, chapter one gives us the back story to the events that will later impact her life and the lives of every Jewish person living within the Empire during that time.
“Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia), in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the citadel,” (Esther 1:1 NKJV and following)
Esther’s story begins in a town called Shushan (also identified as Susa in some translations), a place that was located within the Persian Empire of that time. Using a 21st century map, Sushan would be located today in southwestern Iran, about 150 miles (241 km) north of the Persian Gulf. Sushan served as the king’s winter residence and the ancient extent of the city and surrounding area is thought to have been somewhere between 46-58 miles (120-150km).
The very first verse of this book identifies someone who will go on to become a very important figure in the book of Esther. That person is King Ahasuerus (pronounced “ah-has-sur-us”). Ahasuerus is the same person who is thought to be known to history as King Xerxes (pronounced “zerk-sees”), which is how his name would be rendered in Greek. Ahasuerus lived from 519-465 BC and his reign as ruler over the Persian Empire lasted for period of 21 years between 486-465 BC.
Ahasuerus was the grandson of Cyrus, the same man who had earlier given the Jewish people permission to return to their ancient homeland according to 2 Chronicles 36:22-23. His father is known to us as Darius I. Darius is probably best known in the Scriptures as the king who was involved in the events of Daniel chapter six when the prophet Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den for his refusal to stop praying to God. Ahasuerus would also go on to become the father of a son named Artaxerxes, the same person who later gave Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall surrounding that city (see Nehemiah chapters one and two for the story)
One of the interesting things about Ahasuerus is that he is also believed to be the subject of a prophecy spoken by the prophet Daniel in Daniel chapter eleven, verse two. That portion of Scripture says this…
“’And now I will tell you the truth. Behold, three more kings are going to arise in Persia. Then a fourth will gain far more riches than all of them; as soon as he becomes strong through his riches, he will arouse the whole empire against the realm of Greece’” (Daniel 11:2).
A look at the extent of the Ahasuerus’ empire tells us that he could definitely fit this description- and we’ll see why next.
“…king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace” (Esther 1:2 ASV).
At the time the events of the book of Esther took place, the Persian Empire was the largest that had ever existed in recorded history. The extent of the Persian Empire covered large areas of what we would know today as the modern day countries of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel as well as parts of Egypt, the Sudan, and Libya. In fact, it’s believed that Ahasuerus ruled over an area that covered about 600,000 square miles (1,550,000 square km) during this period.
So when we read that Ahasuerus “sat on the throne of his kingdom,” it doesn’t mean that he ruled over a storybook land from inside his royal castle- it means that he was a powerful monarch with complete control over a tremendous land area.
“that in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants — the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces being before him — when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all” (Esther 1:3-4).
The third year of Ahasuerus’ reign corresponded with the year 483 BC and it was during this period that he decided to throw one of the greatest parties of all time. Now we’re told that the king held this party for “…all his officials and administrators… (the) armies of Persia and Media… as well as the governors and noblemen of the provinces” (GNB). So it was likely that hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people attended the king’s banquet. And this party didn’t just last for a day or a week- this party went on for six months.
So what was the occasion for this massive feast? Well, history tells that Ahasuerus was entering the preparation stage for a major military action around this time. That military action was an invasion of Greece that would later take place between 481- 480 BC and this lavish party probably made up part of the king’s preparation for this upcoming war. But how could a six month long party help the king prepare for a military invasion? Well, that’s what we’ll talk about next.
“For one hundred eighty days (Ahasuerus) showed off his wealth and spent a lot of money to impress his guests with the greatness of his kingdom” (Esther 1:4 CEV).
How could a six month party help the king prepare for an upcoming military action? Well, a lavish party like this would help the monarch secure the loyalty and support of his subjects for the war he was planning. It would also help to convince the leading military, political, and social leaders that the king had the resources to successfully undertake such military action. In addition, there’s a good possibility that the king also used the opportunity of this feast to discuss this invasion plan with his military leaders.
The historical record tells us that Ahasuerus did eventually go on to launch an attack against Greece with an armed force that consisted of hundreds of ships and 200,000 or more soldiers. Unfortunately, the king suffered a major defeat during the battle of Salamis in 480 BC when his navy was destroyed and his army was forced to return to Persia. But that battle was still to come- for now, Ahasuerus was still showing off the “splendor of his excellent majesty…”
“And when these days were completed, the king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel, from great to small, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white and blue linen curtains fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillars; and the couches were of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble.
And they served drinks in golden vessels, each vessel being different from the other, with royal wine in abundance, according to the generosity of the king. In accordance with the law, the drinking was not compulsory; for so the king had ordered all the officers of his household, that they should do according to each man’s pleasure” (Esther 1:5-8).
So once this six-month feast was completed, the king decided to put on another week-long party for everyone else- and during that week, everyone, rich and poor, got a chance to see the magnificence of the royal palace. There was even an open bar where everyone could decide how much or how little to drink. It was an extravagant display of wealth and power that was sure to make a tremendous impact on everyone who attended.
But… this wasn’t the only party going on during that time.
“Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women in the royal palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:9).
The ancient historical records (1) of this period identify the Persian queen’s name as Amesteris. Now it’s possible that Amesteris was the Greek form of the name Vashti, or it may be that “Vashti” (which means “best,” “beloved,” or “sweetest”) was a kind of nickname under which the queen was also known. Since the author of the book of Esther clearly had some inside information about the inner workings of palace life during the reign of King Ahasuerus, it’s possible that this was the way she was identified by those who were close to the king while everyone else knew her by her formal name.
In any case, Vashti decided to put on a “ladies only” party inside the palace while the king was feasting in the courtyard. The reason for this separate event had to do with the fact that men and women generally did not socialize together at parties or other social functions in the ancient Medo-Persian empire. So Vashti’s party for the women of Sushan helped ensure that no one was left out of these festivities.
Unfortunately for Vashti, Ahasuerus had a different responsibility in mind for her…
“On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold” (Esther 1:10-11).
Now before we continue, we should notice that this verse identifies seven of the king’s administrators by name. Details like these are important because they help establish the historical reality behind the Biblical book of Esther. Unlike a story or a fairy tale that begins with “Once upon a time…” the accounts that are recorded in the book of Esther are genuine events that involved real people in real life.
These seven administrators are further identified as “eunuchs” (pronounced “yoo-nucks”). This term identified those men who had been surgically prevented from fathering children. This allowed the king to assign these men to positions of oversight in areas where they might otherwise be tempted. One such area of supervision involved the king’s harem, or the group of women who were exclusively available to the king to meet his physical needs.
So Ahasuerus sent these administrators on a mission to retrieve Queen Vashti so he could show her off to his guests- but the king was about to receive an unexpected response.
(1) Herodotus, Histories 9.108-13
“(Ahasuerus) ordered them to bring in Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown. The queen was a beautiful woman, and the king wanted to show off her beauty to the officials and all his guests” (Esther 1:11 GW).
Besides the fact that men and women didn’t socialize together in the Medo-Persian empire, there was another problem with the king’s request. You see, it was considered to be inappropriate for a woman to appear in public without a veil in that culture. So at minimum, it’s clear that Ahasuerus wanted Vashti to violate these social customs. At worst, it’s possible that the king wanted Vashti to appear before these men wearing only her royal crown.
So why would the king ask his own queen to do something like this? Well, one possible answer can be found in the fact that “the king was merry with wine…” (Esther 1:10). So we know that alcohol was one influencing factor in this decision. With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine what may have led to this request.
First, remember that the king and his friends had been drinking for a week (verse 10). Now lets consider the possibility that Ahasuerus and his guests had started to drunkenly boast about whose wife was more beautiful. If that was the case, then the king may have decided to end all debate by summoning Vashti to prove that she was the most attractive woman of them all.
Now it’s one thing for a husband to appreciate his wife’s beauty, but it’s another thing for a man to treat his wife like an object or a trophy to be shown off in front of others. That’s exactly what Ahasuerus wanted to do- he wanted to show Vashti off, just as he was showing off the rest of his beautiful possessions. But Vashti wasn’t willing to play the king’s game…
“But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him” (Esther 1:12).
Vashti’s decision put Ahasuerus in a no-win situation. It may be that Vashti refused to appear because she knew it would be wrong for a queen to appear in front of a group of drunken men while inappropriately dressed. Or perhaps Vashti just didn’t want to be treated like an object. Whatever the reason, her refusal caused an immediate problem for the king because it silently communicated something bad to his guests and subjects: “If the queen won’t listen to Ahasuerus, why should anyone else?”
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the days of the Old Testament, it’s this: alcohol abuse is certain to lead to bad decisions. Ahasuerus’ drunken attempt to parade his wife in front of his equally drunken guests had caused her to reject him and led to a situation that made the king look bad in front of his guests. As a result, “his fury burned within him“ (Esther 1:12 LITV).
Now King Ahasuerus was the leader of the world’s most powerful empire during that time and it’s certain that he wasn’t used to hearing the word “no” very often. So in an effort to try and save what was left of his reputation, the king turned to his trusted group of advisors to help decide what should be done…
“Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times (for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice, those closest to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who had access to the king’s presence, and who ranked highest in the kingdom): ‘What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus brought to her by the eunuchs?'” (Esther 1:13-15).
So in his attempt to deal with this situation, the king consulted a group of counselors ”…who understood the times.” These counselors were men who could advise the king on various legal matters as well as other things like customs, traditions, and public opinion.
One thing to keep in mind about these advisors is that their advice wasn’t necessarily based on principles that were God-honoring or Biblical. Remember that these were men who ”…who understood the times” so their advice was sure to be based on whatever seemed best to them at the time- and here’s what they came up with…
“And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: ‘Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus'” (Esther 1:16).
In answering the king’s request for advice, one of his advisors tried to describe the queen’s disobedience as far more than just an insult to the king. Vashti’s decision to disobey a direct order was something that could eventually lead to far greater consequences- and we’ll see what this advisor was really concerned about next.
“And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: ‘Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will become known to all women, so that they will despise their husbands in their eyes, when they report, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she did not come.’
This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus there will be excessive contempt and wrath'” (Esther 1:16-18).
Notice that Memucan’s main concern wasn’t a question of whether Vashti had done something wrong, or even if she had broken the law. His real concern was this “The women in the kingdom will hear about this, and they will refuse to respect their husbands. They will say, ‘If Queen Vashti doesn’t obey her husband, why should we?'” (Esther 1:17 CEV). So even though Memucan may have been concerned about the consequences for the king, he may have been equally concerned about the consequences for himself if Vashti’s refusal to obey the king’s order became known.
In any event, Vashti’s refusal to put herself on display in front of a bunch of drunken partiers had now been portrayed as a crime against the entire Persian Empire- and that was something that the king simply couldn’t allow…
“‘If it pleases the king, let a royal decree go out from him, and let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it will not be altered, that Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.
When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small'” (Esther 1:19-20).
What Memucan proposed was something like an ancient version of a permaban. Under his plan, a new law would be written that would permanently demote Vashti from her position as queen. The king would then choose another queen to replace her. This ruling could not be changed, canceled, or countermanded once it was signed into law and it would send a clear message to everyone living within the kingdom: When the king tells you to do something, you’d better do it.
“‘When the women in your great kingdom hear about this new law, they will respect their husbands, no matter if they are rich or poor'” (Esther 1:20 CEV).
So the idea behind this proposal was to enforce respect among the women of the Persian Empire by demonstrating what could happen if any of them dared to act disrespectfully. But there was a major flaw in the thinking behind this approach. That’s because respect and behavior are not necessarily the same thing.
You see, it’s possible to make someone act respectfully if he or she is concerned enough about the consequences, but that has little to do with actual, genuine respect. For example, someone may act respectfully towards law enforcement out of concern about going to jail and not necessarily because he or she has any real respect for the police. That’s because real, genuine respect can only be earned, not compelled, and enforcing a certain type of behavior is not the same thing as real respect.
Instead of earning Vashti’s respect, Ahasuerus actually earned her disrespect because he asked her to do something that was very inappropriate. And even though he had the power to remove her and send a clear message to the rest of his kingdom, it’s unlikely that he ever gained any genuine respect from Vashti, assuming that he ever actually had it to begin with.
But not surprisingly, the king thought that his advisor had come up with a great idea…
“And the reply pleased the king and the princes, and the king did according to the word of Memucan. Then he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province in its own script, and to every people in their own language, that each man should be master in his own house, and speak in the language of his own people. (Esther 1:21-22)
So the king arranged to have his proclamation sent to all the provinces throughout his domain and each was written in the local dialect of the community to whom it was sent. One source describes how these messages got from the king’s residence in Sushan out to the furthermost portions of the Persian Empire…
“The Persian postal system at this period was very extensive and efficient, being structured in similar fashion to the United States Pony Express system of the mid-nineteenth century. An actual leather postal sack containing Persian official documents of the period has been found preserved in the dry climate of Egypt, which was then a part of the Persian Empire.” (1)
(1) Esther 1:22 Institute For Creation Research New Defender’s Study Bible Notes http://www.icr.org/bible/Esther/1/22/