Esther One: Intro to Shushan

Today starts a new book, and it’s my favorite kind in that it’s both narrative, which is just easier for me, and familiar, which I enjoy because it makes it a much deeper dive when I have to confront my own preconceived notions and past experiences. So, the scene: We’ve got a king, named Ahasuerus, who rules a whole empire of 127 provinces, stretching from India to Ethiopia. His capital is Shushan, and he lives in pretty extreme luxury. “In the third year of his reign, he made a banquet for all his princes and his servants, the army of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces [who were] before him (Esther 1:3).”

I’m personally hosting a Shabbat dinner tomorrow night, but it seems like Ahasuerus puts all aspiring hosts to shame. His party lasts 180 days just for this exclusive crew, and then the whole city is invited for a week of feasting on top of that. Everyone is drinking from gold, and there’s flowing wine, and it’s a huge, opulent festival. At the same time, his wife, Queen Vashti, makes a companion banquet for the women. And then, the drama commences. The king sends his seven chamberlains to bring the queen to him. “To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the royal crown, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was of comely appearance (Esther 1:11).”

This is the iconic moment when Queen Vashti refuses the king. We don’t hear her reason, but there are countless commentaries that attempt to fill in the blanks. When I was a kid and learned this story for the first time, Vashti was supposedly an evil queen for not obeying the king. But as I’ve grown up, and as I’ve gotten more in tune with the feminist movement, I’ve seen her portrayed as a folk hero of sorts, standing up for herself and her autonomy over her own body. Whatever her motivation, Vashti stands firm, and the king is pissed. In ancient Shushan, even the queen isn’t above the law, which says no one can disobey the king, so she has to be punished. The king and his advisors straight up freak out that other women in the kingdom will follow her ‘rebellious’ example, and the whole structure of the patriarchy will fall apart.

One advisor, Memucan, suggests that Ahasuerus write an edict banishing Vashti and removing her from her position of queen. The king is happy with this idea and agrees, and the word spreads throughout the whole kingdom. Vashti isn’t a major character in the rest of the book, but it’ll be interesting to see Esther introduced and the dichotomy between these two powerful female roles. To be continued next week!

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