More than 18 months ago, a friend asked what the deal is with Esther chapter 1. It is such a good question. So, having spent more than a year re-reading Esther, Vashti, the book of Esther and issues around these themes, I now feel ready to begin to address the question and share what I believe is going on in Esther 1. However, reading scripture is best done in community and hearing God works best in the community too, so please share your views below.
As most people know, Esther is the only book in the bible that doesn’t directly mention God. As a result, the book as a whole sets us all the challenge of interpreting the voice of God in the text without any “thus says the Lord” or red-letter pointers. The same is true when it comes to the book of Esther’s protagonists. The opening chapter’s text doesn’t explicitly tell us what God thinks of Vashti and Esther as much as it shows us the background to what happened and challenges us to dig deeper into questions of context and meaning.
Perhaps because of these ambiguities, Esther is a highly misunderstood book. For example, the Critical and Exegetical Commentary as well as Luther – cited in the same work – appear to write off the moral validity of the book of Esther: ‘…the author [of the book of Esther]…gloats over the wealth and the triumph of his heroes and is oblivious to their moral shortcomings. Morally Esther falls far below the general level of the Old Testament, and even of the Apocrypha. The verdict of Luther is severe: “I am so hostile to this book that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much, and has too much heathen naughtiness”’ I would say it depends who you think the heroes (or heroines) are and what meaning you derive from it. Both quotes appear to read the texts relatively two-dimensionally. For example, it is sadly ironic that Luther criticises Esther – a story of anti-semitism and Jewish redemption – for its Jewishness. But this example highlights the need to work harder when it comes to interpreting the text, rather than relying on the notion that a flat, plain or objective reading is possible without being conscious of the perspective brought to the text. For this reason, Jewish scholar YT Radday brings a vital (in both senses of the word) perspective with his Hebrew satirical reading, but we also have to do our best to understand the cultural/political context as well as this story’s place in the biblical meta-narrative in order to get closer to what is going on in the text. I hope my notes, which focus on Esther 1 because this is where most references to Vashti occur, help with this process.
What’s in a name?
The book of Esther’s treatment of names is frequently significant to the meaning of its various passages. At the top of the list in terms of the order they are presented is the name of the king Ahasuerus , which means “I will be silent and poor”, according to Strong’s. That the king of the biggest empire on earth – as the Persian empire was at the time – should be named this way reveals more than a little about how we should be seeing the king. While sometimes biblical kings can be read as types of the Almighty, in this instance the king is not upheld as a paragon of virtue. On the contrary, he is repeatedly shown to be weak both in terms of character and decision making.
Further to this point, Radday points out that the way Ahasuerus is spelt would makes it sound something like “King Headache” to its Hebrew and/or Aramaic-speaking audience, adding that names are used in the book of Esther with “some sense of double entendre” Raddy continues: “The Esther Scroll is frightening and funny at the same time…it is also highly amusing and full of half-spoken and occasionally caustic satire”.
Both observations are foundational to reading the book of Esther because – if we read the king as a simplistic type of God and/or a proxy for God (a la fundamentalist readings of texts like Romans 13) as is often the case – such a reading has an unalterable impact on the way you see Vashti and indeed our eponymous protagonist Esther. For example, we could end up projecting the fallen qualities of a human king onto God if such a typology is interpreted too rigidly. On the other hand overlooking the possible typological similarities between the king and God is liable to miss revelation too. Therefore, I read the king as positionally representing God in as much as God is the King of kings – the greatest king that could be. However, at the same time we have to remember that any human king (especially the unbelieving kings) have significant weaknesses that need to be critiqued and should not be simplistically projected onto God.
With all this in mind, what’s going on in Esther 1?