Drunk on power: Vashti’s “such a time as this” (part 2)

Having discussed the general context of the book of Esther and Vashti’s importance in it as well as some of the background to Vashti’s introduction, let’s take a closer look at the verse preceding her denial of the king’s request:

On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus.

Esther 1:10 (ESV)

Of course, “merry with wine” is a euphemism for being inebriated to some extent. However, the king’s blood-alcohol level aside, the context of the passage (not to mention the rest of the book) makes it clear that the king was drunk on power, patriarchy, pride as well as alcohol.

The Hebrew word for heart here is “heb”, which is significant because “heb” represents a wide range of what we might call soul processes. Indeed, to quote the NIV Cultural Backgrounds bible, here “the heart is not so much the seat of the emotions as of reason and will. The text implies that wine had impaired the king’s judgment.” However, it continues, within this particular cultural context, “the Persians would not have regarded Xerxes’ inebriation as a problem” which somewhat emphasise the role alcohol played in the macho posturing of the Persian royal court.

On reflection all this begs the question, outside this particular historical and cultural context, how often does alcohol accompany debauchery and foolishness such as this? It certainly flies in the face of biblical wisdom suggesting royalty does not mix drinking with decision-making and rather exemplify moderation (see Prov 31:4 and Ecc 10:17). It is also worth pointing out that this point in the feast represents a marked deterioration compared with the start (Esther 1:8). As the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown (JFB) commentary observes: “The close of the feast was marked by excess. What a contrast to the start, which was marked by moderation.”

Now the king is decision-making under the influence, he decides to send seven people to fetch Vashti. Before now, I hadn’t realised how excessive this is. Neither had I considered why this would be necessary. It certainly doesn’t sound like either a healthy or a mutual husband-wife dynamic. Perhaps, in light of her decision to hold a parallel feast (in Esther 1:9), sending so many people suggests that the king expected opposition to his impending request.

The people Ahaseurus commanded to fetch Vashti were eunuchs, but this doesn’t mean they were lowly servants. Rather, they were probably magi – the kind of people we call “kings” when we think of the nativity. Their names (according to Strongs) also offer some fascinating insights into the kinds of people the king sent and the power dynamic at work.

  • Mehuman – meaning faithful. But faithful to what? Doing what the king asks? Upholding the status quo?.
  • Biztha – meaning booty, as in treasure.
  • Harbina means – and I am not joking – “ass driver”. It sounds funny, but what kind of king sends someone called “ass driver” to summon their wife?
  • Abagtha – God given.
  • Zethar – star.
  • Carkas – severe.

But there’s more. Many of the names sound similar to other Hebrew words, which betray further satirical meaning, something the EEC summarises: “…Mehuman sounds like the word הָמוֹן (hāmôn), “be in an uproar”; Biztha could have been derived from the Heb. root בָזָה (bāzâ), “despise”; Harbona sounds like the word חָרֵב(ḥārēb), “be desolate” (perhaps an appropriate name for a eunuch)”. Therefore, it is fair to say that the king sent his cronies to do his bidding when it came to bringing Vashti before him.

To summarise my reading of Esther 1:9, “commanding” seven people to get Vashti is excessive. I would also argue that it is coercive. It brings with it the implication that the king thought Vashti might not want to come, which is why he sent seven men, and is therefore trying to override the will of his Queen. To this end, it reminds me of 2 Sam 11:4 when David sent a number of men to get Bathsheba – another scenario in which a king saught to use a woman for his self-centred pleasure. Some sources suggest comparison with Esther 4:5 where it takes just one servant to carry a message across the royal court. If that was the case then, what other reason did the king have so sending so many in this case?

And all this before we have heard the king’s specific request…

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