“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13: 3).
When king Ahasuerus appeared to have secured his throne for three consecutive years, with perhaps no imminent threats from abroad or from within, a crisis arose that could potentially have undone much of what he sought to gain. In the course of a public relations campaign lasting six months, the king had entertained his high-ranking officials, military officers, the nobility and provincial governors and showed them his power and wealth. While concluding a second round of festivities on the grounds of his palace, the king’s merriment came to an abrupt end. What should have remained a private matter between him and his queen became a public crisis. As it was, his image as an indomitable monarch and his political clout were at stake. Impudence and lack of wisdom ruined his marriage and impacted all married women beyond his household. Queen Vashti’s reasons for refusing to parade herself at the command of her husband are not offered in the narrative, though it can hardly be too difficult to understand. Nevertheless, had king Ahasuerus not been under the influence of his impaired judgment, the violation could have been avoided altogether, or at the very least he could have stifled his resentment and deflated the incident. “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3: 19). However, what ensued was a decree that banned Vashti and stripped her of her royal position, and caused all married women to come under the scrutiny of a new and narrower law. Political considerations are notorious for being agile; they do not remain in the imaginative calculations of the influential. They become matters of national import.
The rights, privileges, opportunities and amenities women enjoy in modern and civilized societies were not items in the daily lives of women in ancient times. A decree of divorce would, by all intents and purposes, carry hardships and challenges undoubtedly to include destitution and misery. Irreparable damage would have been done to the reputation of a divorced woman and the possibilities of re-marriage would have vanished. The king’s cabinet of advisers in considering the queen’s violation of the law, overlooked any possible mitigating factors and proposed a new and more stringent legal remedy. For the guilty queen, her immediate removal from her royal position was demanded and irrevocable, according to Medo-Persian legal code. By design, all subsequent legal outcomes of any guilty married woman would not differ from that of the deposed queen. Nonetheless, even though the king’s image and reputation may have been sufficiently repaired by deflection and the cover of the new marital law, providence served its own purpose. The open royal position would be filled on God’s terms. “He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (I Samuel 2: 8).
The sudden change in the palace had the cabinet of advisers taking steps once again to contrive of a way of improving the situation for the king, perhaps even aiming at keeping his anger abated. The kingdom’s beautiful virgins were to be gathered to participate in a year-long beautification period for a turn at one night with the king. Immediately, the implications of this proposal certainly are salient. Beyond the obvious and relating to their one-night experience, all these young women except one would become recluses. They would have been regarded as secondary companions, confined to a life of limitation, isolation and deprivation, and never at liberty to leave and to marry. From another perspective, the removal of these virgins from the pool of available women of reproductive age could also affect young men looking to marry. Finding no wives and not marrying may not appear at first glance a serious problem. However in the aggregate, the sudden shortage of available young women and the related birth rate declines could have possible long-term effects on the treasury. Even so, the cabinet’s proposal once more pleased the king and its implications in the lives of his subjects appeared immaterial. The king’s political capital, though seemingly inexhaustible, could have been in real danger of some erosion; they sought to likely curb it by this proposal. In an overgrown empire, there is no shortage of dissent, strife and scheming against the citizens and against the sovereign. Mighty king Ahasuerus was no exception; certainly his decrees must have confused and annoyed his subjects. Not all were happy, and though for unspecified reasons, at his very gate there was discovered a plot to kill him.
By intrigue, cunning or skill, Haman, perhaps one of the king’s military leaders, replaced the king’s cabinet of advisers. He had the monarch’s ear, the latter continuing to be easily and persuasively swayed. Whereas the matters that become public policy decreed by the prior cabinet effectively impinged on aspects of private life, Haman’s malevolent plan was utterly and hopelessly evil. The implications and ramifications would have reached not only kingdom-wide, but indeed humanity-wide. The proposed end was to exterminate the entire Jewish race. The king’s unwise views and selfish lifestyle were the ideal doorways through which Haman’s wicked and insatiable lust for power ultimately would be realized. The unchangeable and deadly edict included the Jews that had already returned to Judea as re-builders years prior, and betrayed the king’s negligence and disregard for justice. Later, in front of queen Esther he feigned no knowledge, though that hardly exempted him. Even so, the Sovereign of the universe had placed His agents within the locus of power. It was their stars that saw ascendancy as surely as Haman saw his in unstoppable descent. The queen’s wisdom and quiet strength as well as her cousin Mordecai’s prior intervention in the foiling of the plot against the king, would under the vigilant eye of the King of heaven find a sure recompense. Their moral convictions demonstrated courage that earned them political capital with wide and powerful influence. “The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He sees that his day is coming” (Psalm 37: 12-13).
It is impossible to explain or rationalize how Ahasuerus consented to such a plan, especially since it would have been permanent. The king himself did not have the legal authority to reverse it. With no proof of guilt or wrongdoing, an entire minority was to be executed and that without any legal allowances for self-defense. The slaughter of the Jews at the appointed time seemed not to daunt the king’s sensibilities. The lot was cast, but God had determined that His people would not be summarily destroyed. Esther’s political influence was at her disposal and she used it wisely while Haman tried to find ways to circumvent the malicious law to his own advantage. In just a few short hours, Haman’s fortunes turned as his influence plummeted, falling thereafter into his own trap. The confluence of events involving Esther, Mordecai and Haman prevented the massacre of God’s chosen people, but still all was not well. Redress was no easy policy.
Bloodshed between the Jews and their attackers was unavoidable. The possible complications of this could have even included civil war – perhaps the one outcome a temporal monarch does not desire, for it certainly would have weakened his empire from the inside inviting possible foreign invasion. However, due in part to the success of the two Jewish principals in the king’s court, and approximately nine months before the appointed day for the execution of the decree, a new decree authored by the queen and her uncle made provisions for the Jews to defend themselves, their dependents and their possessions. Mordecai’s rising influence had become formidable and not easily overlooked. Those among the citizenry, who were considerate, sober and well-inclined, became Jews due to the fear and respect the visible Jewish profile inspired. Whom Haman had fiercely sought to extirpate, increased. Consequently, when the appointed day arrived, by virtue of the intervening events and providential allowances, the casualties were kept to a minimum; approximately 75,800 citizens died. None from among the Jews lost his life. “The Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces…to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could stand against them, for the fear of them had fallen on all peoples” (Esther 9: 2).
From this court too, more pronouncements emerged. A peculiar edict, tacitly understood to favor the minority who previously was the target of annihilation, was enacted. For a couple of days every year Purim was to be celebrated throughout the kingdom, an assertion of the Jewish community’s local and national influence, and favor from God’s hand. As a matter of public policy and political influence, the changes in the circle of advisers to the king proved beneficial to him. His revived image and political power may have contributed to his ability to maintain the control he so eagerly desired. By his side, he had a wise and virtuous queen, and a prime minister who regarded justice. While the king’s clout contributed to his court’s increased revenues due to new taxes, Mordecai amassed authority and influence, which gained him honor and wide respect. With the aid of Mordecai, the king went on to perform acts of power and might. Mordecai’s prominence accrued to his benefit and the continuing advancement of the welfare and peace of his kin. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126: 1-2).