Chapter OneEsther 1:1-8
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This is what happened during the time of Xerxes,
the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces
stretching from India to Cush. At that time King
Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of
Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet
for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders
of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the
provinces were present.
For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of
his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty.
When these days were over, the king gave a banquet,
lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king's
palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest,
who were in the citadel of Susa. The garden had hangings
of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of
white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble
pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a
mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl
and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of
gold, each one different from the other, and the royal
wine was abundant, in keeping with the king's liberality.
By the king's command each guest was allowed to drink
in his own way, for the king instructed all the wine stewards
to serve each man what he wished.
The book begins "This is what happened ."
(Heb., wyhy), which is the introductory formula
found in other historical books, such as
Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. Regardless of
how we judge the historicity of the book, the author's introduction to
the story suggests he intends for his readers to understand the ensuing
story as events that actually happened.
These events occurred during the time of Xerxes, the Persian king
who reigned from 486-465 B.C. Xerxes is probably the Greek transliteration
of his Persian name Khshayarshan. In the Hebrew language his
name takes the form Ahasuerus (pronounced Ahashwerosh). This name has
no meaning in Hebrew, but when pronounced aloud sounds something
like King Headache in English.
Xerxes was the son and successor of Darius I Hystaspes, under
whose benefaction the temple in Jerusalem had begun to be rebuilt
(Hag. 2:1-9; Zech. 7:1; 8:9). Xerxes is also mentioned in Ezra 4:6 as
the reigning king when those opposed to that rebuilding project
brought accusations against it.
Xerxes was known for his consolidation of the Persian empire "from
India to Cush," corresponding to the regions of modern Pakistan and
northern Sudan, respectively. The reference to 127 provinces has been
taken by some scholars as a historical inaccuracy. The standard administrative
region within the Persian empire was known as a satrapy and
was governed by an official called a satrap. The satrap was responsible
for all administration of the region, including collecting tribute
(i.e., taxes) and raising an army on the king's behalf. A vast administration
was required to govern and collect tribute throughout an empire
that encompassed many nations and peoples of various languages.
According to Herodotus, Xerxes' father, Darius, created twenty
satrapies comprised of sixty-seven tribes or nations. There is no extant
historical evidence that at any time were there as many as 127 satrapies,
nor even 120 (as mentioned in Dan. 6:1).
In 1:1, however, the Hebrew word used does not mean "satrapy" but
"province" and probably refers to a smaller metropolitan region that
encompassed a city. In Daniel 2:49 the same Hebrew word refers to
the "province of Babylon"; in Ezra 2:1 and Nehemiah 7:6 it refers to
the province of Judea surrounding the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem and
Judea were a small part of the large satrapy of the Trans-Euphrates
region. The relationship between the provinces and satrapies is unclear,
but there were presumably a considerably larger number of provinces
than satrapies. Furthermore, the number of provinces probably
changed as cities were gained and lost in war. Moreover, since a satrapy
was an arbitrary administrative unit, their number also likely changed
to meet changing administrative needs. It is not surprising that documents
written at different times during the Persian period may disagree
on the numbers.
Since the authors of both Esther and Daniel use approximately the
same number, most likely they are referring to smaller administrative
units. Some commentators, especially in antiquity, have taken the
number to be symbolic of Xerxes' reigning over all the whole earth
(e.g., 12 [the number of the tribes of Israel] x 10 [the number of completeness]
+ 7 [the number of perfection]). F. Bush points out that
the concern for historicity in this instance obscures the purpose of the
number in the narrative: "By the choice of the larger number, the pomp
and glory of the empire is magnified, contributing to the sardonic picture
presented in this whole chapter." This use of the number is consistent
with the grandiose picture painted of the Persian empire by
the author in chapter 1. By choosing to refer to the smallest administrative
units of the empire (hence the larger number), the author may
also be implying that there was nowhere the Jews could go to hide
from the decree of death that would be pronounced against them.
Susa was one of the four capital cities from which the Persian monarchs
ruled (the others were Ecbatana [cf. Ezra 6:2], Babylon, and
Persepolis). The royal court wintered at the palace in Susa, for the
summer temperatures there were intolerable. Daniel previously had a
vision at Susa (Dan. 8:2), and later Nehemiah served in Susa as cup-bearer
to Xerxes' son, Artaxerxes I (Neh. 1:1).
Xerxes ascended the throne in November 486 B.C. at the age of
thirty-two. The events of the Esther story span a period of about ten
years, beginning in the third year of his reign, 483 B.C. At the time
Xerxes ascended the throne, Persia was in conflict with the Greeks on
their western frontier. Xerxes' father Darius had been defeated in his
attempt to take Athens. The empire was resting in preparation for its
next campaign against the Greeks.
The banquet held "in the third year" of Xerxes' reign (1:3) corresponds
well with the great war council of 483 B.C., held to plan for the
Persian invasion of Greece. Xerxes was mustering the nobles, officials,
military leaders, princes, and governors of the provinces in Susa to
rally support for his military campaign against the Greeks. The vast
expanse of the Persian empire, from modern Pakistan in the east to
modern Turkey in the west, encompassed many people groups with different
languages, ethnic origins, and religions. Maintaining their support
and loyalty over such a diverse and far-flung empire was no small
feat. During the 180 days of the council, Xerxes displayed his wealth
and glory to consolidate the leaders of the many provinces of the
empire under his authority and to gain their loyalty to his cause.
Herodotus records Xerxes as saying to his assembled nobles, possibly
during the very banquet described in Esther:
For this cause I have now summoned you together, that I may
impart to you my purpose. It is my intent to bridge the Hellespont
and lead my army through Europe to Hellas [Greece], that I may punish the Athenians for what they have done to the
Persians and to my father. You saw that Darius my father was
minded to make an expedition against these men. But he is dead, and it was not granted him to punish them; and I, on his and all
the Persians' behalf, will never rest till I have taken and burnt
As for you, this is how you shall best please me: when I
declare the time for your coming, everyone of you must appear, and with a good will; and whosoever comes with his army best
equipped shall receive from me such gifts as are reckoned most
precious among us.
Xerxes displayed his wealth to show that he could make good on his
promise and reward those who would rally to support his campaign.
Persia and Media were two separate, but ethnically related, nations
that had a long but uneasy history prior to this period. The Medes'
greatest claim to fame came from joining forces with the Babylonians
to overthrow the Assyrian empire. The prophet Jonah had predicted
the eventual destruction of the Assyrian capital city, Nineveh, fulfillment
of which, though deferred, was accomplished by the Medes in
612 B.C. Prior to the time of Cyrus, the Medes were the dominant
nation of the two. Cyrus won the allegiance of both the Medes and
Persians because his father was a Persian and his mother a Mede. In
himself he united these two great nations and had the military power
to enforce a union of both into one great empire. From the time of
Cyrus onward the consolidated empire he founded was referred to as
the Persian-Median empire, showing the hegemony of the Persians
within the joint empire. The reference here to the military leaders of
Persia first, and of Media second, is historically accurate for the time
of Xerxes, who reigned after Cyrus.
A banquet of seven days was held for all the residents of the citadel
of Susa, "from the least to the greatest," to culminate the six months
of festivities (1:4-5). This event would have further consolidated support
for the king and his campaign among all his subjects who lived
and served him in Susa. These people had no doubt provided many of
the services demanded by the lavish hospitality of the previous 180
days, and they were perhaps being feted for their efforts.
The description of the banquet focuses on the opulence of its setting
in the king's garden and the abundance of wine "in keeping with
king's liberality" served in goblets of gold (1:6-7). Both emphasize
the wealth, and hence the power, of the king, who was expecting the
men of his empire soon to march into battle on his command. Both Persia
and Greece held wealth commensurate with their position as the
two world superpowers of that time. Persia's wealth and magnificence
dazzled even Alexander the Great when more than a century later he
entered the palace at Susa and found 40,000 talents of gold and silver
bullion (1,200 tons) and 9,000 talents of minted gold coins (270 tons),
which had been accumulated by the Persian kings.
The might and glory of the Persian empire were at Xerxes' disposal
in order to reward those who would remain loyal to his cause and obedient
to his command. This description of the lavish banquet shows
that Xerxes was a force to be reckoned with.
In these verses the author sets an elaborate
stage for the opening act of the story. The
king's power, wealth, majesty, and generosity
are being highlighted by the description
of the opulent banquets in the Persian court at Susa, where the king
is gathering support and loyalty for his campaign against Greece. The
irony of this description is lost on modern readers. The original readers
would have known that Xerxes returned from Greece four years
later after a surprising defeat that depleted his royal wealth. Since the
author of Esther was writing long after Xerxes' defeat, he could have
introduced Xerxes as the Persian king who lost a famous battle to the
Greeks at Hellespont. Instead, he chose to introduce Xerxes in the
splendor and optimism of his glory days. The unstated reversal of the
king's fortune, which would have been known to the author and original
readers, sets the stage and foreshadows another reversal of destiny
within the book.
The elaborate description of the palace found in these verses is
unusual for biblical narrative. Only the description of the tabernacle
and Jerusalem temple receive similar treatment. The description of
the colors and materials of the Persian palace are reminiscent of the
description of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-28 and the descriptions of
the temple in 1 Kings 7 and 2 Chron. 3-4. The magnificent temple
in Jerusalem had been the throne of Yahweh's theocracy. At its dedication
the Lord promised that if the king of Jerusalem walked before
him in obedience, "You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of
Israel" (1 Kings 9:5).
The Jews found themselves in Susa beholden to the glory of a pagan
king because of the other side of that promise made at the dedication
of the temple (1 Kings 9:6-9):
But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe
the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve
other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the
land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated
for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an
object of ridicule among all peoples. And though this temple is
now imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and
say, "Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this
temple?" People will answer, "Because they have forsaken the
Lord their God, who brought their fathers out of Egypt, and
have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them-that
is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them."
When Esther 1:1-8 is read in light of Xerxes' defeat, the description
of the splendor of his palace in Susa while he planned for war foreshadows
his reversal of fortune. The Jews had also previously experienced
a humiliating reversal of fortune that had brought them to Susa.
Nevertheless, because of the covenant Yahweh had made with them
when he "brought their fathers out of Egypt," the ultimate destiny of
God's people was secured. Despite the great power and wealth of the
Persian empire, it could never frustrate the plan and promise of God.
Though God chastened his people in the affliction of the Exile, it
was never his intent to destroy them completely. Because the Jewish
nation was delivered from genocide, it survived to bear the Messiah,
through whom all nations have been blessed (cf. Gen. 12:2-3). The
Messiah fulfilled all of the demands and promises of the covenant God
had made with his people at Sinai. He is the man promised in 1 Kings
9:5, seated on the throne of his father David and ruling over an eternal
Although the great splendor of Xerxes'
empire now lies in ruins beneath centuries of
dust, the world continues to see opulent displays
of military bravado. After the Persians,
the Greek Ptolemies and Seleucids dominated the eastern Mediterranean,
bringing conflict and tumult to the Jewish people. Then the
Romans, perhaps the greatest military machine the world has ever seen,
tried to destroy the infant Christian church. The book of Revelation,
which contains a description of the opulent royal city of God and the
Lamb, was written to assure the early Christians that the persecutions
of even the mighty Romans could not thwart or frustrate God's sovereign
plan to bring all of history to culmination in Jesus Christ.