Often when I’m reading or studying scripture, I feel that God guides me and says “Linger here. Dig deep here.” Sometimes I linger and dig for other reasons- because I’m in a study or have a question (or a blog to write!). Occasionally when this happens, I realize I’ve glossed over passages, sometimes for years. As I prepared to write on Esther, I asked God to take me where He wanted me to go. I expected to quickly get to Esther’s story, but I couldn’t move past the first 15 verses.
The first thing that stopped me: opulent descriptions of the feast where the action starts.
And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired.” ~ Esther 1:5-8
Why are four verses given to describe the appearance of this event? People drinking out of “gold vessels” while “the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king”? It seems written as mere observation, not intended to leave a positive or negative imprint on the reader. I had read it from this observational viewpoint for years, but the picture in my mind this time was dark. Extravagant selfishness, excessive drinking- for days.
Then I got stuck just a verse later.
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, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him. ~ Esther 1: 10-12
I had never given much thought to Vashti. I read her part of the story and basically thought she didn’t do what was expected in her position and culture and was punished. Perhaps she, like the king, was used to getting her way and didn’t really think there would be consequences. I had ascribed no right, wrong or meaning to her actions and thought of her as separate from the main story. But this time when I read these verses I thought, I wouldn’t want to go into that room of men either, especially not on day seven. What part of her “beauty” did he want the people to see? Was his request harmless or had he asked her to appear in a humiliating and degrading manner? If Esther knew that simply coming into the king’s presence without being summoned could mean her death, surely Vashti realized denying the king would bring something dire upon her. So why would she refuse and possibly face execution?
I read a good deal of commentary on her. It was very conflicting. In places she is heralded for modesty and decency for refusing to appear at the king’s banquet naked despite knowing she would face some kind of severe punishment. Other records discuss the possibility that she was grasping and godless like the king, but wouldn’t appear because she had leprosy.
I don’t know Vashti’s motivations, eventual fate or character, but what I finished my study with was a reminder of the degradation and danger in this culture. The Jewish people had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, but those who stayed were subject to the king and his edicts. Esther lived in a harem and then as a concubine before becoming queen; a vastly different life than the one she would have led as a Jewish wife and mother. I wonder if in the middle of this experience, Esther ever asked God why He had allowed this to happen to her; if she ever felt that she was carrying the punishment of the people that came before her (the exiled Jews). We know little of her thoughts and feelings about her position from the text. What we do know is she had wisdom and courage.
We see both when Mordecai asks her to go to the king on behalf of her people. Despite the life she’s had to live that appears so contrary to the law she was brought up to follow, she continues to act in faith for her people.
Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law — to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.” And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” ~ Esther 4:10-16
“If I perish, I perish.” Though she was obviously and understandably frightened to do what Mordecai asked of her, she responded to his reasoning with this powerful statement of courage and resolve.
As you read Esther and Ruth this month, linger where God takes you. Linger over the details. How God protected these women in dangerous times and gave them significant roles despite the seeming powerlessness of their positions; linger over places you haven’t before and see if God has something new and different to reveal to you.