Esther one introduces us to a couple of key characters, Ahasuerus (Xerxes) who will play a roll throughout the book, and Vashti, who will begin as queen of Persia and end the chapter deposed and disgraced.
Persians were infamous for drunken banquets. The scene in chapter one was probably a planning session for the forthcoming invasion of Greece (which would end in disaster), that took place during the third year of his reign. This meeting lasted for 6 months and the 7 day “feast” was a true orgy of drunkenness and debauchery, no doubt. Indeed, the
word translated “feast” in Esther 1.3 has “drink” as it’s base. Perhaps bacchanalia would be a better translation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to the nature of a bunch of bums drinking for seven days straight, King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) gets a truly brilliant idea. Call out Vashti to the m’shti (the bacchanalia) and have all of the drunken participants ogle her great beauty (and what a fine husband he must have been). Vashti refuses—we are not told why—and a crisis ensues.
There is some humor inserted into the narrative—one assumes on purpose by the author—in which the king’s advisors wring their hands over the possibility that all of the women in the Persian kingdom will rebel against their husbands if Xerxes doesn’t do something about the disobedient Vashti. The Message paraphrase puts it pretty well:
The word’s going to get out: ‘Did you hear the latest about Queen Vashti? King Xerxes ordered her to be brought before him and she wouldn’t do it! When the women hear it, they’ll start treating their husbands with contempt. The day the wives of the Persian and Mede officials get wind of the queen’s insolence, they’ll be out of control. Is that what we want, a country of angry women who don’t know their place?
Nothing worse than a country of angry women who don’t know their place, right?
There are a couple of takeaways from this first chapter of Esther. First, we immediately see the perilous and tenuous place of women in the Persian Empire. Even the queen is not safe, if she can be deposed at the whim of a drunken king at virtually any moment. This will become of supreme importance later in the narrative as we see Esther carefully working the shifting sands of the king’s mood.
Second, we see a group of people (the king, the queen, the king’s advisors), who do not have the least interest in the Jewish people, faith, or God, and who are all making their own choices, good, bad, and indifferent. We will soon see—though we do not see in chapter one—that all of their individual choices and attitudes fit nicely into God’s perfect plan for bringing a young Jewess into a position of influence in the Kingdom of Persia, the mightiest nation on earth.