The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
The King's Judgment: Responsible or Ridiculous Rule?
It is reasonable that
Achashverosh was enraged by the refusal of his wife, the queen, to appear when
so commanded. Less apparent is why
the king invited the ministers of the kingdom to consult on what to do with
Queen Vashti. Seemingly, tensions
between a couple should be sorted out between themselves; even if a person might
wish to share his predicament with his close friends, he would not summon an
urgent meeting of government ministers! It is interesting to note that the group
of legislators who are close to the king are also involved in astrology: "The
king said to the wise men who knew the times, for so the king would speak with
all those who knew law and judgment" (1:13).
The modern reader is liable to experience some confusion: did the king gather
the "wise men who knew the times" (i.e., astrologers), as the first part of the
verse suggests, or did he assemble "those who knew law and judgment" (i.e.,
legislators and legal experts), as the latter part implies? But in the Persian
kingdom, law is intricately bound up with astrology, and law with magic. We shall return to this theme when we
reach the lot (pur) cast by Haman, giving the festival of Purim its
name. As to our present discussion,
we may conclude that the group summoned by the king is accustomed to
participating in state discussions, and it is reasonable to assume that the king
would consult them before waging war or imposing a new tax so as to ratify the
However, on this occasion the
king gathers them because he is angry: "The king was exceedingly angry, and his
fury burned within him" (1:12).
This is most surprising: what exactly does the king expect of his
ministers? How are they meant to solve the marital problems between the king and
The irony is especially striking
in light of the attention paid to the names of the ministers and to their
official position all of which seems unnecessarily detailed. The emphasis is highlighted through the
structure of the sentence. First
there is a prelude to direct speech: "The king said to the wise men who knew the
times" and the reader expects to hear what the king said. Instead, there follows a lengthy
description of the status of these wise men, along with their names: "The
closest to him were Karshena, Shetar, Admata, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, Memukhan
the seven princes of Persia and Mede, who beheld the king's face and who sat
first in the kingdom." The reader can almost imagine the trumpets blaring as
these ministers enter: "The listing of the names of the seven princes and their
respected titles expresses the great importance that the king and his ministers
attached to this matter" (Chakham, p. 9).
However, the reader once again asks himself (as the ministers probably
do, too) why does the king urgently summon them? With obvious cynicism, the
narrative formulates the point of the gathering in the following way: "For the
law of what to do with the queen, Vashti, for not having performed the bidding
of the king, Achashverosh, via the chamberlains" (1:15). The addendum, "Via the chamberlains," at
the end of the sentence appears to be meant as a mockery of the king, who
urgently gathers all of his ministers but who has not spoken with his wife; he
invites all the legislators of the kingdom for a consultation, but fails to ask
his wife to explain her refusal.
The ministers find themselves in
a most difficult quandary. On one
hand, they cannot do that which, seemingly, they would most want to do in this
situation: to gently bring the king to his senses, encourage him to drink some
coffee, and wait for him to sober up.
Any minister daring to offer such a proposal will obviously be regarded
as showing contempt for the crown.
On the other hand, it is difficult to think of any law that may be
legislated with a view to solving the king's problem with his wife. The law, by nature, is a general sphere
that applies to the entire kingdom, while in the instance at hand the problem
pertains exclusively to the royal couple.
Moreover, the ministers must bear in mind that within a few days the king
is likely to sober up, and then they will have to give a logical accounting for
the special law that they passed!
The most brilliant of the
ministers, as quickly becomes apparent, is Memukhan. An examination of his response to the
king shows how he resolves the ministers' quandary:
"Memukhan said, before the king
and the ministers: Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king, but also ALL the
ministers and ALL the peoples in ALL the provinces of King Achashverosh. For word of the queen will become known
to ALL the women, making their husbands contemptible in their eyes, as they
shall say: 'King Achashverosh commanded that Queen Vashti be brought before him
and she did not appear!' And the princesses of Persia and Mede, who will have
heard of what the queen did, shall tell of it to ALL the king's princes, and
there shall be great contempt and wrath.
If it please the king, let a royal edict proceed from him, and let it be
written among the laws of Persia and Mede and not be altered that Vashti shall
not come before King Achashverosh, and the king shall give her royal estate to
another, who is better than her.
And when the king's decree which he shall proclaim shall be heard in ALL
of his kingdom, which is extensive, then ALL the women will give honor to their
husbands, both great and lowly" (1:16-20).
Memukhan starts with the central
idea that he will develop in the course of his monologue: "Queen Vashti has
wronged not only the king." This idea is emphasized through the use of the word
"all" which is repeated over and over, a total of seven times, in his
speech. This word sums up the point
that Memukhan is making: the problem is not the king's personal problem, but
rather an issue that affects ALL of the kingdom and ALL of the couples living
We can almost hear Memukhan telling the king (if only through hints): "How
fortunate that my lord the king has invited your important ministers. Indeed, a general problem confronts us
and it must be addressed by means of a general, thought-out law. The issue at stake is not, as some
people might think, a matter of a private problem between the king and his
wife. No! The entire kingdom faces
a problem; every couple now confronts inestimable strife." The sophisticated
reader imagines Memukhan winking at the other ministers as he holds forth. This is hinted at in the introduction to
his words: "Memukhan said, before the king AND THE MINISTERS." They, too, await
breathlessly the solution to the dilemma in which they have unwillingly been
placed. And Memukhan supplies the
goods, by pretending to side with the king's approach, only exaggerating it even
The king is happy with
Memukhan's suggestion, as are the other ministers: "The thing was good in the
eyes of the king and the ministers, and the king did as Memukhan had said"
(1:21). (We may assume that the
king was happy with the "good advice" that he had received, while the ministers
were glad that Memukhan's quick thinking had removed them from their
predicament.) Immediately the king puts the advice into practice: "He sent
letters to all of the king's provinces, to each province according to its
writing and to every people in accordance with its language, that every man
might rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of the people"
(1:22). We can imagine the reaction
of the Persians as they gathered in the town squares to hear the new law that
had just been promulgated, and their surprise upon hearing that from now
onwards, if a husband asked his wife for a cup of coffee, it was forbidden for
her to refuse
The concluding phrase of the law
that is now publicized throughout Achashverosh's kingdom is extremely difficult
to decipher. What does "speaking
according to the language of the people" have to do with the law in question?
Some scholars have proposed that this expression is a repetition of the
beginning of the description of the letters being dispatched i.e., it is yet
another expression meant to emphasize that each household was notified of the
new law in the appropriate language.
Another explanation offered for the language of the law is that if the husband
and wife did not speak the same language, the husband was entitled (perhaps even
obligated) to force his wife to speak his language.
Thus, in the very first chapter, the motif of language is already brought to the
fore a motif that will assume its full significance later on (8:9), and we
shall have occasion to discuss it.
We cannot put aside the image of
the king's ministers gathered around before noting that it repeats itself, in
identical form, in another two places in the narrative: in the selection of
Esther, and in the banishment of Haman.
Let us compare the three situations:
Banishment of Vashti
"The king was exceedingly angry,
and his fury burned in him"
"Memukhan said before the
"The thing was good in the eyes
of the king and the ministers, and the king did as Memukhan had
Selection of Esther
When the fury of King
Achashverosh was appeased"
"The king's young men who
ministered to him said"
"The thing was good in the eyes
of the king, and he did so"
Banishment of Haman
"The king, in his fury, got up
from the banquet of wine"
"Charvona, one of the
"The king said: Hang him upon
and the king's fury was appeased"
The most interesting aspect of
this parallel is, of course, the second element in each situation i.e., the
"advisor du jour" who steps forward and offers suggestions to the
king. Attention should be paid to
the fact that in each situation the advisor is not a complete secondary
character with whom we are familiar: Memukhan henceforth disappears and is not
mentioned again; the "king's young men who ministered to the king" are
altogether marginal figures who, quite unexpectedly, are invited to advance the
plot; and Charvona, while having appeared at the beginning of the story (as one
of the chamberlains who went to summon Vashti) is a character who is otherwise
Yet, to our surprise, at these major junctures in the narrative (the banishing
of the queen from the palace, the selection of a new queen, the hanging of the
most senior advisor in the kingdom), is it specifically these unknown
personalities who influence the decisions of the king who, we are told, is
overcome with his "fury" and seeks some calm.
This model serves to expose
Achashverosh's kingdom in all of its fickleness. How are matters decided? Does order
really prevail in this world power? The reader who enters the experience of the
king's momentary caprices that establish new laws in the kingdom, is aware of
one of the most important devices that advance the plot, but also senses the
narrator's biting regard for the norms and procedures of Achashverosh's rule and
as I shall propose later on for the institution of royalty altogether. Here, too, we discern the disparity
between the revealed and concealed levels.
On the revealed level, the king is described as someone who consults his
ministers before legislating a new law.
Even for the purpose of deciding "what should be done with Queen Vashti"
he appeals to the appropriate hierarchy, and the law is accepted through the
accepted channels. At the same
time, on the concealed level, the reader senses the cynicism that pervades this
scene. Contrary to the impression
that the literal text conveys, if an entire legal process is required in order
for the king to decide what to do with his wife, then the entire legal system
and the legislative procedure are being presented with a healthy dose of
Clines summarizes the point
well: "The tone
of ch. 1 is satirical of that there can be no doubt. The point at which it ends, with royal
letters being sent to all the royal provinces... giving command that every man
should be master in his own house, is the point of unmistakable glee at Persian
foolishness to which the whole chapter has been moving."
To conclude our discussion of
Memukhan's advice, we must mention two other biblical sources that maintain a
literary connection with this unit and deepen the hidden reading of this
scene. One source is from further
on in Esther; the other is from Shemuel.
The language used to describe
the dispatch of the king's letters is repeated later on, in the description of
the dispatch of letters by Haman:
Letters sent in the wake of
Memukhan's advice (1:22):
"He sent letters to all of the king's provinces"
each province in accordance with its writing"
"and to every people in accordance with its
every man might rule in his own house"
"Letters were sent by couriers to all of the king's
province in accordance with its writing"
"and every people in accordance with its language"
annihilate, to kill and to destroy all the Jews"
It may be that the parallel is
not intended, but rather reflects a formal style of writing expressing the
establishment of a new law and its dissemination throughout the Persian
kingdom. However, the possibility
certainly exists that the narrator indeed wants the reader to place the two
dispatches side by side, such that the scorn that he feels upon reading the
king's decree that every man should rule in his own home should be projected
onto Haman's decree, too, in which all of the Gentiles are given license to
prevail over all of the Jews. This
connection hints at a profound structure of the narrative, according to which
there are two populations groups that may be referred to as "other" or
"foreign": women and Jews. And in
keeping with the manner of this narrative, in which the plain text is simply a
covering for the hidden reading, the same applies in our context. At the beginning of the story it seems
that, in Achashverosh's kingdom, husbands control their wives and wives must
"give honor to their husbands" just as at the beginning it seems that the
enemies of the Jews control the Jews, in Achashverosh's kingdom. However, just as at the end "it was
reversed, such that the Jews dominated their enemies" (9:1), so it turns out, in
fact, that it is the women who set the special tone of this narrative, and it is
they (or at least Esther, the wife of the king) who are the major driving force
behind the plot and the salvation of the Jews.
Timothy Beal devotes his study to the connection between these two population
groups. As he writes in the
introduction to his book:
"There are many convergences
between projections of the other woman and the other Jew, as well as between the
two subjects who project these two others and mark them for oblivion as such."
In this sense, the issue of the
status of the women is raised and treated as one of the themes of the
narrative. It must be emphasized
that one does not need to adopt a feminist reading in order to raise this issue
in Esther. The king's first
set of letters accomplish this, forcing the reader to note the matter of the
relationship between a woman and her husband as a theme. One clear fact in this context, which
also contributes to the ironic reading of this episode, is that we may recognize
at least one man in the kingdom that does not obey this law. We refer here to the king himself, who
is led by his wife, the queen, to where she wants him to be even if she does
so in the guise of a wife "giving honor" to her husband.
The second biblical source to
which the narrative points us is the transfer of the kingdom from Shaul to
David. When the reader considers
Memukhan's suggestion "
The king shall give her royal estate to another, who
is better than her" (1:19) he is reminded to Shemuel's words to Shaul,
following the latter's sin in the war against Amalek: "The Lord has torn the
kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to your fellow who is
better than you" (I Shemuel 15:28).
This allusion is unmistakable, and the Midrash makes note of it: "With
the same language used to strip her ancestor of his kingship as Shemuel said
to him, 'And has given it to your fellow who is better than you,' with that same
language the kingship was restored to him.
As it is written, '[The king] shall give her royal estate to another, who
is better than her.'" (Esther Rabba, parasha 4,9).
What is the significance of the
parallel between stripping Vashti of her royal position and stripping Shaul of
his kingdom? Apparently, by means of this allusion, the reader is asked to
discern the paving of the way for the repair of Shaul's sin. He lost his kingdom because he did not
wage war in the proper manner against Amalek and Agag. Now, Esther is restored to royal status
so as to complete this deficiency; it is she who will bring about the downfall
of "Haman, the Agagite."
While the plain reading mires
the reader in the personal fights between the Persian king and his wife, which
take place within the palace in Shushan, the "hidden reading" carries him back
in time, to ancient Jewish history, hinting to him that the Esther narrative
should also be interpreted as a broad historical reaction to the failures of the
first Israelite king.
Translated by Kaeren