The Wicked King Achashverosh – Purim 5776

King Achashverosh is the central figure in the Book of Esther.  Most of the critical events revolve around him in some way or another.  He selects Esther to be his Queen.  He appoints Haman and authorizes his plot to kill the Jews.  His order enables the Jewish people to defend themselves and defeat Haman’s evil plot.  And then he appoints Mordechai to replace Haman as his Viceroy.  Without Achashverosh, there is not much of a story.

Ironically, when we think of the figure of King Achashverosh, we tend to picture him as a bumbling fool.  His interests are primarily in wine, women, and wealth.  He leaves the art of statecraft to his advisors.  He is unable to make any serious decisions himself, and so his answer to any recommendation, regardless of the source, is always an enthusiastic “yes!”  The typical depiction of Achashverosh is as a simple-minded, gullible moron.

As it turns out, the Book of Esther contains numerous subtle references to other books of the Tanakh that suggest a far more critical take on Achashverosh..

In the first chapter alone, we find allusions to the Books of Kings, Jonah, and Genesis.  Achashverosh, it turns out, is a power hungry, self-centered, and abusive man.

Chapter one of the Book of Esther serves as a prologue to the rest of the story.  It introduces us to the Persian court, and explains how it is that King Achashverosh finds himself in need of a new Queen.  This sets the stage for introducing the villain Haman, as well as the rise of the heroes Mordechai and Esther who will orchestrate the rescue of the Jewish people.

It starts with the mother of all parties.  In the third year of his reign, Achashverosh proclaims a celebration to last one hundred eighty days.  He invites all of the nobleman and governors from the one hundred twenty seven provinces of his empire.  All of the riches of the kingdom are put on display.  For the final seven days, the invitation is extended to every resident of Shushan, “from high to low.”  Achashverosh orders the wine to be poured without limit, but instructs his stewards to respect the wishes of each individual, implying that if someone does not want to drink, his feelings should be honored.

We get the impression of a benevolent king.  It seems on the surface that the author admires him, as he describes the treasures put on display with exuberant language.  We can picture in our minds the wine flowing into the golden goblets, and happy citizens enjoying each other’s company.  He is generously sharing the wealth of his kingdom with his loyal subjects.

As I just mentioned, this feast occurs in the third year of Achashverosh’s reign.  In the third year of Solomon’s reign, he removes the final threat to his ascension to the throne by executing a Benjaminite named Shimi ben Gera.  His kingship secure, Solomon has a prophetic dream in which God asks him what he wants.  Solomon responds, “Grant… Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad…”  (I Kings 3:9)

So impressed with Solomon’s request, God responds, “Because you asked for this – you did not ask for riches, you did not ask for the life of your enemies, but you asked for discernment in dispensing justice – I now do as you have spoken.  I grant you a wise and discerning mind… And I also grant you what you did not ask for – both riches and glory all your life – the like of which no king has ever had…”  (I Kings 3:11-13)

After this dream, Solomon goes up to Jerusalem, where he offers sacrifices to God and then throws a feast for all of his servants.

There are a couple of connections between Solomon’s and Achashverosh’s feasts.  Both occur after three years of reign.  The language for both is nearly identical.  Va-ya’as mishteh l’khol avadav – “He made a banquet for all his courtiers” – in the case of Solomon.  (I Kings 3:15)  Asah mishteh l’khol sarav va’avadav – “He made a banquet for all his officials and courtiers” – in the case of  Achashverosh.  (Esther 1:3)

Furthermore, God promises Solomon that he will be rewarded with osher and kavod – riches and glory – all the days of his life.  Achashverosh puts on display osher k’vod malkhuto, “the rich glory of his kingdom.”  (Esther 1:4)

Solomon, in making his request for wisdom and discernment, chooses to forego riches and glory, yet God awards him with those anyways.  In contrast, Achashverosh deliberately shows off his riches and glory, thereby displaying his lack of wisdom and discernment.

Solomon’s feast is a celebration of God’s blessing.  He honors his loyal courtiers by including them, the true act of a wise and discerning mind.  Achashverosh’s feast is a celebration of his own royal person.  By extravagantly showing off his wealth, he reveals the emptiness of his reign.

The midrash picks up on this connection between Solomon and Achashverosh.  Solomon’s throne, carved of solid ivory, is captured and recaptured until it eventually winds up in the possession of the Persians.  When Achashverosh attempts to sit in it, he is unable.  He is told, “no one who is not ruler over the whole world can sit on it.”  So he commissions a replica to be made that, according to the midrash, is a poor copy of the original.

The next clue occurs in the guest list.  To the seven day party for the common-folk, the invitation is extended l’migadol v’ad katan – “from the greatest until the least.”  (Esther 1:5)  Usually, the expression is the opposite, from the least to the greatest.  In only one other book of the Bible is it “from the greatest until the least” – the Book of Jonah.

Jonah, you will remember, is a reluctant prophet sent to Nineveh to announce that God will destroy the city and its inhabitants unless the people repent.  After unsuccessfully trying to shirk his duty, Jonah eventually fulfills his mission.  To his distress, the Ninevites respond immediately.

The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike – mig’dolam v’ad k’tanam – put on sackcloth.  When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!  (Jonah 3:5-7)

Both references of “from the greatest to the least” refer to the relationship between a King and his subjects.  In the case of the King of Nineveh, the expression is one of great humility.  The king himself gets off of his throne.  He orders everyone in the city to repent and to fast.  They must join him in removing their clothes and putting on sackcloth and ashes.  And he orders that they drink nothing whatsoever.  King and subjects have come together in a deep expression of piety, humility, and self-reflection.

In contrast, King Achashverosh ascends his throne, and includes his subjects in his partying in order to raise himself up.  He puts on his finest royal robes and brings out all of his wealth.  And he orders that the drinks should flow without limit, although nobody should be forced.

In making this allusion, perhaps our narrator is hinting that Achashverosh ought to take heed to the humble example of the King of Nineveh.  If not, he suggests, the city of Shushan, and indeed the entire Perisan Empire, may soon see its demise.

Our final clue is in the episode with Vashti.  She has thrown a separate party for the women.  To mix with the men during their drunken revelry would be incredibly inappropriate, according to the social mores of the day.  Considering what the men were up to, it would have likely also been dangerous.  Plus, the men really do not want their wives around, given what is taking place.

Nevertheless, on the final day of the celebrations, Achashverous sends a messenger to summon Vashti to appear before all of his guests in her crown.  A midrash suggests that the implied message is that she is to appear in her crown, and in nothing else.  Regardless of whether the royal decree includes clothing or not, it is an inappropriate request, but one that she cannot refuse without repercussions.

He wants to show her off, just like he has shown off all his other precious treasures.  Given the inebriated state of his guests, it is likely that Vashti’s ordeal would not simply end after her making an appearance.  She refuses, again through messengers.  This domestic dispute, by taking place in public, has been elevated to the level of state.

Traditional commentaries about Vashti depict her as wicked in some fashion, or describe her refusal to appear at the King’s summons as being embarrassment at an acute onset of leprosy, or the sudden sprouting of a tail.  The rabbinic desire to demean Vashti is perhaps a way to raise up our impression of Esther, her replacement.  Even the text itself could be understood as being critical of her.  After all, she refuses a royal order and then is banished from the kingdom at the advice of the King’s advisors.  Then we never hear about her again.

There is a subtle clue, however, that this is not the impression that the narrator intends for us.  Vashti is described as being beautiful – ki tovat-mar’eh hi.  And when she is summoned, she refuses – va-t’ma’en ha-malkah Vashti.  This leads to her being banished from the King’s palace.

Similar things are said about an earlier biblical figure.  Joseph is also described as being beautiful – va-y’hi Yosef y’feh toar vifat ma’eh.  After his master Potifar’s wife tries to seduce him, he refuses – va-y’ma’en.  She then lies to her husband about him, and Joseph is banished from his master’s house.

When we read about Vashti’s beauty, the request made of her, her refusal, and her banishment, we are meant to think back to the similar pattern having once taken place with Joseph.  This should tell us something about the moral fortitude of these characters.  Through allusion, the narrator hints of his approval of Vashti’s unwillingness to be demeaned despite the consequences that she knows she will face.  The narrator takes Vashti’s side.  Achasherosh is a drunken boor.

As you can see, there is much beneath the surface in the Megillah.  While the book is a satire from nearly two and a half thousand years ago, it’s exaggerated characters display traits that are all too familiar in the twenty first century.  We have seen that, through a close reading of the first chapter in its biblical context, Achashverosh is far more selfish, power-hungry, and abusive than he is typically depicted.  The narrator artfully uses storytelling to teach us something about human behavior, showing us how the actions of individuals can have reverberations that affect the fate of entire nations.

As we read the Megillah this week, make merry, and raise a glass in l’chayim, let us also pay close attention to the characters of Purim and find how their behavior, their positive and negative traits, their correct and incorrect decisions, their heroic and cowardly acts reverberate through the rest of the Tanakh and through our lives.

Bibliography:  http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/archive/ester/03ester.htm#_ftnref14

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