I bet when they were old women, they wore purple: Vashti and Esther

Esther 4:10-17

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful queen,
that started in the royal court
within a Persian scene.

The queen was a mighty Jewish girl,
the king was quite a kook,
and how the story did unfold
is a ten chapter book—a ten chapter book.

The story started getting rough.
We’re worried about the cost.
If everything is not reversed
the people will be lost—the people will be lost.

The plot might run aground on this uncharted story line
with Queen Vashti,
and Esther too,
the kooky king and his court,
the evil one,
with Mordecai and eunuchs too—
in the book of Esther.

The book of Esther, you see, is an ancient forerunner
of the modern sit-com.
Technically designated, by the scholars, a satire,
or a burlesque—a carnival story
to go along with the carnival atmosphere of the festival it generated—Purim—
at the celebration of which, the devout Jew is to get so drunk
as to not be able to distinguish between someone saying,
“cursed by Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai”—
unable to distinguish between the hero and the villain!

Our story’s actually set in the court of a particular historical Persian king
at a time when we know—we know that that real Persian king was off to war.
We also know the name of that real Persian king’s wife,
and it wasn’t Vashti or Esther (the queens’ names in our text).
We also know that there were 20 to 30 provinces, at the most,
in that real Persian king’s kingdom, not 127.
So we know this book was written as historical fiction—
set in a real context which is so very obviously exaggerated—overdone
(Carol M. Bechtel, Esther in Interpretation:
A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching

[Louisville: John Knox, 2002] 3;
Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes:
Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible
[Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994] 211;
Sidnie White Crawford, The Book of Esther:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes,
Volume III
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1999] 856).

So sit right back, or step right up.
We have a story to hear—
one to captivate and enthrall—
with beautiful maidens,
an evil villain, a King, two Queens—
seven sages, seven eunuchs, seven maids (I love this story already!).

We’re introduced to King Iswearus
as he’s throwing the party to end all parties—

we now interrupt the telling of this story
because I actually want specific images in your head.
So to begin with, we have this king—
the absolute authority—the acknowledged power.
But we’ll find out he’s pompous and vain,
dangerously arrogant, oblivious, ineffectual, silly.
Picture Danny Devito as King Iswearus.
There he is in full party attire.

We’re introduced to King Iswearus, his royal maleficence
(oh! I’m sure that’s meant to be magnificence)—
we’re introduced as he’s throwing the party to end all parties—
for all his officials and ministers—for the whole army—
for all the nobles and governors of all one hundred twenty seven provinces,
and the banquet lasted 180 days—six months!

What a display of pomp and splendor and wealth and power—
all dedicated to the utterly shallow and insignificant!
All these resources wasted. All these people wasted—literally!
180 days of partying.

And at the end of the 180th day,
he threw another party—
this one for all the people in Susa, the capital city—
this party in the garden of the palace.

And the queen, queen Vashti (think Catherine Zeta Jones),
gave a banquet for all the women in the palace.
So notice, just for fun, who’s actually in the palace,
the residence of royalty, the seat of power,
and who’s outside it.

On the seventh day, King Iswearus, his royal malevolence
(that’s got to be magnificence again)
merry with wine, that is, three sheets to the wind, drunk as a skunk,
pickled, liquored up, totally toasted, wasted, plastered, sloshed—
(I’m sure that’s all meant to be somewhat inebriated),
ordered his seven eunuchs to go get the queen
that she might appear before those gathered in the garden
in her beauty wearing her golden crown—
the implication possibly being and nothing else,
for she was fair to behold. Catherine Zeta Jones.

So more of this exaggerated juvenile need to impress
in the most superficial of ways.
Except Queen Vashti wouldn’t have anything to do
with King Iswearus the Corpulent’s—hmm, Opulent’s plan.
This was conveyed to the king by the seven eunuchs
sent to get the Queen who had gotten quite the earful from the Queen!
So on the seventh day, with the news from the seven eunuchs,
King Iswearus the Terrible—the Terrifical, consulted the seven sages
who gravely warned him of the dire consequences of uppity women.
“This deed of the Queen, made known to all women,
will make them all look with contempt on their husbands,” they said.
“This very day, the women of all 127 provinces will rebel
against structure and order,
and there will be no end of contempt and wrath,” they said.
“So let a royal order go forth, let it be written
so that it may never be altered,
that Vashti be banished.
and give her royal position to one better than she,
so that when you do this, all women throughout all 127 provinces
will honor and obey their husbands—
acknowledging the royal infallibility proclaiming
every man master in his own house.”
How ’bout that? King Iswearus was a Southern Baptist pope!
Who knew?

Eventually King Iswearus his vileness—highness cools down
and decides to have a beauty pageant to find the next Queen.
He appointed commissioners in all 127 provinces
to identify and gather all the most gorgeous virgins,
and lo, there were many job applicants
to fill the positions of those 127 commissioners!
The most gorgeous virgins of the 127 provinces
would then all gather in the capital,
have special cosmetic treatments (sponsored by Mary Kay),
and whichever girl pleased his royal superfluousness—
superlativeness, the king, would be queen—
because that’s what it’s all about.

Now Mordecai was a Jew in the citadel of Susa,
and I’m thinking Ben Kingsley—
solid—distinguished looking.
He had raised his orphaned cousin, Esther (Sandra Bullock).
So here’s Esther, not only a woman, but also an orphan—
as precarious a situation as one might imagine.
And yet, she impressed the king who gave her seven maids
and the best place in the harem.

Now after 12 months of prescribed cosmetic treatments (sold by Mary Kay),
each girl—ahem, had a turn—with the king.
But unless she impressed him and asked her to return, that was that.
When Esther went in, he loved her more than all the others
(he loved her more than he loved the others),
and made her queen, and there was another banquet,
and the day was officially named a holiday.

Now Mordecai, happened to be hanging out by the king’s gate,
and overheard two of the eunuchs guarding the threshold, Biggerthan and T-rex,
conspiring against the king. They were tired of being assigned guard duty
for parties that never ended, and decided to kill the king.
Mordecai passed the word along to Esther
who passed the word of Mordecai along to the King
who had Biggerthan and T-rex executed—hung from the gallows.

Meanwhile, his hy—, oh, that’s got to be his highness!
promoted Haman (Steve Buscemi)—
slimy, slick, self-centered, opportunistic,
and everyone bowed down and kissed asphalt before him
as the king had commanded—
except, when he went through the king’s gate, for Mordecai.
Now he was asked why he didn’t bow,
and he said it was because he was a Jew.
And maybe he was super-pious.
But Jews could bow to authorities
(Joseph’s brothers bowed to him, remember, Genesis 42:6; 43:26).
It all seems a little silly and unnecessary on Mordecai’s part—
an exaggerated sense of religious appropriateness
can be a very dangerous thing!

Well, Haman was furious.
But while he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai—
to sully his hands on Mordecai,
he did plot to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom.
The theme of disproportionate excess continues.
And however silly Mordecai may have been,
Haman’s response is patently, offensively, excessive.
Heil Haman.
They’re always around somewhere—
the trick is to hear them for what they are—
whatever their appearance—whatever their appeal—
whatever their position—whatever their power.
And Haman argued before the king
that the Jews didn’t belong. They didn’t fit.
They were an abomination. They were an aberration.
And he offered to pay 10,000 talents—
two thirds of Persia’s annual income
(Bechtel, 8)!
to facilitate the work.
And so another royal decree went out
from his so easily manipulated royal Stupidness—
no, no, no Stupendousness … surely.
And the King gave Haman his signet ring with which to seal the decree
to “destroy, kill, and to annihilate all Jews,
young and old, women and children … and to plunder their goods.”
And the King and Haman sat down to eat,
while the city was thrown into confusion.

Mordecai, who had, however absurdly, started all this
put on sackcloth and ashes and went about weeping and wailing.
Very dramatic. Not very productive.
Esther, deeply distressed herself,
sent clothes to Mordecai (who wouldn’t accept them)
and also one of the king’s eunuchs to get the low down from Mordecai
who had all the details and even a copy of the royal decree sent to the Queen
along with the charge to go before the king to make supplication.

Well now, no one went to the king, if not summoned by the king—
not even the wife—you know, the one loved more than all the others he loved.
To take such initiative was to be put to death.
Unless, of course, the king formally extended the royal golden scepter.
And Esther herself, beloved of the king, hadn’t been sent for in 30 days.

And here’s Mordecai’s moment,
as he suggests that maybe it was for such times as these
that Esther was in the position she was in.
And maybe for words such as these that he was.
And when Esther agreed to approach the king,
Mordecai, we read, went and did everything as Esther ordered.

And Esther put on her fancy clothes,
forwent the 12 months of cosmetics (to Mary Kay’s chagrin),
and presented herself to his royal superficialness—super officialness,
who did, in fact, extend his scepter to her, asking
“What would you like? I’ll grant you whatever you want.”
Quickly Esther invited the King and Haman to a banquet,
and the King commanded bring Haman quickly
so we can do as Esther desires.
Notice how the king’s desire becomes Esther’s
(he comes to want what she wants).
Notice also, whatever Haman’s position and power,
he’s still at the beck and call of the king.
At the banquet, while they were drinking wine,
the king asked again, “What’s your petition?
I’ll grant it no matter what it is—
even if it’s for half my kingdom—
63 and one half provinces!”
Even though he had already granted the petition—right?
That’s what this banquet was.
“Let me give another banquet for you and Haman tomorrow,”
said Esther—maybe working up her courage to make the real request.

Well, Haman went home just so excited—
as impressed with the superficial as his royal incompetence—
all puffed up—
boasting to his wife and friends for all he was worth—
basking in their admiration,
but still angry at Mordecai—
still thrown out of sorts by Mordecai—who wouldn’t bow before him.
His wife and friends suggested he have some gallows built—
50 cubits high—now that’s gallows the equivalent of a six-story building!
And that the next day he should ask the king to have Mordecai hanged on them.
Haman thought that was a great idea, and had them built—overnight—
six stories!

Meanwhile, back at the palace that night, King Iswearus
his oderousnous—splendiferousness, couldn’t sleep.
So he ordered the annals of the court brought to him.
That’s what I always do when I can’t sleep—
look through Church Council minutes!
And so he read about how Mordecai had saved him.
“Oh, yeah, he saved my life! What did we do for him?”
“Nothing,” came the response.
“Nothing? Who’s here who can do something about this?
What official is here in the court right now?”
Well, it so happened that Haman was there—
having just arrived to talk to the king about hanging Mordecai.
Good timing, huh?
“So what shall be done,” the king asks Haman,
“for the man the king wishes to honor?”
“Oooh!” thinks Haman, “Let me answer that!”
rubbing his hands together, thinking, of course,
it would all be done for him.
“Well, he should be given royal robes that the king has worn.
He should be given royal horses that the king has ridden.
He should be given a crown of his own.
Let one of the kings most noble officials bestow all this on the one to be honored,
and let him conduct that man on horseback through the town square
proclaiming, ‘This is how the king honors a man!’”
And again, how superficial. How shallow.
How revealing of what was important to Haman.

And his obliviousness says to his obsequiousness,
“Okay, you’re the most noble official,
so you do all that for Mordecai.”
And Haman’s eyes bugged out.
He couldn’t believe what he had just heard.

And so it was all done—just as he had described—
after which Haman hurried home, mourning—
humiliated—with his head covered—
everything having worked out
so not like he wanted … and expected.
He told his wife and friends everything.
And his wife offered him these comforting words:
“If Mordecai before whom your downfall has begun
is a Jew, you will not prevail, but will fall before him.”
“Ah. Thanks, hun.”

While they were still talking,
the eunuchs arrived to take him to Esther’s banquet—the second one.
“Oh, just what I feel like: another party.”
And the king and Haman went in to feast with Esther.
On the second day of this banquet(!), as they were drinking wine,
the King asks Esther, now for the third time,“What’s your petition?”
And because the third time’s a charm she responds with her real request,
“Save my people” and tells him they’re being persecuted.
“Who has done this terrible thing to your people?” he demands.
Well, technically he had, right?
But Esther says, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”
Who was terrified.
The king, his ordinari—extraordinariness, was so angry he left the room—
went to the garden.
Which left who in the palace—the royal residence—the seat of power?
And Haman threw himself before her,
But, of course, that’s right when his royal irateness—greatness returned,
and it looked to him like Haman was assaulting her.
Dumfounded, he asked, “Will he assault the queen in my own house?”
And one of the eunuchs pointed out the 50 foot gallows right outside,
“Oh look! The very gallows on which Haman had prepared to hang Mordecai—
whose word saved the king.”
“Oh, how’d I miss that?” Well it wasn’t there day before yesterday.
And he ordered Haman hung. And his anger abated.

So Haman was executed on the gallows he had built to kill Mordecai,
and Mordecai was honored and elevated
and decked out in all the tomfoolery Haman so wanted—
the robes and cloaks and the crown.
And there were more parties and banquets.
And the king issues another decree, now allowing the Jews
“to destroy, to kill, and annihilate any armed force
that might attack them with their women and children
and to plunder their goods.”
“And seal it with the king’s ring,” the king says.
“For an edict written in the name of the king” he explains,
“and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”
Which means, think about it,
that we now have two irrevocable diametrically opposed decrees out there—
one ordering the destruction of all Jews,
one allowing the Jews to destroy those who seek to destroy them.
Ah, that’s our world.

And there are two key words at the beginning of chapter nine:
“everything reversed”
(Bechtel, 6; Crawford 858).
And yes, that’s the Magnificat, the Song of Hannah,
the vision of Isaiah.
It’s gospel, yes,
But even so, we have to be careful.
In a true reversal, you see,
you don’t even have to be drunk
to be unable to distinguish between the evil and good reversed.
When official excess and superficiality are mocked when they have it,
then when everything is reversed, how important not to embrace and value
what you mocked when you didn’t have it.
How important not to allow yourself to be defined by what you resisted.
But the Jews, we read, killed 75,000 people throughout the 127 provinces.
For when the ways of the world are reversed,
they’re still the ways of the world.

So while the reversal is, on the one hand, comforting—
reassuring—it’s fun—it’s feels right—fair—just.
It’s also a bit uncertain.
Sometimes a reversal’s not what you want.
You want a transformation.

Vashti rejects the whole story—and disappears from it.
I like to think she moved to the province of the 127
farthest from the capital
where she found a man who loved her and treated her like a Queen
all the days of her life,
but maybe she ended up homeless, begging before the king’s gate.
And Esther, well, she saved her people,
but even with all the reversals, she’s still married to—Iswearus.
Is that her sacrifice—or her compromise?

Vashti, uncompromising, absolute in her principals—disappears.
Esther, working within the system, saves her people.
Who will we be?
What woman will model faithful leadership for us?
Who should we be?
Or one in this circumstance and the other in that?
We don’t know. It doesn’t say.
But as those seeking to be faithful amidst a culture that’s not—
as those who seek to prioritize God amidst so many—
so many other priorities—so many shallow, superficial, empty.
Esther and Vashti are our choices, right?
We must resist. We teach our girls that, don’t we? You must resist.
We teach that to our boys.
But how?

God’s not mentioned once in this entire book of the Bible.
Some suggest God’s intentionally left out because everyone’s so drunk at Purim
that when Esther is read (and the whole book is read as part of the celebration)
and if read while drunk,
someone might inadvertently speak the prohibited name of God!
Better not to have it in there at all.

But maybe God isn’t mentioned because, at the end of the story—
because in the end, all we have to do, is pray—to invoke God—
to offer our petitions and to pray less for a reversal as a transformation.
Not “The wheels on the bus go round and round—
the pendulum will swing back—
what goes around comes around.”
But “May the wheels come off the bus.”
Not an easy prayer.
But maybe when we realize that we were laughing
and at some point started crying,
then that’s the prayer for such time as these.

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.
Let the search for your salvation be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days—
for the facing of this hour”
(Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory,”
in Jeffery Rowthorn and Russell Schulz-Widmar, eds.,
A New Hymnal for Colleges and Schools
[New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992] 544).


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