What? How in the world could a Hebrew lady have become a Queen in the ancient lands of Persia, and especially one who was a known Biblical personage?
There are a few things that are often misunderstood about this story, so bear with me while I clear some of them up. Esther is described in Old Testament Book of Esther as the Jewish queen of a Persian king named Ahasuerus.
In the Book of Esther, Vashti is given as the first wife of King Ahasuerus. While the king holds a magnificent banquet for his princes, nobles and servants, she holds a separate banquet for the women. On the seventh day of the banquet, when the king’s heart was “merry with wine”, the king orders his seven chamberlains to summon Vashti to come before him and his guests wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty. Vashti refuses to come, and the king becomes angry. He asks his advisers how Vashti should be punished for her disobedience. His adviser Memucan tells him that Vashti has wronged not only the king, but also all of the husbands of Persia, whose wives may be encouraged by Vashti’s actions to disobey. Memucan encourages Ahasuerus to dismiss Vashti and find another queen.
The first thing to clear up is the king’s name, Ahasuerus.
This is the Hebrew form of the name. In Babylonian it was Ahšiyaršu, and in the Akkadian language it was Hi-ši-‘-ar-šá. And all of these refer to the ruler we know today as Xerxes I.
And when they call him a “Persian”, which is now the area known as Iran, he was actually from the tribes in the Zagros Mountains of southern Iran, and an Elamite.
Xerxes I requests that Vashti come before him and his guests wearing her royal crown, and that’s exactly what he meant – wearing only her royal crown and nothing more. Vashti was not her given name by the way – Vashti simply means (in Old Persian), “excellent woman, best of women”. So he was asking his trophy wife to show off her attributes to the visiting men.
She is viewed as an independent-minded heroine in feminist interpretations of the Purim story in the Hebrew texts. Her given name was Amestris, and in the Old Persian language this means “strong woman”. She died c. 424 BC, and most scholars agree that she was a Persian queen, and the wife of Xerxes I of Persia. In other words, the strong woman refused while the “best of women” might have done as he ordered.
In the narrative, Xerses I seeks a new wife after his queen refuses to obey him, and Esther is chosen for her beauty. And she was probably chosen for her compliance as well. As a Hebrew, she would have grown up in that culture, where they were taught from an early age that:
Genesis 3: 16 “To the woman he said, … Your desire may be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
History is fairly exciting from time to time, if you research it sufficiently to uncover the rest of the story, as they say.
It’s a known historical fact, supported by much textual evidence, that the Sumerians, prior to their being conquered by the Akkadians and later the Gutians and Amorites (pre-Hebrew people) respected the rights of women. Their laws reflected this, as well as their religious practices. Only after the Akkadians – Gutians – Amorites took over the original lands of Sumer did their entirely female goddesses have their identities changed into male gods, and the laws of the land corrected to create a second-class citizen in respect to the women.
We sometimes assume that the strict chauvinistic ideas of the Islamic people that currently occupy the lands of former Sumeria, the Levant and the Middle East are the result of changes introduced by Muhammad, but obviously this is not the case. The Semitic groups introduced those changes beginning with Sargon of Accad, the famous Syrian conqueror, in the time circa 2300s BC.
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