A Bit About Esther’s Charming Husband

The first chapter of the Book of Esther sets the stage for the rest of the account. It tells us why she even became the Queen of the Persian Empire in the first place. More specifically, it tells a bit about her charming husband, Ahasuerus (other translations usually call him Xerxes). He was not a good man! But first, the text:

Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:) That in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace (Esther 1:1-2).

The Persian Empire which Ahasureus inherited from his father was very large. It stretched from India to the northern Sudan in Africa (e.g. “Ethiopia”).[1]

Persian Empire
Map from: Jesse Hurlbut, Historical Geography of the Bible (Chicago, IL: Rand, McNalley & Co., 1887). It’s an old map, sure, but it’s in the public domain . . . !

King Ahasureus reigned from 486 – 485 B.C. Jews had been deported to Babylon in the early 590s, and in 586 B.C. This meant that Jews had been living in exile in Babylon for about 100 years by this point; 4-5 generations is a long time to develop deep roots!

In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him: When he shewed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days (Esther 1:3-4).

We just read that King Ahasuerus had a feast for six whole months! This event involved princes, servants,senior military officials (“the power of Media and Persia”) and civil administrators and leaders. What in the world was going on here?

Secular history tells us that this was a massive military planning session.[2] King Ahasuerus’ father had planned a military expedition against the Greeks, but died before he could pull it off – Ahasuerus wanted to finish what his father had started. This wasn’t a six-month long party – it was a strategy and planning session with his civil and military leaders from all over his massive empire.[3]

It was intentionally lavish (“he showed the riches . . .”) to impress the subordinates from all the far-flung corners of his empire. He needed their troops, their money, and their support to make his proposed military campaign happen.[4] The idea was to cumulatively overawe his subordinates with his riches, wealth and power as this planning session went on. They would be influenced to believe:

  • “The King is strong!”
  • “The empire is mighty!”
  • “This plan could work!”
  • “I’ll do my part to raise troops, provide funds, and support this endeavor!”

King Ahasuerus spent four years preparing for this campaign. He started immediately when he assumed the throne, three years before the events in the first chapter of Esther.[5] He had this massive planning session to declare his intentions and awe his military and civilian officials into supporting the plan. They actually set out about one year after this event. Esther didn’t become queen until he returned from the expedition – there is a large, multi-year gap between Esther 1 and 2.

Here was his military plan:

  • (1) Gather an army
  • (2) March overland to the Strait of Dardenelles (Hellespont)
Map showing approximate position of Ahasuerus and his first objective, the Strait of the Dardenelles
  • (3) Have his engineers erect a bridge across a suitable portion of the Strait
The approximate position where King Ahasuerus crossed the Strait with his army
  • (4) March his army across and attack and conquer Greece and burn Athens to the ground
My crude rendering of King Ahasuerus’ proposed route of advance into Greecian territory once he crossed the Strait
  • (6) Have his Navy protect the bridge from the Greek Navy during the campaign and destroy the Greek Navy, as well

So, what kind of guy was King Ahasuerus? He was a petty, cruel, altogether worthless man. Here are some examples:

  • His uncle advised against this adventure, reasoning that if the Greek Navy managed to destroy the bridge, Ahasuerus and his army would be cut off from home and destroyed piecemeal by the Greek army.[6] Ahasuerus called his uncle a “faint-hearted coward” and ordered him to stay home with the women while he marched forth to battle![7]
  • Engineers were sent ahead to build the bridge as the army marched onward. When his army finally reached the bridge, a great storm destroyed it! Ahasuerus was so furious, he ordered the water lashed in punishment, rebuking the waves for destroying the bridge![8] Even more disturbing, Ahasuerus had the construction supervisors decapitated[9]
  • A trusted elderly servant, accompanying the expedition, had second thoughts about going on. He asked Ahasuerus if he could take his eldest son and return home, leaving his four other sons to continue onward with the expedition.[10] Ahasuerus was furious, told the servant “no,” had the eldest son killed, cut in half, and placed on either side of the road for the army to march past.[11] He then made the servant continue on with the expedition, for good measure!

I say all that to say this – King Ahasuerus was not a kind, godly or nice man!

We’ll examine what happened one particular evening at this feast next time . . .

[1] “Xerxes was known for his consolidation of the Persian empire ‘from India to Cush,’ corresponding to the regions of modern Pakistan and northern Sudan, respectively,” (Karen H. Jobes, Esther, NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998; reprint, Kindle ed., 2011], KL 960-961).

[2] Herodotus wrote, “After the conquest of Egypt, intending now to take in hand the expedition against Athens, Xerxes held a special assembly of the noblest among the Persians, so he could learn their opinions and declare his will before them all,” (The Histories 7.8, trans. A. D. Godley [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920]. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/eafshR).

[3] Joyce Baldwin suggests that the six-month length may be intentional irony on the part of the anonymous author of Esther: “The banquet then was the culmination of the festivities. Many would consider even seven days too long a time for such a carousal, but the intention is to conjure up an impression (not without irony) of the unlimited resources of the king . . .” (Esther, vol. 12, TOTC [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984], 57).

[4] Jobes commented, “Xerxes was mustering the nobles, officials, military leaders, princes, and governors of the provinces in Susa to rally support for his military campaign against the Greeks. The vast expanse of the Persian empire, from modern Pakistan in the east to modern Turkey in the west, encompassed many people groups with different languages, ethnic origins, and religions. Maintaining their support and loyalty over such a diverse and far-flung empire was no small feat. During the 180 days of the council, Xerxes displayed his wealth and glory to consolidate the leaders of the many provinces of the empire under his authority and to gain their loyalty to his cause,” (Esther, KL 990-995).

[5] “For full four years after the conquest of Egypt he was equipping his force and preparing all that was needed for it; before the fifth year was completed, he set forth on his march with the might of a great multitude.,” (Histories 7.20). The four-year preparation ran from 486-482 B.C. The planning session outlined in Esther 1 took place “in the third year of his reign” (Est 1:3) which was 483 B.C.

[6] “Suppose they do not succeed in both ways; but if they attack with their ships and prevail in a sea-fight, and then sail to the Hellespont and destroy your bridge, that, O king, is the hour of peril,” (Histories 7.10).

[7] “Thus spoke Artabanus. Xerxes answered angrily, ‘Artabanus, you are my father’s brother; that will save you from receiving the fitting reward of foolish words. But for your cowardly lack of spirit I lay upon you this disgrace, that you will not go with me and my army against Hellas, but will stay here with the women; I myself will accomplish all that I have said, with no help from you,” (Histories 7.11).

[8] “When Xerxes heard of this, he was very angry and commanded that the Hellespont be whipped with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea. I have even heard that he sent branders with them to brand the Hellespont. He commanded them while they whipped to utter words outlandish and presumptuous, ‘Bitter water, our master thus punishes you, because you did him wrong though he had done you none. Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you want it or not; in accordance with justice no one offers you sacrifice, for you are a turbid and briny river,’” (Histories 7.35).

[9] “He commanded that the sea receive these punishments and that the overseers of the bridge over the Hellespont be beheaded. So this was done by those who were appointed to the thankless honor, and new engineers set about making the bridges,” (Histories 7.35-36).

[10] “‘Master, I have a favor to ask that I desire of you, easy for you to grant and precious for me to receive.’ Xerxes supposed that Pythius would demand anything rather than what he did ask and answered that he would grant the request, bidding him declare what he desired. When Pythius heard this, he took courage and said: ‘Master, I have five sons, and all of them are constrained to march with you against Hellas. I pray you, O king, take pity on me in my advanced age, and release one of my sons, the eldest, from service, so that he may take care of me and of my possessions; take the four others with you, and may you return back with all your plans accomplished,’” (Histories 7.38).

[11] “‘Villain, you see me marching against Hellas myself, and taking with me my sons and brothers and relations and friends; do you, my slave, who should have followed me with all your household and your very wife, speak to me of your son? Be well assured of this, that a man’s spirit dwells in his ears; when it hears good words it fills the whole body with delight, but when it hears the opposite it swells with anger. When you did me good service and promised more, you will never boast that you outdid your king in the matter of benefits; and now that you have turned aside to the way of shamelessness, you will receive a lesser requital than you merit. You and four of your sons are saved by your hospitality; but you shall be punished by the life of that one you most desire to keep.’ With that reply, he immediately ordered those who were assigned to do these things to find the eldest of Pythius sons and cut him in half, then to set one half of his body on the right side of the road and the other on the left, so that the army would pass between them,” (Histories 7.39).

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