Respect for Xerxes

Freedom-Fighters or Rebels? It’s often difficult to know when it’s justified to oppose authority. The Persian Empire was wrong in many ways, but that in itself did not justify rebellion. Rebellion is what we do naturally, and submission to unjust governments requires unnatural grace. The Greeks, Vashti, and Esther all had to decide whether to submit to Xerxes or to stand up to him.


The Battle of Marathon took place in 490 BC, at the beginning of the Greco-Persian War. Miletus, on the Meander River in present-day Turkey, had been the greatest and wealthiest of Greek cities until the Persians conquered it less than a century earlier. It was the birthplace of Thales and one of the cities that Paul would visit on this third missionary journey. This time was the end of the Greek Archaic Period, a time of colonization, expansion, and the birth of Greek philosophy. Miletus and similar cities were successful, proud, independent, and resentful of Persian rule. They made the choice to revolt.

At the Battle of Marathon, the Persians numbered several hundred thousand, but lost the battle because of strategy. Interestingly, we get a couple of words from the Battle of Marathon. First, we get the word panic from Pan. The god Pan was thought to have helped the Greeks by causing the Persians to panic and break ranks. Then there’s the word marathon itself. The distance of a marathon, 26 miles, came from the distance between Marathon and Athens. Those are a couple of ways that a battle 2600 years ago has influenced our lives. It certainly marked Darius. He was furious to have lost and prepared another invasion force that he intended to head up personally. Unfortunately for him, he died and left the job to his son Xerxes I.


The book of Esther opens in the third year of Ahasuerus, or Xerxes the Great. The king is enthrone in Susa, the most central of the four royal cities. The empire was divided into about 31 regions governed by satraps, or 127 provinces according to the book of Esther. After years of plundering these regions, it took 180 days to show off the booty amassed from pillaging and taxation. One of these days probably involved showing off the prizes that had been stolen from the prosperous city of Miletus. This display of wealth and power had two purposes. It served to affirm the loyalty of the provincial rulers who had been invited to the viewing, and it helped to promote the next campaign against Greece. “The army of Persia and Media” was also present at the exhibition (Esther 1:3). The success of the second campaign against Greece depended upon building loyalty within the empire.


It was within this context of diplomacy that the queen Vashti refused an official summons to present herself to the king. We don’t know why. We know that she had organized her own feast for the women in the palace and had responsibilities of her own. Somehow, she must have been thinking about her own importance on a personal level rather than her official role. She might have also had a personal reason to be at odds with the king. In any case, this amounted to rebellion at the highest level, when the king was already dealing with the rebellion of Greece. “At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him” (Esther 1:14). She couldn’t talk her way out of this one and lost the throne. This was her choice.


Esther was a Jewish orphan raised by Mordecai. Esther and Mordecai seem to have done everything right, even though they were under the authority of evil people. Their respect for authority preserved their lives and those of all the exiled Jews. Mordecai established his reputation when he exposed a plot against the king. This allowed him to judiciously disobey the order of the king to bow down to Haman, who surprisingly was an Amalekite, traditionally the greatest enemies of the Jews. On the one hand, Esther bowed down before Xerxes, but Mordecai chose to not bow down before Xerxes’ right hand man. Mordecai’s rebellion resurrected an ageless conflict between the Jews and the Amalekites. It seems that civil disobedience has its place in God’s economy, but we need to choose our battles well. Miraculously, Haman was destroyed and the Jews preserved through Esther’s respect of Xerxes.


Xerxes later fought and lost the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. His immense preparations were not enough. Three hundred Spartans and 6000 other Greeks under Leonidas faced 100,000 Persians, at the same time as the naval battle of Artemisium. Many of the Greeks, the future rulers of the world, did not join the battles because they were busy with the Olympic games, which had been held since 776 BC. Individualism was on the rise. Xerxes is said to have been astonished that men would be willing to compete for just a crown of olive branches rather than great riches. This was a radically new way of thinking. Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BC by his most loyal official.


Before reaching broad conclusions about questions of authority, loyalty, and independence, we should learn from history how complex these issues can be. It can be wrong to submit, just like it can be wrong to rebel. It can be wrong not to rebel, just like it can be wrong not to submit. Mordecai and Esther made the decision to submit to God first, and so should we.

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