Rosalie Sugrue from Aotearoa, New Zealand often shares her writings for congregations.The fact that she is thinking about northern hemisphere readers as autumn deepens in the south is great appreciated.This is a seasonally base offertory prayer.
Offertory for Spring
As we contemplate the season of spring
we see connection between coins and seeds;
Both come in various sizes and colours,
and bear different markings,
are symmetrical and fit in pockets.
Held in our gaze they appear lifeless
yet both hold the power of transformation.
We ask that you bless our coins
and paper dollars, brought here today
and unseen cheques and bank transfers.
May our offerings be placed in
environments that permit them to fulfill
their potential of bringing beauty and health
to this world we all share. Amen
Next, this reading about Queen Vashti, long under-appreciated character in the biblical book of Esther, is useful to open a discussion group, for a Bible study or a service of worship. It gives us not only insight into this deposed queen but also into a court character Rosalie has envisioned — Harbona. It is from the soon-to-be-re-issued and expanded ‘Sophia and Daughters’ (reflections on 29 wise women in the Bible)
Greetings in the name of the Most High. May you live long and prosper.
I am merely a servant but you are seekers of stories that give women voice. I have some insight to the words of voiceless women and have witnessed many things … indulgence and intrigue, treachery and treason, seduction and sedition… indeed I could tell many stories but you are a discerning audience. I am told you value wisdom over power and bravery over violence.
O worthy listeners, establishing rapport contains its own enlightenment. So first I will tell you a little about my humble self. My name is Harbona. I served many years in the fabulous court of King Artaxerxes the 2nd of Persia, also known as Artaxerxes the Great. This most powerful of monarchs has many names. Your scriptures name him King Ahasuerus. As for those of us who serve him our informal preference is Long Hand.
Despite being the son of a slave, my life has been one of privilege. I had ear to the affairs of state and personal confidences were sometimes shared directly to my ears. This privilege came at great cost. Never will I have a wife or children. Celibacy is a choice made by some ascetic souls but it was not a choice made by me. The sexual minority that defines me and my kind was unwillingly imposed. Resentment lingers with malice in a few.
However, most of us who survive the physical trauma overcome personal anguish sufficiently to enjoy a better lifestyle than most born into slavery. A strong camaraderie exists between us. As for kinship we harem eunuchs cherish the women in our care as our children. In regards to our Lord and Master we are honoured to be of service.
Long Hand likes to be surrounded by young flesh, so now I share quarters with a few others of my kind. We care for the rooms and grounds of a seldom visited royal outpost, and a right bunch of fussy, old queens, we are.
But once we served in the Citadel of Susa, the winter palace of Artaxerxes the Great, the one who rules over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. The Citadel is a splendor to behold. It stands as a shining city on a hill. The walled complex includes aesthetic structures grouped in a pleasing manner. The central edifice is supported on marble pillars. Its arched windows are hung with curtains made from exotic white cotton, enhanced by blue hangings and tied with cords of purple attached to silver rings. Couches of gold and silver bask invitingly on a mosaic pavement set with rock crystals and mother-of pearl. Landscaped multi-courtyard gardens display many plants and water features.
Yet for all its extravagance and luxury, life within the royal court is fraught with danger. Royal personages have a nasty habit of disposing of each other and close kin are not immune. As for lesser beings, at court one’s life and status are dependent on the whims of the King. The Greeks epithet him Artaxerxes Mnemon ‘memory’ meaning ‘he remembers.’ Keeping in the King’s favour is of paramount importance from slave to Queen.
The citadel’s harem is large and I have tended many women but the King’s first Queen remains my favourite. Queen Vashti came from a long line Babylonian of royalty – her father being King Belshazzar, son of King Amel-Marduk, son of King Nebuchadnezza. Vashti was a mere child when she came into my care.
The dastardly events unfolded thus. During her father’s rule, the Medes and Persians attacked Belshazzar’s palace in Babylon and murdered him in his sleep. Hearing a disturbance young Vashti ran to her father’s quarters and was kidnapped by none other than King Darius himself. The maiden was exceedingly beautiful. Darius decided to gift his blue-blood prize to his eldest son as a fitting bride.
Vashti held her head high when presented to me for the titivating and tutoring required before meeting her husband to be. Despite her terrible losses Vashti had the bearing of a princess. Within her dark ringed eyes was the glint of rebellion. My heart went out to the brave maid but rebellion is not a healthy emotion. I determined to do my utmost to keep this child safe. My strategy was to tread softly and begin with physical needs. Accordingly I treated Vashti to the best of baths, massages and perfumes. I oversaw her diet and guided her choice of garments, providing options and allowing the final decisions to be hers. And thus trust was established between us. Princess Vashti was already well versed in courtly politics and quickly grasped the subtle implications of my teachings. Beauty makes an excellent mask for intelligence. Vashti allowed her King to draw conclusions that pleased him. As for me I observed impressive political understanding.
King Darius died in the 19th year of his reign. His son, not yet 40 years of age, was crowned Artaxerxes the 2nd of Persia. In the third year of his reign Artaxerxes decided to hold a great banquet for all the nobles and governors throughout his provinces. “Be sure to invite their wives,” advised Queen Vashti, “I will ensure that they are entertained in a manner that will enhance your reputation.”
To me she confided that should any of the assembled nobility use the occasion for usurping attempts she would have control of a valuable group of hostages. “My Lord and King uses banqueting as a vehicle for displaying wealth and power,” she explained, “I take a wider view. Eating together creates bonding that can be used for good or ill,” then added with an arch smile, “Why shouldn’t women feast as well as men?”
Vashti’s things-to-do’ lists were extensive. They included accommodation plans, with attention to little things like ceramic platters and golden goblets, serving water as well as wine, along with the complex matters such as food, entertainment, and unobtrusive security.
However, I was not in attendance at the Queen’s elegant banquet. As a senior eunuch and one of the King’s most trusted seven, my first duty was serving him. On the seventh day of feasting when the King was merry with wine, he commanded all seven of us to stand before him. Long Hand was partial to pomp and ceremony. Mehuman, Biztha, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar, Carkas and myself duly presented in order of height, listened to his command and exited walking backwards as protocol demanded. Out of our master’s sight we dissolved into a dither of distress. Long Hand’s command was that we bring Queen Vashti before him to dance. He wished to display his Queen’s great beauty to his drunken guests.
It is usual for troupes of dancing girls to entertain at court. Wearing silken garments and sparkling jewels they delight with synchronised movements of great elegance. A wife does not dance for anyone except her husband. To command such a thing was shocking enough but Long Hand’s instructions as to her costume was outrageous! His instructions were that the Queen appear wearing her crown … only her crown. I exaggerate not, fair audience, never would I create such a scandalous detail for entertainment.
Your Hebrew scriptures do not make the situation clear but Jewish Midrash does. We eunuchs were in a state of high agitation but our darling Vashti remained calm. The Midrashic account explains that the request was made three times. Queen Vashti replied with sage advice, messaging that such a demand was not only immoral it was a political mistake that would go badly with him. He was in no mood to accept such advice. She refused to do his bidding. Our agitation turned to fear. Vashti reiterated that she would not agree to being exhibited as a sex object for anyone, and nor should any woman. “But you are not any woman,” I pleaded. “You are a Queen, the wife of Artaxerxes the Great. He will not tolerate disobedience.” As our eyes locked I perceived a moment of sad tenderness firm into rebellion. “A wrong can only be righted if someone takes a stand. My influence is limited but as Queen I have more influence than most women. I must set an example for all my sisters, whatever their status.”
When Long Hand realised his wife had disobeyed him, his shock was palpable. Rage welled like a smoking volcano but sudden fear blocked the lava flow. Blatant disobedience was new territory for this King. We seven were abruptly dismissed, much to our relief I must confess, with the command to summon his seven sages who were well versed in laws and customs. They in their turn were greatly bothered. “This outrage must be stopped immediately,’’ they counselled. “Your Queen may influence her guests. What of our wives, and indeed all wives? Such sedition could spread like wildfire. Right throughout the vast kingdom, women high and low alike, may cease to obey their husbands.”
And so it was written, in the laws of the Medes and Persians that cannot be broken: “Vashti is never again to come before King Ataxeres; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.”
And thus it came to pass. Queen Vashti was replaced and written out of the formal histories. Whether she was followed by one better than her is debatable. O attentive hearers, know this, Vashti’s influence was not forgotten.
Her replacement was pleasant on the eye and a worthy contender in that her heart held goodness. But they were the only attributes young Esther shared with my Vashti. Did I tell you Vashti’s name was derived from Old Persian and means ‘excellent’ or ‘best of women’? Yes, yes, I know Esther means ‘a star’ but that name was bestowed as part of her makeover. The poor child was an orphan labelled with the name Myrtle – facts that were not disclosed to his Royal Highness. Not only was the maiden an innocent, she was completely lacking in noble blood and court experience. But Hegai, who was in charge of the new intake of harem hopefuls, became besotted by her. He staunchly maintained Esther was a very quick learner. That may be so, but she was of a passive disposition. Passive women are as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate. My spirited Vashti was a golden apricot by comparison.
There is no doubting that clucky Hegai achieved wonders with his little orphan. She impressed the King, so completely winning his favour, that no questions were asked. By this time we eunuchs had learned of another fact that we took pain-of-death care not to divulge. Though bursting with pride at Esther’s success, it nearly broke Hegai’s heart having to cease his lavish mothering. As Queen, Esther was attended by Hathach.
Hathach was loyal and efficient in his duties but not noted for creativity of thought. When Esther became aware of distress outside the palace she sent Hathach to enquire of the matter from her Jewish relative Mordecai who had been observed wearing sackcloth and ashes. Thus Hathach learned of Haman’s plot to kill all Jews. Confronted by Esther’s terrible dilemma Hathach elicited my support and presented me as a trusted counsellor. Unexpectedly, I perceived true nobility in the Queen’s distress and my mind filled with visions of her predecessor. Vashti’s words came to my lips, “Eating together creates bonding that can be used for good or ill.” And a plan took shape in my mind.
I supervised the intimate little feasts Esther held in her own quarters for the King and his advisor Haman. And thus I was present when the villain Haman made the pathetic plea for his life, ready to direct the King’s eyes to the gallows Haman had prepared for Esther’s closest relative Mordecai. Without the influence of Queen Vashti, Queen Esther’s story would not have had its happy outcome.
O worthy audience I ask that you remember Queen Vashti as the role-model heroine she was. May Vashti’s story continue to inspire those who seek to right wrongs.