In general, we do not find in the early rabbinic commentaries a tremendous stress on textual details in their explanations of the Prophets and the Writings (Na”ch). There is a striking difference in the way they approach the Pentateuch (Torah) and the rest of the Bible (Tanach). The logic behind this is simple. The Torah is the direct “Word of God from the mouth of Moses,” so, of course, every single word – an extra expression, a reversed expression – obviously must have a meaning.
However, when commenting on the Na”ch, the early commentaries do not stress this approach. They do not worry about the fact that ideas in Psalms are repeated. That is the literary style. As long as the community believes that prophecy is from heaven, then it is safe to believe that besides the Tanach’s being a prophecy, it also happens to be a literary work. However, when "enlightened" Jews developed the ideology that the Tanach is really nothing more than a literary work, then the traditional rabbis felt a need to turn the Tanach itself into something very similar to the Torah. They no longer could explain textual difficulties as the style of the prophet. If in Megillat Esther, the king is sometimes called King Ahasuerus and other times he is called Ahasuerus, we can no longer ignore this.
The master of this new style of interpretation is Rabbi Meir Wisser, commonly referred to as the Malbim. The Malbim actually did an incredible job in finding treasures hidden in those small, subtle differences and changes in the Tanach. And the Malbim on Esther is really a classic, because there are many things that once you don’t accept that it is merely a story, make you recognize that there must be a story behind the story.
For instance, the Book of Esther begins:
“In the days of Ahasuerus, he is Ahasuerus who rules from India until Kush, 127 countries. In those days, when King Ahasuerus was sitting on his throne in Shushan the capital…” (1:1-2)
The first time Ahasuerus is mentioned he is not called king. The second time he is “ruling” and only in the third instance is he called king. The Malbim, just based on these subtle differences, builds a whole case, a story behind the story, that Ahasuerus was a usurper to the throne. First he was just a general, then, by marrying Vashti, the king’s daughter, he began “ruling” large areas and finally, he was able to sit with tranquility on his throne. But Ahasuerus was obsessed with the idea that people should not say that he became king just because he married the right woman. It bothered him so much that he had to show that he was starting a new dynasty. To show this, he moved the capital to Shushan, as the verse emphasizes. This is why “Shushan the capital” is mentioned only after Ahasuerus is called king.
The king then requests his eunuchs to invite Vashti the Queen to join him in his party. The text tells us that “the Queen Vashti refuses the request that came by the hand of the eunuchs” (Verse 12). But we already know from previous verses that the eunuchs delivered the message. The Malbim sees in this repetition the true reason for Vashti’s refusal; the message was delivered by eunuchs, which is an insult. Why didn’t the king send noble messengers or even come in person? Vashti understood, correctly, that Ahasuerus was trying to show that her position was inferior to his own. She refused to come because of the way she was invited.
So all of a sudden, through these subtle differences, we have a whole story behind the scenes, that this is a struggle for prestige. Who is the most prestigious and authentic symbol of the monarchy? And this will give us an insight into what goes on in the next portion, the trial of Vashti.
“Then the king said to the wise men, those aware of the times… the ones close to him: Carshena… and Memuchan… what to do with the queen, Vashti for not fulfilling the word of the king, Ahasuerus, by the hand of the eunuchs?” (1:13-15)
Presumably, this is a clear-cut case of rebellion. The Queen should be executed. 1) Why then does Ahasaurus need “those aware of the times?” Ordinary judges should be sufficient. 2) Why are they called “close to him?” 3) Why reiterate that the message was sent by eunuchs? That would seem to mitigate her crime.
The Malbim explains that the king was of two minds. He loved his wife, but letting her get away with her refusal would make him seem weak. Therefore, he wanted to hint to those closest to him that he really wanted her to be found innocent. Telling anyone else would publicize his true feelings and risk weakening his image. Mentioning that the message was sent by eunuchs, seemingly justifying Vashti’s refusal, is intended to show his closest advisers that he wants her to be found innocent. He chose to use judges who took into consideration the needs of the times. Only they can make exceptions to the normal required punishment. Memuchan understood all this but explained that, nevertheless, Vashti needs to be executed.
The King’s position of power was weak and he was looking for a way to gain greater popular support. Memuchan said, if women are going to get this kind of a backing, if Vashti is left unpunished, then all the males in the kingdom will come out against you. But, if you kill Vashti, and when you give the reason you don’t stress that she didn’t listen to the king, you stress the fact that you are doing it as a husband, as an example to others about men’s rights, that a man is the boss in his house, you are going to get millions of people screaming out, “Give more power to Ahasuerus!” So in spite of the fact that he loves Vashti, this is too much of an argument. Ahasuerus can now become the absolute monarch; something that did not exist before. If the price is the death of Vashti, so be it. This is a small price to pay for such a power.
Now if we look at the rise of Queen Esther, we see an incredible retribution. Ahasuerus wanted his replacement queen to be of no threat to his prestige. He chose her solely based on her outward appearance. He did not investigate her pedigree and in fact preferred she had none. He wanted someone who would not threaten his self-esteem. But in the end, she rises to be the actual ruler of the empire. This is the Divine hand exacting a measure for measure retribution.
By paying attention to apparently insignificant details, the Malbim is able to create a completely new behind-the-scenes story. It teaches how a despot rose to power and how the Divine plan eventually thwarted him. The Malbim reconfirms the Na”ch’s holy character by showing the deeper story it tells.