While just about everyone familiar with Scripture has heard of the beautiful Queen Esther, few know of Vashti, the “other queen,” whose defiance set in motion the events that would allow Esther to rise to power and save the Jewish people.
The book of Esther opens with a banquet. At the height of his glory and wealth, King Xerxes threw a lavish, multi-day banquet for all the nobles of his court. Feasts were held day and night in the palace garden, where fine blue and white linen hung from marble pillars, and merrymakers lounged on couches made of gold and silver and precious stones. Wine was so abundant that the king allowed each guest to drink without restrictions. Servants were told to give each man as much as he wished, and as the days wore on, the party grew wilder and wilder.
On the seventh day, when Xerxes was “in high spirits from wine,” he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him to bring Queen Vashti to the garden. He wanted to display her body before all the men of the court, for she was “beautiful to behold.” Early Jewish interpreters suggested that Xerxes wanted Vashti to strip naked of all but her crown; others disagree. But with a room full of drunken men demanding the presence of a beautiful woman, I think we can all agree Xerxes wasn’t calling her in to consult her for a trivia game.
Well, when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Vashti refused to obey. She wouldn’t come out.
Her defiance infuriated the king, who consulted his closest advisers on how to respond to his wife’s disobedience. As we will see time and again in the story of Esther, King Xerxes reacts emotionally and then relies on other people to think for him. A confidant named Memukan takes advantage and turns this little domestic dispute into a full-blown national crisis.
“Queen Vashti has done wrong,” he says, “not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the people of the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord!” (Esther 1:16-18)
The overreaction is downright comical. As Michael Fox notes, “Memuchan speaks in universals: all princes, all [common] people, all women. In Memuchans’ frantic misinterpretation, Vashti’s act signals a universal crisis, a rebellion against the sexual and social order, a violation of the harmony of every home and marriage. As he sees it, female contempt is always lurking just below the surface, waiting to pop up whenever the opportunity arises. And he is right, but only because insecure men like him make it so, for if a man’s ‘honor’ depends on his ability to dominate his wife, then any failure to enforce obedience is tantamount to male disgrace.”
Insecure men obsessing over female submission--why does this sound so familiar?
At Memukan’s suggestion, Xerxes issued a royal decree to be written into the laws of Persia and Media, that Vashti would never again enter the presence of the king and that the king would bestow her royal position on someone else, someone who was “better than she.” The decree, delivered to every province and in every language of the empire proclaimed that “all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” and that “every man should be ruler of his own household.”
Of course, this opens the door for Esther, who will be drafted into the king’s harem so he can choose a “better queen”--presumably one who expects to be silent and submissive, just like he likes.
We never learn of Vashti’s fate. Many midrashic interpretations suggest she was formally executed. Others propose she was killed by Xerxes in a drunken rage. Still others, unsympathetic to the plight of a pagan queen, contend that Vashti grew a tail! Few suggest she met a happy end.
But even those who fault Vashti for her stand against her husband and king can’t deny the fact that without Queen Vashti, there would never be a Queen Esther, and that ultimately, it would take the defiance of two queens to save the Jews--Esther by appearing before the king, and Vashti, by refusing to.
Too often, Christian commentaries on Vashti digress into silly arguments about whether Vashti was right or wrong to defy her husband. Those who condemn her or who insist on teaching hierarchal gender roles in the home based on a misinterpretation of Peter and Paul’s version of the Greco-Roman household codes would do well to notice that Jewish audiences during Purim typically chuckle through this part of the tale because the men who insist on demanding one-way submission from their wives and on issuing kingdom-wide edicts declaring men the rulers of their homes are intended in the text to come across as rather hapless and pathetic.
However, given the context and purpose of the book of Esther, I don’t think the opening act is simply intended to make patriarchy look silly, (though it certainly does). The story of Vashti, I believe, is meant to accomplish two things--one is plot-driven, and the other is theme-driven.
From a literary standpoint, the opening act serves an important purpose: it warns the reader to watch out of Xerxes and his court! These guys have a bad habit of making major, kingdom-wide decisions based on personal offense and whims, and should not be crossed. This adds suspense and drama to the story, for we see right away what sort of odds Esther and Mordecai are up against.
Writes Karen Jobes: “The author of Esther is revealing the workings of worldly power and mocking its ultimate inability to determine the destiny of God's people. At that time and place, worldly power was held by Persian men. The author chooses to include and highlight an incident involving the interaction between men and women because in his story powerful Persian men are outwitted by a Jewish woman. Esther has to overcome two levels of conflict, both as a woman and a Jew, to come into her own as Queen of Persia. We modern readers probably cannot fully appreciate how truly remarkable a feat that was."
But more importantly, the opening act with Xerxes and Vashti introduces a recurring theme throughout the book of Esther, one we can still learn from today--that the Emperor has no clothes; earthly power is an illusion.
As we discussed last week, the book of Esther is a diaspora story. It is meant to help the scattered Jewish people come to terms with their identity and their faith when they are in exile, when they no longer have an independent homeland or temple. What does it mean to be Jewish--to be the people of Yahweh--when the Jews are being ruled by violent, opulant, and godless pagan kings? Is God still on the throne when the fate of his chosen people seems left to the whims of kings like Xerxes? How are the powerless to respond to power?
This, I believe, is why we encounter that strange juxtaposition between darkness and comedy in the book of Esther, and why, perhaps, we never read God’s name. Power, the author seems to be saying, is ultimately an illusion. Beneath the golden chairs and packed harems and drunken parties and patriarchal edicts are a bunch of sinful, insecure, and weak people...people whose attempts to puff themselves up only make them look silly.
In fact, you will notice that those with the most power in the story are the ones who behave with the most weakness. Not once in the story of Esther, for example, does Xerxes actually make a decision on his own. He is coaxed and coddled by his advisors, by his eunuchs, by Hamen, and ultimately by Esther. Major decisions in Persia are made not after prayer and fasting, but on whims, in response to petty personal sleights, by the of casting lots. It is an empty, foolish power.
This would all be terribly frightening were it not for the quiet, and at times hidden, hand of God, working all things together for good. I suspect that this is why the Jews dress up in costume, feast, celebrate, and laugh in response to a story about their near destruction as a people.
They laugh because they are in on the secret: that they serve a God who uses indentured eunuchs to change the course of history, orphan girls to reverse the decisions of kings, and rebellious pagan queens to put it all in motion.
They laugh because they know earthly power - be it patriarchy or the Persian Empire - is just a big show. In the end, it is God who uses the weak to humble the powerful. It is God who makes all things new.
[Sources: Michael V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther; Karen Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary)]