Esther and Vashti: The Real Story

When I was a kid, I imagined Esther to be something of a beauty pageant contestant.

I figured that, in addition to her twelve months of beautification, she must have performed a talent and answered questions from a glass bowl before winning the heart of a love-struck King Xerxes. 

I never learned in Sunday School that Esther, whose Jewish name was Hadassah, was forced, along with perhaps thousands of virgin girls from Susa, into King Xerxes harem. Or that the king had banished his first wife, Queen Vashti, for refusing to publicly flaunt her body before his drunken friends. Or that, in response, he had issued a ridiculous kingdom-wide decree that “all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” and that “every man should be ruler over his own household.”  Or that under the care of the royal Eunuchs, Esther and the women of the king’s harem each took a turn in the king’s bed to see who would please him best. Or that the women received just one night with the king, after which they were transferred to the eunuchs in charge of the concubines, with the instruction not to return to the king’s chamber unless summoned by name, under the penalty of death. 

They left those details out of the flannel graphs.

Recently, some Christians have conjured a reinterpretation of the story of Esther that is equally as imaginative as my beauty queen version—one that casts Vashti as an ungodly wife for refusing to submit to her husband and Esther as a model of godly submission for respecting her husband. 

In Real Marriage, (which I reviewed last week), Grace Driscoll writes that, “[Esther’s] example illustrates the repeated command across all Scripture that wives respectfully submit to their husbands and removes any excuse we have for disrespecting our husbands...  Amazingly, when she had an extremely urgent request, she respectfully waited outside [her husband's] room to be heard. She didn't barge in and demand that he do what she wanted …She didn't disregard his need for respect." 

And Dorothy Patterson, an editor of the new Evangelical Women’s Commentary, notes, “Most people don’t think about submission as being a topic in the book of Esther, but it is clearly in the text. I think our readers will find it interesting to see how you take the Old Testament roots for something that is very heavily discussed in the New Testament.”

Both of these authors fail to mention the fact that the reason Esther waited outside her husband’s room was because she would have been executed by Xerxes if she hadn’t! Or that the very act of summoning her husband was an act of defiance, not submission, that could have gotten Esther killed. Or that the dynamic between Esther and Xerxes is decidedly not the picture of a healthy marital relationship, what with the harem and death threats and all. 

Driscoll and Patterson’s bizarre interpretations of Vashti, Esther, and Xerxes represent yet another example of how  the modern biblical womanhood movement isn’t as concerned with returning to biblical womanhood as it is with returning to 1950s, pre-feminist America.  

Rhonda Kelley, co-editor of the New Evangelical Women’s Commentary, said this of young Christian women today: “Not only do they not have a framework, but in many situations our women students have been raised by mothers who were a product of the feminist movement. And so even their Christian mothers didn’t fully understand what it meant to be biblical women and they were rebelling with the world, with the culture, against a role that they thought women were being forced into.”

But it’s not those young women who misunderstand biblical womanhood; it’s Patterson and Kelley and Driscoll. In their attempts to try and bend the stories of an ancient near eastern culture to fit into the dynamics of a modern-day, Western, nuclear family, they have dismissed the actual story of Vashti and Esther and replaced it with one of their own making. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, the Bible was written at a time in history when most women were owned by their husbands.

Technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt (Exodus 21:7),biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Exodus 22:16-17), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of many wives (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). 

With this in mind, I don’t know anyone who is actually advocating a return to biblicalwomanhood. What most in the “biblical womanhood” movement are advocating instead is a return to the June Cleaver culture of pre-feminist America,  a culture that looked nothing like that  of Vashti and Esther, Leah and Rachel, Tamar and Bathsheba, Mary and Martha. 

But here’s the good news: The fact that these women lived in a time and a culture much different than our own makes them no less heroic and no less significant to modern-day women hoping to learn from their stories.  

Part of learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be is resisting the temptation to either gloss over or glorify the culture in which these women lived and to instead allow their stories to speak for themselves. Only in the midst of the true contours and colors of the text do the characters of the Bible find their depth. 

As I’ve spent the last two years reading the stories of women from the Bible, I’ve been moved by the courage and grace with many of the biblical women lived, despite their unjust circumstances. 

Faced with an impossible situation that would have left her destitute and vulnerable, Tamar worked the patriarchal system to ensure that her father-in-law owned up to his responsibility to observe the law of levirate and provide her with a husband.  Despite being widowed, poor, and a foreigner, Ruth managed to exhibit just the right amount of virtue and moxie to become one of the most celebrated women in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Even Jephtah’s daughter, who was brutally sacrificed by her father in the name of God, inspired the women of Israel to honor her in a ceremony every year. 

And it ultimately took the defiance of both Vashti and Esther to save the Jewish nation. 

The real story, it seems, is much more interesting than the ones we invent.

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