Esther and Vashti:
Who knows but that you have entered into the kingdom for such a time as this?
When you read the Torah, the five books of Moses, you learned about many of the God-instituted holidays, feast and fast days such as Yom Kippur. But Judaism also has feast days that were not instituted by God, including the feasts of Purim and Chanukah. Both these holidays were instituted to memorialize the triumphs of the Jews over genocidal anti-Jewish enemies.
Many people believe that before Christianity, Israel lived happily and peacefully unoppressed. They often say that Christianity is responsible for oppressing Jews. But from its beginning, Israel has had to struggle against genocidal enemies. And many countries have this history of being oppressed. The Poles, for instance, have a long history of being conquered and re-conquered. Having survived the genocidal intentions of the Egyptian slave-masters and other cultures, the Israelites are now oppressed by the Assyrian.
The story of Purim, a festival that celebrates the survival of the Jews against its enemies, is the story of Esther. The story begins with a king who is proud of his power and his property. The Book of Esther tells the story of a beautiful female deliverer named Esther (Hadassah) who was chosen by the Babylonian king, Xerxes. It is one of the few stories where deliverance from the enemy is won by female beauty and charm...and by much prayer. It is also, like Ruth, a story of providence because while it never explicitly shows God working behind the scenes, we all know that God is behind all the small and large aspects of the story.
This story about a great salvation of the Jews begins with no mention of the Jews. It begins with no mention of Israel’s God. Rather, the reader is given a view of earthly glory, of princes like Xerxes who serve themselves rather than God and who, for the most part, are rather self-satisfied.
Xerxes reigned over a large territory, spanning from India to Ethiopia. He had princes and minor territorial kings under him. Power and property indeed! Delighted in himself and determined to celebrate his greatness, the emperor thought it would be a good idea to have a feast in honor of himself in the third year of his reign. The party would take place at his royal palace in Shushan. The feast lasted six months and was comprised of three different feasts. The largest one was for dignitaries from across Xerxes’ vast empire. This lasted six months. Another lesser feast began in the sixth month and was a private affair for the palace household, all who worked, lived and served in the palace. And then there was the feast that his queen, Vashti, the foremost of all the royal ladies, held for the women of the palace.
Towards the end of the feasting, Xerxes’ heart was merry. And why shouldn’t it be? He had shown his power, magnificence and his wealth. He had shown great managerial skills. Imagine carrying off such a party! The management of food, sleeping arrangement, male and female singers!. To say the least, the partying was successful. The visiting potentates would return home with great tales of his munificence. Imagine a party in which every guest had his own uniquely engraved golden cup! Since the kingdom of heaven is like a party, one can readily see how godlike Xerxes must appeared. And yet, although the emperor had godlike power over all resources, arts, peoples, he bowed himself to one thing: the written law of the Medes and the Persians. As the writer of the book of Esther adds in a curious comment: “the drinking was according to the law” and no one did compel anyone to drink. An interesting phrase when one realizes what is to come. Legality and compelling are evident in this story of a party with an air of equality, fraternity, and legality.
On the seventh day of this party, the king was slightly tipsy. Not too much to fall all over himself or to fall asleep, but enough to ask for something that would not be done otherwise. He asked the eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti before his drunken guests so they could gaze at her. Considering that only eunuchs could see the women in the royal palace, one can imagine the outrageousness of the request.
Vashti, like any good middle eastern woman of high morals and social standing, refused to come. She was the king’s arm candy, of course. She was the greatest possession of a king who was fascinated by his possessions. And in a surprising move of integrity, stupidity and self-assertion disobeyed her husband. Certain kinds of husbands should not be disobeyed; especially in full view of their friends. The king was angry and embarrassed. He called a meeting before his boy’s club and the advice they gave him was simple: all the women in the provinces would know Vashti’s actions and these women would have an excuse to stop obeying their husbands. In short male pride demanded that Vashti be demoted. No longer would she be queen, but she would become just another concubine. In this way, all women would listen to their husbands. This was made part of the written law of the Persians and Medes. And once the law was set down, the king –powerful as he was—could not change it. The king was angry enough to agree to this.
But later, he realized that he had cut off his nose—so to speak—to spite his face. His anger was appeased. He thought longingly on his wife but there was no way he could subvert the law. In addition, the other concubines and women in his royal household were not acceptable either. His servants and ministers decided to have a new start. They recommended that the king search the kingdom for virgins who would replace Vashti. Remember Solomon and his princesses and thousand concubines? Powerful men are not inclined to bond with the many women they have sexual intercourse with. This is where the story of Esther begins and where Vashti’s story ends. No longer do we hear of the woman who revolted against being a powerful man’s show-piece. But her integrity in refusing --or her stupidity in believing that she was loved and therefore her husband to forgive her – was used by God providentially to save His people.
What does Vashti’s story say to us today? It tells us new things and old things. It tells us for instance what we already know: love and power are always at odds. It tells us that those with integrity often will lose power and status. Vashti saved her soul but lost the whole world. But it also makes us question the judgement we use against others.
Let’s face it: we are a romantic people. Television and the media have affected the way even Biblical Christians think. And so when we read this story of heaven, we will – if we aren’t careful—start turning this story into a great love story. First, let us remember that from what we see of the story, the only person fit for such a king would be a woman who wouldn’t talk back to men, a woman who was dependent –almost childlike in her obedience– and a woman who was gorgeous.
Who else but Esther? Esther was an orphaned Jewish girl who lives with her cousin Mordechai during the exile in Babylon. She is one of the great saints of the Jewish people.
When we first meet Esther, the first thing we learn is that she is obedient to men. This tendency to listen to whatever advice men gives her will help her greatly. She listens to her uncle, the eunuchs, everybody. But in this story, timidity, not trusting one’s own opinion and having no will of one’s own is the only thing to save the day.
Furthermore, Esther would probably have been better off with a regular guy for a husband. In the harem. Weeks would go by without her seeing her husband. Yes, Esther had been placed there by God. She had wealth and some power. But we must remember that like Jephthah’s daughter, she was a living sacrifice. Unlike other great royal love stories, the only monument to Esther is in the heart of her people.
As Queen, or even a lowly minor wife, Esther was no longer free to breathe the air and walk freely among her people. She became rich, but lost much of her freedom. Locked up in a royal harem, she gained the whole world. The king saved her but one sincerely doubts if such a shallow lover of beauty could love any woman deeply. This is no “happily ever after story.” Nowhere are we told that Esther loved Xerxes. Strange, isn’t it?
That leads me to beauty. Most women are pretty. And some women are especially beautiful. In the story of Esther, we see beauty being used as a commodity by a powerful man. Thankfully I am not a showcase wife whose husband uses me as a trophy. But many women have husbands who love their wives’ bodies and faces more than they love their wives’ spirits. In a culture where little girls are taught that a powerful rich man is a “good catch,” it’s good to be reminded by the Esther story that the Princess Di’s and Hillary Clinton’s of the world sometimes suffer because of the high circles they live in. The king had a woman who satisfied his lust for female beauty.
And what about Vashti’s place in history? Ironically, the integrity that caused Vashti to disobey her husband’s attempts to treat her as a trophy wife, has made her an object of scorn in evangelical circles where she is often perceived as a haughty snob who would not do what her man wanted. In sermon after sermon, she has been scapegoated. Why?
Many Bible readers assume Vashti was a bad person. They speak of her arrogance and pride. In order to appreciate Esther, they feel that they should find fault in Vashti’s behavior. It is a common human fault which enters Bible studies. People divide Bible characters into good guys and bad guys because their minds can’t seem to hold on to two different thoughts. How, they say, can they be happy for Esther if they like Vashti?
On the purely cultural level, some people find it hard to understand that this woman lived in a culture that prized modesty in women and she was being asked to show off her beauty in front of a bunch of drunken men. What woman from this culture would want to be a victim of such leers and lusting....especially at her husband's request?
There is another reason why people have a problem with Vashti. They reason that she must have done something bad because God wouldn't destroy one woman's life simply to bless another woman. This is a kind of reasoning that is not Biblical. Considering the fact that Bible saints always suffer, especially when they keep their integrity (as in the case of job) or refuse to descend from the cross there is no spiritual or theological cause to bend over backwards to make Vashti into an arrogant queen. In the Bible, bad things happen to good people all the time. It’s almost a given. Bible readers want to praise Esther without questioning God, luck, providence or fate...and so they must make Vashti "evil" or “unfortunate.” We can assume that she was hurt when her husband demoted her. But perhaps, she found her freedom in being rejected by so controlling a husband. For Vashti, maybe the demotion was heart-rending to begin with but later turned out to be a blessing, the most freeing thing to happen in her life. She is unseen in the rest of the Esther story and is unknown to history.
Perhaps the first thing we should remember is that life does not have easy answers. The second thing is that the story of Esther is not a great love story. It is the story of a shallow king who liked beautiful women and the praise of men and how God used this man’s failings, a bit of drunken impropriety, one woman’s physical beauty and another woman’s integrity to save His people.
The book of Esther is about providence and working around the laws. The book of Esther the workings of GRACE and the LAW. Like God, the king is bound by his own laws towards his subjects. How he gets around it is a foreshadowing of how God gets around the law in the case of pardoning sinners yet at the same time making them his perfected children. There is also signs God’s providence and guidance and even a lesson on discretion. (Esther is one of the few Bible characters who hide their religion for a good cause. For more on the Israelites exile in Babylon, read the books of Esther, Nehemiah, Ezra and Daniel
You do a good job telling the story. You don't get it bogged down in details, but you tell us the parts that are relevant. And then you bring it home by showing just how un-glamorous (is that a word) the whole thing really was. Real people. Real lives. So often we try to make characters good or bad, when so many of them were just human. Good artilce.