In the Catholic Church, we never talked about Esther or studied her at all, let alone anyone else in the book. What I knew of the book of Esther was more historical than anything – it was taught to be a record of political dealings under King Xeres. I never studied the book of Esther much until I was in college. Ironically enough, I studied the book of Esther as part of Women’s Studies. I was most astonished to learn many Protestant reformers – including Martin Luther – had a great deal to say about the book of Esther. Many of them felt the book should not be included in the Biblical canon. By looking at the book of Esther through the eyes of Women’s Studies, I can understand why the Protestant reformers took such a negative tone to the book. As many of them shared the same disordered perspectives on women as the Catholic Church, it’s not surprising this powerful book rubbed them the wrong way. Rather than hear God speaking to them through it, they thought it should be tossed out. Doesn’t that just sound like a bunch of men who really aren’t where they should be in their faith? Instead of seeking to empower their wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters in the Lord, they wanted to pretend that wasn’t a part of God’s Word.
The book of Esther still remains controversial for many reasons, the main one being it’s a book about women. The two major figures in this book are both women – Esther and Vashti. The book addresses many issues we would rather ignore, including spousal mistreatment, abuse, degradation of women, and the rise of up of an empowered woman, recognizing her position by God. The heroines of the book of Esther were not men – they were both Vashti and Esther, both in their own way. Both women won important victories not just for their people, but for themselves, and for all women in all times. In recognizing this, it is very important we as Christians, and especially Christian women, study the book of Esther to gain insight just as to what it means to be a woman of God in a given circumstance.
For the sake of this dialogue, we are going to look at Vashti rather than Esther. While both women are misunderstood, we can gain great understanding on how we’ve misunderstood these two women by re-examining how we view Vashti. Vashti has become a villain, a woman of disobedience, a Jezebel, the ultimate symbol of what happens to a woman who disobeys her husband and defies convention. Esther, then, becomes a pure and holy floormat, embodying the “good girl” of society who does everything she is supposed to do and therefore rewarded for that. We’ve caused Vashti and Esther to be opposites, two different types of women, one we do not want to embody, and one we do, yet the one is totally unattainable in the light we have cast.
If we look at Esther and Vashti honestly – especially Vashti – we see they were not all that different. While they served different purposes, neither one was evil. In our pursuit to avoid controversy and being the “wrong image” of a woman, we’ve cast aside a woman more of us need to ascribe to be like: the strong and noble Vashti.
Esther 1:1-8 (NIV):
“This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present. For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty. When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest, who were in the citadel of Susa. The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink in his own way, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.”
We learn from this passage that Xeres was quite smitten with himself. He wanted to make full display of everything he had as king due to his rulership. Everyone was to look upon what the king had and want it, flourishing and relishing in the splendor that belonged to King Xeres. In other words, King Xeres idolized himself. He wanted to be everyone’s envy and the object of everyone’s acknowledged showy display. Everything he had was to be envied by everyone else…and, as we will see in a moment…I do mean everything.
Esther 1:9-15 (NIV):
“Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes. On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas- to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger. Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king—Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom. “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”
Vashti was clearly not an unreasonable woman. As queen, she knew her place and did her part to manage the festivities. In ancient cultures, men and women were often segregated in parties and public social events. Xeres’ banquet was specifically for his male noblemen, officials, and military. Vashti was required to have a separate party and serve as host for the women. We can see she wasn’t just some sort of defiantly fresh woman who didn’t want anything to do with her husband by this fact. She did her duty, set forth the display, and was fully prepared to go on with life.
We learn nothing negative about Vashti in the Word. If anything, we learn from these passages that she was equipped and purposed for her duties as queen. On the contrary, we do not learn that Xeres was of appropriate or good character. He was clearly in love with himself, idolized his wealth, and we even can see he drank too much as part of this banquet. So is it any wonder that, when drunk and absolutely loving his status and wealth, he took his desire to be envied way too far with his next command?
Xeres decides Vashti should come and parade herself – like a common object – in front of all the peoples and nobles. Some suggest Vashti was to be naked, wearing nothing but her crown, but the Word doesn’t suggest that. Xeres was clearly stupid, but not that stupid. He didn’t want people to think they could have what he had; he just wanted them to want it really bad. While Vashti might have been supposed to dress suggestively, I doubt she was naked. Wearing that crown doesn’t signify she was not to have anything else on, it was to mark her as belonging to Xeres. She was to come and display herself as yet another one of his many possessions.
Vashti was commanded to come forth as the King’s “arm candy.” She wasn’t to be honored for her position as queen, but rather, be an object that served no other purpose but to stand as something to look at. When I think of this, I realize all that culture does to women in the name of control and cultural expectation. Too many women come forward, crown on head, to stand as the visual property of a man and all he represents. We are so quick to condemn Islamic culture for mandating its women be veiled and covered in public, but are we any better? Instead of covering up women in this culture, we allow ourselves to be paraded around by men in all states of undress, serving no other purpose but to be seen with them and considered to be a part of their prosperity. It’s fine for us to go out in public as long as we’re doing something that glorifies the men in our lives and that we’re home to make sure they have their dinner at night. Our society does no more to edify its women than Islamic culture does; we are just hypocrites about it. And, in keeping with culture, the church is full of Xeres who believe a woman’s only purpose is to benefit her man and be on his call to display at any time.
Too many women in our culture say yes when they are called, and show up, crown and all. Vashti, however, said no.
By many men in today’s church, Vashti would be condemned, rather than Xeres. This is, in fact, exactly what has happened. We’ve vilified the wrong person, just as we do with women and young girls who are abused or mistreated, not knowing they can do better in their relationships. Then society blames the women who are strong enough to leave abusive situations, treating them as if they did a wrong thing by not allowing themselves to be mistreated. Vashti was not about to allow herself to be demoralized in front of the entire nation as nothing more than the king’s window dressing. When it was a choice between obeying God and obeying man, Vashti obeyed God. She knew she was more valuable than the king’s purposes, and was willing to pay the consequences. If it set her out of the kingdom of men, Vashti always had the Kingdom of God. If it meant being alone, that’s what it was going to mean.
Based on Vashti’s response, I really wonder how comfortable Vashti was with Xeres’ lavish displays. I think she did what so many women do – she stood behind her man and played her role no matter how she might have felt – until she was unable to play the role anymore. Vashti needed to make a stand against Xeres’ idolatry. It went from being beyond things to being about how he perceived himself and how everyone should feel about what he has, including the people he felt he had. Vashti was not going to be another one of his possessions, so she spoke with her actions. She just didn’t come to be demoralized.
Esther 1:16-22 (NIV):
“Then Memucan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all 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. “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.” The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memucan proposed. He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, proclaiming in each people’s tongue that every man should be ruler over his own household.”
Vashti was no longer queen, but note the impact she had. Nobody could ever say she did not go out with a bang. All the men were terrified other women of the kingdom would find their voice and refuse to be demoralized. The people under Xeres failed to recognize a woman is not despising a man when we refuse to be his property. Where are we on that one? Too often the church implements Xeres ruling over women simply because they are afraid their women might become about something other than them. Not long ago I saw a statement online where a so-called minister made the statement that woman is required to give her full submission and obedience to her husband. I found this disturbing because, first of all, there is nothing in the Bible that says a woman has to give full obedience to her husband. Women are not children. The men in our lives do not have the right to order us around. Our husbands are not our fathers. The second reason is because God did not implement demoralization of women in the Word. Ephesians 5 is about the description of marriage as a type of Christ and the Church, with the purpose to establish Christ as the Head of all things, even marital relationships. If we are all in Christ, a man is not the head of his household, Christ is. If we remember this, God’s blessing can reign and all parties will be free to be obedient to God rather than worrying and wasting time with all this obedience to men. Vashti reminds women that, even though a man may make himself an idol, we can be strong enough in our faith to make sure we don’t make that man our idol, too.
God is raising up women of Vashti in this day and age – women who are strong, able, and will not be reduced by men who don’t know their true place in the Kingdom. In drawing on Vashti, we learn it is OK to be strong…OK to be capable…OK to know our worth…OK to influence one another to be capable and strong…and, most of all…OK to say no to the men in our lives.
(C) 2010 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.