THE STORY OF QUEEN VASHTI
What does it mean to be female in God’s humanity? This is a question posed by feminist and womanist scholars who seek to answer this query by exploring the women’s narratives of the Bible. While the bible is ancient in its presentation, there are many stories of the lives and times of women in scripture, which are inspiring and empowering to us, as contemporary women, who are often faced with the same challenges and obstacles chronicled in the pages of the Holy Script. God’s word remains true, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and we, as God’s daughters can look to the bible for guidance and direction since many of the women’s narratives of scripture aptly illustrate: if God be for us, no power on this earth can be against us.
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Esther: Chapter 1 : 5- 22 (NRSV)
5 When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings[b] and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. 9 Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
13 Then the king consulted the sages who knew the laws[c] (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and custom, 14 and those next to him were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king, and sat first in the kingdom): 15 “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against[d] the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19 If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.”
21 This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed; 22 he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.[e]
In the Old Testament, there are more than a few stories about the lives of queens. In fact, as you may already know, there is an entire book in Old Testament scripture devoted to the story of an orphaned Jewish girl, who through a series of events, becomes the queen of Persia. In this book (which is dedicated to the life of Esther), the story begins chronicling the life of the sovereign preceding Esther whose name is Vashti. While the details of her story are covered in only 2-3 pages, Queen Vashti is as fascinating and as compelling as Queen Esther.
Queen Vashti is often called the first feminist of scripture. The actions which she so courageously demonstrates in the Esther narrative portrays a woman who refuses to be objectified and defined by the limited vision of her husband. Instead, with the empowerment of a strong and steadied self dignity, she refuses to fold into the minimized role which her husband, the king assigned to her. Queen Vashti shows us, through her death defying action, that being sovereign is more than wearing a jeweled crown upon one’s head. When faced with a decision, as whether to live with humiliation, or walk away from it, displaying the God-given grant of freedom, dignity, and self-respect she was born into, Queen Vashti chooses the royal position of self affirmation and sovereignty.
Her story connects to Esther’s in more ways than one. While she has no dialogue in her own story, the message is crystal clear. The action she takes against the king, who sees her only as his possession, is firmly planted in her narrative: [If I perish, I perish,”] but, I will walk away sovereign, owning my royal dignity and destiny for which I was created.” Queen Vashti, without speaking a word in her story, becomes a role model for us all.
What did Vashti do to lose her royal position as Queen? This is a question that is posed in the Talmud, an ancient Jewish commentary – a companion study book to Old Testament scripture. Some rabbis suppose that the king commanded Vashti to come into his and his male guests’ presence wearing nothing but her crown. Based upon Queen Vashti’s actions, this observation makes sense. Why would an established queen risk losing everything to deliberately disobey her husband and king – one known for making rash and violent decisions?
A feminist read of the story (hermeneutic) suggests that Queen Vashti, when subject to the probability of humiliation and sexual objectification by the king (her husband), and the king’s men, rationally weighs the circumstances. She was more concerned for losing herself dignity to the humiliation of the drunken crowd, then losing her life. By her actions, she lives the later articulation of her replacement, Queen Esther: “and if I perish, I perish.”(4:16) In her case, Queen Vashti was called to protect and to cherish her own royal dignity. Again, she embodies through her actions, what is articulated in Esther’s story by Mordecai : “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to a royal dignity for a time such as this.” (Esther 4:14)
Who knows? God knows! Who knows? We, as woman of God should know. Job one is to faithfully and diligently seek and find ourselves – our own identity and our own destiny which God has created for us. Queen Vashti knew who and whose she was. She simply refused to be limited by the distorted vision of anyone else, including the king, her husband. She “starred” in her own narrative, disallowing anyone to usurp the authentic life which God created for her. In doing so, Queen Vashti completed her “royal assignment” – for without the faith and courage she displayed in facing the possible depletion of self-identity, we would not have her powerful testimony as a part of Holy Scripture.
Ultimately, we will all be called upon to make this same decision in life – sometimes more than once. Rejecting the identities which others attempt to force upon us, is part of what makes us sovereign women in our own story.. Queen Vashti teaches us that positions and possessions do not make you a queen. Instead, the most royal position you will ever possess, is to know who you are!
QUESTIONS FOR CONSIDERATION AND STUDY
After reading chapter 1 of Esther, please consider the following information:
The Talmud, which is a companion study guide to the Torah (Old Testament writings),is also ancient in its dating. The Talmud suggests that King Ashasuerus ordered Queen Vashti to come into the men’s banquet wearing NOTHING but her crown. The king’s command may explain why Queen Vashti emphatically refused to obey her husband’s command. With this interpretation of the story in mind, consider the following questions:
Give your impression of King Ahasuerus (King Xerxes). What type of personality did this king have based upon the descriptions in the text?
Why do you think others, including those who may be in intimate relationship with us, attempt to make us in their own image of what they want us to be? Why do you think, as women, we often allow this to happen?
What did Queen Vashti give up, when she made her decision and was dethroned? What did she gain?
In your own life, what does it mean to live as “sovereign?”
Based upon the King’s actions, what do you think his attitude, and the attitude of the royal court was towards Queen Vashti, and women in general?
Why do you think Queen Vashti is called “the first feminist of the Bible,” by biblical scholars?
What provokes the other men to react they way in which they do in the story, once they understand that Vashti disobeyed the King?
What are the contemporary implications of this story for us, as women? How have attitudes towards women changed? How have they remained the same?
How can we, like Queen Vashti, leave a different legacy for the young girls who come after us?
“Ain’t I a woman?” – Sojourner Truth
“You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.” – Tony Gaskins
“To thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare
“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
written by Evangelist Angie Garrett for Tabitha’s Daughters Bible Empowerment Series