The book may be named after Esther, but it is remarkable that neither “Esther” nor our protagonist’s Hebrew name (Hadassah) are mentioned in more than a chapter. When you consider that the whole book of Esther is just 10 short chapters, the fact that more than 10 per cent of the book is devoted to Vashti suggests that the opening chapter is more than just background. Vashti’s story is presented as the context for Esther’s. Therefore, we must read Vashti in order to read Esther. Chapter one is Vashti’s “such a time as this”.
We meet Vashti in Esther 1:9 a full chapter before we meet Esther herself in 2:7, which once again emphasises Vashti’s importance to the context of the book of Esther.
So what does Vashti mean? According to Strong’s, Vashti means “beautiful”. The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) says Vashti means “the best” or “beloved”. Abarim Publications (a wonderful resource for studying Old Testament names) suggests Vashti is an example of word-play because by deleting the conjunctive waw (the v sound) from the prefix you are left with sheti: “This noun שתי (sheti is used in the Bible only once, in Ecclesiastes 10:17: “Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of nobility and whose princes eat at the appropriate time — for strength and not for drunkenness”. But the curiousness of all this is that even the Masoretic symbols of the word שתי and the name ושתי are identical. To a Hebrew audience, the name Vashti may have sounded like When Drinking (=that’s what you get!).”
EEC concurs: “There may also be a poetic purpose to the use of the name: verse 8 begins with the phrase וְהַשְּׁתִיָּה, wehaššetiyya; “And the drinking …” The name Vashti וַשְׁתִּי (waštî) is a homonym for this word. The similarity of sound is not only pleasing to the ear, but also somewhat significant, since the fate of Vashti is precipitated by the unbridled drinking at Xerxes’ banquet.”
The point is that Vashti means beautiful, but the undermining of her beauty and worth by intemperate, drunk men is also hidden in her name.
Separate banquets, oppressive culture
The first thing we learn about Vashti is that she holds a feast for women in parallel with the king’s feast (Esther 1:9). But why? In accordance with Radday and contradicting other sources, EEC says: “There was no custom in ancient Persia requiring men and women to dine separately. Typically, wives accompanied their husbands to dinner banquets”. This and the king’s subsequent impulsive action indicate that there is some real tension between the sexes in the royal household.
This appears to resonate with what EEC quotes Plutarch as saying: “Plutarch claims that Persian monarchs would dine with their wives unless the party became “wild.” Then the wives would be sent away to shield them from the debauchery that would follow, and the concubines and dancing girls would take their place.”
Perhaps because of this debauchery has happened at the men’s banquet or perhaps Vashti knew it would happen. Such a reading offers one explanation as to why Vashti held her own banquet in contrast with societal norms.
For its part, EEC suggests: “In the book of Esther, Vashti’s banquet serves two functions. First, it emphasizes yet again the royal generosity, in that even the women are being treated liked privileged guests. Second, it sets up the scenario where the king and queen are in separate locations, so that the king may issue his fateful summons to the queen.” But apart from the fact that “even the women” sounds incredibly sexist to our modern ears, to suggest that royal women were not generally able to lead independent lives, contradicts archaeological evidence that women were able to own property and manage significant estates. Therefore, in the context of the likelihood of debauchery taking place at the men’s banquet, it could also suggest that Vashti was offering a place of sanctuary – generosity to women without the inherent lechery of the men’s event.
So what happens in an environment where people are drunk on power?