If, as we have been discovering, Vashti’s story is critical to Esther’s, the king’s request and Vashti’s refusal represent the climax of her story. But how should we interpret it? Is it a case of insubordination, an example of wilfulness – as has often been implied. Or was her refusal virtuous and providential? First the request. The king’s request, the reason he sent seven men was:
to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at.
Esther 1:11 (ESV)
“bring Queen Vashti…” – Once again, the language gives the impression that all is not well between the king and queen because the wording suggests Queen Vashti needed to be brought to the king It also implies that the queen was not free to choose to attend or not to attend.
“In her royal crown…” Bearing in mind the strength of Vashti’s subsequent refusal, it seems unlikely that the king only wanted to see Vashti wearing her royal crown. According to Radday, Rabbinic tradition – pointing to Nehemiah 2:6 – suggests the king was not simply asking to see the queens face again (she could sit with the king anytime to be seen in this less demeaning way), but to appear nude. In other words, the request was for Vashti to attend wearing the crown – and nothing else.
“in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty…” In addition to wanting Vashti to attend the deteriorating male banquet, probably in the nude, the king wanted to parade his wife like an object. In addition to his selfishness and pride, the political motivation for this could have been to settle a dispute as to whether Persian or Median women were more attractive (EEC suggests this could even have been the premeditated strategy). Radday characterises it as a striptease.
The Believer’s Bible Commentary (BBC) interprets it as being solely for selfish purposes: “Since Persian modesty required women to be veiled in public, it appears that the king was asking her to degrade herself to satisfy his drunken whim.”
Either way, the king wanted to parade Vashti and objectify her, reducing her to being the subject of the very public, male gaze. Of course, she didn’t need to expose her nakedness to show her beauty. She didn’t need to exhibit her body to show her crown or her royalty. Indeed, revealing too much relating to your royalty was a failing of at least one Old Testament king (2 Kings 20:12-19).
Notice that this is opposite of what Esther later does in preparation for her uninvited audience with the king (Esther 4:16). While here (in Esther 2:11), the king commands Vashti to undress and parade for his personal pleasure and political purposes, with Esther she puts on the royal robes of righteousness, invites herself to speak to the king and influences him positively to the benefit of all.
What should Vashti do in this situation? What would you do if you were Vashti? What did Vashti do?