But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him. (Esther 1:12 ESV)
Vashti’s refusal is the climax of her story. But is it an example of rebellion or assertiveness?
Some readings of Vashti are highly critical of her denial, suggesting that she was disobedient, rebellious or playing power games of her own. The EEC is more measured, but still casts Vashti as in some way prideful: “Vashti may have been prideful in her refusal to appear before Xerxes’ guests, but she was more “in the right” than the king, who violated the normal expectations for how a queen was to be treated.”
But in what way is it prideful to assert your own dignity and refuse to debase yourself?! Given the pressure on Vashti to comply (she was told to come at the “command” of a king who was arguably the most powerful man on earth at the time, who then sent seven men to retrieve her), it is remarkable that she was able to protest at all. That she denied the king’s refusal in the context of such an asymmetrical power dynamic only serves to emphasise her assertiveness. Note that I am characterising this as assertiveness rather than rebellion. This is because of a) the illegitimacy of the king’s request and b) because of his attempts to use his power to produce compliance. Rather, Vashti’s assertiveness serves to show that she was able to exercise good personal boundaries in a very difficult situation. The king’s response on the other hand (see below), as well as the wider context of his behaviour, demonstrates his lack of boundaries. In other words, Vashti’s virtue highlights the king’s lack of it.
Considering it is written from a British Victorian perspective, the Jamiesson, Fausset and Brown (JFB) commentary is surprisingly enlighted when it sums it up the significance of Vashti’s refusal like this: “The refusal of Vashti to obey an order which required her to make an indecent exposure of herself before a company of drunken revellers, was becoming both the modesty of her sex and her rank as queen; for, according to Persian customs, the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze. Had not the king’s blood been heated with wine, or his reason overpowered by force of offended pride, he would have perceived that his own honour, as well as hers, was consulted by her dignified conduct’.
Still, it is difficult to overstate just how remarkable Vashti’s behaviour was. JFB continues: “It is scarcely possible for us to imagine the astonishment produced by such a refusal in a country and a court where the will of the sovereign was absolute.” The king may have been sovereign over lands and courts and things, but the mistake he made and the delusion he was under was that he could control the free will of other humans – something God himself honours.
The ethical and theological reasons why it was right for Vashti to refuse aside, there is also some evidence that Ahaseurus was violating Persian protocol as well. EEC cites Josephus as saying that Vashti was actually acting in line with Persian law “which forbade a wife from being seen by strangers”. John Wesley – presumably based on Josephus – repeats the assertion: “Being favoured in this refusal by the law of Persia, which was to keep men’s wives, and especially queens, from the view of other men.” It is not clear what is meant by “being seen”, but it seems unlikely that this suggests wives were expected to remain completely hidden. Instead, EEC reports that there is evidence to the contrary – that wives were allowed to be seen out and about. The Believer’s Bible Commentary (BBC) concurs: “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.” Therefore the most logical explanation is that Josephus et al are expressing that Persian protocol was for wives to be discrete or that wives were forbidden from being seen unveiled or unclothed.
However, this was not the case for all classes of women in the Persian court. According to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Bible, “Public displays of beauty were usually expected of concubines, not queens” (see note on v11). EEC agrees: “Concubines were the lowest level of royal wives, and these women were specially trained to entertain the king and his guests with music and dance. Vashti probably felt that being put on display before the king’s guests reduced her to the status of a concubine. That she was told to wear the royal crown added insult to injury: the royal crown was a sign of her status, while the king’s summons seemed to deny that status. Vashti’s refusal was not a blow for women’s rights, but for the dignity of the royal office.” I would argue that the request was both a blow for women’s rights and an affront to the office of a queen.
The Bible Knowledge Commentary even suggests that Vashti had a very specific reason for not complying – because she may have been pregnant with Ahaseurus’ son and successor Artaxerxes. As interesting as this is, it is difficult to support this thesis historically. Furthermore, it is unnecessary. Whether she was pregnant or not, and putting her royal status aside for a moment, owing to the fact that Vashti was valuable as an individual in her own right, she deserved to be treated with dignity and respected by the king, her husband.
Whatever the precise reason. Vashti was secure in her value and royal identity. She knew who she was and refused to act beneath this.
Motivated by anger
Ahaseurus, on the other hand, is clearly insecure, something that is demonstrated by his anger. The text is explicit that the king’s subsequent treatment of Vashti is motivated by anger and comes in the context of him being drunk. Why was he angry? EEC suggests that it is because he saw his wife as subordinate and inferior and therefore was embarrassed by her decision to stand up for herself. He may have been literally the most powerful man on earth, but he loses it because he can’t control a single person, because he can’t control his wife. Really that was his greatest mistake, believing the myth that he could control others and specifically his wife, and this was what made him angry: that Vashti’s assertiveness proved she was a powerful person – in this respect more powerful than him.
But we still haven’t got to Esther yet and we won’t until the king has further vented his anger in the form of punishment…