Theology

Punishment and exile: Vashti’s “such a time as this” (part 5)

Vashti’s refusal of the king’s command is arguably the climax of the opening of the book of Esther. Indeed, it was so revolutionary in the context that the king didn’t know how to respond. So, he did something that he does throughout the book of Esther. He relied on the wisdom of others.

Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment. (Esther 1:13)

Who did he turn to for advice on how to respond to his wife? “…men who knew the times…” At the risk of digressing slightly, it is worth noting that this language is very reminiscent of the biblical description of the sons of Issachar in 1 Chron 12:32. Such language suggests a number of positive traits: good kings consult counsellors (Prov 11:14; Prov 15:22); a range of counsel should include the prophetic voice (Eph 4:11-13); the counsellors, in this case, were probably magi so it is a stretch to say they had what we might call a prophetic voice in a Christian sense. But if we read the magi as typological of the prophetic voice, in this case they represent muted prophets. Rather than speaking truth to power, they had become yes-men to the king who had become more “versed in law and judgement” than anything else. Therefore what we can learn from this is that our counsel should be: varied, wise and include a prophetic voice and that should be versed in grace and mercy (because grace is superior to law and mercy triumphs over judgement – James 2:13). Continuing on the phrase “versed in law and judgement”, perhaps we should read this clause as emphasising the qualifications of the counsellors. As EEC explains: “The phrase דָּת וָדִין (“statute and judgment”) has both an alliterative and rhythmic quality to it, similar to the English “this and that.” The phrase is not only designed to be phonetically pleasing, however, since it embodies the entire corpus of legal tradition, implying the vast knowledge of these counsellors.”

As we have seen, the king’s motives were bad (and included drunkenness, anger and pride) and so were the magi’s. This verse shows them to be motivated by the fear that they will lose their patriarchal power and control (see Esther 1:18). JFB goes as far as saying: “Alarm for the consequences that might ensue to each of them in his own household next seized on their minds…”

But who were the council? “These were probably the magi, without whose advice as to the proper time of doing a thing the Persian kings never did take any step whatever…”, according to JFB. Their names read like a parallel of the list of eunuchs named a few verses earlier (Est 1:10). Indeed, Guillemin’s “Les noms des eunuques d’Assuérus,” cited by EEC says “if the names are read in reverse order, this list sounds quite similar to the list of the eunuchs’ names”, strengthening the connection between the eunuchs and the magi.

  • Carshena – illustrious.
  • Shethar – a star.
  • Admatha – a testimony to them.
  • Tarshish – yellow jasper.
  • Meres – lofty.
  • Marcena – worthy.
  • Memucan – dignified.

Judgement triumphs over mercy?

When I read this verse, “according to the law” (v14) jumps out at me. However, as various sources note (see EEC and Clines), no legal advice is actually given.

Instead Memucan (which means dignified and/or ‘faithful’ – v15), offers his own patriarchal conclusions. However – as EEC also points out – no reference to legal precedent is made, which begs the question: which law are they all referring to? The law of the land? The protocols of their culture? Patriarchy perhaps because the subject quickly switches from legal and even royal authority onto the obedience of wives to husbands in general.

Memucan’s assessment is that Vashti has wronged: 1) The officials 2) the peoples and 3) the provinces 4) of King Ahasuerus. In other words, Vashti has stood up the officials (from “sar”, meaning head, principals, officials etc), the people (the gathered people, tribes), the provinces (the judged places, jurisdiction) – and therefore the wider system. Indeed with the word “sar” in mind, it is not a stretch to say that Vashti has stood up to unjust concepts of headship in general.

EEC’s reading suggests the passage is constructed in order to communicate the fear of spreading such supposed “insubordination”: “The officials will suffer first, because their wives were probably dining with the queen when the order was given, and they actually witnessed Vashti’s insubordination. But the matter will certainly not stop there, because word of the deed will spread throughout the entire empire. If women hear that the queen could refuse the king with impunity, then they, too, will believe that they can disobey their husbands. Contempt will abound—from the women toward their husbands. Wrath, too, will multiply—the response of the men toward their insubordinate wives.”

I think this adds to the importance and potentially pre-meditated nature of Vashti’s separate banquet. I think she was fed up with the debauchery in general and refused to participate, thus running a separate meal – itself an assertive act. However, when she was asked to join in with the men’s immorality, she refused and ended up leading a considerably clearer act of assertiveness.

There are definite overtones of sexual politics. And the male fear was that they would lose “control” of what was happening in their own bedrooms. EEC again: “Berlin suggests that there is some subtle sexual anxiety at work and that there was fear that Vashti’s refusal to come before the king could set off a “sexual strike” among the women, similar to the one featured in the Greek play Lysistrata (cf. Jobes, 80). While there is little direct evidence in the text for this reading, it may be significant that Vashti’s replacement will be chosen based on her ability to please the king in his bedchamber (Esth 2:13–14).”

Jewish scholar Radday says Memucan characterises Vashti’s refusal as bordering on subversion and “undermines every good order in the empire”. This reminds me of the more extreme complementarian views that the lack of female submission to men undermines the whole gospel because Adam was created first. For reference, I read Gen 1 very differently and argue that there was no hierarchy prior to the fall and it is rather, a consequence of the fall Gen 3:16. Also, it is worth noting that while Adam did come first in terms of creation, the ultra-complementarian argument is undermined on two points: 1) Adam represents mankind as a whole rather than just maleness 2) Jesus, the second Adam, came out of woman reversing the Edenic trend. Therefore, the order of creation cannot be used as a means of supporting a biblical gender superiority hierarchy.

In addition, Josephus (Ant 11:6) suggests the proposed banishment of Vashti was designed “to give her dignity [as a queen] to another woman”. However, Vashti’s refusal was also about maintaining her own dignity as a person, a woman and a Persian queen. For his part, Memucan is not worried about Vashti’s “dignity”, rather he is worried about the implications of Vashti’s refusal on all men, the elite men and the king.

Memucan’s logic denies its own power and the power of all the people in the nation. Firstly it is based on the fallacious theory that because one did something, everyone else will do it (denying the nation’s free will and power to make their own decisions). Secondly, it suggests that the only power men have positional and title-based as opposed to being earned.

The word used for husband here is “ba’al”. According to EEC, “is” is used much more often. Of course, ba’al is familiar to many as the name of false gods and is most commonly and literally used for lord (as in lording it over) and slave driver. It is as if the patriarchal system has made an idolatrous god out of its power.

Therefore, the view that women cannot have authority over men in any circumstances – or even over themselves against the will of men – has more in common with Persian, legalistic, patriarchal doctrine than Christian biblical values.

Regal pleasing is as bad as people pleasing

The fact that the Persian court was only really interested in pleasing the king served to perpetuate the situation. The king was asking for ideas of what to do and the courtiers were telling him what they thought he wanted to hear thereby creating an echo-chamber that amplified their insecurities and prejudices.

The phrase “If it seems good in the eyes of the king”  highlights just how much everyone was trying to please the boss at this time. According to EEC, this phrase is repeated a further five times after this initial instance (Esther 1:21; 2:4, 9; 8:5, 8), while “If it seems good to the king” appears an additional six times (Esther 3:9; 5:4, 8; 7:3; 8:5; 9:13). EEC also points out that this means that “the king’s pleasure” is also a major theme in the book of Esther. The irony is that they are all trying to please him, but he doesn’t know what he wants without him.

As we saw earlier, the problem was caused by the chauvinistic and patriarchal alcohol exacerbated environment. Rather than address this, the mens’ solution is to banish the woman. God, however, sends another woman (Esther) after Vashti to challenge the establishment at “such a time as this”. My point? Women have as much right to be in high office as men. We are better working as a team. With all-male leadership there are power struggles, patriarchy and subjugation of women – resulting in the death of minorities. God put Esther there to restore the balance diversity brings.

There are further unintended consequences of Memucan’s “solution”. The punishment means a) Vashti cannot do what the king asks – even if she did want to and b) it is once again about power in their relationship – the banishment seeks to PREVENT her choice in the matter. Also, EEC points out the Memucan’s advice does more to publicise Vashti’s stand than her original actions. By publishing the decree in every language it is effectively broadcasting the scenario to the whole empire (see v22).

Master – meaning ruler, lord it over, which is of course the exact opposite of what Jesus said regarding authority (Mat 20:25). The king effectively asks the people to do what he could not and should not have done – CONTROL (in a negative sense).

The detail demonstrates how “mission creep” is often the result of suppression. What started out as a bid to control one woman became an effort to restrain all women and subtly transitioned into a decree that men should lord it over their entire households as if the other members had no agency. EEC: “Memucan’s suggestion was merely that Queen Vashti be deposed and that her punishment be published throughout the empire. The decree, as typically understood, seems to have gone well beyond that recommendation, requiring that all men rule in their own households.”

In case anyone thinks a Memucan-esque pyramidal hierarchy is taught in the New Testament, it is worth comparing this decree with NT teaching. Apart from explicitly teaching against “lording it over” in the gospels, Paul’s writings also radically challenge establish linear pyramidal hierarchies.

The decree’s command that men should rule their own households, sounds similar to 1 Tim 3:4 in the English translation of the Hebrew, but when you compare the Greek text of Esther 1:22 with the Greek of the new testament passage we can see that the meaning is completely different. The phrase “φόβον αὐτοῖς ἐν ταῖς οἰκίαις αὐτῶν” in Esther basically means men should rule by fear “phobos” in their own houses. 1 Tim 3:4 on the other hand enjoins elders to manage their houses well and doesn’t use phobos at all (see note on 1 Tim 3:4).

Therefore, Esther 1 represents the history and establishment of this new breed of patriarchy (it is a product of the fall, but literally becomes law here), which Esther then subverts from within.

However, while Persia clearly was a patriarchal society, and while the Vashti episode demonstrates the faulty nature of the system as well as God’s support of its opposition, it is not a simplistic picture. Persian women were not as oppressed as for example in Islamist states and in extreme complementarian contexts where women are not allowed authority over men:

“The Persepolis Fortification Tablets reveal that women often worked as managers or directors of various businesses and sometimes supervised men. Pay levels seem to have been the same for men and women. Thus, while men might have been expected to rule in their homes, women were not generally oppressed in the workplace.” (EEC and CB draws similar conclusions)

If women could be directors, supervise men and have equal pay at this time, the standards should be much higher today society at large and higher still in the Kingdom.

Therefore, we should be listening to the women in our lives and should see both Esther and Vashti as queens.

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