…so let’s stop using her as a way of talking down to women
With hindsight, I can see the subtle ways in which Vashti has been downtrodden in common readings of scripture. However, I have also read some shockingly ill-considered views from both men and women. What both the subtle and the blatant have in common is that they seek to pitch Vashti against Esther as if the point of the book is to correct all the women inside and outside the text. This kind of approach is hugely problematic (and sexist), but arguably its worst fruit is when it is repeated in the pulpit and propagated by preachers, continuing the diffusion of these errors into the wider consciousness. That’s why I have become less and less tolerant of such views.
Seeing how the Memucanian spirit of patriarchy (which takes the assertiveness of one woman and transforms it into the rationale for pyramidal hierarchy, patriachy and the oppression of all women – Esther 1:18) can be disseminated across social media was the final straw.
Here’s a prime example:
“[women] don’t be a Vashti in your husband’s house because Esther is waiting for you to misbehave.”
There are so many reasons this is a terrible reading of Vashti and Eshter.
- It is patronising to women. In this case, the published comment came from a man who is basically mansplaining a book named after a woman and centring on female protagonists as if it is a tool for controlling contemporary women’s behaviour.
- It completely de-individuates and dis-empowers women. By this reading, women have no identity except in relation to their husbands.
- It completely removes female agency and even property ownership, something which – as we saw in earlier posts – was not even the case in the Persian culture in which the book of Esther was written.
- And because of all this bias, it completely over looks the role of the man in any given scenario.
The danger with such readings is they redistribute the power seized from women into the hands of shortsighted men that then use this same stolen power to oppress women.
I had to do something, however small to begin to start thinking about redressing the balance in some miniscule way. So, my reply was:
“behave in your house out of your love for God. Honour your husband in your house. But if Esther is waiting in the wings, it means there are much wider problems with your husband…”
Trace the apparent sources of the original tweet and you see that more than one US, multi-million dollar ministry has propagated such views – exporting them into the fertile ground of Christian fundamentalism (of several stripes) and others; Men of God so keen on such titles completely missing the point of all three words in their moniker.
The thing that bugs me the most about such interpretations is their laziness – they come most easily when verses are yanked out of context. I don’t mean the historical-grammatical context, I am not referring to their cultural context (although both would add helpful voices to any nascent interpretations), no I am simply referring to the narrative context. To simplistically cast Vashti as a negative example to avoid and Esther as a model to replicate is to overlook virtually everything that happens before Vashti’s refusal towards the end of Esther 1. And to read Esther without Vashti, is doing much the same thing.
That’s the hot take. Now for the slightly more considered version. Since I started re-reading Vashti within the book of Esther, I have been confronted with the divergence of views about her. Is she a symbol of pride and disobedience or was she brave and assertive in the face of misogyny and prejudice? There isn’t much in the way of middle ground.
When it comes to reading Vashti, we all bring something to the table. For my part, I probably latently assumed that her choice to deny her husband’s request – however unreasonable the request was – made her an example of disobedience that we can neatly contrast with Esther’s apparently model submission. Of course, it’s not that simple. I still see Esther as a real heroine too, but I think in the past I probably gave the men in this book of the bible too much credit and the women – particularly Vashti – not enough. When it comes to Vashti, I believe she has been both overlooked or misjudged. But more than this, Vashti’s denial is also crucial to Esther’s role and therefore the fate of Israel as well. If Vashti hadn’t stood up to the oppression in her life, Esther wouldn’t have been able to bring deliverance.
What would have happened to the Jews without her? Would Esther have been called for such a time as this? Who knows? I believe deliverance could have come through Vashti – she certainly demonstrated she could stand up to the King when necessary. Indeed, the text itself suggests deliverance could have come from another place (Esther 4:14). The Hebrew word for place here “Bayit”, which is feminine and means house (as in building) or house (as in family line) in a similar way to “oikos” (or house) in the New Testament (Luke 19:5).
What is clear is that the Vashti’s role in the book of Esther is not a simplistic “she should have submitted to her husband” story. So, here’s a summary of my re-reading of Vashti’s story:
- Vashti’s story is the context for Esther’s. Therefore, we must read Vashti in order to read Esther. Esther 1 is Vashti’s “such a time as this”.
- We meet Vashti a chapter before we meet Esther herself. Her name means “beautiful”, “best” or “beloved”.
- And yet her story is set in the midst of an ugly, hedonistic and male-centric environment. Her response to debauchery taking place at the men’s banquet? Offer a parallel banquet for the ladies – a place of sanctuary away from the men’s event.
- Drunk on power:
- While women often come in for the most criticism in the book of Esther, the men arguably deserve more. The men were often inebriated. Indeed, the way Ahasuerus is spelt would make it sound something like “King Headache” to its Hebrew and/or Aramaic-speaking audience.
- It needn’t have been this way, the banquet started with drinks freely flowing and “there was no compulsion”. But what started out as an example of generosity and freedom ended up in excess.
- Esther 1:10 may say that the king was “merry with wine”, but this euphemism for drunkenness also represents a wider lack of self-control. The names of the eunuchs and the actions of the king show he and his courtiers were drunk on power, patriarchy, pride as well as alcohol.
- Unjust requests
- The king’s request was unjust for a number of reasons: 1) the lack of choice 2) the asymmetrical power dynamic in which the instruction was given 3) the force – 7 men – used to make the “request” and 4) the request itself.
- “In order to show…her beauty” – Esther 1:11. The king wanted to objectify Vashti “in her crown” and, according to multiple scholars, nothing else.
- But Vashti didn’t need to show her body to show her beauty, that characteristic was already hidden in her name and seen in her actions.
- Indeed, revealing too much relating to your royalty was a failing of at least one Old Testament king (2 Kings 20:12-19).
- Anti-Vashti interpretations
- Vashti’s refusal is the climax of her story and sets up providence for Esther.
- But suggestions that Vashti was rightly punished for disobedience or was in some way prideful need to challenged with the context of the preceding verses.
- Rather than being criticised, Vashti’s strength of character should be upheld. Jamiesson, Fausset and Brown (JFB) commentary says: “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…”
- In contrast, the text (Esther 1:12) is explicit that the king’s subsequent treatment of Vashti is motivated by anger and comes in the context of him being drunk
- The consequences
- The king’s anger and insecurity spread to the magi. According to JFB, “Alarm for the consequences that might ensue to each of them in his own household next seized on their minds…”
- Memucan’s assessment? Vashti has wronged the: 1) officials 2) peoples and 3) provinces and 4) of King Ahasuerus. In other words, Vashti has stood up to them all and therefore the wider system.
- His fear-based conclusion? If the queen can deny the king, women may believe they can disobey their husbands. But the tacit message is one of superiority and domination.
- Regal pleasing is as bad as people pleasing. Thus what started as a bid to control one woman became an effort to restrain all women, before becoming a decree that men should lord it over their entire households as if other members had no agency (Esther 1:22)
- Both Vashti and Esther are strong women that we can learn from.
- And therefore we should honour BOTH Vashti and Esther.
Now, with all this in mind, we can begin to re-read Esther.