The above image is a 19th-century map of Jamaica superimposed onto google maps. The dots are slave-holding estates. One was owned by Abraham Anthony who kept between four and 16 slaves on his unnamed estate in St Catherines, Jamaica. Someone who shared my surname, and is therefore a very distant relative, profited from racism. Any latent hopes that I could separate myself from the wrongs of our colonial past evaporated with that fact. But to what extent can any British people avoid responsibility for such crimes?
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.
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.
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.
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:
Having discussed the general context of the book of Esther and Vashti’s importance in it as well as some of the background to Vashti’s introduction, let’s take a closer look at the verse preceding her denial of the king’s request:
On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus.
Esther 1:10 (ESV)
Of course, “merry with wine” is a euphemism for being inebriated to some extent. However, the king’s blood-alcohol level aside, the context of the passage (not to mention the rest of the book) makes it clear that the king was drunk on power, patriarchy, pride as well as alcohol.
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”.
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. We much read Vasti to read Esther.
More than 18 months ago, a friend asked what the deal is with Esther chapter 1. It is such a good question. So, having spent more than a year re-reading Esther, Vashti, the book of Esther and issues around these themes, I now feel ready to begin to address the question and share what I believe is going on in Esther 1. However, reading scripture is best done in community and hearing God works best in the community too, so please share your views below.