Monday, March 5, 2012

Vashti: Heroine of Villainess? (Esther 1)

Who was queen before Esther? Vashti

The first female character named in the book of Esther is not its name sake but rather her royal predecessor, Vashti (Esther 1:9). In fact, the book begins with the end of Vashti. Though it spans only a chapter in the narrative, four years lapse between the fall of Vashti (Esther 1:3) and the rise of Esther (Esther 2:16).

At the story’s outset, Persia’s reigning couple is Ahasuerus, long associated with Xerxes (though contemporary scholars debate that point), and Vashti. Unfortunately, the historical record has evidence of neither Vashti nor Esther. In regards to wives of Xerxes, Herodotus speaks only of Amestris (Herodotus 7.61). Wesley J. Fuerst (1930-2007) summarizes, “Herodotus, the Greek traveller and historian, says that the name of Xerxes’ queen was Amestris. Whether there was such a Vashti, or for that matter an Esther, cannot be proved from extra-biblical sources (Fuerst, The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the Old Testament), 46).”

Karen H. Jobes (b. 1952) reasons:

Some have claimed the name Vashti sounds similar to the Old Persian for beautiful woman. If so, the name simply may be a literary device used to characterize the woman otherwise known to history as Amestris...Perhaps Herodotus mentions only Amestris, whether or not she was Vashti, because he was interested only in the royal wives who bore the successors to the throne. (Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary), 66-67)
The story commences with a glimpse into ancient Persian revelry, going to great lengths to detail the extravagance. Within the book’s first nine verses, the royal family hosts three lavish parties (Esther 1:4-9)! The first bash persists for 180 days (Esther 1:4) and when this half year of partying concludes, Ahasuerus is not ready to halt the festivities so he holds a seven-day banquet for the men of the royal citadel, Susa (Esther 1:5). Meanwhile Vashti hosts a feast for the women (Esther 1:9). Those who connect Ahasuerus to Xerxes have deduced that the parties are fundraisers for a military campaign against the Greeks that ultimately failed at Hellespont.

Mark Mangano (b. 1958) writes:

The king’s power, wealth, majesty, and generosity are highlighted by the description of the banquets held in Susa, where the king is gathering support for his campaign against Greece. The original readers would have known that Xerxes returned from Greece four years later after a defeat that depleted his royal wealth. (Mangano, Esther & Daniel (College Press NIV Commentary), 43)
After displaying his many royal possessions, on the final day of his final party, Ahasuerus decides it is time to flaunt his most lovely prize and summons queen Vashti to parade her beauty before his guests (Esther 1:11).
On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful. (Esther 1:10-11 NASB)
All expectations point to Vashti following orders as everyone else in the story has done so, taking part in the drunken revelry at the king’s whim. Thus far, Vashti has acted only once in the text, to host a royal party (Esther 1:9). Her second act is far more eventful. Apparently the palace is not exempt from marital strife as Vashti does the unthinkable: she flatly refuses the king (Esther 1:12)! In choosing dignity over royalty, Vashti violates a litany of cultural expectations she is supposed to fulfill.

Most assume that given the heavy drinking involved (Esther 1:7-8, 10) and the queen’s refusal (Esther 1:12), the king’s request entailed denigrating Vashti. Joseph Telushkin (b. 1948) concludes, “The text does not state whether the king intends to display Vashti in the nude, but its emphasis on Ahasuerus’s drunkenness when he summons Vashti suggests that his intentions might well be less than honorable (Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible).”

Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) speculates:

It is unclear but certainly intimated that the king orders Vashti to come wearing perhaps only the crown and nothing else. The Targum assumes such an interpretation and attributes it to Vashti’s moral breakdown. According to the Targum, “The king ordered seven courtiers to bring Vashti the Queen naked. This was [punishment] for her having made Jewish girls work naked cording wool and flax on the Sabbath. Because of this, it was decreed against her to be brought naked, dressed only in her royal crown on her head.” (Olitzy, Esther: A Modern Commentary, 10)
Vashti is a dangerous figure to those who wish to maintain order. Ahasuerus’ advisors conclude that the queen has not only wronged the king, but the princes and people as well (Esther 1:16). In response, the guardians of the status quo revoke her royal title (Esther 1:19).

Jon D. Levenson (b. 1949) summarizes:

The result is a further escalation of the crisis, for the domestic difficulties of the royal couple become the occasion for an imperial edict deposing Vashti and ordering every man to be master of his household, a task at which the king who issues the edict has proven a conspicuous failure (Esther 1:16-22). (Levenson, Esther: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 2)
Vashti’s stand has dramatic consequences for the queen as she is expelled from the kingdom (Esther 1:13-22).

The rationale behind Vashti’s refusal is not stated. Interpretations range from Vashti being a dignified and virtuous queen to a rebellious woman who refuses to obey her husband. As evidenced by the Targum, traditionally, the spirit of patriarchy has strongly influenced the interpretation with the queen often playing the villain. There is simply not enough information to decide with any certainty. What is undeniable is that Vashti’s choice represents a revolutionary and defiant act.

Carol M. Bechtel (b. 1959) writes:

In one bold stroke, Vashti single-handedly exposes the mighty Ahasuerus for the weak, ineffectual man that he is (at least by ancient standards). He may command the entire army of Persia and Media and rule over “one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1), but he cannot control his own wife. (Bechtel, Esther (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 8)
The natural comparison between Vashti and Esther has long been discussed. Catherine Clark Kroeger (1925-2011) writes:
The book of Esther has been interpreted as a classic stereotyping of how women shoulder their way to power. Straightforward women like Vashti lose their position, while Esther gets her way through recourse to feminine charm and cunning artifice. (Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, 268)
What cultural expectations do modern women face? When have you seen dire consequences for a respectable choice? Do you think the loss of her crown made Vashti regret her decision? Why did Vashti refuse her husband’s request? What would have happened had Vashti consented to the king’s demands?

From a narrative perspective, if Vashti consents, neither she nor Esther would have been remembered. The cost to her might have been greater than even her legacy and her crown. Carol Lakey Hess (b. 1957) holds that complying would have cost Vashti her very identity.

The loss of self for women is a quiet thing. Had Queen Vashti disregarded her own feelings and submitted to the will of King Ahasuerus, the resulting loss of herself would have occurred ever so quietly. No one would have noticed…obedience to husband, social convention, and other authorities is often thought more important than woman’s obedience to her inner call to integrity. (Hess, Caretakers of Our Common House: Women’s Development in Communities of Faith,14)
Not surprisingly, feminists have long been taken with the defiant queen. Carol M. Bechtel (b. 1959) notes:
The character of Vashti has long fascinated feminists and frightened misogynists. Although she makes only a brief appearance in the first chapter, it is long enough to be instructive. She may be queen, but she is still a woman in the midst of a patriarchal culture, and thus has limited control over her situation...It is hard not to admire her courage, even while one recognizes that it costs her dearly. (Bechtel, Esther (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 11)
Early feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) viewed Vashti as an exemplary woman:
Vashti is conspicuous as the first woman recorded whose self-respect and courage enabled her to act contrary to the will of her husband. She was the first “woman who dared”...Except Deborah as judge, no example had been given of a woman who formed her own judgment and acted upon it. There had been no exhibition of a self-respecting womanhood which might stand for a higher type of social life than was customary among men. (Stanton, The Woman's Bible, Part I & II, 255)
Athalya Brenner (b. 1943) reminds:
A number of modern feminist writers have, in fact, found their heroine in Vashti, their empathy with her, while regarding Esther as a weak collaborator with tyranny, an antifeminist...For the writer of Esther, however, Vashti’s foolishness is the foil for Esther’s wisdom, her dismissal justified and, indeed, from a narrative point of view, the sparks that commences the story. (Brenner, A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna, 33-34)
Esther is not an overtly religious book. As God is not mentioned by name in the course of the narrative, one of the challenges for the reader is placing God in the story.

Is God with Vashti? How is the reader intended to view the fallen queen? Does the writer intend for Esther to be compared to her predecessor? Does Esther represent the upgrade that Ahasuerus had hoped for (Esther 1:19)?

“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves -- there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.” - Joan Didion (b. 1934), Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p. 148

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