But Queen Vashti Refused
Tonight starts the Jewish holiday called Purim. In posts I’ve written in years gone by, I used this opportunity to praise the bravery of Queen Esther. I admired her ability to manipulate her husband, the king, to save her people — the Jews of Persia. I lauded her as a role model worthy of emulating.
As a ripple effect of the #MeToo movement, it should come as no surprise that I and many woman (and feminists) are re-examining age-old and modern-day stories about male-female relationships. And so, this year, my thoughts are not at all about Esther and what happened to her in Persia. Instead I am transfixed on the story of Queen Vashti — her predecessor.
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“In the days of [King] Ahasuerus…he made a feast…he displayed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty….On the seventh day [of the festivities], when the heart of the King was merry with wine, he ordered…Queen Vashti [to be brought before him] wearing the royal crown, to show off to the people and the officials her beauty…But Queen Vashti refused to come at the King’s commandment…” (Book of Esther 1:1-12).
The King was furious by Vashti’s public defiance of him. He sought counsel from sages and advisors (all male!) on how best to punish her within the law. The consensus, in an attempt to ensure that no other wife would ever be inclined to disobey her husband, was to banish (kill?!?!) Vashti. An official decree was set forth declaring that “every man should rule his own home” (Book of Esther 1:22).
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Here’s my interpretation. There was an opulent, self-indulgent party that went on for days. The men (all princes, nobles, soldiers, dignitaries, advisors, and other guests) were drunk. The queen was beautiful. The king wanted to show her off (nude, wearing only her crown according to rabbinic interpretations); just as he flaunted his other possessions. He summoned her. But Vashti was smart. She could smell the danger. She knew what could happen to her — or to any woman — in that kind of setting. And so, she refused to go. In effect, Vashti said “no.”
I grew up believing that Queen Vashti was mean, evil, selfish, and spiteful. I thought it was rude of her to ignore her husband’s request to appear at his party. But now I see things differently.
More than twenty-two hundred years ago through today, men of money and power controlled, manipulated, and threatened women. If women dared to say “no,” their careers and lives could be ruined. And so, like Esther, women learned to get what they wanted — what they needed — by turning a blind eye, putting up with the abuse, or running away.
I will not fault Esther for doing what she had to do — in accordance with the times — to save the Jewish people. However, I will praise and thank Vashti for “calling foul” long before others were brave enough to do so.