You may know her as the cucumber with her hair in rollers who was summoned at 3:00AM to fix the king a sandwich. When she refuses, we see her get the boot with her suitcase not far behind.
You may know her from your flannel graph days in Sunday school as the queen who didn’t listen to the king so she got kicked out of the castle. Move her flannel figure outside the kingdom please.
You may condemn her as the epitome of an unsubmissive wife, the female representation of Persian of shame and whose removal were her just deserts.
You may applaud her courage for rising up, giving it all up and walking away with her dignity intact.
You may never have heard about her all. So, let’s start there.
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Who is Vashti?
She doesn’t utter one word in the book of Esther and is only mentioned in the first two chapters. It goes something like this:
She throws a banquet. (Esther 1:9)
She gets summoned by the king. (Esther 1:11)
She refuses to go. (Esther 1:12)
She is discussed and ridiculed with the king, by his council. (Esther 1:15-18)
She (and thus all the women of Persia) is judged, and a new decree is given. (Esther 1:19-20)
She is remembered by her former husband, King Xerxes. (Esther 2:1)
She is replaced. (Esther 2:17)
Do we scan through Esther 1 and 2 with detachment and apathy or do we see Vashti? Do we take a minute to stop and consider her world? Do we leave her in the shadows, or in our disgust of her unsubmissive behavior? Does she really matter to the story? Isn’t this book all about Esther?
We miss the whole point of the book of Esther if we see the king as the handsome hero who saves the orphan girl, Esther by choosing her to be the next queen of Persia. Vashti helps us see the real king, so we can see more clearly who Esther is and the courage it takes for her to go to the king with her requests. This, in turn, allows us to better understand who God is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What does Vashti do to get the boot?
What does Vashti do that got her dethroned and banished from the kingdom?
The first few verses of Esther let’s us know the backdrop of the story. King Xerxes invites his nobles, officials, military leaders, princes and nobles of surrounding provinces to a banquet that lasts 180 days. Yes, six months of displaying the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty. Look at me and all that I have and all that I am.
It doesn’t stop there. He then invited everyone, from the least in the kingdom to the greatest, to another feast that lasted seven more days. Nothing was spared. One could sit on a couch of gold or silver while drinking the finest wine from a golden goblet, as little or as much as you liked.
There were thought to be thousands in attendance over the course of those seven days.
Meanwhile, Queen Vashti is throwing a banquet for the women of the men who were at the king’s party but in a different part of the palace.
On the seventh day…seven days of drinking as much or as little as you would like…when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. (Esther 1:10-11 NIV)
Scholars have wrestled with the meaning of the king’s command. Some think he meant she simply come unveiled, which would have been scandal enough. Others think he requested she wear only her crown, which would have been a scandal on a whole other level. Remember he has been showing off all that is his…his kingdom, his glory, his majesty, his wealth and now his wife.
He got angry.
Scripture tells us the king became furious and burned with anger. (1:12)
Not at himself for having asked his wife to parade in front of a room full of drunken men on a seven-day bender but at her for having refused him.
He gathers a group of seven princes (not to be confused with the seven eunuchs) and asks their advice. These men were like his cabinet of advisors. What’s to be done? What’s the game plan? What are we supposed to do with this refusal? What if our own wives think they can do the same thing? Dude, you can’t let her get away with this…
One man, Memucan, replies, Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women and so they will despise their husbands and say ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
Therefore, if it pleases the king let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king her royal position to someone else who is better than she. Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest. (1:16-20)
And men say women overreact?
One resource I read said, “It’s worth noting that Vashti did not break any known law by refusing to be seen. When Xerxes asked his counselors, what should be done to her according to the law, they had to create a new document, a new decree.
In fact, it may well be that if Vashti had presented herself at the royal kegger, she might have broken a law. Plutarch, in his Advice to the Bride and Groom, wrote this: ‘When Persian kings dine, their legal wives sit beside them and share the feast. But if the men want to amuse themselves or get drunk, they send their wives away, and summon the singing-girls and the concubines.
Vashti was dethroned because she refused to be seen but it was Xerxes who refused to see her as a person of real value instead of simply an extension of his property or something to show off to the guys.
When he sobered up and realized what went down, he remembered Vashti and felt her absence, thus the need for a replacement…enter Esther and the rest of her story.
What can we learn from this account?
Vashti and Esther lived in the same patriarchal system. Royal status didn’t immune either of them from the constant threat of removal or death. Vashti was defiant but then again so was Esther in a more subtle way.
If Vashti could defy the king to protect her own dignity, how much more would Esther be inspired to have the courage to save her own people. Vashti set the precedent. Esther improved on it.
Vashti’s presence in this book is small but vital to the story; with her, we see the impossible odds Esther will face as the next queen because we have seen the impulsive and bad behavior of the king. By the time Esther is crowned, complete wifely compliance has been the law of the land for four years.
God’s sovereignty is at work. Xerxes has billed himself a god, but he will bow to the will of the One true God.
In our sex-saturated culture, knowing that God honors a woman’s character is indeed freeing. It is never God’s design that a wife submit to her husband’s evil desires. What Xerxes asked Vashti to do was not submission but abuse.
It wasn’t Vashti who was nasty but the king. Instead of wondering why she didn’t just listen (submit) to the king’s order, maybe we should question how the king could demand such a thing of his wife, the woman he is to love and honor. Maybe we should call it what it was…abuse of power. That’s not of God.
No matter how forcefully the leaders of Persian tried to reduce a woman to body parts and brainless obedience, God never fails to value her for her courage and character. Just as Esther, an orphan turned beauty queen, is seen by God as a key instrument for his deliverance and a powerful ally for his people. Vashti is remembered in the first two chapters of the book of Esther, not for her looks, though she was beautiful, but for her courage to stand up for her honor and dignity and say Enough!
It’s the same today. It takes Vashti sized courage to stand up to powerhouses and speak out against abuse, to walk away from the kingdom but have your dignity and honor. It takes Vashti sized bravado to recognize abuse disguised as submission and call it out.
God sees women as valuable assets to move his kingdom forward. So should every male…husband, leader, pastor and friend.
He sees you. He sees me. He sees us.
Let’s be Vashti’s together.
Other Forgotten Females of the Bible: