Over the years I have read the story of Esther many times. I’ve even seen the Veggie Tales movie version. It’s a powerful story about a courageous woman, and who can forget her defiant words in the face of her darkest hour: “If I perish, I perish.” What an awesome woman of God!
Yet despite my familiarity with the story, I’m beginning to wonder if I have been misreading it. I wonder if there is a piece of the story that I completely misunderstood until now:
The story of Vashti.
Esther 1 establishes the background for Esther’s story by telling us about King Xerxes and his queen, Vashti. The two lived a truly extravagant life, and in chapter 1 we are told of a seven day celebration of the king’s wealth and power. In honor of, well, himself, Xerxes pulled out all the stops, no expense was spared, and Vashti held a similarly luxurious banquet for the women in the palace.
After days of partying and consuming much wine, Xerxes invited his wife to join him “in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.” However Vashti refused his request, a decision that resulted in severe consequences.
Xerxes became enraged by Vashti’s rejection, and upon the advice of his counselors he banished her from the palace forever. Then, in order to assert his authority and prevent other wives from similarly subverting their husbands, he sent an edict to every corner of the kingdom describing Vashti’s fate and emphasizing the importance of all husbands ruling over their own households. In short, he made an example out of her.
Chapter 2: Enter Esther.
I’ll admit that every time I read about Vashti I interpreted her story in exactly one way: She was a foil to Esther, an example of foolishness contrasted with Esther’s wisdom. I therefore interpreted Vashti’s story as a lesson about the dangerous consequences of pride. Rather than grant her husband’s simple request, Vashti had arrogantly put him off, and so suffered the repercussions of her decision. Her actions seemed silly and unnecessary, so I had little sympathy for her plight.
In retrospect, I am shocked at myself for reading Vashti that way. After all, how could her decision possibly deserve such a harsh punishment? Unfortunately it wasn’t until this week that I reconsidered my interpretation.
This weekend Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil taught on Esther at my church. Her message was primarily concerned with Esther, but at one point she paused to contemplate Vashti’s actions and how we might interpret them.
Dr. Salter McNeil noted that Vashti has been judged rather harshly throughout history, but she had a very different take on the story. She highlighted the fact that Xerxes had been drinking for seven days before summoning his wife. The scene that awaited Vashti was therefore unlikely to be a respectful one. Vashti faced a room full of drunken male revelers who probably desired more than simply “admiring” her beauty. She might have faced objectification, sexualization, and degradation, all at the hands of her husband, the man who should have spared her such indignity.
Dr. Salter McNeil also speculated that Vashti knew the consequences of a refusal. Xerxes was, after all, her husband. She was likely familiar with his temper, as well as the conniving ways of his counselors. Unless she herself had been imbibing enough alcohol so as to forget these harsh realities, she made her decision knowing the consequences full well.
So as Dr. Salter McNeil interpreted the story, Vashti might have been a woman of great virtue and strength. Faced with the decision between lewd objectification and banishment, she stood by her integrity. And she faced the wrath brought on by her decision.
Of course, there is too little information in this story to know decisively either way. Was Vashti a foolish woman, or a virtuous one? Although we cannot know the answer with certainty, it strikes me how quickly I assumed the former. Especially since Xerxes’ harshness betrayed his own hubris. This was a man whose ego was so fragile that he responded excessively to defend his reputation. His reaction was not equal to the offense, not even remotely. And yet Vashti is often portrayed as the arrogant one.
But what if Vashti wasn’t arrogant at all? What if this introductory story is about a woman of great character who desired only to honor herself in a way fitting for all human beings made in the image of God? What if this is the story of a woman who stood firm before the culture of female objectification and refused to be reduced to a sexual thing? What if she took this stand, knowing she would be punished for it? What if this story is about more than explaining how Esther became queen, but why Esther’s courage was so remarkable? What if Vashti’s story depicts the kind of situation awaiting Esther, one in which women are merely objects to be looked at and admired, not respected and heard?
What if the story of Esther is about TWO strong and courageous women?
Perhaps the story of Esther is about much more than I ever imagined. Perhaps it is the story of two different women who sacrificed their security for a greater cause: One stood up for the Jewish people, and the other stood up for the integrity of women.
The two women in the book of Esther met with very different fates, a detail that makes the story all the more powerful. When we stand up for what is right, when we courageously defend God and His ways, we are not always guaranteed a happy ending like Esther’s. Sometimes our reward is not to be had until Heaven. But rejection by the culture is not the same as rejection by God. Although we might suffer the consequences of resisting a culture that similarly rejects God and degrades women, God might use our faithfulness to pave a way forward. Perhaps that is exactly what Vashti did for Esther.
Wonderful insights. Thank you.
Love this thoughtful take on Vashti. I hope this new way to understand her story is correct, but love it either way. Thank you!
That’s so interesting–I’ve ALWAYS heard Vashti described more like Dr. Salter McNeil explained–that she was taking a stance against being sexualized in front of a bunch of drunk men. I wasn’t even aware that anyone thought or taught otherwise, until I heard of a vastly different interpretation of Esther put forth in a popular marriage book recently. (My reaction: HUH??!?) Vashti’s story shows how differently things could have turned out for Esther, sets the stakes, as it were.
This quote is so true and hard to live out to the fullest: “But rejection by the culture is not the same as rejection by God”
I feel like I’m living this now. It’s so good for my hard. Helping me grow God roots and not roots in this world. So thankful, yet my selfishly it hurts.
Boy oh boy look at all those typos! Sorry!
I feel like I’m living this now. It’s so good for my HEART (hard). Helping me grow God roots and not roots in this world. So thankful, yet (delete word:my) selfishly it hurts.
Wow – thought provoking. Thanks
I’m with JRA, this is the only way I’ve ever heard Vashti described. One way he did that is by showing Esther that queens should stick with their values and principles when they conflict with those of the king. I’m not sure that’s actually what Esther ended up facing, though.
Instead, I think we see a big change in the king in this regard. He had already ruined his relationship with one queen who showed great character and wisdom. When Esther bravely aproached him, not knowing what her fate would be, I wonder if he was thinking, “I’m not going to lose another wonderful woman as my queen. I will extend my scepter and give her my attention.” He was interested in finding out what she valued, and then he honored those values with his final decrees.
Oops, left out the second sentence, which should read, “This is a good example of how God prepares the way to carry out his will.”
Tim and Jenny, I don’t know how I was so blind! I wish I had read Vashti with a more compassionate and insightful spirit, like you. This just goes to show the importance of examining our assumptions–either our negative and positive assumptions about characters in the Bible, or our assumptions that Scriptural truths are obvious to everyone. I am grateful for Dr. Salter McNeil for opening my eyes to this alternative reading!
Honestly, the Veggietales version helped me to see this. If you’ll remember, Vashti refused to make the king a sandwich. Where I come from, “Woman, go make me a sandwich” is code for “Get in your place.” For some reason, it sparked the idea in my head especially after learning about what the cultural expectations would have been for the young women in the running for queen.
As always, thought provoking.
This might seem a bit off topic, but certainly worth mentioning.
Esther is used as the symbol for the ultimate submissive/virtuous wife, and Vashti is usually used to symbolize the disrespectful wife. However, there is another very relevant example for wives in the Book of Esther who usually gets omitted: Zeresh – Haman’s wife. Zeresh definitely believes in supporting her husband’s every whim, even when it’s self destructive and dangerous. When Haman tells her about his hatred for Mordecai, she joined right in with Haman’s friends and suggested that he has some gallows built and ask the king to hang Mordecai. She didn’t pray for Haman that God would give him proper direction or change his mind. She didn’t have any WISE words for her husband. She just joined his band wagon. After the king promoted Mordecai, Haman told Zaresh about it, and she tried to clean up her advice to him, but it was already too late. Haman was killed on the same gallows Zaresh encouraged him to prepare for Mordecai. His sons were killed too. Although, Zeresh SUPPORTED her husband’s whims and leadership, she failed to be the EZER – helper God designed her to be. Not only did she fail to be a helper to husband, but she failed to be a helper in her community to Haman’s sons. Zeresh was a foolish wife. Zeresh’s example is very powerful. She teaches wives what not to do. However, most commentaries about the Book of Esther tend to omit her example and it’s implications because it contradicts popular teachings that suggest that a “virtuous” wife must always go along with and encourage what the husband wants or thinks is best.
Love your thoughts, KM!
“Love your thoughts, KM!”
Sorry for all my comments Sharon, but I really wanted to comment on this one. I didn’t become a Christian until I was an adult, so I didn’t grow up with the Esther story or loads of sermons and insight about it. So the few times I’ve read it or heard it, I too had respect for Vashti. I saw her as sticking to her morals despite the consequences.
To this point, I especially appreciated the your statement: “When we stand up for what is right, when we courageously defend God and His ways, we are not always guaranteed a happy ending like Esther’s. Sometimes our reward is not to be had until Heaven.” I think this is SO important when considering our faith and our commitment to Christ.
As an example, a very close friend of mine who was once the strongest Christian woman I knew began to stray from her faith, sleeping with multiple men and engaging in a relationship with another man while still married to (but separated from) her husband. Her justification was, “I’ve played by the rules my entire life, and now, I think God just wants me to be happy.”
Her statement made my heart break. Because it’s such a twisted view of God’s love for us. Of COURSE He wants us to be happy. But not at His expense. Not at the abandonment of Him and our faith and beliefs and morals. As you said, “we are not always guaranteed a happy ending.”
The real test of our faith is if we can remain true and faithful and strong in the midst of the storm. Can we be joyful like Paul in prison? Can we be at peace with God, even if we are not happy with our circumstances?