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.