So we’re continuing our little series about how the Book of Esther and the women in it offer a far different view of womanhood than we are used to seeing in the Bible. Today, I want to talk a litle about Queen Vashti who was queen before Esther. The basic story of Vashti is that the king wanted to show her off and the text tells us that it was “to show the people and the princes her beauty” (Esther 1:11). Vashti refused and the king, who was very angry at having his authority challenged so publicly, kicked her out making way for Esther to eventually become queen. We’re going to look at a few of the particulars of this story, especially as they relate to the later Christian tradition found in some of Saint Paul’s letters.
Determining a Woman’s Place
Part of the story of Vashti and arguably the rest of the book of Esther has to do with what exactly a woman’s place is. Right at the beginning of the book, Vashti transgresses against what one would typically think is a woman’s place in a patriarchal society (if, indeed, ancient Biblical society was as patriarchal as we suppose). We’re pretty used to the idea that a woman is in many ways submissive to her husband. But Vashti does not do that. Instead, she stands up to her husband.
Why did she do that? What was her reason? As I said before, the king wanted to show her off, to make a display of her, to basically use her as Exhibit A in an “I have a hot wife” contest. Instead of being treated like a human being, she was being treated like an object of power and station. This can be seen in the form the request of her presence takes, which includes that she come “with the crown royal.” By displaying Vashti not only as an object but in the trappings of royalty, the king was using her to show off his own grandeur and power. Basically, she was being treated like the monarchical equivalent of “arm-candy” and that was why she did not do what she was told.
Part of the problem with this was that she flouted the king’s command so very publicly. The text tells us that “Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes and to all the people,” many of whom were gathered with the king. There are two extremely important points I want to make about this statement.
- Vashti was a woman who stood up to the king when he wanted to objectify her. To allow her to get away with this would have signaled to the people that there was an area into which the king’s power did not extend. Specifically, that area was a woman’s bodily autonomy and her right not to be treated like an object. Speaking in terms of power, this was not okay.
- The other thing I want to really emphasize is who was offended by Vashti’s actions. It was not only the king, her husband, who was offended, but the entirety of society as well. Vashti, in that respect, was not answerable only to the king, but to society as well. From this perspective, her bodily autonomy was violated not just by her husband, but by society in general.
Taking these two points in order, what exactly was Vashti’s place as a woman? She was to be subject not only to her husband, but to society as well, even when they were acting disrespectfully and treating her like an object, not a human being. When she refused to let this go on, she was ostracized. This is a theme we see repeated in our day and age with women all over the world and in all situations. Women are still a marginalized group in the world.
Action and Reaction
What was the reaction to Vashti’s self defense? In the story, we see not only the fears of men, but what they do to consolidate their power over women. We are told in the text that the king made sure that such an incident would never happen again.
“[H]e sent letters into all the king’s provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.” (Esther 1:22)
The king did this because his advisors warned him that if news of what Vashti had done got out, then women will “despise their husbands in their eyes.” That was the motivation for the king to shore up patriarchal power in his kingdom. The fear of women standing up to men was enough to make them legislate female submission.
This is an important point in this discussion of Vashti, her place in society, and patriarchal as a whole. In some ways, the story of Vashti as found in Esther can be read as a statement on the origins of patriarchy. What the story really brings it down to is fear. Men were afraid of women standing up to them. Some have argued that this fear is the true basis for systems of patriarchy in our world today and this story would seem to back it up.
I would argue slightly differently. The fear is real, yes, but I think it stems more from a fear of losing power. This story is a classic example of a ruling class being afraid to lose power and doing what they can to prevent that. No matter what the interpretation on patriarchy, however, one fact is certain: Vashti is not represented as a villain in this story. Instead, she is treated with a certain amount of respect and the king is shown to be a character of less respectiveness.
In many ways, Christian patriarchal tradition is more in line with the misogyny of the king than with the bravery of Vashti. There are some passages in Paul’s letters that mirror the decree of the king.
“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the lord.” (Colossians 3:18)
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-33)
This is very reminiscent of the king’s decree, which said “all wives shall give their husbands honor.” I know there are arguments about how misogynistic these verses really are, but I want to make the point that the effect of passages like these have not been very good. Instead of having all the good things about a husband emulating Christ, too often they are used to justify terrible uses of women as objects, either for sexual desire or work or otherwise. Women are made into property by these verses of “submission.” From that perspective, Christian tradition is far more aligned with the not-so-great king of Esther than with the all-good Savior of humanity.
Should it be that way? Of course, it should not. More importantly, however, it needs to be remembered that our readings of Scripture can back up these bad effects. By not being critical, we allow all sorts of abuses to slip through. It is not just the patriarchy that needs dismantling, but the system put in place to keep the negative effects of patriarchy working against an entire section of society.