Smashing Patriarchy: Vashti

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

patriarchy, feminism, gender rolesPart 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

patriarchy, feminism, gender roles
If you think this is inappropriate, just remember that it is freely available at your grocery store. Sexual objectification of women is everywhere.

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.

Continuing Tradition

patriarchy, feminism, gender roles
I always thought this was stupid because Christ is enough umbrella for everyone.

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.

Smashing Patriarchy: Esther

Yesterday, I talked briefly about Queen Esther of the Bible and how examples like hers smash our perceptions of women in the Bible and the patriarchy it is often said to contain. In so many ways, Esther directly challenges the patriarchy, not as it existed in the Bible (which may be different than we think), but as it exists today.

patriarchy, gender roles

A Woman to Teach

The biggest thing I noticed in my class and in actually reading the entire book of Esther, was how it conflicted so strongly with the patriarchal tradition in the Church. Rather famously, Saint Paul proclaimed that, “I suffer not a woman to teach.” This is from the Book of Timothy and the whole passage goes like this:

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

For many Christian denominations, this has been a justification for a priesthood that is only open to men. In my own denomination, the traditional Anglican in the United States, the issue of female priests is verboten. There will never be a consideration that women could be allowed into the ministry. They have a stance very similar to that of the Roman Catholic church.

It is important to note, however, that in many ways this patriarchal tradition of only having men in positions of authority has had a reach beyond just the priesthood. To a great extent, this has served to erase the role of women in creation of church tradition. For instance, the role of women in maintaining and managing the house churches that were the initial gathering points for Christian services has been largely erased from commonly received Christian history. Elizabeth Clark, the John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion at Duke University, had this to say about the subject:

“What seems to happen within the first few centuries is that whatever limited activities women might have had in the beginning begin to get curtailed as you have the development of a hierarchy of clergy members with bishops, presbyters and deacons, and it’s pretty firmly established that women should not be either bishops or priests. Many church fathers write about this. So that women tend to get excluded from those functions, [though] they do have some roles, [such] as joining a group called the widows or deaconesses in the fourth century.”

This evaluation indicates that the erasure of women’s roles and the authority they held in the early church was erased in accordance with the rise of patriarchal institutions over the church’s history. This certainly seems to be true in our own time.

Erasing Esther

Biblically speaking, the role of women seems to have experienced a similar erasure. Other than being a fun story to tell children, Esther does not get much attention. It is not a commonly taught book of the Bible and it is easy to understand why. Esther has a pivotal role in the spiritual life of the Jews by instituting the holy day of Purim and it is one that some may well want to forget.

The book of Esther says it happened this way:

“Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote with all authority, to confirm this second letter of Purim. And he sent the letters unto all the Jews, to the hundred twenty and seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, with words of peace and truth, To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, the matters of the fastings and their cry. And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book.” (Esther 9:29-32)

What we see here is two things: First, a woman is giving a religious order to establish a festival. This is not what we think of when we think about holy days. For instance, in our times, the Pope is the one who decress most of the holy days of the church. With the canonization of John Paul 2, a new commemoration was created. We’re used to that idea because the vast majority of our clergy are men, but the example of Esther provides a different perspective. Here, we have an example not only of a woman involved in religious matters, but of her authority in them.

That authority is the second important thing we see in this passage. Mordecai and Esther may have written the letter together, but it is Esther’s authority that “confirmed” the feast of Purim. Her authority is what gets it “written in the book.” A woman being in a place of religious authority is so counter to what we think of that it often gets overlooked. But Esther provides a powerful example of a woman’s power that Jews still honor today.

Biblical Argument

In trying to determine what to do, Christians turn to Scripture in order to figure out what is right. Biblical arguments against the female priesthood abound and in many denominations are still the accepted wisdom. But what do we do when there is a conflicting argument from the Bible? Esther is one of those conflicting arguments and it is a powerful example of what happens to them. They get erased, ignored, and forgotten.

The real question is why? I have my own theories. What can be seen beyond any personal theories, though, is that forgetting what is hard to accept has kept power all on one side – a side that largely does not include women. By forgetting Esther, we have forgotten all women. And I believe that it has been intentional. Esther should really make us examine how we use the Bible to support our arguments. We cannot cherrypick the truth.

So what do we make of Esther and its conflict with Saint Paul? That is a matter of interpretation that is beyond this post. But at the very least, it shows that there is a lot of room for argument.

Link to the Book of Esther
Link to article by Elizabeth Clark

patriarchy, religion, gender roles, feminism

Biblical Women Smash the Patriarchy

patriarchy, gender roles
I gave up both of these when I became a vegetarian.

I’m taking a class on the Bible via Coursera from Emory University. Needless to say, it is my “fun” class out of the four or five I have going right now. This week in class we talked about how the Old Testament (the primary topic of this course) redefines what it means to be a hero. Part of that discussion revolved around women, who have a  big part to play in the Old Testament – a bigger part than most people are usually told about. Gender roles and how the sexes relate was a central part of this week’s lessons and that’s what I want to talk about this week.

Esther Was a BAMF

I was especially intrigued by the class discussion of the book of Esther. Now, I have always had a love for the female heroines of the Bible. I love the story of Ruth, the examples of Mary and Martha, and portrayal of Wisdom as a woman in Proverbs. But while I knew the book of Esther and was familiar with the story, I had never given it much thought beyond just being a “nice story.” Until last week, I had also never read the entire book.

That was one point that was made in the class lectures: people tend to infer what they believe onto the Bible without having read it or without having read enough of it. If you’ll remember, I kind of talked about the need to read the Bible critically, particularly with our own lives in mind. Asking the question, “How does this apply to my life?” can radically change how we relate with the text. This is a different side of that coin. The point is still to read the Bible critically, but this time to ask a broader question of it: What could this be saying? Not only does it require thoughtfulness, but it requires an openness to consider all the possible interpretations. Openness requires investigation.

Let me give you an example of why this is important from Esther. Esther was seriously a BAMF. If you don’t know what that means, I leave you to the waiting arms of the Googlemachine. Basically, she was incredibly brave and powerful and a true example for women everywhere. The basic story that I hope most people know is evidence of just how heroic she really was. The king, her husband, had decreed that all the Jews would be killed. Esther had to reveal that she herself was a Jew, thereby revealing a secret and putting her own life in danger, in order to save her people. Yes, she was afraid, but she did it anyway and saved countless lives.

patriarchy, gender roles
Beautiful mosaic of the banquet Esther throws for the king

And so much more than that

A little investigation, however, reveals that Esther’s role as a woman was different from what most people would expect. Her influence on the world went beyond saving lives. That is enough to make her a heroine, but the rest of her story changes our perception of women in a radical way.

To fully understand how Esther does this, you have to understand a few common facts about patriarchal societies. In ancient patriarchal societies and some recent ones, women are effectively second class citizens. That isn’t to say that they are worthless or persecuted, but there are definitely certain actions and rights that are denied to them by patriarchy. For instance, there are some common patriarchal rules for women:

  1. A woman’s place is in the home. She has little to do outside of the domestic sphere.
  2. Women cannot own or inherit property. This was a rule of law and society for millenia, right up until the modern era, so it’s not too far removed from our own times.
  3. Women are also expected to submit to men in most things. Christianity has this tradition between husbands and wives and in broader contexts, a fact which will become relevant later in the week. For patriarchal society as a whole, the fact that women were second class citizens meant that they had to submit to men, who had all the power.
  4. Finally, women typically do not have power. Power can take many forms, but for this discussion, let’s just say political power is the most important type of power. A modern example of how women are not allowed such power could be the fight for voting rights (suffrage) or the glass ceiling that we still see in America today (no woman has been president yet).

By herself, Esther breaks all of these conventions of patriarchal society and absolutely blows our conceptions of Biblical womanhood out of the water. In the book of Esther, we see her entering the public sphere to speak with the king and save her people (Esther 4:11). The king also gives her the property of Haman, the villain of the story, and acknowledges her ownership of it (8:7). Esther also did very little submitting to men in the story. Mordecai, a relation of Esther’s, asks her to save the Jews, but she argues with them, uncharacteristic of women under patriarchy. Moreover, when she finally agrees to do what she can, she gives commands to Mordecai and is obeyed (4:17). Not only does this show her lack of submission, but it is just one example of the power she wielded.

I will have more to say about Esther’s power later, but for now these short examples show just how much Esther changes how we understand women in the Bible. She is nothing like what we would expect a Biblical woman to be in a strictly patriarchal society.

Two Outcomes

patriarchy, gender rolesNow, I have simplified the discussion in this post. I will go into more detail in the coming days, but for now, the example of Esther makes me ask two very important questions:

  • Why have we been reading the roles of women in the Bible so wrongly?

Esther is just one example of how Biblical womanhood opposes our preconceptions and I will of course discuss others later in the week. But it seems so opposite to what we think we understand that I have to wonder why we do it. Why do we automatically relegate Biblical women to second class status? The Bible in many places does not do this. There is always a counterexample for everything in the Bible, reflecting the complexity and variety of life. But we tend to ignore that fact when it comes to women. For me personally, it is hard not to see a patriarchal agenda appropriating the text for its own devices. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that idea.

The second question is this:

  • Have we been reading patriarchy in the Bible wrongly?

I am not going to deny the existence of patriarchy in the Bible, but I will just ask whether it was really what we think it was? If Esther was not an exceptional example of womanhood, then perhaps the patriarchal society we infer to the Bible was not really what we think. It is possible that the patriarchy we are used to today used the Bible to reinforce its power. It’s a strange idea, but Biblical times may have had more equality than modern times.

Later this week…

These are just some general themes and examples that I want to flesh out for the rest of this week. Using the book of Esther as my primary text, I’m hoping to challenge at least some of the thinking that prevails in Christianity today about women. The Bible is our foundational text so it is necessary that we read it critically and learn what we can about it.

In the meantime, if you want to read Esther, I have a link to the book, as well as a link to the course I am taking through Coursera. I highly recommend you check them both out. They’re free! Free is good.

Link to the Book of Esther
Link to “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” on Coursera