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Women in the Old Testament: Queen Vashti

Friday, September 14, 2012

Found at the beginning of the Book of Esther, the story of Queen Vashti has largely been overshadowed by the more prominent queen after whom the book is named. Many would see her as a figure whose purpose is to ‘pave the way’ for Esther but the manner in which she does this has caused no little controversy among commentators. Vashti is a heroine to some and a disobedient villain to others.

Vashti is the queen of the all powerful King of Media and Persia, Ahasuerus, and we meet her at the close of a great and opulent festival which lasts for six months. The festival allowed the King to show, “the riches of his royal glory and the splendour and pomp of his majesty”, (Esther 1:4) and was for the enjoyment of his princes, nobles, governors and army chiefs and their staffs. The festival ends with a final banquet lasting seven days; “royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king.” (Esther 1:7) No ‘austerity measures’ there. In addition, Queen Vashti also held a “banquet for the women of the palace.” (Esther 1:9) On the last day the king sent for Vashti whilst he was ‘merry with wine’, requesting that she appear before the court, “with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to behold.” (Esther 1:11) Vashti refused the king’s command and the king was, “enraged and his anger burned within him.” (Esther 1:12)

We are not explicitly given Vashti’s reasons for refusing the king’s request and opinion is divided on both her reasoning and whether she acted fittingly as queen. Of course, she could have been simply trying the patience of the king, testing his authority; on the other hand she could have considered his request to have been vulgar, distasteful and demeaning. There is the question then as to whether her refusal was fitting even if her stance was fortified by moral principle. Should the duty of obedience to the king go before principled moral action? We can see many parallels here to situations that may arise in our own lives and opinion will always be divided.

The king, in his anger and aided by his officials, determines that Vashti shall be replaced by another; not least for fear that her behaviour will cause other women to revolt against their husbands and masters. Letters were sent to every province, “that every man be lord in his own house.” (Esther 1:22) It is probably fair to say that Vashti was not surprised by this outcome and that she placed her own principles of decency and morality above that of obedience to husband and king. We read at the beginning of chapter two that the king, “remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.” (Esther 2:1) One may surmise that after his anger abated and his decision had been decreed he mused on this episode with the utmost seriousness. He does not exactly declare his culpability in the matter, and he could not undo what had been done, but we certainly find no mention of any similar episode with his next queen Esther. In fact far from that we read that he treats her seriously and with kindness and concern; indeed, he offers to grant her ‘half his kingdom’.

Graham Hunt OP


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