Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why I Admire Vashti

The book of Esther doesn't quite sit right with me. A few years ago, I was re-reading the book of Esther, and I found a new hero from that story - Vashti. Vashti was the queen at the beginning of the story. She was throwing a party for the women of the court, and her husband, King Ahasuerus, was throwing a party for the men. There isn't much in the text about the women's party, but the men's party involved a lot of alcohol. Ahasuerus sent some servants to fetch Vashti to have her come to the men's party "to show the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on." Vashti declined, and as a result, she was no longer the queen. (The text doesn't state whether she was executed, or whether the king merely divorced her and kicked her out of the palace.)

In various church lessons growing up, I had always heard Vashti used as an example of what happens to people who are disobedient. However, upon thinking it over, I've decided that Vashti is an admirable character. She is strong, and she shows self-respect.

Hospitality was a major cultural value in the middle east during Biblical times. Vashti was hosting a party, and it would have been extremely rude of her to leave in the middle. She was willing to stand up to messengers of the king in order to fulfill her duty. Her husband showed a great deal of disrespect in asking her to come. First there was the disrespect involved in asking her to leave her party. The second part of the disrespect was when he ordered her to show her beauty to a room full of drunk men. At best, this would subject her to leering and catcalls. It had the potential to be much worse. By refusing the order, she showed that she respected herself when her husband did not. She also provided an example to other women that it's okay to stand up for yourself.

It's that second example that the king's servants feared. After Vashti refused to come, the king was angry, and he spoke with his advisers in order to figure out what to do.
What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, because she hath not performed the commandment of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?
Memucan answered before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.
For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.
Likewise shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath.
If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.
And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.
Esther 1:15-20

Vashti was deposed because the men were afraid that the women were going to stand up and demand respect! So, the hunt for a new queen ensues. Esther is selected, and she uses her beauty to charm the king into rescinding an order to slaughter her people.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting Esther personally. She did what she could with what she had, and she accomplished a great deal of good. However, I find it disturbing that the author of the book of Esther chose to paint the two women in the way they were shown. The woman who is forceful, direct, and stands up for herself is portrayed as wicked and a threat to the establishment. The woman who uses her beauty to get what she wants from the powerful men around her without attempting to claim her rightful power is portrayed as the righteous hero of the story. This dynamic is unfortunately alive and well today. Women like Vashti are often called "bitches" or "ball-busters". Women like Esther are referred to as "soft" and "pink".


C.J. said...

What's always bothered me is that Vashti is "bad" for refusing to use her feminine wiles on the men--as you point out, she stood up for herself--but Esther is "good" for, basically, manipulating the king with sex. It seems like Vashti's conduct is much more in keeping with the church's teachings on modesty and virtue--for both men and women. That men might be leering, out of control horndogs doesn't mean we're supposed to indulge them--quite the opposite.

Women like Esther are referred to as "soft" and "pink", but also as sluts and whores. In modern times, a second wife who uses sex to get her way is hardly considered a hero. Not to mention, are we really back to seriously considering the idea that a woman's worth lies in her looks, and her ability to allure men?

Jena said...

I... had NEVER reexamined this story in this way, probably because I haven't really revisited it since my feminist awakening. Good call! The next time this story comes around in Sunday School, I will be representing for our sister, Vashti.