Vashti (fl. 5th c. BCE)
Vashti (fl. 5th c. bce)
Queen of Persia in the Biblical story of Esther who, by defying her husband, was deposed and replaced by the compliant Esther. Name variations: Astin; Vastis; Vasthi; Wasti. Pronunciation: (Hebrew) wasti; (English) Vashti. What is known about Vashti is contained in the scroll of Esther, one of the writings in the Hebrew Scriptures. Her brief, but significant, story comprises the first 27 verses of this "early Jewish novella." Vashti was the wife of King Xerxes I (Ahasuerus in the Biblical text), and she may have been associated with Persian nobility (though the wives of Persian kings were required to come from specific Persian noble families, this was not always the case).
The story of Esther has traditionally enjoyed historical status. However, modern critics consider the major plot to be improbable, and many allow for only a kernel of historicity. Numerous features of the novella are collaborated by other historical sources, including the reign and personality of Ahasuerus, identified as Xerxes I, who was renowned for building great palaces, giving lavish parties, and displaying a bellicose temper. However, other details are either incompatible with known facts or considered too fantastical. The fact that Amestris, rather than Vashti, is recorded as Xerxes' queen during the period under study has raised questions about Vashti's historicity. However, given the numerous concubines and mistresses the king enjoyed, it is not implausible for him to have had more than one queen. Scholars today find study of the literary themesof the story to reveal important aspects of world history, even if not actual events. In terms of its inclusion in the Hebrew scriptures, the story of Esther provides an explanation for the origins of Purim, a Jewish festival. The core of the book dates to the period of Persian dominance (539–332 bce), and its final form probably took shape in the 2nd century bce.
Mentioned briefly in the Book of Esther, Vashti was a queen whose claim to fame is that she refused to be paraded in front of a group of men and then faded ignobly from the dramatic narrative. She was replaced in the king's harem by Esther , who takes center stage as the heroine of the tale. In the annual enactment of this story during the Jewish festival of Purim, young girls abjure from playing Vashti and yearn to play Esther. The audience may even "boo" Vashti's entrance, identifying her as a rebellious and undesirable creature. However, even the anger fades quickly and Vashti is soon sidelined and forgotten.
Yet, Vashti actually plays a key role in the story of Esther and in the history of women. The unlikeliness that a queen would exhibit such courage as to go against the king's command (even an unreasonable one) is one argument given as evidence against the historicity of this story. Vashti is usually dismissed as a literary device for paving the way for Esther's entrance into the drama. Yet the narrative itself, and current interpretations of its meaning, allow us to let the spotlight linger on Vashti long enough to see in her an important character. Whether or not she actually was a historical personage, she is a figure in world history; and she is a predecessor to those who have made—or will make—history against the tide of cultural role expectations. But few are aware of her heroic legacy.
Though we know little about this woman, we do know some things about the setting in which we find her. We can infer from historical sources, as well as from the description of the young women in this story, that one such as Vashti would have been groomed for submission to male authority, obeisance to the king, obedience to the law, training in feminine grace and appeal, and perhaps intensive beauty treatments. There were exceptions to this. Historian Herodotus, who wrote an engaging history of Persia in the 5th century bce, relates how Artemisia I , upon her husband's death, served in a military expedition against the Greeks with "manliness." In fact, tales of her exploits were used by the king to humiliate his "womanly" men into greater bravery. Artemisia earned respect for her cunning and was even sought out to give advice to Xerxes. Significantly, on one occasion, when Xerxes is pleased with Artemisia's counsel, he sends her off to take care of his bastard children as a reward.
Under Xerxes' rule, crossing the king could at times lead to unexpected clemency; however, the general expectation was that even mere disagreement with the king would end in death. When one of Xerxes' loyal subjects asked that the eldest of his five sons be spared from battle so that one might live to carry on the family responsibilities, the enraged king not only refused his request but cut that son in two and set each half on either side of the road as trail markers for the army to march through. As if to spoof his own nature, the impulsive king is reputed to have lashed and fettered the stormy sea as punishment for "wronging" him. In the Persian Empire thusly ruled, young maidens could be rounded up for the king's harem, young boys could be conscripted into service as eunuchs, and children of nobility were on occasion buried alive as a sacrifice to the gods. Such is the historical backdrop into which the tale of Vashti is spun.
The story of Esther opens with King Ahasuerus hosting a long and opulent house party (180 days). For the final, week-long repast, "drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each desired." This lavish feast (literally "drinking bout") apparently was for men only, as Queen Vashti gave a separate, sparely described, banquet for the women. The implied reason for the king's six-month extravaganza is to allow the monarch to "display the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty." As a climax to this exhibition, Ahasuerus, "merry with wine," plans to show off the "crown" of his possessions. His wife Queen Vashti is ordered to appear with crown to display her beauty before his officials.
Incredibly, Vashti refuses to come at the king's command. Though the author gives no explanation for Vashti's momentous defiance, its setting in the midst of a drunken court, occupied for the moment only by men, suggests personal reserve and integrity to be the motive. It may also be possible that this woman, though groomed for compliance, is simply exerting her will. However, given the inviolability of the command of the king (a recurring theme in the story), it is questionable that Vashti would risk her life on a whim. Whether out of modesty or whim, the queen imposes a restraint on the king—whose will is tantamount to law.
Such brazenness from the queen stirs up a furor in the court. Burning with anger at this defiance, Ahasuerus consults his legal counselors for a course of action. The king's advisor, afraid that other wives will follow suit, recommends that Vashti be deposed as queen. In a twist on Vashti's own intentions, she is ordered "never again to come before King Ahasuerus." Her royal position is to be given to one "better than she" (i.e. more obedient). To quell any further rebellion, a law is to be set in motion that declares every man should be master in his own house, and every woman should honor and obey her husband. The full panoply of Persian law, administration, and communications systems is deployed in a frantic effort to restore and ensure order in the kingdom.
However, there is a hint that the exertion of power is not full consolation for a now lonely king. Though he appears to have second thoughts about the harsh edict he imposed on Vashti, the immutability of the law binds the autocrat to his own decree. To forestall further regret, the king's servants suggest that all the young virgins in the kingdom be gathered to the palace to vie for Vashti's vacated place in the harem. The girls are so gathered, and among them is Esther, a young "Jewess" who keeps her heritage a secret. Each girl receives 12 months of cosmetic and perfume treatment, which leads to an all-determining night spent in the king's bed. Only those who delight the king are invited back. Esther finds favor with the king, and he sets the royal crown on her head, making her queen "instead of Vashti." With a good excuse for celebration, the king gives another lavish banquet in Esther's honor. Vashti is now completely out of the picture. The drama moves on and weaves around an evil plot against the Jews, pitting Esther and her cousin Mordecai against the king's chief vizier, Haman.
Some interpreters identify Vashti's plunge into oblivion as a thinly veiled warning to brazen women. Esther may reflect a period of social turmoil when upper-class Israelite women were beginning to chafe at traditional societal expectations and constraints. If so, posits Alice Laffey , then "the details of this 'fiction' are meant to be didactic: do not mess with the system,
or you too will be rejected." The joining of Vashti's downfall with Esther's triumph through compliance is seen as an attempt to reinforce stereotypic feminine behavior. While this interpretation may explain how the story has functioned in tradition, there are some literary features of the text that support an alternate reading of the author's intention.
In the introductory narrative, told for comedic effect, the king is portrayed as a partier and boaster, having to rely on and exert external power. Vashti, on the other hand, appears as proudly dignified, upheld by inner valor. While Ahasuerus can dispatch a law to force homage, the necessity of such a desperate measure reveals his personal ineffectiveness. Vashti has no strings to pull and no power-brokers to defend her, and yet she earns silent honor. To be sure, Vashti suffers the consequences of refusing to ingratiate the men, but it is the latter's foolishness that is put into relief in the story. The author's expansive and farcical account of the king's excessive behavior stands in striking contrast to the sparse and serious reporting of the queen's resolute deportment. Michael V. Fox claims that the author portrays the king as a "buffoon," "weak-willed, fickle, and self-centered." He and his advisers are "a twittery, silly-headed, cowardly lot who need to hide behind a law to reinforce their status in their homes." The author is making a crucial point here: outward success is not equal to inner worth. The king's elaborate palace and supreme power are facades; Vashti is the truly regal one. This implicit message was perhaps some solace to the majority of people in western Asia, whose dire poverty was mocked by such royal extravagance.
I propose that Vashti be reinstated on the throne along with her sister Esther, together to rule and guide the psyches and actions of women.
Even if he is sympathetic, the author does not romanticize Vashti's actions. "The girl who pleases the king" was put in her stead, and Vashti was put in her place. She broke out of the pattern expected of women, and she paid a great cost for doing it. But this does not necessarily imply that the author condemns Vashti's actions. In fact, the story line develops so that, what Vashti sows, Esther reaps. Vashti's cause does not die with her banishment, it merely goes sub rosa. Though she could not fully blaze the trail, she enabled her successor, Esther, to have a foothold.
In fact, Esther is no less rebellious. Though Vashti would not come forth when summoned, Esther will come to the king without summons as the story unfolds. Upon discovering that Ahasuerus, encouraged by Haman, has sanctioned a pogrom (organized massacre) against all Jews, Esther risks her life to convince the king to rescind his murderous edict. Though entering the king's presence without a summons is punishable by death, retractable only if the monarch extends his scepter and welcomes the visitor, Esther takes the chance. Bedecked in her royal robes, the beautiful queen humbly seeks audience with the king; unpredictably, she is received. She dazzles and pleases Ahasuerus and Haman through a series of banquets. While the royal guard is lowered, this seemingly subservient queen persuades her husband to pronounce a counter-edict which implicates Haman and offsets the danger to the Jews. First Vashti would not lend her beauty to satisfy the king's boastful whims, and subsequently Esther uses her beauty to overturn his capricious laws. A woman's right to possess her own beauty has finally been vindicated.
The novella as a whole is replete with such "reversals of expectation," including episodes in which "the villain suffers the fate of his intended victim," writes Katheryn Darr . After Vashti's martyrdom, it is as if her spirit is resurrected; insubordinates gain full reign. Mordecai, who refuses to bow down to the imperious Haman, affronts the man in a way that is parallel to Vashti's provocation of Ahasuerus. As Vashti is deposed and women in general ordered to submit to their husbands, Mordecai is sentenced to be hanged and Jews in general massacred. However, as the Hebrew text announces, this time "the opposite happened." Interestingly, while in Vashti's case, there is no male defender to come to her rescue, in Mordecai's case, the female champion Esther brings deliverance. The villain Haman receives a twist on the elevation he sought. He is literally hoist on his own petard as the gallows he erected for his victim are employed for his own death.
Though at the end of the tale the surviving males (Ahasuerus and Mordecai) are paid token tribute, they are completely upstaged by the women protagonists. The first scene of the drama portrays the ruler's desperate attempt to ensure that the queen listen to the king; the climax of the story has the king taking orders from the queen. The cracks in the facade of male dominance, despite attempts to seal them up, now run all the way to the foundation of the court. As Fox states: "The king and his nobility are the butt of some rather broad irony. The world-ruler banishes a wife he cannot control, only to take on later a new one who controls him completely." In a world where the deadliest insult was to call a man worse than a woman, the author leaves open the possibility that women are wiser than men. Indeed, some commentators have conjectured that Vashti's name is a derivative of the Avestan word "vahista," which means "the best."
As Darr notes, it turns out that Esther, as well as Vashti, is "more than just a pretty face." These two women, through bravery and wit, together drive the course of events in this tragicomedy. The tale as a whole announces that women are not just created by history, but they also are creators of history. Commentators who consider the teller of this story to be a "proto-feminist" have some basis for such a claim, especially given the context in which it was written.
Though deposed in the narrative, Vashti is rising to importance in women's history. Some early commentators on this defiant queen were so indignant at her lack of compliance that they deemed her "the wicked queen" and concocted for her a villainous pedigree of deeds and relations. Others more sympathetic to her cause considered her tactics unrealistic and foolish. However, contemporary feminists laud Vashti's "damn the consequences" heroism in openly defying authority and find in her forthright activism a model superior to Esther's stereotypic use of feminine wiles. Artist and writer Marjory Zoet Bankson celebrates that Vashti's "reckless strength," though it is costly, "meets a longing" in herself to refuse violation and exploitation.
We need not pit Vashti and Esther against one another. Those who shape the course of history are not of one mold. Vashti, though clearly cooperative on many matters (such as being a beautiful and gracious hostess for the women's banquet), comes to a point of uncompromising insistence on what she sees as right. Esther, after a history of compliance, continues to work within the status quo. Yet, despite her careful use of sexual tactics, Esther too reaches a point at which she throws role expectations to the wind. Though she was successful, that success was not predictable.
Because Vashti's actions are not personally triumphal, her story is either misinterpreted as a warning or ignored altogether. Certainly there is a realism to Vashti's harsh fate that we cannot deny, and many women will justifiably prefer more tempered approaches to promoting change. Nevertheless, Vashti's "failure" does not gainsay her efforts. As Esther's triumph is indebted to her forerunner, so have others gained from the likes of Vashti. Vashti not only stands with those who are condemned for their costly steps, but she also walks before those who have succeeded in making positive strides. It was in her refusal to parade her beauty that Vashti's regal beauty was displayed for all the world to see.
Esther (contained in The New Oxford Annotated Bible). New rev. standard version. NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.
supplementary sources and suggested reading:
Baldwin, Joyce G. Esther: An Introduction and Commentary. Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1984.
Bankson, Marjory Zoet. Braided Streams: Esther and a Woman's Way of Growing. San Diego, CA: Lura-Media, 1985.
Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women. Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox, 1991.
Fox, Michael V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Gendler, Mary. "The Restoration of Vashti," in Koltun's The Jewish Woman. NY: Schocken, 1976.
Herodotus. The History. Trans. by David Grene. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Laffey, Alice. An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988.
Moore, Carey A. The Anchor Bible: Esther. NY: Doubleday, 1971.
Weems, Renita J. Just a Sister Away. San Diego, CA: LuraMedia, 1988.
Carol Lakey Hess teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary and is working on issues relating to theology and gender
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