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Who was Queen Vashti and is she found anywhere else besides the Bible?

This week’s question comes from Erin who asks, “Who was Queen Vashti and is she found anywhere else besides the Bible?”

The story of Queen Vashti is found in the first chapter of the book of Esther in the Bible. In the panorama of the book, she plays a rather minor character; however, her story has made her both hero and villain in the world of philosophical genderism.

Biblically, Vashti was the queen to Ahasuerus who ruled over the lands from India to Ethiopia. Historically, Ahasuerus has been identified with Xerxes I who ruled 20 satrapies from 485-464 BCE. There is no mention of Vashti, nor of Queen Esther in any historical works outside of scripture.. Although this does not negate the possibility of either the historicity of these women or the events, most scholars suggest the account is an etiology (a story that answers a question—a pedagogical device). 

The story in Esther goes like this: King Ahasuerus throws a seven day party for his key leaders. Simultaneously, Vashti holds a celebration banquet for the women. On day seven, apparently after too much revelry and drink, the king boasts on the beauty of his queen and sends messengers to fetch her so he can display her before the party-goers. In the biblical account, we read of the royal command: “to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty” (Esther 1.11). According to the Judeo-Christian traditions, this command meant that Vashti was to parade herself clad only in her royal crown. Vashti refuses and the king, slighted, banishes her from his presence because of the ramifications. We read of the princes’ concerns: “This deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (Esther 1.17-18). In other words, “our wives will feel empowered to disobey us.”

Which brings us to her heroism or villainy.

In the Jewish faith, the story from Esther is the basis for the festival of Purim, so, much has been made of Vashti’s “disobedience.” In many of the commentaries, Vashti is painted as the beginning of the end to marital harmony. The patriarchal culture (male dominated) would much prefer demure, obedient, and subservient women. But alas, Vashti was not one of those. Instead, Vashti was a disobedient wife—never mind that to obey her husband would have been to shed every ounce of dignity. Interestingly enough, I discovered one rabbinical source who suggested Vashti would have typically been happy to parade herself naked for the palace guests, but she was being obstinate that day (my question: just how does he know she was an immodest exhibitionist?). In other words, she had no dignity anyway, so her act was simply an act of outright rebelliousness against her husband as head of the household.

On the other hand, there are those who see Vashti as a hero, a champion of women and women’s rights everywhere. To these, Vashti represents the epitome of self-respect and self-determinism. The fact that Vashti refused to obey such a heinous request by no means denigrates her, but rather demonstrates the insensitivity and immorality of her husband.

The rest of the book of Esther is predicated on a sort-of halfway meeting of the minds. Vashti is indeed banned and a national beauty pageant is held to find a replacement. Esther, a Jewess, is chosen and the story of how she saves the Jewish people by her intervention with the king is the focus for the Purim Festival. Esther disobeys her husband’s commands, as did Vashti, but in Esther’s case, she does so with a display of humility that wins her the king’s favor. In other words, whereas Vashti was openly rebellious, Esther used her wiles well.

The story of Vashti is apparently found only in the Bible, although there has been a wealth of secondary writings that have been produced from the story of Esther and Vashti. Whether Vashti is a villain or hero depends on one’s view of the roles in marriage. However, since Jesus suggested that we observe the “golden rule” by doing as we’d like done, I have to wonder what King Ahasuerus would have done if Vashti had asked for a Chippendale performance in return.

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