lamb-leftWhat the Bible Really Says by J. R. Hyland
From Humane Religion


The story of Vashti is told in the Book of Esther. She lived in the fifth century B.C. and was the wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus.[1] It was her dethronement that paved the way for Esther to become Queen. Vashti was deposed when she refused to display her charms at a drunken celebration that the Bible tells us had been going on for a week.

This celebration was the climax of a six-month extravaganza during which King Ahasuerus displayed a seemingly endless parade of power and wealth for all his officials and administrators. Army leaders of Persia and Media were there; along with the governors and noblemen of all the provinces (wives were not invited). And for the final celebration of the palace grounds, every male who lived in the capitol city of Susa[2] was invited. The poor and powerless mingled with the rich and the royal. The Bible describes the scene. “Couches made of gold and silver had been placed in the courtyard, which was paved with white marble, shining mother-of-pearl, and blue turquoise. Drinks were served in gold cups, no two of them alike and the king was generous with the royal wine. There were no limits on the drinks; the king had given orders to the palace servants that everyone could have as much as he wanted.”[3]

The king also had as much as he wanted to drink: “on the seventh day of his banquet the king was drinking and feeling happy.”[4] And like many who have imbibed too much, he had what seemed like a good idea at the time. He decided there was one possession his guests had not had a chance to admire; the beautiful Queen Vashti. So he forgot about royal protocol and honor and sent seven of his personal servants to bring her to the party. There she could be ogled by the merry-makers and he could be envied by them. But in spite of the king and in spite of the men sent to fetch her, the Queen refused to come. This angered Ahasuerus and made his advisors apoplectic.

They were stunned. Vashti had undermined the status quo: females had to be subservient to males; the entire culture depended on the inequality of the sexes. The most influential men of the kingdom wasted no time in making Vashti’s refusal their priority. The king was advised that her behavior “insulted every man in the empire. Every woman in the empire will start looking down on her husband as soon as she hears what the queen has done . . .Wives everywhere will have no respect for their husbands.”[5]

Drastic measures were required. The only remedy for this dire situation was a royal proclamation that banished the queen- - permanently. The king’s advisors were afraid the people might not take the edict seriously if they thought there was a possibility that Vashti would be forgiven. So they told King Ahasuerus: “issue a royal proclamation that Vashti may never again appear before the king. Have it written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it can never be changed. Then give her place as queen to some better woman.”  They assured the king that “when your proclamation is made known, all over this huge empire every woman will treat her husband with respect, whether he’s rich or poor.”[6]

Important affairs of state were neglected and amid much frenzied activity a royal decree was researched and written by the king’s legal advisors. Scholars were assigned to translate it into appropriate languages and teams of messengers were dispatched to the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia. The men of the empire were well-pleased with the decree of banishment and with its accompanying directive that said “every husband should be the master of his home and speak with final authority.”[7]

But after a while, when his anger had dissipated, Ahasuerus began to miss Vashti; he regretted her banishment. Afraid that the king might recant, his advisors came up with a scheme to distract him. Why not have a kingdom-wide beauty contest to pick a new queen? The contestants, chosen from all over the empire, would then be given a chance to try out for the king’s favor. In his bed-chamber.

“This idea pleased the king” and he became thoroughly absorbed in the task of choosing another queen. He maintained this devotion to duty for quite a while because Esther, who was finally chosen, did not begin her reign until four years after Vashti had been banished.

Esther had been one of the finalists in the search for a queen but that honor was only the first step toward the crown. After they arrived at the palace, the competitors had to undergo extensive beauty treatments. “The regular beauty treatment for the women lasted a year - - massages with oil of myrrh for six months and with oil of balsam for six more. After that, each girl would be taken in to the king . . . she would go there in the evening and the next morning she would be taken to another harem.”[8] That other harem was reserved for those who were no longer virgins.

Ultimately, it was Esther, who was a “beautiful girl and had a good figure” who won the king’s favor. The Bible reports that after she spent the night in the king’s bed-chamber, he ‘liked her more than any of the other girls and more than any of the others, she won h is favor and affection. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen in place of Vashti.”[9]

But no one knows what happened to Vashti. Did she forfeit her life along with the crown or was she allowed to live out her life in obscurity? No information is given about her ultimate fate and generations of scholars claim to be puzzled by the inclusion of her story in the Bible. Although they know that the book of Esther is essential to the establishment of the Feast of Purim, which celebrates the triumph of the Jewish people over their enemies, they point out that this story would not be complete without the story of Vashti’s downfall.

These (male) commentators do not understand that the biblical account of Vashti serves a very definite purpose: it is there to keep women in their subservient place. Because this salient point escapes them, these men have found various ways to try and explain Vashti’s inclusion in the Bible. For the most part, they have decided she is an object lesson in what not to do. One scholarly work refers to the queen as “stubborn” and says her lack of submission to the king’s request was based on vanity.[10]  This, although the ancient historian Josephus reports that strangers were not allowed to look at the wives of Persians and females were raised to avoid being seen, at all costs. Another scholar sees her story as providing comic relief, writing that although her refusal to expose herself might have been “tragic for Vashti,” her story can also be seen as “pure farce.”[11]

Not surprisingly, none of these men find anything farcical about the way the Bible earnestly describes the diligence with which the king searched for a queen; how it took four years of bedding down virginal, beauty-contest winners before he was able to make a choice.

It is this four year hiatus between queens, which underscores the fact that there is no causal connection between the stories of Esther and Vashti. There is no causal connection but there is a sexist connection. Clergy and Sunday school teachers continue to compare Vashti to Esther in negative terms. Her virtuous action is presented as a vice. She is described as “defiant,” “willful,” “pagan,” and a number of similar epithets. And each succeeding generation has tacitly agreed not to honor this woman who lost a kingdom, but would not surrender her integrity.

The lesson that modern religious leaders inculcate is the same as that of their ancient counterparts: uppity women do not get to live happily-ever-after. And the young girls they teach also learn that beauty and subservience is better than integrity.

[1]  More widely known as King Xerxes I

[2]  About 225 miles east of Babylon

[3]  Esther 1:6-8 TEV

[4]  Esther 1:10 TEV

[5]  Esther 1:16-18 TEV

[6]  Esther 1:19-20 TEV

[7]  Esther 1:21 - 21 TEV

[8]  Esther 2: 12 - 14  TEV

[9]  Esther 2:17 TEV

[10]  Evangelical Commentary, p.329

[11] Harper’s Bible Commentary © 1988 p. 388

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