Lessons from Vashti (Esther 1:10-22)
[The message I delivered on Esther 1:10-22 at Church of Mary Magdalene on May 17, 2017. Click here for a livestream video of the message.]
I am so excited to be doing this sermon series on Esther! We are going to spend the next six weeks with the book of Esther, though Esther has not appeared yet. It’s one of the few books of the bible about a woman and named after a woman. You can see why it would appeal to Church of Mary Magdalene.
This week we are focusing on the most powerful people in the kingdom: the royal family and court advisors. Next week, we will look at the people with the least power: the oppressed and enslaved.
I wanted to start this with my personal connection with Esther. Some little girls dress up as Disney princesses—I dressed up as Queen Esther. My family didn’t celebrate Halloween, went to a church “harvest festival” instead, and sometimes we dressed as Bible characters instead of regular Halloween costumes. I have two sisters and one year we all dressed up as Queen Esther. We were three Queen Esthers because there aren’t many girl Bible characters to choose from, and so my mom thought we should all be Queen Esther. We wore pink pillowcases, with arm and neck holes cut out, and tiaras.
I remember hearing this story a lot when I was a kid. It’s one of the stories that we tell children. I loved how it focused on Esther, as a woman, and her bravery, but I didn’t realize how funny it is. Re-reading it, I’ve noticed what a funny story it is! And that’s a really nice break in the Bible—there isn’t a whole lot of humor.
As I was reading this passage, I kept thinking of this retelling of the story with the king and his bros hanging out. The context here is that the king and his bros have been drinking for seven days and partying for a really long time. So this is my retelling of this passage:
The king (Xerxes) and his buddies have been drinking for seven days:
KING: You know what would be awesome? Let’s get the queen out here. She is so smoking hot, you guys, you don’t even know.
QUEEN: Yeah, no.
KING: What? That bitch! What should I do?
MEMUCAN: Dude. You can’t take that. All of our wives will hear about it too, and then they won’t respect us at all! Anyway, you’re better off without her. We’ll find you somebody better. And totally post about it on Facebook so that everyone knows who wears the pants.
KING: Awesome idea, bro. Imma do it.
The first question that came to me was: What about Vashti? I had heard this story about her, but she doesn’t actually even show up in this story. There is very little about her. In the verse before this, we know that she also had a party that lasted for seven days. And that’s pretty much it: she’s the queen, she had a party, and she said no to the king when he asked her to come.
I thought about these stories that I would hear as a child about Vashti. Some of the stories set up a false dichotomy: she was the bad queen and Esther was the good queen. So, you get rid of Vashti to make way for Esther. I really dislike this kind of story, where there are two female characters and they are pitted against each other. Also, it doesn’t work here, because Vashti disobeys the king here and Esther disobeys the king later. They are both disobedient queens, with different results.
So I wanted to spend a little time with Vashti and the lessons that we can learn from Vashti in this passage.
The main thing that we know about Vashti in this passage is that the king is objectifying her. The king commanded the eunuchs “to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold.” The king sees her as an object, something that he owns and wants to show off.
There have been centuries of debate about this order to bring her in her royal crown. Rabbis have argued for a long time that maybe the king was asking her to come in only her royal crown, and that he was showing off all of her physical beauty to his officials and the peoples. But regardless of whether she was naked or clothed, he only wanted her for her beauty and to reflect his own power—the power of this man who owned this woman.
But Vashti says no. This is the one thing Vashti does in this passage: she says no to the king. This made me think of how when I was in college, I used to volunteer with the YWCA, and we taught a curriculum for middle school students called “I Decide.” The focus of the curriculum was: I decide what happens to my body. I decide what I am going to do with that. We focused on sexuality, particularly for young women, and how they get to decide what they want to do and ask other people what they want to do, so that there is consent.
This was really important for me in college. I was teaching the curriculum, but that hadn’t quite sunk in for me—that I got to decide what happened to my body, and I got to say when someone was doing something to me that trespassed what I wanted.
And so I was thinking about those young girls and their concerns, and thinking about myself, and thinking about Vashti here. The book of Esther famously does not mention God. It is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God. As someone who is spending time with this passage and looking for God in it, this is where I find God. I find that spark of the divine in Vashti when she says no. She has agency in a culture that objectified her.
This is threatening. Vashti saying no is terrifying to the men that she says no to. It is terrifying to the king and to the men who hear about this, that their wives might start disobeying them. This shows the weakness of the king and the weakness of the power structure. Here we have a king who wants to be strong, but he is weak and controlled by the people who surround him.
He completely overreacts and declares that he will never see Vashti again. He tells this to all of the lands that he rules—a little like an early morning Tweet. And he doesn’t get what he wants! He doesn’t get to see Vashti. But she gets what she wants: she doesn’t have to see the king. And when he tells all the lands, more people heard the story than would otherwise.
So these are the lessons that I want to take from Vashti—to not dismiss her, even though she is a small character in this book. She is worth paying attention to. She decides what happens to her body. She says no to the king. And this has terrible consequences for her. Saying no doesn’t always turn out well. But her actions showed the weakness of the male-dominated power structure. And whether it was true or not, the men thought she could take them down.