Queen Vashti: #MeToo

Queen Vashti by Micah Hayns

Esther 1

In October 2017 American actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote #MeToo as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. This was in response to allegations relating to renowned film producer Harvey Weinstein, who was recently sentenced to 23 years in prison. The #MeToo became a global movement in a matter of days opening up an important conversation about women’s experiences, particularly in industries such as film and theatre.

The story of Queen Vashti is perhaps one of the earliest accounts of a woman standing up to a powerful man.

Vashti was the Queen of Persia, the first wife of powerful King Ahasuerus (Xerxes 1), and her story is told within the Book of Esther (which is named after another fabulous woman who we will look at tomorrow), during the days of Jewish captivity in Babylon.

For the Persian rulers it was a time of peace and prosperity which meant that there was plenty of time for the king to display the glory of his kingdom. King Ahasuerus was certainly a dedicated host. One of his parties, which gathered together officials, nobles and governors from across the kingdom, lasted nearly six months!

Vashti’s story begins with one such banquet, one that is so lavish that there were couches made from gold and silver, drinks were served in golden goblets, and the wine was so plentiful that:

by the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.

Esther 1.8

It was a party that Weinstein and his Hollywood crowd would have approved of!

At that time the men and women of the royal palace lived largely separate lives, and Queen Vashti had her own quarters. Whilst the king celebrated she hosted her own banquet for the women of the kingdom.

After seven days of revelry, and when the king was ‘in high spirits from wine’ he sent his seven eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti to the men’s banquet. He demanded she be brought to their party and displayed:

wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty.

Esther 1.11

Some theologians argue that this meant the king demanded she should wear nothing at all but her crown! It’s not clear if this is the case, but Queen Vashti was clearly distressed by the command.

She says no!

Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.

Esther 1.12

What a risk to take! The king was furious and ‘anger burned within him’. He had wanted to impress his party by showing how beautiful his wife was; and instead she had humiliated him publicly.

Vashti Deposed by Ernest Normand, 1859

He wanted revenge. And so, like Henry VIII, Weinstein and countless other despots since, he worked out a way to bring her down. He consulted his sages and lawyers and they found a by-law which said he could depose her as Queen because she has been disobedient to the king.

The nobles wanted to punish her to ensure the obedience of all their wives:

For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands…. there will be no end of contempt and wrath.

Esther 1.17,18

The Queen was deposed and a letter was sent throughout the whole land to every province, in every local language, with the decree that:

every man should be master in his own house.

Esther 1.22

We hear no more of Vashti and she is replaced by a young Jewish woman, Esther, who we will hear about tomorrow.

Reflection and Prayer

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this series is discovering how the stories of the women from Old Testament are at the same time ancient but also very modern and relevant to us today.

Queen Vashti said ‘no’ to the king at considerable cost to own life. We don’t get to hear why she did this. Some have argued that it was because of modesty (Midrash), others that she was unhappy with her appearance that day (Babylonian Talmud), and still others that she was a proto-feminist fighting for her integrity. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1878) says that her action was the ‘first stand for women’s rights’ (1).

Whatever the reason, she was certainly bold and you might be interested to hear that there is even an #IamVashti campaign which was started by feminist Jewish theologian Meredith Jacobs – you can read her excellent article here.

The Book of Esther is curious because it is the only book of the bible which doesn’t mention God, an odd choice perhaps as we begin Holy Week!

Let us pray for all those who continue to be exploited by the powerful, for all those who have the courage to stand up to power, and for ourselves, that we would use our own power well.

Lord Jesus, who hears the voices of the powerless,
and gives strength to those who speak up:
create safety for stories to emerge,
embolden our community to examine itself,
shine your light on abusive power, and
help us commit to holiness in every relationship,
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen

  1. https://time.com/4269357/queen-vashti-feminist-history/