Saturday, 17 October 2009

Esther and Vashti

The biblical character Esther gets a fair bit of attention, there is even a musical of her life. For those unfamiliar with the story, the 17th book of the bible is called Esther (of only 2 named after women, along with Ruth) and is famously the only book of the bible that doesn't mention. Esther is a Jewish woman living in Persia in the period that the Jews spent in exile. When King Xerxes needed a new wife he took all the beautiful women in the country and brought them to his palace where they spent a year being made beautiful (I know I have no idea what they can possibly have been doing in this time either!). Esther was chosen as the new Queen, but didn't tell anyone she was Jewish. When her uncle discovered that the kings official Haman had plans to have all the Jews killed, he went to Esther for help. Esther risked her life by going to see the King uninvited (this was punishable by death) where she invited the King and Haman to a banquet. During the banquet Esther told the King she was a Jew and that Haman wanted her people killed. Haman was hanged, and Esther's uncle Mordecai was honoured. The Jews then defeated in battle those who hated them, killing 500 men (and possibly unstated numbers of women and children). The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates Esther and Mordecai saving the Jewish people from genocide.

There is a lot to learn from this story. For starters we learn a bit about the place of women in Persian society at this point. There is no reason to suggest that the women in question had any choice about being taken to the palace, and it certainly appears from this story than only the most beautiful would be chosen. Esther also shows her courage in using her office to save her people from harm.

While Esther's bravery has made her famous the bravier of the Xerxes previous queen is heard much less. Vashti only features very early on in the story. Xerxes was having a banquet (which lasted 180 days!). On the 7th day after 'drinking much wine', he commanded Queen Vashti to come down and show her beauty to the important man. She refused. On top of her disobedience this was seen as dangerous as, 'All the wives of the important men of Persia and Media will hear about the Queen's actions. THen they will no longer honour their husband.' She was no longer allowed to enter the King's presence because of this (not entirely sure if this means she sent out of the palace, exiled or even executed).

Because of my total ignorance on the broader Persian culture at this point in history I can only comment on my own current perspective (but I would love it if someone else could shed a bit of light). I can only imagine how humiliated this must have been for Vashti, to be summoned down by her drunk husband to be put on display as a beautiful object for the men he was entertaining to look at. I am amazed by how much bravery it must have taken for her to refuse to go down, in the light of all she was risking. Clearly the men of the court understood how big an effect this could have on their lives, she had refused to do what her husband commanded, and they saw that this could have a direct effect on their wives behaviour.

I know that Vashti wouldn't have called herself a feminist (since the word didn't exist) but she deserves to be celebrated as the brave revolutionary she was, instead of sidelined at the start of the story. There is something to be learned from the stories of both of these brave women, from Vashti who gave up all her privilege to take a stand, to Esther who was able to use the power (however limited) that she was given to help those who were powerless.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting... its always good to go back to the Bible and see the characters who you knew of but never really noticed. I certainly never thought of Vashti in this way before, so it was good to have my perceptions challenged. After all, why should she have gone done at the King's command?

Its good to have you back blogging. :-)


Jessica said...

Growing up, Esther was my favorite book of the Bible because of her bravery. As children, we were taught that Vashti had wronged Xerxes. When I got older, I learned the implications of the king's banquet. I must say, Vashti is my favorite figure in the bible, altogether.

April said...

Some different thoughts I've been reading on today:
Jewish tradition says that Vashti actually had Jewish women come in to her home and work naked before her on the sabbath. She took delight in humiliating these women. Part of the reason she refused to come to her husband, according to tradition, is also that she had a skin problem and so didn't want to be seen that way (so we might assume she would have been up for it otherwise...). Much of Esther is about revealing the hidden or a turning around of plans(Haman was hung on the gallows he had built for Mordechai). Looking deeper at Vashti then it seems that she ended up suffering a poetic justice by having to recognize the utter humiliation she was putting others through and this cost her the crown. Jewish tradition (talmud)also says that in Vashti's refusal she greatly insulted her husband telling him he was beneath her and she would not come for that reason. I used to see her as a heroine but really she got what she deserved.

Unknown said...

I have chosen to write about Esther for my final paper of Fenimism class. I actually wanted to compare Vashti and Esther in my paper. Your prospective is interesting.

Unknown said...

I chose to write about Esther for my final paper of Feminism class. I wanted to compare Vashti and Esther in there. I found your prospective interesting. I am glad to have found this blog