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The tale/tail of Vashti

October 21, 2008

The tail tale of Vashti in Esther 1 is an enigmatic way to start the book. The story serves as a vehicle for getting Esther into the harem of the king, but the details are so fuzzy that it has plagued enamored interpreters for ages.

The text provides tantalizingly few details on how Vashti falls out of royal favor. On the seventh day of a great banquet, when the king was merry with wine, he called for Vashti to appear before the king and his court in her royal crown. Vashti, for some reason, refused; and this is the interpretive crux of the passage.

The text itself decries Vashti’s decision.

Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, ‘Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For 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 behaviour will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.’ (Esther 1:16-19 NRSV)

From inside the text, Vashti’s rational for refusal is not as important as the king’s subsequent action. The very social order of Persian and Median society hangs in the balance. Vashti has not capitulated to her proscribed gender role. The possible results are catastrophic.

These same gender roles will be in play for the rest of the book. The king, Esther, Mordecai and even Haman will find themselves confronted with them. However, on the rational for Vashti’s transgression the text is maddeningly silent.

This has not stopped interpreters from giving voice to this silent rationale. The Targum interprets the king’s words as a burlesque; Vashti was to saunter about before the royal court in nothing but her crown. Her refusal was then out of modesty.

Later Talmudic tradition reports quite the opposite of Vashti. She was immensely vain and terrorized Jewish girls by making them parade naked before her or work on the Sabbath. God cursed Vashti with either skin disease or a tail for her behaviour. When called before the king, Vashti refused not out of any modesty but because she was too concerned about her looks.

Christian writers likewise spoke negatively about Vashti’s action. Rabanus Maurus found Vashti prideful and insolent. Her replacement in the royal harem was taken metaphorically to represent Judaism’s replacement by Christianity (a reading that makes absolutely no sense).

All of these interpretation ironically take the position of the king’s advisers, vilifying Vashti’s actions and presuming pride and inferring insolence where the text places none. As for Vashti’s motives, perhaps it is one of those ineffable enigmas, like why Marsellus Wallace had Antwan Rockamora thrown from a four-story building.

This is the first of a series of posts on Esther inspired by my cell‘s close reading of the text. Some will be academic, some will be pedantic. Hopefully all will be edifying.

  1. Erik permalink
    October 21, 2008 10:02 pm

    It seems like historically the gender roles bit would have been less of a problem (even though HB focuses on it, probably to highlight Esther) and more the refusal (especially publicly) of the king. You just don’t do that and live typically, wife or no wife. This is a society where turning your hat upside down in such a way that it resembles the crown means you die.

  2. October 21, 2008 10:17 pm

    I’m inclined to agree with you, Erik, accept for this bit in Memucan’s advice: “For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands”. However, you’re right, the two are deeply intertwined.

  3. Erik permalink
    October 23, 2008 1:15 am

    that’s what I mean by the HB trying to highlight Esther. It’s making an underscore of the power of a strong but obedient wife….maybe…

  4. Maureen permalink
    November 4, 2008 12:25 pm

    This seems much more like the dilemma of the faithful samurai serving a rotten master. Vashti refused to walk into the midst of a drunken mob, and especially not wearing her royal crown. Then the jerk councilor seized the opportunity to get rid of her. (Possibly after setting her up, but possibly just because drunken jerks hate sober and dignified queens.)

    This allows us to introduce and explain the Cinderella situation of Esther, but puts her in almost a Scheherazade situation: it’s obvious that being queen is not going to be fun or easy. A wise woman is always thinking both defensively and offensively, and the wife of a powerful man can’t trust her husband not to be a crazy drunk who loves to impress his friends.

    But that’s just my interpretation…. 🙂

  5. November 4, 2008 2:16 pm


    Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure I’d go so far as saying Esther had a “Cinderella situation”. It strikes me more as “Ms America meets the Kit Kat Ranch”. Though I think you’re spot on with the Scheherazade.

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