Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim legend, is one of Judaism’s brightest stars. But standing in her shadow is another queen, forgotten but by no means insignificant. The first chapter of Esther opens as any court tale should…with a great feast.
King Ahasuerus threw a party for the nobles and leaders of his 127-province empire. He showed off his wealth and power for 180 days. Then he promptly threw a seven-day party for the citizens of Shushan. The King legalized inebriation and even commanded his staff to perform whatever service pleased the citizens.
After seven days of drinking, Ahasuerus was royally smashed and he decided to display Vashti the Queen to the masses. She’s in a lose-lose situation. Either she disobeys Persian mores banning royal women from the drinking party or she disobeys her drunken king (Berlin, JPS Commentary, 15). The madrashim suggest the king asked Vashti to do this wearing her crown and nothing else.
R. Aibu said: What makes atonement for Israel is that when the Israelites eat and drink and make merry, they bless and praise and extol the Holy One Blessed Be He, whereas when other nations eat and drink they turn to lewdness. So here, one said, “The Median women are more beautiful,” and another said, “The Persian women are more beautiful.” Said that fool [Ahasuerus] to them: “The vessel which I use is neither Median nor Persian, but Chaldean. Would you like to see it?” They replied, “Yes, but she must be naked.” “Very well,” he said to them, “let her be naked.”
Vashti (understandably) refused to be debased as concubine or a dancing girl. At this point, Ahasuerus sought legal advice from his seven experts on the laws of Perisa and Media: “What shall be done, according to the law, to Queen Vashti for failing to obey the command of King Ahasuerus…?”
Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!” (1:16-18).
Memucan seems to fear some-sort of ancient feminist movement, spreading like disease across the entirety of the king’s empire: all because Vashti refused to get naked. Fortunately, Memucan had a solution to his, errr sexual anxiety, one that would prevent such an all-out rebellion by women.
Let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of the King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she” (1:19).
The idea delighted Ahasuerus; exit Vashti, enter stage Esther.
This chapter introduces several elements that often overlooked in the story. The book of Esther paints Persian Law as ridiculous and legalistic. The king is caricature of this system. He de-thrones his wife and sends his ‘edict’ to the far reaches of his empire—places where people couldn’t have read it to save their lives—only to appoint Esther as queen, a woman who would also disobey and disregard ‘Persian Law.’
Esther is quite beloved by modern feminists, but what about Vashti? Many literary and film adaption’s have portrayed her as a petulant temptress. Even rabbinic literature it torn, sometimes portraying her as a Jew-hating, evil descendent of Nebuchadnezzar.
Vicious or virtuous? I’m inclined to re-paint this forgotten woman. Vashti was a victim of a buffoon king, a bloated Persian society, and bizarre legal mores. She defended her modesty and virtue, and she stood up for herself as a woman, knowing that the cost might be her crown or perhaps her life. Vashti is no mere echo of Esther. Though her resistance to Persian law and a ludicrous edict saved no lives and was memorialized by none, Vashti should by no means be a a forgotten queen.