Where is God in Vashti?

· Bible,Women,Ethics

Have you ever heard the Book of Esther described as the only book in the Bible in which God does not appear? And whose name is not even mentioned? Well, this may be true. But I see God all over this text. God is present in the interactions between people who are powerful—like a king, his legal counsel, and his second-in-command—and people who hold little power—like Mordecai and Esther. And God is present in the exiled Jewish minority that runs underfoot in a foreign kingdom.

I think that God is present even in the story of Vashti, a privileged Persian queen.

Remember Vashti? She’s featured in only the first of this ten-chapter story and so often overshadowed by the book’s namesake. I’d encourage you to refresh your memory by reading (or at least skimming) the whole book before going any further.

In the opening act, we are introduced to Ahasuerus, the Persian king who rules the land from as far east as Pakistan to as far west as the Red Sea. His emotions lie close to the surface. He tends to act rashly, as we will soon see. He is a glutton for pleasure and loves to impress people. And he revels in lavish, boozy parties. The story starts, in fact, with the king hosting a week-long banquet. Everyone (read: every man) in Susa is invited!

The author convinces us of Ahasuerus’s extravagance by taking a full paragraph to detail the pomp and circumstance of these festivities.

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Vashti, though, is absent. She’s been tasked with hosting a party for the women. The author does not describe this event, possibly to contrast Ahasuerus’s unrestrained excess with Vashti’s tea-and-crumpets simplicity.

On the final day, Ahasuerus realizes that his most impressive possession has not yet been enjoyed by his guests. He orders Vashti to join them.

“Saunter around a little. I want everyone to see what a beaut you are. I want to make them a little jealous.”

But Ahasuerus soon receives the message that Vashti has refused his order. He is outraged and, I imagine, humiliated. Talk of Vashti’s disobedience is already spreading.

The king may be wealthy and powerful, but he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. So, he calls in his legal advisers and asks them to determine what can be done about the queen.

And here comes one of the most overt patriarchal moves in the Bible. In the moment, Ahasuerus is hot under the collar. But you don’t need to read between the lines to see that his advisers are motivated to maintain the king’s—and their—power. They know there is more in play here than a single act by one woman:

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 behavior will rebel against the king’s
officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! (Esther 1:17-19)

The advisors also know there is no Persian law that Vashti has violated. So, to prevent Vashti’s insubordination from toppling the patriarchal structures that support the kingdom, they convince Ahasuerus to issue a new law. Vashti is dethroned and exiled from the king. Making an example of the former queen ensures that each woman in Ahasuerus’s vast land will forever submit to the master of the house.

It was a decision that rash Ahasuerus would eventually come to regret. When he remembered how valuable Vashti had been and began to think twice about the law, his cronies insisted: “It’s time to find a new, better queen.” (The irony is that the name Vashti has sometimes been translated as “the best.”)

We are not told why Vashti refused to appear at the party. Perhaps she thought of herself as more than a body to be lusted after. Perhaps she feared being at the mercy of crowds of intoxicated men. Vashti’s resistance to patriarchal power, though, is unsuccessful. What results is not only personal loss but loss for all the women. To top it off, the author gives her no lines to say, nor do we ever see her present with characters who do speak. We are always a step removed from her. Were this a play, there would be no need to assign the part of Vashti to an actor.* 

So, is Vashti an incidental character? Just part of a backstory to Esther’s ascension to the throne?

Vashti’s refusal to be taken advantage of may be only one episode of a longer saga that circles around toxic power dynamics. It is true that only Esther is successful in her effort to resist the king and his cronies.

But doesn’t Vashti’s failure to overturn those power dynamics speak to the way the world continues to operate today? Doesn’t it remind us of the frustration we feel? We work against systems and structures that make a few strong at the expense of many, and yet witness very little change. It is so easy to be discouraged, so easy to resign ourselves to the notion that justice will never come.

But Vashti didn’t let fear or despondency get in the way, and neither should we. So, let’s give Vashti her due. Hers is the first act of defiance in this story. It’s only the beginning of resistance. And it signals that a greater opposition to abuse and victimization will come.

Now, where is God in all this?

If you read a commentary on the Book of Esther, you will find many occasions where God, though not named as such, is seen in the customs practiced by the Jewish characters, both as individuals and as a people—fasting, for instance. This is not unimportant. But I want to point out that God can be found even with Persian Queen Vashti.

God is in the business of toppling the towers of privilege while offering no guarantees that the powerless will see justice on earth. Over history, though, God has engaged in a long work against injustice by using oppressed people—not only Jews, not only Christians. Vashti may have known that her disobedience to the king would result in no change—that his advisors would be successful in their attempts to maintain power. But she resisted nonetheless.

God’s work is not finished. Nor is ours. We continue to be called to partner with God by standing in solidarity with people who suffer injustice. Let’s keep on responding to this call through action, accepting that resisting evil, even without positive, visible, immediate consequences, is sometimes enough.

*To be fair, the author supplies both Vashti and Esther with names. Many women featured in scripture, including women Jesus healed and protected, are not named.