From childhood, I have had a knack for recall of the scriptures, where a passage occurs in scripture and what the passage says, often verbatim. This skill, while useful to sniff out erroneous “quotations” from the Bible and Bible trivia games, carries an alter ego- inattention to details I already “know.” Once I’ve read something, I need only look at it to know that I read it and it still says the same thing it said the last time I “read” it. As I have gotten older, I have discovered a different truth, which is that experience and contemplation gives the same words several meanings at a time. Or, perhaps, the absence of what is said carries meaning. So, it was one day in the light of the revelation that power and men often create a narrative to silence opposition, that I read an old story with different eyes.
In the book of Esther, we read briefly about Queen Esther’s predecessor, Vashti. I am not sure what I personally thought of Vashti, because my mind was impeded by the memory of Bible class discussions casting her as disobedient and unfit for her office as she had disobeyed the king, Xerxes. As a young woman, I did not resist this narrative too much as it did not seem out of line with the text or other scriptures in the Bible. After all, what else was there to explain her fate but that it was the just consequence of her error. Because we know all consequences are just, right?
As I dutifully plodded through the first chapter of Esther for the umpteenth time, I read how King Xerxes gave a banquet for all his nobles and, officials and military leaders of the provinces were present. For six months he displayed his wealth and largesse to all the people “from the least to the greatest.” He served wine giving the command that no one was to be forced to drink but could drink as much or as little as he wanted. Then, came a pivotal moment, after seven days, the king in “high spirits from his wine,” sent seven eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti to display her beauty for his guests. She refused. The king got angry. He sought the advice of “wise men who understood the times.” They advised the king to depose her and broadcast that throughout the provinces.
As I was moving through at my usual familiar pace, I paused to wonder whether her fate shrouded in the judgments of the king’s advisors was just. In my mind were the hundreds, if not thousands, of sham charges and convictions of innocent black men and women I came to be recently focused on with renewed appreciation as I listened to the excruciating details of the story of four black men convicted of kidnapping and raping a white woman in Groveland, Florida in 1949. Three of the four men were murdered along the way. And one who was nearly murdered, stood trial twice, was convicted twice and sentenced to death. Others lost their lives and property in reaction to the supposed rape, as well. The men, now dead, have yet to be exonerated but, were pardoned in June 2019. The truth that an Orwellian system can create to maintain “order,” made me look again.
As I looked, I noted a few things that had me thinking with a slight rueful chuckle that Queen Vashti might have been the first, and perhaps, only feminist recorded in the Bible. I noticed a contrast between King Xerxes attitude toward his guest and his Queen. And, I noticed a contrast between the “wise” men’s advice and the proclamation of the king. In those two spaces, I realized questions that had long been resolved against Vashti were perhaps yet to be answered.
Xerxes seem to be a remarkable king. He had amassed wealth and a powerful kingdom. He was a king of the people as he had invited the least to the greatest. He also was a reasonable sort not forcing anyone to drink but being generous with his royal wine. It is against this backdrop that he commands Vashti’s presence and later deposes her on the advice of his counsel.
For Queen Vashti’s part we know very little, at least in scripture. She was very beautiful. She had thrown a banquet for “the women.” She refused the king’s command as delivered by the seven eunuchs. We are not told what she was doing when she refused. We are not even told why she refused including whether it had to do with the presentation of the demand- couldn’t the king have sent one eunuch? Perhaps, the lack of information is the point, when the king summonses you, you go. We can also imagine that Queen Vashti must have understood something about kings, power and refusing to obey the king’s command. Certainly, such errors carry the penalty of death.
Rather than presuming that Queen Vashti had any substantive objection, I have heard it suggested that, perhaps, she was too busy with her own party to attend to the king’s drunken command. In fact, we don’t know that Queen Vashti was still attending to guests nor, do we know whether she understood the king was in “high spirits.” We know the king got furious and his anger burned with her refusal.
Since Xerxes did not have Queen Vashti executed, we may wish to conclude that he should keep his king of the people status. He does, however, initiate a public trial in Queen Vashti’s absence. The “wise men” advised the king in the presence of nobles that Queen Vashti’s “disrespect” would become widely known throughout the kingdom and there would be no end to the discord it would cause. Memucan, the spokesman, advised that Xerxes should make a decree that Vashti was to never again enter the presence of the king and give her royal position “to someone else who is better than she.” Xerxes apparently deposed Queen Vashti but also sent a proclamation “that every man should be ruler over his own household.”
Now, word does travel fast. But, it doesn’t have to, after all, this was before Facebook, or even email. Perhaps Memucan was having trouble at home with his wife or some other issue that caused him to conclude that everyone was going to find out about Vashti’s refusal. In other words, was Vashti’s refusal an assault on social order as Memucan claimed? Had the king’s order and Vashti’s refusal been public? What was Vashti’s refusal- was it a flat “no”? Or, did Vashti need to be cast as the villain to justify Xerxes’ actions. In any case, the proclamation was not simply that Vashti had been deposed but, “that every man should be ruler over his own household.”
Vashti’s defenses must give way to the world order. They are absent from the pages of inspiration leaving only the conclusion of the king and his men “that every man should be ruler over his own household.” This proclamation cannot be assailed. Like the guilt of the “Groveland boys,” Vashti’s failure is certain. Or, is it? Perhaps, it matters who lives, who dies who tells your story.
Stacey is an attorney who has been practicing law for nearly 25 years. She began her career as a criminal defense lawyer and now, investigates and prosecutes lawyers for violations of professional responsibility rules.