Megilat Esther, the Book of Esther, is both a narrative of historical events and a study of human dynamics. Both aspects are far from simple. Both are debated by the scholars. What really happened in the Persia of Ahashverosh and Esther, and why? What is the inside story of the dramatis personae? Some figures are crucial to the story, others (like Harbonah and Zeresh) really only have walk-on parts. The four leading figures are the king and queen (both his queens in fact), Haman the Wicked, and Mordecai the Jew.
In the popular view, the king and his first wife are comic characters, silly and selfish, ruled by their instincts and incapable of serious thought. But there’s more to the story than that.
Among those who look more deeply is Yoram Hazony, author of The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther (Shalem Press, 1995). Limiting ourselves to his opening section, we see him painting a picture of a king who lives an almost fictional life. He is, in Hazony’s words, “the archetype of the political ruler: All spirit, he will do anything to feel he has control over others.”
The feast and flattery with which the story begins shows Ahashverosh at his best (or his worst). He thinks all that a king has to do is to strut, issue commands and expect instant obedience. The order he gives his (probably unloving and unloved) wife Vashti is therefore a ploy to show the nobles who is in charge.
We can guess how upset and disappointed he is when Vashti – whose point of view we will consider in detail in a moment – refuses to obey, thus “exposing his weakness before the entire aristocracy and even before the commoners.”
We can imagine the thwarted king gnashing his teeth and wanting to cry. His own queen has made him a nobody! His own wife has humiliated him and exposed his feet of clay! The emperor has no clothes! How can he ever recapture his authority? Baruch Hashem, he has toadies to help him out. He gratefully accepts the advice of a “Yes, Minister!” stooge who tells him that Vashti must be deposed and banished at once. Only this way will the king look strong once more and the empire’s menfolk feel empowered again. What a to-do it will be if the king’s wife can get away with being disobedient and all the other women follow suit! What do we conclude? In Hazony’s words, “The person of the king is a fiction, a [mere] name and a face.”
Hazony’s material on Vashti is sketchy; this article attempts to fill in some gaps.
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If Ahashverosh is a fiction, we can surely argue that Vashti is a fraud.
She is popularly thought of as a rather silly woman who flouts her husband’s wishes and is banished from the palace and the narrative. After the first chapter she never appears in the story again. Feminists probably have a high opinion of her as a woman with a mind and will of her own, who refuses to dance at her husband’s bidding. They also probably compare her to the quiet Esther, who might (or might not) be more beautiful but is appropriately obedient and generally keeps her origins and her opinions to herself, until when it comes to the crunch she does stand up for her people.
Most people view Vashti as nothing more than the opening act of the story who sets the scene for the later events. This interpretation ignores the inherent fascination of Vashti, who is far from uninteresting in her own right, as the Midrash recognizes.
Vashti bears a name that in old Persian probably means “excellent” (possibly the original Vashti was an Elamite goddess), though those nationalists who insist that every biblical name is derived from Hebrew find some connection with the verb shatah, to drink, since it was a royal drinking bout that proved her undoing.
Is it that the Vashti of the megilah is a woman of dignity and integrity who refuses to dance naked before a group of the degenerate, the drunken and debauched? When the king says “Dance!” (according to tradition, he means “wearing nothing but the crown,” though cavorting without clothes is probably far from uncommon in those days), she retorts “No! I refuse!” Her embarrassed and angry husband has to show his authority by harshly disciplining and degrading her. Vashti now disappears from the story and from history. The king has been crossed, but now he has exerted his royal power. Male honor has been saved. But before long he feels the lack of a wife – who can imagine a king without a queen? – even though he must certainly possess an overflowing harem to satisfy his sexual desires. Hazony thinks that having a queen will restore the king’s sense of self-worth, his image of himself as looking like a king ought to look.
The Vashti of the Midrash has lineage, as the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Sheshbazzar.
Achashverosh, in the eyes of the Midrash, began as her father’s menial servant, but of course now he is king. Possibly she refuses to obey him in order to show that really he’s a nobody. But that’s not the general opinion of her actions. The general view is that her modesty is affronted, and she is trying to assert her womanly rights.
But the truth is that her refusal to obey her husband is neither out of feminism or because of modesty. It is out of vanity; the sages posit that she has a rash (possibly leprosy), and she fears that the audience of nobles will think her ugly. This makes her something of a fraud because she has in fact willingly complied in the past when told to provide entertainment by prancing and dancing (though some say it was the harem girls who regularly danced while the queen secluded herself from public gaze). At the same time she is not a very nice character. She is very aware of her royal dignity and has to show it by humiliating her maids, especially if they are Jewish, and making them work naked on Shabbat.
She hosts a separate banquet for the wives of the nobles merely in order to show off the treasures and works of art that decorate her chambers.
Since midrashic interpretations do not always agree, it should be mentioned that according to one view she is not so flighty at all but rather politically sophisticated. Her banquet for the women has serious political motivations. Possibly in cohoots with the king, with whom she might well have a good or at least convenient relationship, she cynically organizes the women’s banquet so she can take them all hostage if her husband is the subject of a coup during his banquet for the nobles. We can imagine why she feels this plan might be frustrated or jeopardized if she has to leave the women to their own devices for a while when she goes off to dance at the male extravaganza.
In all, Vashti is a fascinating character, interesting in her own right, giving later generations so much to think and talk about. Oh yes, Purim is light-hearted and frivolous, but it has its serious side, and Vashti is part of it.The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.
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