One of my favourite people in the entire bible is Queen Vashti, who appears briefly in the first chapter of the book of Esther. Vashti was summoned by her husband, King Xerxes, who had been carousing with his mates for a week, to put on her crown and appear in front of his guests to display her beauty. Even though she had been enjoying the benefits of life in the royal palace, partying with her own friends while her husband entertained his guests; and was no stranger to the sumptuous comforts of royal life described in this chapter, Vashti had the temerity to say “No.”
We are not really told the reason for this refusal but it seems likely that Vashti was reluctant to be viewed merely for her physical attributes. Given that the king’s word was law, she was probably aware of the seriousness of her refusal and the likelihood of retribution. I think she was a woman who took her self-respect seriously.
As a woman, I cannot help but be amused by the king’s consternation and referral to his wisest officials for advice as to what to do with his rebellious wife, and their fear that her conduct might be imitated by other women in the kingdom. On a more serious note, however, it does highlight the need for domestic accord and respect between partners in order for families, communities and nations to function effectively.
Vashti was banished from the king’s sight. According to Jewish tradition she was executed; other sources portray her as being held under house arrest. The bible does not elaborate. It is her departure that paves the way for the introduction to the royal household of Queen Esther, who was to save the Jewish exiles in the Persian Empire from annihilation. Esther too was beautiful and spirited and determined to follow the dictates of her conscience. Vashti was unafraid to deny the king. Esther boldly entered his presence without being summoned. King Xerxes must have wondered what was happening with his womenfolk.
I like to imagine that Vashti left the palace with a bundle of jewels, sold them and lived a life of adventure afterwards. Once again we see only a small picture of the whole, a glimpse of how one person’s decision had far-reaching consequences for the Kingdom of God. None of us are immune to having to make difficult choices, to risk offending someone by following our own standards or having to speak up and say “No way!” when somebody expects us to just follow their lead. When we are true to our values despite the consequences, God honours our choices in ways which we may never fully know or understand.