(Queen Vashti – Painted by Elysium Creations)
Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here
Read Part 3 here
Read Part 4 here
Read Part 5 here
Don’t tell me what to do, Don’t tell me what to say And please, when I go out with you Don’t put me on display, ‘cause You don’t own me
The above lyrics first appeared in a song by Lesley Gore in 1963, and the song has been covered by artists many times over. Shortly after it’s release, You Don’t Own Me became an anthem for women. Although it was performed by Gore, surprisingly, the song was actually written by two men; David White and John Madara. Madara explains that much of the song was shaped out of his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. With this in mind, the two decided they were tired of how many songs written for women in the 1960s centered around the women obsessing over men. They decided to try something new stating, “Let’s write a song about a woman telling a guy off.”
However, this 1960s song of female empowerment could have just as easily been taken straight from a story in the Old Testament…the story of Esther.
At the opening of the story of Esther, we are introduced to King Xerxes. This King is extremely wealthy and powerful. To celebrate this wealth, he decides to throw a 7 day long party, because why not? This party was for every person in the kingdom, which shows how much money and power we’re talking here. Although we aren’t given lots of details on this rave, we can get a pretty good idea from this verse:
Esther 1:8 – “By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.”
Seven days of “all you can drink” wine…you get the picture. To add to it, we get told that the Queen, Vashti, has a separate party for the women. If you’re wondering whether or not it was typical for the women to party separate from the men, it wasn’t. My guess is that the men did not want their wives seeing what they were doing during this week long drunkfest.
During the party, King Xerxes decides that, in addition to showing off his wealth, he also wants to show off his Queen. We read,
When King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine (aka, drunk) he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him… to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. – Esther 1: 10-11
What exactly does it mean that he wanted to “display her beauty to the people”? The text doesn’t say. But considering how this party has been going so far, I can imagine that he didn’t want to honor and respect her in front of the people.
Like many women in Biblical times, and throughout history, Vashti finds herself in a situation where the men in power want to use and abuse her. What choice does she have?
But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger. – Esther 1: 12
The opening of Esther goes out of its way to let us know that this King is the richest, most powerful person in the known world, and Vashti just straight up gives him the middle finger.
As most people in power do when someone stands up to them, the King and his associates freak out. Now that Vashti has taken a stand, they fear that the rest of the women will follow suit.
Esther 1: 16-18 – “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
The men get together and realize that, if one woman won’t let the men walk all over her, the rest of them might band together and really wreak havoc. They can’t have that. So what do they do? They pass law…for real
Esther 1:20 – Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.
If women won’t just do what the men tell them to do, we will make it their legal obligation. Do you see the humor here? Rather than, you know, just treating women with respect, dignity, and equality, they pass a law that all women are required to “respect” their husbands.
Then comes the second thing that those in power do to “threats”. They neutralize her. What exactly happens to Vashti? We don’t know, but suddenly the King needs a new Queen. He hopes to get it right this time, but the joke’s on him. Enter Esther…
Esther has a relative named Mordecai who has been taking care of her since she has no father or mother. For some reason, Mordecai gets Esther to participate in this “sex competition” the King is holding to find a replacement Queen. Yes, that’s correct. Read Esther 2:12. What else did you think it meant that each contestant had a turn to “go in to” King Xerxes?
For the first half of the story, Esther seems to follow this law of doing whatever the men tell her. Here’s how that goes…
- Mordecai tells her to participate in the competition – Esther is forced to have sex with a foreign King (that’s a big no no for the Jews)
- Mordecai tells Esther not to reveal to the King that she is a Jew – The King allows for an edict to be passed to murder all of Esther’s people.
- Mordecai gets himself into a mess with Haman, then tells Esther to go talk to the King about it, even though that could get Esther killed.
- When Esther hesitates to go to the King, Mordecai threatens her – Esther 4:13
At this point, Esther has had enough of listening to the men. So far, that has caused everything to erupt into chaos. She embraces her inner Vashti and the story completely changes its tone with one line.
Esther 4:15 – Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai…
Now Esther is calling the shots. She tells Mordecai what to do. She tells the Jews what to do. In fact, she even tells the King what to do. She takes charge. She’s the leader. And guess what happens? All of her people are saved, Haman is removed, Mordecai gets promoted, and the kingdom prospers.
For some reason, even after reading this story, we want to become the Persian King Xerxes (who the text does not view positively) and pass laws that subordinate women to men. So often the Bible is used to limit what women are capable of and silence their voices. But the story of Vashti and Esther is one of many female empowerment songs throughout Scripture.
Esther 4: 16 – When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.