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Who Was Vashti?

Vashti in the Bible


Queen Vashti deposed by Ernest Normand, 1890.
Public Domain

In the biblical Book of Esther, Vashti is the wife of King Ahasuerus, the ruler of Persia.

Vashti in the Book of Esther

According to the Book of Esther, during his third year on the throne King Ahasuerus decided to host a party in the city of Shushan. The celebration lasted half a year and was concluded with a week long drinking festival, during which both the king and his guests consumed vast quantities of alcohol.

In his drunken stupor Ahasuerus decides that he wants to show off his wife's beauty, so he commands Queen Vashti to appear before his male guests:

"On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, 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)

The text does not say exactly how she is told to appear, only that she is to wear her royal crown. But given the king's drunkenness and the fact that all his male guests are likewise intoxicated, the assumption has often been that Vashti was commanded to show herself in the nude – wearing only her crown. Vashti receives the summons while she is hosting a banquet for the women of the court and refuses to comply. Her refusal is yet another clue to the nature of the kings command. It does not make sense that she would risk disobeying a royal decree if Ahasuerus had only asked her to show her face.

When Ahasuerus is informed of Vashti's refusal he is furious. He asks several noblemen at his party how he should punish the queen for her disobedience. One of them, a man named Memucan, suggests that she should be punished severely. After all, if the king does not deal with her harshly other wives in the kingdom might get ideas and refuse to obey their own husbands. "Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces," he argues, "for the queen's conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands...there will be no end of disrespect and discord." (Esther 1:16) Memucan suggests that Vashti should be banished and the title of queen be given to another woman. Ahasuerus likes this idea, so the punishment is carried out. Soon a massive, kingdom-wide search is launched for a beautiful woman to replace Vashti as queen. Eventually Esther is selected - her experiences in Ahasuerus' court are the basis of the Purim story. Vashti is never mentioned again.

Modern Interpretations

Although Esther and Mordecai are the heroes of the Purim story, some see Vashti has a heroine in her own right. She refuses to debase herself before the king and his drunken friends, choosing to value her dignity above submitting to her husband's whims. Vashti is seen as a strong character who does not use her beauty or sexuality to advance herself, which some argue is exactly what Esther does later in the text.

Vashti's character has also been interpreted as that of a villain. Rather than refusing because she valued herself, proponents of this reading see her as someone who thought she was better than everyone else and therefore refused Ahasuerus' command because she was self-important. In the Talmud it is suggested that she was unwilling to appear nude either because she had leprosy or because she had grown a tail. The Talmud also gives a third reason: she refused to appear before the king because "The king was the stable boy of Vashti's father King Nebuchadnezzar." (Babylonian Talmud, Megilliah 12b.) The motive here is that Vashti's refusal was intended to humiliate her husband in front of his guests.

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