Vashti’s Shimmy

By Philip E. Jenks


September 29, 2016 – The unexpected highlight of the first presidential debate of the 2016 season was Hillary Clinton’s response when Donald Trump unleashed a sniffily incoherent attack.

“Okay!” she exclaimed, beaming. And she shimmied defiantly, knowing she had lured the Donald into a rhetorical trap.

What millions saw was a misogynistic (and thoroughly unprepared) male attempting to bully his way to advantage over the smartest woman in the room.

The male assumption of natural superiority over women, especially claimed by rich and powerful males, extends back several millennia. The notion is laughable and that’s why it runs throughout the Mel Brooks canon of films, most notably in his 1993 opus, Robin Hood, Men in Tights.

In the climatic scene, King Richard (Patrick Stewart) pulls the beautiful Maid Marion (Amy Yasbeck) into his arms and plants a lingering and passionate kiss on her fulsome lips.

Rabbi Tuckman watches intently before giving the audience an approving wink: “It’s good to be the king.”

Brooks knows kings have been getting away with serious crap over the centuries, including having their way with willing and unwilling maidens. It’s not that Brooks approves of monarchial rape or any other abuse of power but he thinks power can be dramatically dissipated if we laugh at it. Audiences in Germany reportedly doubled up over Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler.”

But time was when laughing at Nazis and kings was a capital offense. So it was throughout much of human history, and so it was in the time of King Ahasuerus (ah-HAZ-er-us) of Persia, a central and certainly the most powerful figure in the book of Esther.

Ahasuerus was megalomaniacal, ravenous for power, and – if the book of Esther is any indication – a devoted alcoholic whose liver must have resembled a hair ball. As the narrative opens, the king is in the midst of a six-month party in which “drinking was by flagons, without restraint” (1:8).

Since the point of the party was to show off the king’s great wealth, the image of the palace that comes to mind is a gilded Animal House. And, as was true of virtually every Persian male alive in 450 B.C., Ahasuerus was a devoted misogynist.

The Greek version of Ahasuerus’ name is Xerxes, which many people find easier to pronounce because they remember Cecil B. DeMille’s histrionic intonation in his biblical epics: ZIRK-sees!

Most historians believe that Ahasuerus and Xerxes the First are one in the same. That would make the biblical Ahasuerus the devious victor of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when his vast army destroyed a much smaller Greek militia. Afterwards, according to some reports (although no archaeological evidence exists), Xerxes is said to have burned the city of Athens to the ground.

The Ahasuerus we meet in Esther is not a monarch to trifle with. He has the power to bestow great riches upon his friends, and he could instantly execute anyone who inadvertently annoyed him. As he drained flagon after flagon of wine, no one knew where his foggy inebriation might lead.

As it turned out, “when the king was merry with wine, he commanded … the seven eunuchs who attended him to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command … At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.” (1:10-12).

What on earth got into Vashti, that she committed a capital offense by refusing a lawful order of the king?

The verdict of history seems to depend on the gender of the historian.

My own suspicion, admittedly Y-chromosomal, is that Vashti’s refusal is a rash and even arrogant test of her power over a king she knows to be smitten by her good looks. It makes you think of other ambitious queens, including Ann Boleyn whose miscalculation of her power over King Henry VIII led to the cleaving of her head.

The author of Esther seems to share that view. The angry King Ahasuerus summons his sages to ask what should be done with a wife who disobeys her king.

Misogyny throbs in their manly solution:

“For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before  him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (1:17-18)

It’s the dominos theory of sexual warfare: if one husband’s authority over his wife is flaunted, all husbands will lose their God-given powers over the weaker sex. And who could bear to live in a world like that?

King Ahasuerus accepts the wisdom of his macho advisors and deposes the queen. No one knows what happened to Vashti after that, although we fear the worst. Ahasuerus was not the kind of king who hesitated to take a life, or thousands of lives, at the flick of his royal finger. In Vashti’s case he was careful to make sure all seven of his male advisors were recorded by name (1:14) so history would acknowledge due process in her elimination, and he may have felt it was kinder to take her life than to send her demoted and shamed into the dung heaps of Persia.

Surely Vashti must have known she was taking an enormous personal risk by refusing a lawful order of the king, and there’s no evidence in Esther that anyone sympathized with her.

So what possessed her to say no when her whole life depended on saying yes?

For many scholars, Vashti’s refusal is an act of heroism, not arrogance or ambition.

The Rev. Martha M. Cruz (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is my spouse) holds that point of view.

“What was Vashti thinking?” I asked one night before lights-out (an aside to those who wonder what ecclesial pillow talk is like).

“What do you mean?”

“Why on earth would she refuse the king’s command to come to him when she knew what the consequences would be?”

There was a familiar pause as she quickly studied my face to see if I’d gone mad.

“Did you read it?” she asked, referring to the book of Esther.

“Yes, but …”

“Look, the king had been drinking with his minions for six months, showing off his gold and silver and marble pillars. Then when he was ‘merry with wine,’ he summons his beautiful trophy wife so he can show her off, too.”

“Yes …”

“Well, do you think she wants to be shown off like a slab of beef?”

“Well, no …”

“She was being summoned to voyeuristic abuse by the king and his drunken male friends, and she said, ‘No way!’”

I tried to think it through.

“But,” I said thoughtfully, “he asked her to wear her crown. He wasn’t asking her to pose naked. He asked her to wear the crown to introduce her as his queen …”

“It doesn’t matter if she was dressed or not. She was summoned by a powerful man to be exposed and humiliated in front of other powerful men. No woman wants that.”

“Of course,” I said. “But this was 450 B.C. The king’s power was absolute. In 450 B.C., Queen Vashti would not have been aware of any alternative but to do what the king said.” I stopped short of saying, “It’s good to be the king.”

Martha scoffed. “Do you think women were any happier to be exposed and humiliated 2500 years ago than they are now?”

I paused again to think it over. Of course, history’s most common thread is about powerless majorities being enslaved and humiliated by rich rulers, and I didn’t suppose one gender felt worse about it than the other.

But history does offer rare anecdotes of the powerless taking courageous stands against the powerful: Spartacus, the Zealots, the English peasant’s revolt of 1381, Joseph Cinqué, Nat Turner.  Maybe Queen Vashti should be added to that heroic list.

“I guess you’re right,” I said tentatively, still thinking it over. We fell asleep, as we often do, with a re-run of Law and Order: Criminal Intent on the bedroom television. I can’t remember what specific episode we were watching, but it had to have been a drama about powerful persons engaged in criminal behavior toward the weak. No doubt Detectives Eames and Goren brought the bad guys to justice in the final scenes, but it was a reminder that human conflict has changed little in 2500 years.

The conflict between King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti was clearly sexually motivated, with the male seeking to fulfill his Freudian role of dominance and the woman raising an unexpected archetype of resistance. Later on in this same scripture it will be interesting to watch Queen Esther, Vashti’s lovely successor, use her exquisite beauty to charm the king into halting a plot by one of his ministers to exterminate the Jews of Persia. Whoever wrote the book of Esther – and I assume the author is male – obviously preferred Esther’s velvety approach to Vashti’s rebellion. In fact, no one in the narrative dares express support for Vashti – including she who benefitted most from her removal, namely, Queen Esther herself.

But the question remains about the appropriate relationship between the powerful and the powerless, as well as between women and men, both 2500 years ago and today.

We may excuse King Ahasuerus’ attitudes toward women as a Bronze Age fixation, but of course Martha is correct: even women who accepted cultural norms of low rank and submission were no more content to be objectified and humiliated then than they would be today. We tend to excuse unacceptable behavior when it conforms to historic or cultural norms, but in fact, Ahasuerus was as wide of the mark in 450 B.C. as he would be today.

This is an important lesson for the church. It’s not just the Roman Catholic hierarchy that has mishandled clergy sexual misconduct. All churches and traditions have sought to protect their professional leadership from criminal accusations on the grounds that if the clergy looks bad the church looks bad and the church’s Christian witness will suffer.

Of course it’s clergy misconduct that causes the church’s witness to suffer and efforts to cover it up make a bad situation worse. And no church that I have been aware of in the whole ecumenical movement has been entirely innocent of hiding terrible truths.

Sometimes sexual misconduct is explained away by cultural cliches, as in, “I’m a hugger,” or “I’m a toucher,” or “I grew up kissing strangers on the lips.” But that’s like excusing King Ahasuerus’ abuse of his queen on the grounds that “it’s good to be the king.”

Recently, ecumenical church bodies noticed a growing conflict in their meetings between persons who like to touch and be touched, and persons whose chests hurt if anyone stands too close to them.

The result is a brochure handed out by the National Council of Churches and Church World Service at every board and assembly meeting to explain to well-meaning Christians the truth about sexual harassment and abuse.

“Our diversity adds to the strength of our community; it is something that is cherished and celebrated,” the brochure advises.

“As we encounter one another’s differences, we cannot assume that our way of being and behaving is comfortable for every person. Sometimes our differences make it challenging to understand and communicate with one another, as well as respecting individual physical and sexual boundaries.”

As many church folks have discovered, it’s amazing how many people think a hand on the thigh or a pat on the rump is an essential component of any prayer circle.

“Behavior that has a sexual connotation, when unsolicited and unwanted, and / or repetitive, can be sexual harassment,” the brochure explains, perhaps too politely.

“Examples include: suggestive looks or comments, teasing or telling of jokes with sexual content, correspondence or calls of a sexual nature, inappropriate touching or closeness, pressure for unwanted personal or social engagement or activities with sexual overtones, or offers to use influence in return for sexual favors.

“In the end, harassment is not necessarily what is intended, but how that behavior and attitude impacts another’s well being defines harassment.”

The brochure encourages persons who feel that have been targets of sexual harassment to speak out.

“Gatherings of church bodies also need to be mindful of the presence of this kind of behavior. Within the sacred context of worship and Koinonia, sensitivity to and respect for each person is important.”

Queen Vashti is one of millions of women who were not treated with sensitivity and respect by one who held power over them.

The fact that Vashti took a stand when it would almost certainly result in her destruction is one of the most remarkable acts of courage in the Hebrew scriptures, equal to the courage of the queen who succeeded her.

We don’t know what finally happened to her, but we do know this: Queen Vashti set an example not only for her time but for all time. And we honor her as one who knew her true worth in God’s firmament – and showed us how to do the same.

That legacy is Vashti’s gift.

If she lived in our country today, she’d be a front runner for President of the United States.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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