Esther, Vashti, and the women of Persia

It’s Purim today, the Jewish feast that celebrates the salvation of the Jews by Esther. Here’s a short recap if you don’t remember the story: In Persia, during the reign of Ahasuerus (whom you might know as Xerxes), a royal advisor named Haman wanted to get rid of his rival Mordecai and all Mordecai’s people (the Jews). Haman gets the king to agree, and a genocide is decreed (Esther 3:13). Esther, a Jewish woman and Mordecai’s cousin, had by great luck recently married the king, and she used her powerful position to change the king’s mind. Instead of the annihilation of the Jews of Persia, the Jews annihilate their enemies—including Haman (Esther 7:10, 8:11-12, 9:1-15).1

At synagogues across Israel, the entire book of Esther will be read aloud with audience participation: booing every time Haman’s name comes up, cheering for Mordecai (often with the augmentation of noisemakers). Children will stage pageants to tell the story. People eat “Haman’s ears” (hamantashen): yummy triangular cookies with poppy seed, apricot, prune, or chocolate filling. Everyone dresses up in costumes so that Haman won’t recognize them, and it’s also customary to get drunk enough that they won’t recognize Haman (in fact, that’s part of the festival instructions in the Talmud). At Purim, Jerusalem feels more like New Orleans.

For the Jews, the story of Esther is a story of salvation. Christian celebration of the story has, in recent years, gone a very different direction to turn Esther into a churchified Disney princess. You can buy a Queen Esther Barbie doll for the little princess in your life (available on Amazon). You can throw a Queen Esther birthday party, with princess dresses and royal treatment of the birthday girl (“For entertainment, read the Bible story to the guests,” recommends One church guide even suggests hosting a Queen Esther party, complete with manicures and pedicures… to teach teenage girls about sexual purity (which rather makes one wonder if the organizers have ever read Esther).

These particular appropriations of Esther are pretty disturbing when you consider what happens to the women in the story. First of all, Esther only becomes queen because the king’s first wife, Vashti, refuses to accept his invitation to appear before the men of the kingdom at a banquet. A long, long history of interpretation has described Vashti as self-centered, rude, vain, stuck-up; a bad wife who embarrassed her husband when she turned down his invitation to the social event of the year. In the story itself, Ahasuerus’s advisors identify Vashti as a threat to the power of husbands across the kingdom (Esther 1:16-18)—and they demand that she be punished to nip this potential feminist revolution in the bud.

But what, precisely, was Vashti refusing? The invitation to appear before the king and the men of the kingdom came during a seven-day-long party at the end of 180 days of feasting. The wine was flowing freely during this week-long banquet, and the king was at the least buzzed (Esther 1:7-10). The request for Vashti’s appearance asked her to come “wearing the royal crown,” so that the king could show off her beauty to all the men of the kingdom… which, according to the literal interpretation of various ancient rabbis, suggests the king demanded that his wife parade naked before a bunch of drunk men. Most certainly women did not belong at the kind of party the king was hosting (cf. Plutarch, Marriage Advice 162); Vashti, in fact, was hosting a separate party for the women of the kingdom at the time. Vashti’s defiance of her husband is not the result of arrogant vanity, but an attempt to protect herself from a degrading, potentially abusive situation (and to protect other Persian wives from the king’s precedence-setting request).

Second, “all the beautiful young virgins” (Esther 2:3). When Vashti is kicked out of the king’s bed, Ahasuerus’s advisors gather up the young, beautiful girls of the kingdom for what is sometimes presented as the pilot season of The Bachelor, or perhaps Miss Persia 483 BCE. These girls were put in the king’s harem and given the royal beauty treatment. They each got one night with the king (and it’s unlikely that they were playing Scrabble). If the king liked the girl, he could ask for her again by name… if he didn’t remember her name, she spent the rest of her life with the other forgotten women in the harem (Esther 2:2-4, 12-14).

Here’s something important to note about this part of the story: these women were young, probably ages twelve to fifteen or so (in the ancient world, most women would have been married off by age fifteen). Here’s another important point: these young women had no choice. None. They were seen and taken by the king’s advisors—the story makes no reference to their own desire, their parents’ desire, or even the possibility of pre-existing marital contracts. They were in essence abducted because they were young, attractive, and virgins. Moreover, the women are sent to the king’s bed; there’s no way to opt out of completing the contest. The story is not so much like The Bachelor, then, as it is an ancient example of sex trafficking.

Finally, Esther herself. Esther is gathered up with the other beautiful young virgins. The eunuch in charge of the harem liked Esther, and gave her special treatment and insider tips into pleasing the king (Esther 2:8-9, 15)—and Esther pleased the king enough in her trial night that Ahasuerus married her and crowned her queen. Esther, despite her youth and inexperience, is savvy enough to make an oppressive situation work in her favor.

The political skills Esther learns in the harem, and perhaps also from her cousin Mordecai before her abduction into the king’s household, are put to use when Haman comes up with his plot to massacre all the Jews in Persia. Even though she was queen, Esther could not enter the king’s presence without royal invitation; Vashti was punished for refusing the king’s invitation, but Esther could be killed for preempting an invitation (Esther 4:10-11). She puts her life on the line to appear before Ahasuerus and invite him to a party of her own. When the king offers her up to half of his kingdom as a hostess gift, she only invites him to another party—whetting the royal curiosity—where she finally begs for the lives of the Jews (Esther 5:1-8, 7:1-6).

Esther was taken into the king’s palace against her will, and Mordecai prodded her into the role of savior (Esther 41-8, 12-14); but it is Esther’s own understanding of the king and Persian politics that saves the Jews. Instead of using this story to teach little girls a Disney princess mentality, why not use it to encourage them to be smart, politically active, and engaged in the struggle for human rights? Instead of elevating Esther as the ultimate heroine of the story—don’t forget, she not only saved the Jews, she also asked the king for an extension of Mordecai’s proclamation of the Jewish massacre of their Persian enemies (Esther 8:9-14, 9:11-15)—why not celebrate Vashti for her courage in standing up to her husband’s tyranny? In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Rabbi Toba Spitzer calls for Purim to be celebrated with support of efforts to end violence against women and girls. The memory of “all the beautiful young virgins” taken by Ahasuerus’s advisors, and the women and children who died in the violence of the first Purim, asks at least that much of readers of Esther.

1 This part of the story has left an unfortunate legacy of violence against the contemporary “enemies” of the readers of the story (see Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, Princeton, 2006). In recent history, the massacre of Muslim worshipers in Hebron’s Cave of Machpelah happened on Purim in 1994, and the Purim celebrations held by Jewish settlers in Hebron continue to be accompanied by violence against Palestinians—a tradition that has leaked into Jerusalem as well (see this report from last year).

2 Plutarch, Marriage Advice 16 (Loeb Classical Library): The lawful wives of the Persian kings sit beside them at dinner, and eat with them. But when the kings wish to be merry and get drunk, they send their wives away, and send for their music-girls and concubines. In so far they are right in what they do, because they do not concede any share in their licentiousness and debauchery to their wedded wives.