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Law not patriarchy: why submission isn’t the issue in Esther and Vashti’s stories

The story of Esther, a Jewish orphan who became queen of Persia and saved her people from annihilation, is loaded with intrigue and drama. But that doesn’t necessarily make it comfortable reading.

Even in its earliest days, it had mixed reception. The Jews at Qumran ignored it; the Alexandrian Jews added extra passages to make the story more normative to Jewish ideology; and whoever translated the Hebrew into Greek “corrected” the original by (for example) pervasively inserting references to God.[1]

Likewise today, the book’s reception amongst Christian audiences faces tension. However, the topics now seem less concerned with whether Esther kept Torah, and more concerned with the justice (or otherwise) of patriarchy and warfare. Even so, the story remains immensely popular, with commentaries and Bible studies vying to interpret how Esther and Mordecai’s actions are exemplary for the modern Christian.

And in the middle of this, every now and then I see someone drawing attention to Vashti, who was queen before Esther, and they commend Vashti for her thoroughly feminist refusal to be a spectacle for the drunken king.

But is women’s equality what the author of the book had in mind, and if not, how much are we helped when we look at her through a feminist or egalitarian lens? These are the questions I want to explore in this post.

The appeal of the feminist and egalitarian lenses

Debra Reid describes the issue well in her commentary:

Traditional interpretations have discussed Vashti as an example of a rebellious wife, while Esther has been honoured as a submissive wife. In the light of such readings, which barely show any regard for contextual and literary context, feminist interpreters understandably want to reclaim Vashti and re-examine Esther.[2]

This is not an exaggeration; witness the following comment Dorothy Patterson made in a book review about men and women in the church (emphasis mine):

Absent in [Sarah] Sumner’s discussion [in the book] is the fact embraced by many complementarian commentators and theologians throughout the generations of biblical interpretation—i.e., that “obedience” is the key for Esther. … Esther humbled herself before the king. Unlike Vashti before her, Esther demonstrated to all her respect for Ahasuerus, her husband and monarch.[3]

Like… what? Anyone with the faintest steak of feminist thought says good on Vashti for refusing!

As Sarah Moon puts it:

I’ve loved Vashti ever since a grade school teacher came to class dressed up as Vashti and told us the story about how she had been exiled by the king because she asserted herself and refused to dance for the king’s drunken friends. She was a brave woman who claimed her body as her own–rather than her tyrant husband’s–in a day and age where women were viewed as property by most people.

She has similar enthusiasm for Esther:

Esther was always my favorite Bible character. As a kid, I loved her because she was a girl, and the Bible doesn’t talk about many of those. Plus she was brave. She was taken from her home and forced to marry a ruler who was oppressing her people. She was sexually exploited and probably raped, but still she boldly disobeyed the king’s orders, risking her life, and demanded that he protect her people.

But this is where we have a problem.

I’m loathe to pour cold water on Sarah Moon’s enthusiasm, but it’s a bit of a stretch to say Esther ‘demanded’ that the king protect her people.

Esther flatters him with two banquets, and says that if her people had been sold as slaves she wouldn’t have spoken up (Esther 7:4) and later begs him with tears (Esther 8:3). What’s more, despite the king giving her what she asks for, she doesn’t seem to score any points against the patriarchy that conscripted her into forced concubinage and deposed Vashti before that.

Undoubtedly, Esther is a survivor. I’m not diminishing that.

But when we make Vashti’s and Esther’s stories about patriarchy, I fear that we’re shaping them into our own image, rather than letting them breathe in their own right. And even if we’re doing what generations of readers have done before us, we have no right to do so any more than complementarians do.

What’s more, you don’t need to be a feminist to see why statements like Dorothy Patterson’s are absurd.

Let’s talk about Xerxes

Super-sized ego isn’t the half of it. Though the Hebrew text calls him Ahasuerus, the Persian king is often referred to as Xerxes, because he is identified as Xerxes I, who reigned from 485 to 464 BC.[4]

This is the same guy who had the sea (Hellespont) branded with hot irons and given lashes. The sea. I kid you not.

But even if the book’s first readers didn’t know that, the way the story is told would have made it clear to them that this man is a buffoon.

He needs seven eunuchs to summon Vashti and advice from seven officials before he can decide what to do about her.[5] Seriously, go through the book and notice how rarely Xerxes actually does something and compare it to the number of times he follows someone else’s advice or lets them get on with what they want to do. He’s not evil, he’s an idiot.

Only problem is, he still has the power of life and death, able to appoint and depose anyone on a whim. And that kind of power is pretty terrifying in the hands of a buffoon.[6]

We should recognise then that although Vashti’s part in the story sets up how Esther was able to become queen, it also demonstrates Xerxes’s character and power, and how anyone (even the queen) can be the victim of his whims.

From this viewpoint, which isn’t really a feminist one, it should be clear that any notion of ‘submitting’ to Xerxes is irrelevant to the story. Instead, everyone manipulates him in a grand game of survival of the slickest.

Meanwhile, if we want to look for ethics, we shouldn’t look at the king as a righteous leader, but rather at the motives and goals of those who seek the king’s favour. In this, Esther is exemplary: she’s willing to intercede for her people, even at the risk of her life.

Even the middle ground feminist perspective breaks down

There are perspectives that try and find middle-ground between Sarah Moon’s detail-skirting enthusiasm and Dorothy Patterson’s misguided analysis.

In her commentary on the book of Esther, Karen Jobes contrasts Esther’s and Vashti’s actions:

If there is any lesson to be learned from Vashti’s experience, it would seem to be that women who directly oppose the male power structures will simply be banished, with no opportunity for further influence on those structures. Esther, who is accused by some feminists of playing into the hands of men, skillfully uses the power of a male-dominated world to accomplish something still celebrated annually twenty-five hundred years later.[7]

Now, I appreciate that Jobes probably isn’t meaning to criticise Vashti, and I agree that directly confronting a system is rarely the best way to bring about positive change, but I still have issue with this comparison and how it still pits Vashti and Esther against each other.

It makes it too easy to argue that if Vashti had been as politically deft as Esther, then she would have found a way to refuse Xerxes’ summons and still not fall foul of the system.

This is problematic because it allows complementarians to say that although Vashti did the right thing in refusing Xerxes, she was still partially at fault because she caused him humiliation. Esther, on the other hand, is seen as not just doing the right thing, but also the better thing in how she wins Xerxes over.[8]

In other words, Esther becomes the icon for how the clever, nuanced and godly wife is supposed to act in a hierarchical relationship. Her victory is sweet to a complementarian audience because, to them, Esther triumphs over ungodly distortions of hierarchical gender roles, but not complementarianism itself. Vashti meanwhile, is a misguided feminist who pushed either too far or too clumsily.

I am seriously not OK with this.

From a feminist angle, it suggests that if women want to make the world a better place for women then they have to ask nicely or get bulldozed. From an egalitarian perspective, it encourages women to stay in abusive relationships out of the misguided hope that they can change their husbands.

Not only that, it’s also only a small step further to frame Esther and Xerxes as an early example of what Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 7:16, with Esther as the believing wife who wins over her unbelieving husband.

But as romantic as that idea might seem to some, it’s simply not what this story is about.

Persian empire during the Second Temple period

Everyone in the book of Esther is subject to the machinations of the Persian empire — whether that’s good for them or not.

Haman is honoured without merit; Esther’s cousin Mordecai doesn’t receive recognition when he foils an assassination plot against the king; hundreds of women are conscripted to the king’s harem; and we can be pretty sure that hundreds of men are conscripted and castrated to serve in the palace.

It is this reality of empire that Jews during the Second Temple period had to reckon with. We should understand then that the portrait of Xerxes in Esther chapter 1 is largely about the dysfunctional character of the Persian empire as a whole.[9] And that includes patriarchy, but it’s not what the author chooses to gun at. Instead they refer repeatedly to a concept engraved on the hearts of minds of every God-fearing Jew: the law.

In verse 8, we learn that a law was needed so that the banquet’s guests weren’t forced to drink more than they wanted.[10] A sensible society wouldn’t have forced them to drink in the first place. As Aaron Koller writes in Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought:

This points to an infatuation with law for its own sake, as opposed to law for the sake of creating a functioning society. For the Jews this would have been particularly ludicrous.[11]

Notice how the references to Persian law saturate the book of Esther; they govern the drinking of alcohol, Vashti’s punishment, Esther’s beauty treatments, and Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews.

Therefore, I reckon that if we want to appreciate Vashti and Esther, then we are helped more if we look at how they relate to Persian law and empire, rather than patriarchy.

By this lens, Vashti is an innocent victim of absurdity; as Koller writes, Xerxes misinterprets her behaviour as a ‘potential insurrection on an imperial scale’ and responds by making an unenforceable law. Similar acts later follow against Mordecai and all the Jews, despite these people not being threats to the empire at all (as I said earlier, Mordecai even foiled an assassination plot).[12]

However, Esther goes against the law when she approaches the king without a summons. Not only that, but she and Mordecai become the ones writing the laws and Mordecai ends up appointed as second to Xerxes, acting with the king’s full authority.

In other words, if we see the problem of Xerxes epitomised in the Persian law, rather than patriarchy, then:

  1. Vashti is clearly and wholly blameless, and
  2. Esther doesn’t just oppose the system head on, she takes it over too.

Concluding thoughts

“Wait, wait, wait!” I hear you cry.

“How can you say Esther takes the system over when Mordecai is the one who gets hailed for his greatness in the last chapter? And how is it fair to say that they ‘take over’ the system, when there’s no mention of God or Torah?”

OK, we need to bear in mind that Esther is a book that speaks into Jewish identity politics, and Esther and Mordecai together represent the Jewish people. Between them, they make brave statements about what kind of person can be called a Jew, and what kind of Jew is fit to be a leader. I won’t go into the details, but intermarriage, genealogy, observance of Torah, returning to Judah, temple worship — these are the questions the author is dealing with.[13]

Not gender roles.

What the story shows is that Jews can make a life for themselves outside of Judah; they can still be a people whilst in diaspora. That’s why Mordecai is praised in the last chapter: he spoke up for all Jews everywhere.

And whereas this isn’t the most patriarchy-smashing message I’ve ever heard, we can be sure that it’s not praising Mordecai for his masculinity or trying to play Esther down because she’s female.

As for Esther, I don’t think we need to push the idea that Esther models ideals of femininity. I think it better to say she was “just” a smart and courageous person, who happened to be placed in a unique position but chose to use it to do the right thing.

You know what? That’s enough for me. I don’t have to make her a feminist to count her as a heroine. Plus I know that if the author wanted to endorse patriarchal structures, then they wouldn’t have written Vashti with as much dignity as they did, nor would they have used the idea of wifely submission to lampoon Persian law.

As for God and Torah, the Persian empire is still standing as the book ends and it’s fair to say many Jews during the Second Temple period would have been deeply conflicted over this ending. However, even though Persian rule and diaspora life was a reality they had to reconcile themselves to, one way or another, the Jewish people gained a festival that they still celebrate today — Purim.

Similarly, I might be conflicted over how patriarchy is still standing at the end of the book, but I still see a remarkable heroine who, unlike many other good and great women of the Bible, wasn’t known for the children she had. Even if she’s not the feminist I would have imagined or liked to have written, the bottom line is that neither she nor this story belongs to me.

So I’m content to let her be who she was, on her own terms, for her own culture. And I believe I’ll still be able to celebrate her, even when patriarchy falls.


If you liked this, you might also enjoy:

[1] Aaron Koller, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought p120 (2014: Cambridge University Press)

[2] Debra Reid Esther: Tyndale Old Testament Commentary p75 (2008: IVP)

[3] Dorothy Patterson (former faculty member of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) was writing for the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 2003 [JBMW  8/1 (Spring 2003) 39-50]. And yes, Dorothy is also the wife of Paige Patterson, who was president of SWBTS from 2003 to 2018, when he was fired for mishandling rape allegations.

[4] Reid, p62

[5] Reid, p69

[6] Koller, p62

[7] Karen Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary), p72

[8] When Mark Driscoll preached on this passage in 2012 he emphasised very, very strongly that Vashti did the right thing in refusing Xerxes. However, in his and his wife’s book Real Marriage, Grace Driscoll emphasises the contrast between Esther and Vashti as being how Esther respected Xerxes. I dunno, other than that, I’ve not got anything concrete to say that he subscribes to the “Vashti did good, but Esther did better” view — but it would explain a lot.

[9] Koller, p58

[10] Read the NKJV, other translations smooth the strangeness of the laws away to make it sound more sensible.

[11] Koller, p58-59

[12] Koller, p60

[13] Seriously, read Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought — or at least my review of it.

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