Good young Queen Esther. How many times growing up had I heard the story of Queen Esther and how she saved her people? Far too many! But it was never a book of the Bible I spent much time in. After all, I knew the story of Esther back to front. I knew who all the main players were. I knew Haman and Mordecai, Ahasuerus and Vashti, and of course Esther; I knew the story.
I just did not know the whole story.
On the surface, the book of Esther is the story we heard growing up of the persecution of the Jewish people by Babylon, but it is so much more than that. It is also a tale of political intrigue and an origin story for the systemic oppression of women. And it all begins with Vashti.
“On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded…the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown…But Queen Vashti refused to come at the King’s command” (Esther 1:10-12).
On the surface this might seem like a pretty straight forward passage of text, that is until we understand that what was being asked of Vashti was that she break social norms of the time and place, as men and women of her stature did not mix socially, hence her hosting her own party for the women (Esther 1:9). Even more disturbing is that Vashti was to be required to “...make indecent exposure of herself before a company of drunken revelers,” and as the Queen this in particular would have been contrary to Persian custom.
So it is understandable that Vashti, or indeed any woman, would object to being commanded to humiliate themselves in such a manner. However, a royal command is a royal command, and as unjust as it may be, Vashti was legally bound to obey.
The result of such willful disobedience of a royal decree was that King Ahasuerus was to call the seven princes of Persia or Media, who were his chief advisors (or in today’s terms, a political cabinet) and ask them what should be done, and it is in this passage that things really get interesting. You see, Ahasuerus enquires advice on what should be done legally regarding Vashti, but his advisors respond not with this in mind, but with how their own wives, and other men’s wives will respond due to Vashti’s actions and the influence she held (Esther 1:16-18).
They decide to take a severe and drastic action toward Vashti, stripping her of her crown and authority, and doing so by a royal order. According to Persian tradition, a royal decree is not only absolute, but also irrevocable, meaning that Vashti had no chance for forgiveness or to make amends. It is also important to note that at no point is Vashti given the opportunity to defend herself or state her case. It was an action designed not only to punish Vashti but also to make an example of her. After all, if the men were aware of the impact that her actions would have on other women in the kingdom, then they would also be aware of the fear that taking such drastic action would have on women.
Power and authority was the motivation of these men and no other verse makes this more explicit than Esther 1:20, “So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honour to their husbands, high and low alike.” There is a clear progression from the stated concern in verse 18 regarding noble women being disobedient, to now all women. And so the King, liking this advice, orders it so.
Please understand what is happening here. We are witnessing the encoding into law that the man is to have complete and total authority over his wife. We are witnessing the legalization of sexual discrimination. Now I know that some will argue that women were already not allowed to defy their husbands. After all isn’t that how we ended up where we are in the story, with Vashti defying her husband? But that would be wrong. We end up where we are because Vashti defied the king! Ahasuerus may well have been her husband, but what was presented to Vashti was a royal command and we need to distinguish between the two, especially since every man is not a king. There are a few other things that should be pointed out and they are:
1. If men held total authority over their wives already, a royal decree would not have been necessary.
2. Although women did not mix socially with the men, Vashti was independent and autonomous which is shown by the fact that she decided to throw a party for the women.
3. The insidious way in which the King’s embarrassment regarding Vashti’s disregard for his command was used to bring about consequences that went far past the initial problem.
4. Although illegal according to the letter of law, Vashti’s stance was justified; sometimes the right thing to do is not the permitted thing to do.
We have seen what happened to Vashti for disobedience toward King Ahasuerus, but she is not the only disobedient party in the book of Esther. When we read Esther 3:1-4, we discover that the very same King Ahasuerus commanded that Haman is to be bowed to and paid homage to, but that Mordecai refuses to do so as he is a Jew. What happened to Mordecai? As an individual, absolutely nothing. But more importantly, it is made clear that Mordecai’s disobedience is continuous (Esther 3:4) and that he, unlike Esther, is asked to account for himself (3:3).
As the story goes on we are shown that although Mordecai is not targeted individually for punishment, his entire people are, and once again this is achieved through duplicitous means (Esther 3:8). Haman seeks to destroy an entire group of people under the guise that they do not keep the laws of the land, but in truth he is more upset that he is not worshiped as he desires (3:5).
As a Seventh-day Adventist I see many things in this story that give me reason for concern over the developments within the church today.
I see the development of headship theology taking a greater hold within the church, and as a result I see men seeking to exert dominance over women whilst also seeking to restrict their role and their voice within the church. I am witnessing a single-minded drive to destroy church bodies that the General Conference feels do not give it the power it thinks it deserves via the creation of compliance committees.
Perhaps more importantly, I see the same insidious politicking that led to King Ahasuerus being used to further an agenda taking place. Just as King Ahasuerus saw his will justifiably defied, there are those that feel that some unions are in defiance of the vote at GC Session 2015, and so something must be done. However, what has been proposed far exceeds the initial scope of the problem. Compliance committees on homosexuality? Just like the book of Esther does not speak to every man’s wife having actually defied him, nor did GC Session 2015 speak to homosexuality. Nor did it speak to distinctive beliefs of the SDA Church. Or Doctrines, policies, statements, or guidelines for church organizations and institutions that teach creation. Just as the advisors to the king sought to reach far beyond the scope of the initial problem, so has the leadership of the GC.
The book of Esther shows clearly the dangers of politics and persecution of women. The book of Esther shows us that we are to beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing, and it shows us that some acts deemed illegal are actually the correct ones to take.
However, perhaps the most striking similarity I see with the book of Esther and the SDA Church is that the story doesn’t really get going until Vashti, a woman, takes a stand. And the story only reaches its conclusion once another woman, with the backing and support of a number of men, in turn takes her stand.
We have had our Vashti.
I now await our Esther.
Jeremy Storm is a father, student of theology, antagonist, and staunch advocate for equality of both race and gender.
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