Updated: Apr 24
The romanticizing of Esther helped to create a culture where women are still seeking to win men’s favor while being dehumanized, and men are given a free pass to be perverted.
The book of Esther is not about a submissive woman. But rather it is about two women who stand up to a tyrant. When we study the book of Esther, we realize that it is a story that gives all women hope.
Xerxes is a pig, yet somehow no one seems to point this out during Sunday School. He was at the very least a womanizer. Although, history suggests he was much more. In the first chapter of Esther, we see his pride. He wants to parade around his wife for all his drunk friends so that they may objectify her beauty. He treated his wife as another procession to show off.
This demeaning request and Xerxes subsequent fearful reaction show both his disdain for women and his abuse of power. Xerxes turns his fear of being disrespected into a national paranoia. His advisors say, “For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and they will despise their husbands and say, “King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.” His response, based on his fear of being disrespected, is extreme and unjust.
Xerxes sexual depravity is further exposed in the second chapter. To cheer her him up, his advisers suggest they take all the beautiful virgins from their homes, without their permission. The women are forced to have sex with Xerxes and then discarded to become concubines, being reduced to chattel. All to cheer up the king because his wife said no to him.
This is not the story of a good man, but a depraved individual who uses his power to marginalize others.
The Hero who says No
Queen Vashti stands up to Xerxes’ request. Refusing to be dehumanized, she tells Xerxes attendants that she will not parade herself around drunk men. She takes a stand. And the consequence is that she loses her title as queen. She has a voice, and she uses it to stand up to a tyrant.
Vashti’s strength to stand up to the king shows us that we can stand up to oppressors. Her willingness to say enough is enough teaches us that it’s okay to be fed up. And that fact that she is deposed because she stands up for herself highlights that standing up for justice does not mean that we will be saved from the wrath of the world.
The voice of Vashti is one that is not easily ignored. She is the first woman to stand up to King Xerxes. And maybe, like the women who have spoken out over the past year during the #metoo movement, Queen Vashti paved the way for Ester. It’s possible that the King’s advisers were right, that she started a revolt among the women. It’s possible that Queen Vashti’s courage gave Esther the courage to stand up to the same tyrant to save her people.
In a world where she was a procession, Vashti takes back her agency, choosing to be cast aside rather than remain silent.
The Myth of Esther
Esther is also a hero. She risked her own life to save her people. Esther’s strength of character and her obedience to her uncle are characteristics that everyone should admire. However, the fact that our culture focuses on Esther – the woman who is submissive to the men her life - shows the stranglehold sexism has on our church culture.
Our church focuses on the obedient Esther, who pleases the king and obeys her uncle. But that narrative ignores both Esther’s and Vashti’s pain.
By ignoring how the women are being treated in this book, our culture has created a myth: that only woman God is using in the story is Esther. But God is using both women in this story.
Our church is attracted to this myth because we are uncomfortable with a woman who demands respect. If we see Vashti as a hero, we must come to terms with the fact that David raped Bathsheba. If we view Vashti as a hero who stands up to a tyrant, we would see that God doesn’t want women paraded as objects, who are solely valued for their obedience. If value Vashti for leading her husband by demanding her dignity, then the myth of the godly submissive woman -- submissive defined as a woman who only does as her husband asks and never speaks out -- falls apart.
This myth’s impacts churches, because the same churches that believe this myth, struggle to respect woman’s agency. They struggle to understand how to grapple with the #churchtoo movement and women’s role in the church. The myth allows for sexual predators to run wild in churches while silencing and marginalizing strong women. These churches also struggle with anger against women that speak out against patriarchy.
When Esther is celebrated for her submissiveness, and when both women’s courageous ability to say no is ignored, God’s celebration of women’s courage is silenced. The reality is that this story – and many others in the bible – is about two women’s courage. When the courageous women in scripture are elevated, scripture gives women hope.
The Courage to Speak
Vashti’s courage has given me the strength to see my role as one who speaks out against the patriarchy in a Christian culture.
Like Esther, I was afraid to speak. Esther told Mordecai, she couldn’t approach the king, because “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman to who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives.” Esther was afraid that she would lose her life if she spoke up. I was worried I would lose friends, influence, and potential donors.
But like Esther, I couldn’t keep quiet. Esther’s uncle urged her to speak up, saying, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house, you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”
A couple of years ago, I watched a woman silenced by a man. Realizing that it was the same man who had silenced me, in the same way, the previous year, I could no longer stay silent. God used this moment to remind me of Mordecai’s words.
Like Vashti and Esther, I spoke because I could not stay silent.
Which I imagine is why Dr. Ford spoke up. Which is why all of us women are saying enough. We will no longer stay silent as the church allows its pastors to assault women sexually. We will no longer be silent as politicians use buzz words to rob us of our rights. We will no longer remain silent as toxic masculinity gives men permission to take advantage of our bodies. We will speak out for equality because we know we are God’s children and we demand the respect that title gives us.
Whether we are Vashti, speaking out freely, or like Esther, speaking out reluctantly, we are taking back our agency. And even if people to respond to our voice with anger, we cannot be silent.