I love the Bible because it’s filled with stories–heroes and villains; kings and peasants; rulers and prophets.
And often the Bible leaves us with stories without giving any commentary on them. We’re supposed to read the stories and draw our own conclusions. Indeed, that’s why the Bible is filled with stories; because there are so many different nuances and different conclusions to be drawn, and they’re so rich that you can mine them afterwards for new things.
Because the Bible gives little commentary on specific aspects of stories, it’s all too easy to see them in a black and white way. And I’d like to stand up for a woman today who is often maligned. Recently I read another book where the author called her “The Disrespectful Wife”, and warned us against following her example.
On the contrary, I think we should all learn from her, and honour her in history.
Her name was Vashti, and here’s what happened:
Vashti was a queen, married to an absolute tyrant (Xerxes). The tyrant could order anyone killed on a whim. You weren’t allowed into his presence without an explicit invitation first–even if you were married to him! People were peons to him.
He decided to throw a huge banquet for all the military leaders and nobles in his kingdom. When our story opens, they had been eating and drinking for a week already. They were royally inebriated!
And in the middle of that, the king asks his wife, who is very beautiful, to come and parade herself before these drunken guys.
Here’s what the story says:
On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona,Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger. (Esther 1:10-12)
Some Hebrew scholars believe that “wearing her royal crown” is better translated “wearing ONLY her royal crown”. In other words, she was being ordered to parade naked before all the drunken nobles.
Even if that interpretation isn’t correct, she was still obviously being asked to parade in front of drunken men so they could leer at her.
And Vashti said no.
The Bible tells us enough of the story so that we understand the King’s request was unjust and would put Vashti in an awkward, objectifying situation at best, and a dangerous situation at worst. If the main point in the story was that wives should not disobey husbands, I believe this bit would have been left out.
The pagan leaders frame her refusal as “sowing discord”. That does not mean God saw it that way.
Later in the passage, the king seeks his nobles’ advice about what should be done about Vashti’s refusal. This is the advice he gets:
Then Memukan replied … “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. 20 Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”
Just because the king and his nobles thought that encouraging discord among wives was evil does not mean that God thought encouraging discord among wives was evil--especially if it meant not obeying a sinful command. After all, the Bible tells us that Xerxes was a pagan king who had enslaved the Israelies. His nobles were enemies of God, too. So why would we take their concerns at face value?
Remember the New Testament story of Ananias and Sapphira? Sapphira was struck dead because she followed Ananias’ lead to hold back some money they had pledged to the early church (Acts 5). Remember the story of David and Abigail? Abigail went against her evil husband Nabal and in the end saved the lives of her servants (1 Samuel 25). Instead of listening to pagan nobles’ fears that wives may not respect their husbands, let’s listen to God’s design throughout Scripture that wives follow Him first, and never follow their husbands into sin.
I believe that the rush to demonize Vashti is rooted in an unhealthy view of marriage, where obedience to a husband is seen as the greatest good, and sowing discord among wives as the greatest evil.
No, the greatest evil is substituting something else in the place for God.
Jesus does not want us blindly obeying our husbands. Jesus wants us following Him, wherever it leads. And often what Jesus calls us to do is to take a stand when our culture–or even our marriage–is going off the rails.
This is why I often cringe at “Wives of the Bible” type studies and books.
Too often they hold up the examples of wives of the Bible as either “good” or “bad” depending upon the effect on their marriage–rather than their effect on the kingdom of God a a whole.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
So we’re to act justly (walk in TRUTH); love mercy (show LOVE); find the balance between the two by walking humbly before God.
That points us to doing God’s will and knowing God before anything else. So don’t limit the Bible passages about marriage to only a select few. That’s when we’re likely to read too much into things and draw the wrong conclusions. Instead,
- Keep Jesus front and centre (Hebrews 12:1-3).
- Always seek to obey God, not human beings (Acts 5:29).
- And above all, put on love (Colossians 3:14).
Want to explore this idea more? Read this post on how the Bible has more to say about marriage than just 5 passages.
Vashti has been dead for thousands of years now.
She likely spent the last few years of her life in misery. But she was a hero. She was one of the first recorded instances of a woman saying, “I refuse to be treated like a sex object, because that is not what I am.” She stood up for the dignity of women, something, by the way, that Jesus did, too. In that culture that despised women, she said, “no more!”
Today we honour heroines like that. Think of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for going to school and taking exams. After her recovery, she refused to back down, believing that she could be an example to other girls who wanted to be educated. She stood up for her God-given dignity.
Rosa Parks was an African-American woman who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus for a white person. Coming home from work one day in 1955, she was tired. She wanted to sit down. And she refused an evil act that said that she was not as much a person as someone who was white. She stood up for her God-given dignity.
They didn’t set out to be heroes. They were just going about their normal business. But when someone tried to stop them from acting like they were fully human, they said no.
So did Vashti. Vashti did not succeed in her refusal. But maybe she was the impetus for many other women in the future saying, “I want to be treated with dignity, even if it costs me everything.” Maybe her sacrifice inspired others.
Yes, God used Vashti’s refusal to usher Esther into the palace and ultimately rescue His people. But I do not believe God despised Vashti for her actions. I believe that she did the right thing, and I believe that God left the details of why she refused the king in the story as a way to honour her. So I hope that we can stop maligning this woman as “the disrespectful wife”, and instead appreciate the immense sacrifice she made in defence of the dignity of all human beings.