Saturday 22 September 2012

Queen Vashti: an example of wickedness or modesty?

Blessed Love

For Sabbath I continued to read Edith Dean's "All of the Women of the Bible," a book which I recently came across on Amazon. I found it very helpful in finishing my book as she brought to my attention some important figures which I had never quite paid attention to because so little was mentioned of these women.

Today I read about Queen Vashti because I was considering what her story had meant from Biblical text as well as Jewish.

Now just from reading the Bible, one thinks that she was a woman who refused to obey her husband because he was asking a very ridiculous request. King Xerxes I wanted her to parade before his court wearing her crown - only her crown it is said in some sources. The king and his court had been drinking wine heavily for seven nights, and were no doubt feasting their eyes on concubines, musicians and dancers. They must have engaged in a talk about who was the most beautiful woman or wife, when the king announced that his own wife was fairest of all, and he could prove it. Whatever the dirty conversations being held, he somehow needed to have her showcase herself to prove a point. The men were probably rowdy, rude and stink of wine and meat. Queen Vashti, who had been dining with the women in the king's castle for the seven days, might not have wanted to play the role of a trophy wife, or even a harlot. She might not have wanted her beauty to be trivialized or exploited. She wanted to continue being the secret treasure for the King's eyes only - and it is said that in those days queens were generally not seen by the public, so what he had asked was unlike her custom.
Because of her refusal the king sought the advice of the wise men who told him that she was setting a bad example for wives all over the land who would hear about her sin. She had to be removed from her position as Queen, and a new law had to be issued saying that no wife could refuse her husband, every man was the king of his castle.
I felt pity on her, because she seemed to have paid a heavy price for self-preservation. The first thing I thought was that a husband should never (at least publicly!) request of  his wife, something that will conflict with her morals and comfort zone - something that would cost her a part of herself. Don't exploit her, don't make her do something she doesn't do or would never look to do.  Don't make her choose to defy you in order to live with herself.
Yet I thought Queen Vashti made a horrible choice because it was better to save herself and position than to break the law. Her choice then affected women all over the world negatively. I think that she just stood up for herself, and that her husband probably was indeed acting a fool. But at the same time, she should have shown respect of the king and somehow compromised in that disobedience - she could have gone to the banquet room but wearing her clothing. But she could also be admired for her modesty, integrity and refusal to partake in wickedness. There was a right and wrong way to handle the situation, and a woman of wisdom would have known how to get herself through it.

But is that really how the story goes? I found out that Vashti might not be deserving of my mixed feelings at all.

Researching on Wikipedia, I found out that the Midrash text of Judaism declares her to be a wicked Queen, one who worshipped the idols of Babylon. It is said that she is in fact the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon before the Medes and Persians divided it. They were the ones responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem. Her father was killed because he had a banquet using the holy goblets and other vessels of the Temple. Now Vashti was the only survivor when her father's kingdom was destroyed, and so she the Princess of the city, was taken to Persia to be the wife of the king as was the tradition in those days.
The Midrash say that she was vain, cruel to all Jewish women she came across, as her fathers had been to the Israelites in general - She was known to be vain and cruel yes, and apparently she didn't obey her husband for spite. She purposely wanted to ridicule and control  him. The law passed by the king against wifely rights made sure that no wife could ever think of doing such a thing again. (wow)
The Jews believe she deserved what she got, and revel in the irony of her replacement being a Jewess Hadassah, or Esther. Her demise was as important as Haman's because she was evil to the Israelites.

What a whole new light to paint her in isn't it?
 Was the king just so fed up that he was glad for a chance to rid himself of this Babylonian woman? I mean, that's who she really was - and Xerxes might have really resented that about her. Has history been cruel to her, being written by men? Or was she being truly a princess of Babylon, really just like Jezebel and Athaliah, or Herodias, the wicked idolatrous queens who killed prophets and princes? Or was she simply just a character created to further the Jewish agenda to condemn all things non-Jewish? I will never know.
If only there were more records of the past -so sad that wars and the expansion of empires are the reasons why ancient facts and artefacts are lost forever.

Thoughts are welcome!


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