Some of the most intriguing people in Scripture are not those who take center stage during Sunday School lessons or Bible studies. The heroes and heroines of our Christian faith are surrounded by a cast of supporting characters worth knowing. Most Christians are familiar with the story of Esther—the courageous Jewish Queen who God used to save her people. But what about her predecessor, Queen Vashti?
God strategically assigned these women a specific time, place, and role in history. But the lessons we can glean from their example are timeless.
Who Was Vashti in the Bible?
From the citadel of Susa, a Persian king by the name of Xerxes (or Ahasuerus) ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush. The Bible doesn’t tell us how long Xerxes' first wife, the beautiful Queen Vashti, sat by his side. But we catch a glimpse of her royal life in the first book of Esther, during her husband’s third year of reign.
King Xerxes loved to flaunt the wealth of his kingdom and revel in the splendor and glory of his own majesty. To exhibit his greatness to the public, the king decided to hold a royal banquet for all his nobles, officials, princes, and military leaders. This was no ordinary dinner party. The celebration lasted for six months (Esther 1:4-8).
After half a year of partying with the upper class—Xerxes style—the king extended the invitation for “all the people from least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa,” to join him for a seven-day grand finale event. Queen Vashti’s story unfolds during this time.
While King Xerxes caroused for seven days in the royal gardens with all the men of the kingdom, enjoying never-ending wine—served in golden goblets, Queen Vashti held her own week-long women’s banquet inside the royal palace (Esther 1:6-8).
On the final day of the banquets, King Xerxes and presumably all the other male imbibers were “in high spirits from wine.” In his drunken stupor, the king had a brilliant idea to bring down the house with a final display of his superiority. Realizing that he had exhausted all his bragging rights, except one, the king commanded his servants to summon the prized Queen Vashti decked in her royal crown.
After the attendants delivered the message to the queen, the Bible simply tells us, “Queen Vashti refused to come” (Esther 1:12).
Queen Vashti’s refusal lit the king’s wine-soaked fuse and ignited his fury. Something had to be done about his wife’s rebellion. But what? In those days it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, so he asked his closest advisors for their thoughts and a course of action.
The king’s chief advisor, Malukan, explained that Vashti’s conduct had not only brought disgrace upon the king but had set a dangerous example of marital disrespect that all the nobles’ wives would inevitably emulate. He then proposed that an unprecedented decree be written and recorded in the law books of the Medes and Persians, which were irrevocable.
King Xerxes approved the decree and Queen Vashti was thereby stripped of her title and banished from the king’s presence forever, to make way for someone more “worthy” of the title of Queen.
3 Interesting Assumptions about Vashti from Other Sources
The writer of the book of Esther seems to refrain from comment on whether the actions of the king or queen are right or wrong. However, biblical scholars, Jewish historians, and Christians throughout the ages have attempted to discern Queen Vashti’s motives, using extra-biblical resources as a guide to her character.
While no text—apart from the canon of Scripture—can be relied upon as inerrant truth, historical facts and Jewish tradition can be fascinating when prayerfully explored. Here are a few interesting tidbits about Vashti, taken from ancient Jewish tradition and folklore.
Vashti had royal blood—According to one account (there are many) in the midrash, Vashti was the daughter of Belshazzar, the King of Babylon. She was just a child the night her father died from a bizarre accident—a candelabrum fell on him during a dinner party and crushed his skull. The palace was in an uproar after the disaster. Young Vashti, not realizing Belshazzar was dead, scurried amongst the traumatized dinner guests in search of her father’s comfort. When she mistakenly sat in the lap of Darius, he took pity on the beautiful young girl and betrothed her to his son Ahasuerus—the emperor of Persia and Media (Midrash Panim Aherim [ed. Buber], version B, para. 1).
The reason for Vashti’s refusal—According to the Aggadah, Queen Vashti’s modesty prohibited her from appearing before the king because his command had implied that she should present herself to his guests while wearing only her royal crown. A similar report in the Talmud suggests that when the intoxicated king offered his guests the opportunity to ogle his beautiful queen, the men insisted on seeing her without clothing. Regardless of the king’s intent, the strict Persian laws regarding modesty would have prohibited Vashti from presenting herself before a group of men—even fully clothed.
Controversy over Vashti’s character—Not all Jewish history and commentary agree that Vashti acted honorably. Babylonian Rabbis tend to view the character of Vashti through a negative lens. They characterize her as an adulterous woman, who mistreated her Jewish servants and regularly flaunted her naked form to groups of admirers. These Rabbis assert that the only reason Vashti refused the king’s command to appear was because she was afflicted with a severe skin rash—a judgment from God (Talmud Meggilah 12a-b).
What Happened After Queen Vashti’s Banishment?
Not long after Vashti’s banishment, King Xerxes began having regrets. His attendants devised a plan to cure the king’s loneliness. The most beautiful virgins in the kingdom were rounded up, brought to the royal harem, and given a year’s worth of extensive beauty treatments, special food, and their own attendants to groom them.
When each was deemed ready, the women were ushered into the king one by one to audition for his affection. “If he didn’t care for her,” Biblestudytools.com explains, “she would live the rest of her life as a widow in a section of the harem reserved for concubines” (2 Samuel 20:3). But the one who found favor with King Xerxes would become his new wife.
A young Jewish woman, Esther, outshined all the rest. “So he [the king] set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti” (Esther 2:17).
Soon after Esther was crowned, an upheaval in the kingdom began. Haman, the king’s right-hand man, hated the Jewish people. No one knew Esther was Jewish. She had concealed her identity at the advisement of her uncle Mordechai, who had adopted her as a child.
After a series of heated run-ins with Mordechai, Haman convinced the king to write an unchangeable decree to “destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods” (Esther 3:13).
Distraught and in mourning over the decree, Mordechai sent word to Esther about the impending doom and asked her to plead for the king’s mercy. At first Queen Esther refused to help. She sent a reminder to her uncle that any woman who attempted to appear uninvited before the king would be killed.
But Mordechai would not take no for an answer, he responded to Esther’s refusal with a warning and urgent call to action, “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?” (Esther 4:12).
Laying down her own position, rights, and life—Queen Esther made the decision to take up the cause for her people (Esther 4:15-16). But she would dare not take on the mission in her own strength and power. She sent instructions to Mordechai to assemble an army of prayer warriors to join her in three days and nights of fasting. At the end of that time, Esther would approach the king, and if she perished, she perished (Esther 4:15-17).
On the third day, Queen Esther put on her royal robes and presented herself to King Xerxes, even though her husband had not requested her presence in over a month. When the king saw his queen, Xerxes lowered his golden scepter to invite Esther into his presence.
Through Queen Esther’s surrender, God brought to light Haman’s evil schemes and turned the heart of King Xerxes toward the Jews. The day originally appointed for their annihilation became a day of redemption. And “there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them” (Esther 8:17).
How Did Queen Vashti’s Role Differ from Queen Esther’s?
No doubt or dispute, both Vashti and Esther faced injustice and maltreatment at the hand and heart of the pagan King Xerxes. A Greek historian by the name of Herodotus described Xerxes as a lecherous, vile, hot-tempered man known for his fits of rage and cruelty.
Based strictly on the biblical account, it’s difficult to say for certain what Queen Vashti’s motives were for refusing her husband, but most Christian commentaries agree that Vashti was justifiably resistant to her inebriated husband’s demeaning request. Her decision to disobey his command cost her everything, except her dignity.
What we do know for sure about Vashti, is that God used her position, role, and tragic circumstances to ultimately fulfill His redemptive plan.
God had a different role in mind for the new Queen Esther. When the time came for her to make a stand against the king’s unjust decision, she like Vashti, chose to accept the mission and the consequences. However, Queen Esther had the benefit of Vashti’s example, and more importantly, she chose to go in God’s power and might—instead of her own will and strength.
Just like Queen Vashti must have known the cost she’d pay when she refused to appear before the king, Queen Esther knew the penalty for appearing before the king uninvited. Both acts required courage. And God strategically used both, in different ways, to save His people from annihilation.
In What Strength Did Queen Vashti and Queen Esther Show? Vivian Bricker explains, “Just like Queen Vashti and Queen Esther, we can rise to the calling God has placed on our lives and possess true strength by following Him.”
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Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.