Vashti in the Bible

Queen Vashti deposed by Ernest Normand, 1890.
Normand, Ernest/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the biblical Book of Esther, Vashti is the wife of King Ahasuerus, the ruler of Persia.

Who Was Vashti?

According to the midrash, Vashti (ושתי) was the great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon and the daughter of King Belshazzar, making her a Babylonian.

As a supposed descendant of the destroyer (Nebuchadnezzar II) of the First Temple in 586 BCE, Vashti was doomed in the Talmud by the sages of Babylon as evil and sinister, but lauded by the rabbis of Israel as noble.

In the modern world, Vashti's name is believed to mean "beautiful," but there have been various etymological attempts to understand the word as something more akin to "that drinks" or "drunkenness."

Vashti in the Book of Esther

According to the Book of Esther, during his third year on the throne, King Ahasuerus (also spelled Achashverosh, אחשורוש) decided to host a party in the city of Shushan. The celebration lasted for half a year and concluded with a week-long drinking festival, during which both the king and his guests consumed vast quantities of alcohol.

In his drunken stupor, King Ahasuerus decides that he wants to show off his wife's beauty, so he commands Queen Vashti to appear before his male guests:

"On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered ... the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing her royal crown, to display her beauty to the people and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman" (Esther 1:10-11).

The text does not say exactly how she is told to appear, only that she is to wear her royal crown. But given the king's drunkenness and the fact that all his male guests are likewise intoxicated, the assumption has often been that Vashti was commanded to show herself in the nude – wearing only her crown.

Vashti receives the summons while she is hosting a banquet for the women of the court and refuses to comply. Her refusal is yet another clue to the nature of the king's command. It does not make sense that she would risk disobeying a royal decree if King Ahasuerus had only asked her to show her face.

When King Ahasuerus is informed of Vashti's refusal, he is furious. He asks several noblemen at his party how he should punish the queen for her disobedience, and one of them, one of the eunuchs named Memucan, suggests that she should be punished severely. After all, if the king does not deal with her harshly other wives in the kingdom might get ideas and refuse to obey their own husbands.

Memucan argues:

"Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty, but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen's behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come" (Esther 1:16-18).

Memucan then suggests that Vashti should be banished and the title of queen be given to another woman who is "more worthy" (1:19) of the honor.

King Ahasuerus likes this idea, so the punishment is carried out, and soon, a massive, kingdom-wide search is launched for a beautiful woman to replace Vashti as queen. Eventually Esther is selected, and her experiences in the court of King Ahasuerus are the basis for the Purim story.

Interestingly, Vashti is never mentioned again -- and neither are the eunuchs. 

Interpretations

Although Esther and Mordecai are the heroes of the Purim story, some see Vashti has a heroine in her own right. She refuses to debase herself before the king and his drunken friends, choosing to value her dignity above submitting to her husband's whims. Vashti is seen as a strong character who does not use her beauty or sexuality to advance herself, which some argue is exactly what Esther does later in the text.

On the other hand, Vashti's character has also been interpreted as that of a villain by the great rabbis of Babylon.

 Rather than refusing because she valued herself, proponents of this reading see her as someone who thought she was better than everyone else and therefore refused King Ahasuerus' command because she was self-important.

In the Talmud, it is suggested that she was unwilling to appear nude either because she had leprosy or because she had grown a tail. The Talmud also gives a third reason: She refused to appear before the king because "The king was the stable boy of Vashti's father King Nebuchadnezzar" (Babylonian Talmud, Megilliah 12b.) The motive here is that Vashti's refusal was intended to humiliate her husband in front of his guests.

You can read more about Talmudic interpretations and the rabbis' view of Vashti, by exploring the Jewish Women's Archive

This article was updated by Chaviva Gordon-Bennett. 

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Pelaia, Ariela. "Vashti in the Bible." ThoughtCo, Jul. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/who-was-vashti-2076497. Pelaia, Ariela. (2017, July 4). Vashti in the Bible. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-was-vashti-2076497 Pelaia, Ariela. "Vashti in the Bible." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-was-vashti-2076497 (accessed September 22, 2017).