Esther Part I: “Queen Vashti Refused…” – 6,10,07

A couple weeks ago I put out an invitation for people to share with me a story or passage from the Old Testament that has been meaningful to them in some way.  With the recent Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, the liturgical Christian year has come to an end.  From Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter our readings are dominated by the New Testament and specifically the Gospels through the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ.  But now, after Pentecost, we are in what is often called “ordinary time.”  Until the next Advent season begins, our worship times will center on the ordinary, or not so ordinary, life of discipleship.  Since we’re less tied to any certain particular theme, I thought we could explore some of the stories from the Old Testament that don’t get as much mention in a worship setting.  Of course, there are reasons why some of these stories don’t get much mention during a church service.  The Old Testament is full of people, mostly men, doing things that aren’t always exactly exemplary.  Not to mention that God is often portrayed as being the most violent of them all.  There are plenty of stories in the Old Testament where it is hard to find good news.  Last Sunday after the service I was talking with someone out in the forum area and she said that she had read my email requesting Old Testament stories but hadn’t responded yet.  The reason?  “I don’t like the Old Testament!” she said.  OK, fair enough.  I imagine she is not alone in not having much of a taste for this part of the Bible.  My goal is not to convert anyone to loving all things Old Testament, but I do hope to make some meaningful connections between these stories and our lives and maybe, just maybe uncover a few surprises with how these Scriptures can speak to us. One of the wonderful aspects of the Old Testament is that the story of humanity is getting told from the perspective of the losers.  This is a grand exception to way things usually get remembered.  Like the phrase “history is written by the winners.”  In the Scriptures, we hear the voice of the weak and the powerless and we come to know of a God who takes particular interest in them.  Instead of hearing the propaganda of the mighty ancient empires of the East, we follow the story of the lone wondering family of Abraham and Sara who leave the empire to become a different sort of people.  Instead of being in awe of the dominance of the Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire, we are in awe of a little band of slaves led by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, who escape captivity and are given laws that command them to have compassion on the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan.  When the Hebrews set up their own nation and have their own king, we hear mainly not from the spin machine of the royal courts, but from the prophets – Amos, Hosea, Micah — who are openly critical of the injustice and lack of compassion in the nation.     The voice in the Psalms is almost always the voice of the one who has little power, surrounded by troubles and crying out to God.  When the nation is destroyed and the Jews go into exile, we get more stories of how a supposedly “defeated people” find their way and work to remain faithful to God in their new setting. There is a certain mentality that the Scriptures are working to form within us:  pay attention to those on the margins, listen to the voices of those with little power, when you stand with the most vulnerable, you are standing with God.  A couple of you have written back and mentioned the book of Esther as having significance for you, and this is where we’ll begin.  And we’ll begin with the beginning of Esther, chapter one.  You’re welcome to open your Bibles to the book of Esther if you’d like, on page 437 in the Bibles in the pews. Esther is a fairly late book and takes place after the exile while the Jews were living under the rule of a foreign king of the Persian empire.  Esther is one of two Old Testament books named for a woman, the other being Ruth.  The culture that the book of Esther came out of was highly male dominated, but the book begins with some satire on whether or not men have quite as much control as they may think.  In hearing this story we may want to have this question in mind:  What kinds of cultural expectations were there for women in this culture and how does the queen respond to these expectations?          Chapter 1: Before Esther even shows up, there is another queen who takes center stage:  Queen Vashti.  As the story begins, King Ahasuerus is throwing a serious party, lasting 180 days.  And then when this half year of partying is over, he’s not quite ready to stop the festivities so he gives a large banquet for all the people of the royal citadel lasting seven more days.  The narrative goes to great lengths to describe the extravagance of the events.  It says in vv. 6 and 7 “there were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars.  There were couches of gold and silver on mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones.  Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king.”  This is definitely a hip party, the place where everybody who is somebody would like to be.In verse 9 we get one of only two mentions of Queen Vashti.  A short, simple description.  “Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.”  Vashti initiates an alternative gathering for the women.Well, things are going quite well for the king.  He rules the entire known world, he’s been partying for half a year, and it is now the final and climactic day of his seven day banquet.  What will be the fireworks to put an end to these festivities?  The king has planned this out perfectly.  He has saved the best for last.  All the beauty of his palace can’t match the beauty of his prize wife, Queen Vashti.  He has planned for her to come out and parade her beauty in front of everyone, a glorious ending to a glorious event.  He sends his attendants to fetch her away from her woman party to perform for the men.  Of course, it is the expectation of everyone that she, the leading woman of the land, will perform as commanded.       Pause the story for a minute and think about some of our present day cultural expectations for women.  Queen Vashti had a whole host of cultural expectations she was expected to fulfill.  What kinds of expectations do girls and women today face?  In her book Caretakers of our Common House, Carol Lakey Hess addresses this question.  Under the heading “Women and Depression: Female Caring and Loss of Self she writes: “In her study of women and depression, Dana Jack found that when women try to fit into the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘good woman,’ defined by society as self-sacrificing… and oriented to the needs of others, they ‘run the risk of self-alienation and inauthenticity,’ precursors to depression.  In her tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless profound article, ‘Why I want a wife,’ Judy Syfers describes a moment of revelation she had one evening while ironing.  A friend who was looking for a wife came by, and it suddenly occurred to her that she too ‘would like to have a wife.’  Why?  A talented woman who had been dissuaded from graduate school by her male teachers, she visioned a wife who would pick up the pieces for her as so many wives did for male professionals.  She lists in detail all the caring duties a wife is expected to perform, ranging from good cooking to supporting her husband’s career development to nurturing the children to denying her own needs, (often while also holding a profession of her own).  Her list is striking because it so clearly captures the ideal.  Whether or not women live up to it, it is the standard by which they and others will measure themselves.  Syfers ends with the stunning questions: ‘My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”End of quote.                  This captures some of the cultural expectations our society has for women today. All expectations point toward Queen Vashti accepting her role as commanded by the king, submitting whatever desires she may have to those of her master.  If he wants her to look pretty, she’ll look pretty.  If he wants her to dance, she’ll dance.  If he wants her to bow down to him, she’ll bow low and humbly.  But in V. 12 we get the second of two actions of the Queen.  Her first was throwing a banquet for the women, her second action: “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.”  She decided she wasn’t going to be what was expected of her.  She refused.  Period, no more details.Well, this is not good, not good all.  At the blink of an eye, or the absence of a batting of an eye, the king is enraged.  This is outrageous, this is preposterous, this is… surely illegal.  V. 13, he quickly calls together his sages who know the laws.  Help, what can we do?  My wife won’t obey my every word.  She refused to come out at my command.  My party is ruined.  This is a serious problem.    Oh yes, quite serious indeed agree his advisors. The middle of V. 16, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.  For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.”  The men put their heads together for proper damage control, to put out this potential wildfire of women across the empire standing up for themselves.  Step 1, banish the queen and find another to fill her place.  Step 2, quoting from  V. 22, The king “sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”  Thus ends chapter one of Esther. Despite the satire and the subversive nature of this chapter, the spirit of patriarchy has stayed strong in how this passage has been interpreted.  Queen Vashti is usually made to appear to be a villain, not submitting to her husband, who is the king, by the way.  How dare she?  She is a dangerous figure who threatens those seeking to keep order in this world.  But more recently some are finding in Queen Vashti a true hero of integrity.  She has a strong enough sense of self to refuse to go along with the cultural expectations placed on her.  She is indeed dangerous to those who like the order of the world and would like to see it stay the same.  Queen Vashti is dangerous in the same way as the other people on the margins of history that Scripture recalls.  Dangerous in the same way the Israelite slaves were a threat to the power of Pharaoh; dangerous in the same way as Mordechai, later in the story, who would not bow down to the high official Haman; in the same way Jesus was dangerous to the religious authorities who sought to control the code of who’s in and who’s out.  Dangerous in the same way that Rosa Parks refused to go along with the order of the day, not moving from occupying a social space on a bus where she was not welcome.  The mentality that the scriptures seek to form in us calls us to pay special attention not to the will of the reigning monarch, but to those whose voices have typically been under the radar screen of power.   In Caretakers of our Common House, Carol Lakey Hess begins with this story about Vashti and holds her up as a model for shaping our imaginations of healthy womanhood.  She writes, “The loss of self for women is a quiet thing.  Had Queen Vashti disregarded her own feelings and submitted to the will of King Ahasuerus, the resulting loss of herself would have occurred ever so quietly.  No one would have noticed…obedience to husband, social convention, and other authorities is often thought more important than woman’s obedience to her inner call to integrity.”  She goes on to write about the opportunity for our communities to encourage healthy development of girls and women.  Having a daughter herself, she poses this question:   “Can caring families and communities of faith, specifically the church, make a difference in the outcome of my daughter’s development and in the development of other girls and women?” (p. 14).     Surely this is part of our mission as a congregation.  A place where girls can develop a strong and healthy sense of selfhood and a place, a place where the only expectations are that we all grow into a fullness of who God has created us to be, a place where women and men can learn not to be masters of a house, but in the words of Carol Hess’s book, “Caretakers of our common house”  Queen Vashti took an important path in her refusal to bow to the cultural expectations placed on her.  And so the guardians of the status quo took away her title of queen.  Hers is a path of courage and strength.  The rest of the book of Esther is about a woman of equal courage who took a somewhat different path.  Esther looked more like a traditional player in the scheme of things.  She entered the beauty pageant that they king hosted, and she replaced Vashti as queen.  And she is remembered as one who used her power to save her people.  So next time we look at Esther and her path.