The crowd looked forward to the gentle ringing of gold against gold as the endless bangles down the queen’s arms would shift with her movements.
The sense of enthusiastic anticipation began to wane as it became clear that the musicians were no longer building towards a dramatic entrance. They were attempting to cover up the fact that they didn’t know what to play next. The rest was a blur. The king pounded the table and went into a rage. The waiters chose to hide in the kitchen. The king’s closest advisors gathered around—all obviously disturbed.
As the king struck his wine glass on the table and demanded an explanation for the queen’s “no”, the guests found themselves miserably uncomfortable. Observers of the fall out of the rebellious Queen Vashti were dumbfounded as well as frightened.
One of the king’s confidants moved into action. In a firm voice he made the pronouncement that Queen Vashti had wronged not only the King but also all the gathered princes. His voice boomed on with a punitive tone announcing how the queen would be viewed. There was a warning directed to all the princes demanding that that this behavior was not to spread into THEIR homes. With a swagger in his step, he announced that Queen Vashti would be banished from the palace.
Every three years the story of Esther is told through the lectionary readings, however, the first chapter, the story of Vashti, is not included in these readings. Historically, Vashti hasn’t been considered critical to the story. She became unknown. History has often been controlled through those who hold the records. And, those records have also included the controlling of the stories…determining which chapters are important and which ones are not. On one level, the story makes clear to the members of the harem that to refuse an order, one could expect to turn in their Nordstrom Credit card and be banished from the palace.
On a deeper level, Vashti’s story carries permission for women to protect and have choice over their own bodies. Vashti chose to resist the King’s control... I suspect she didn’t start out with a long range plan to defy the king. I believe that she, like Esther, came into the court young, naïve, and blinded by the opulence of palace living. The chance to trade in cheap cotton dresses for the privilege of selecting the finest fabrics while being served by a staff of attendants ready to accommodate their every whim had to have been intoxicating.
So, which party was it that began to break the illusion? Which night was it parading before the drunken King and the gawking, guffawing, joking princes of the court did Vashti become aware of her own imprisonment? When was it that she awoke to the loss of her own soul? When did she wake up to the fact that being crowned Miss Susa held a very high price?
Whether we are women or men, Vashti is part of all of our stories as she stands alone, speaking her “no”, surrounded by a circle of seven who were shocked to hear her refuse to say “yes” to the system. As they pleaded and plotted to buy her “yes” they were also pleading and begging for their own continuing role in the dysfunction of the kingdom.
Whether it is a conflict in our family, place of work, political arena or faith community, someone has something to lose with a “no”. When we can ferret out who experiences a loss to our “no”, we gain insight into our structures and can more clearly determine our choices as to how to set boundaries for ourselves.
In the privacy of my office, I often hear the stories of women and sometimes of men, who experienced having been too young, or too intimidated, or too confused to say “no”. Part of working through the pain of abuse is overcoming the cultural myths that suggest that if we cooperate and play according to the rules that nothing bad can happen.
Vashti didn’t ask for a choice; she took it. She risked being discounted, becoming invisible and she risked losing her life, yet her story lives on in the Jewish celebration of Purim. When Vashti chose to go against the dominant value system, she said “yes” to the beginnings of herself. We can be sure that not all the palace women were celebrating Vashti’s stance. She threatened the whole system. Not everyone feels safe enough to speak their “no”. The whole underside of the palace had to be nervous. Some would be applauding and rooting for her, but others had to be fearful--fearful as to what would happen to them because of her “no”.
Years ago, Marjory Zoet Bankson wrote a book on Esther titled Braided Streams. She views Esther as a paradigm for a woman’s way of growing. She challenges her readers to see Esther’s story as a feminine counterpart to the masculine tale of Moses and the Exodus. Esther moved inward to meet God, while Moses fled to a far land.
What is not addressed by scholars, but what I believe is the truth, is that Vashti’s “no” paved the way in some mysterious manner for Esther to say “yes” to living into her role as queen in a new way.
Esther’s story started out very similarly to Vashti’s. However, Esther had a mentor in her life. Uncle Mordecai played a significant role. Although he recognized her attractiveness, he helped her to not be trapped by her own beauty. Mordecai was skilled at operating within two cultures, two worlds, and two value-systems. Upon winning a beauty contest, Esther left her family and friends behind and began her journey into the world of the palace.
Hegai, head of the King’s harem, and one of the Eunuchs, was the guard and guide of all the beautiful young women. His training was never talked about in the Sunday School classes of my youth. As Marjorie Zoet Bankson puts it, “Hegai could give the kind of training no mother could provide!” Her grooming paid off and she was chosen as the queen. Life began to take on a familiar rhythm.
There is a critical point in the story when Uncle Mordecai learns through his palace pipeline that Haman, a golfing confidante of the King, is planning to kill all the Jews, including women and children—and all of their possessions were to be plundered. Mordecai’s response was to arrive at the King’s Gate dressed in sack cloth and ashes as an act of mourning. Esther made a determination that the best way to handle the situation was to send some new clothes down to Mordecai and send him on his way. However, her trusted servant came back and reported on Haman’s evil plan, and Mordecai’s request that she intercede on behalf of her people.
Her first response was “no”. It was logical and rational. She pointed out the obvious—anyone who approached the King un-summoned could be executed on the spot. Uncle Mordecai’s argument was that either way she might be killed and that perhaps she had come to her present position for “just such a time as this” in order to save her people.
Whether it happened consciously or unconsciously, Mordecai challenged Esther to claim her own power. In order to choose life for herself and for her people, she was called to claim the power that resided within her. Upon saying “yes” she began making the decision. She did not move into the process by herself. She insisted that all the Jews in Susa, including herself, observe a three-day fast. Their stance was in contrast to Haman’s. Haman represented a closed political system based on control and power. Esther and her people set food aside in order to focus on that which offered greater sustenance. Although there is no mention of God in the book of Esther, it’s hard not to believe that three days of fasting wouldn’t lead to an inner journey to seek Divine courage and wisdom for the whole Jewish community. I believe that she was clear in her decision and grounded in the Holy One when she appeared before the King looking her regal best. She had a simple request: Please come to dinner.
In some mysterious way, the energy and spirit of Vashti were with her as she went about following her call. Esther had the ability to trust her own sense of timing, and she had the gift of patience. She understood the culture of the palace crowd.
The outcome of two dinners later was that Esther unveiled Haman’s plan. Haman was ultimately ordered hanged and his wealth was turned over to Esther. The key to Esther’s ability to confront the enemy was that she met the two most powerful men in the kingdom not as an equal in their system, but as a partner in God’s system. She became a leader in breaking out of bondage—her own bondage as well as the bondage of her people.
As always, we’re invited into the story. When is it that we’ve been faced with a tough decision that demanded or demands a great deal of courage in order to make some kind of crossing in our lives? When did it demand a total leap of faith? Is something going on in your life right now that is demanding courage and an enormous reliance on God to take a risk. Perhaps you are facing a Vashti moment…a moment when you are being invited to say “no”. What are the fears that you face with saying “No”? Perhaps you’re looking at an Esther moment…remember the words offered to her “For such a time as this have you been called.” Like Esther, we need to take the time to ground ourselves in God in order to have clarity regarding what we are being invited by God to live out in our lives. May we each have the courage to say “no” where we need to in life in order to not compromise who we are as sons and daughters of God.
On this Sunday when we have offered a blessing on our youth, we need to remember Mordecai’s role as Mentor. He reminds us of the importance of passing on our values, beliefs and encouragement.
And, may we, like Esther, have the strength to say “yes” –to speak our truth...in order to live into the chaos that comes with change and transition that ultimately brings about transformation.
With gratitude for these faith stories. Amen.