This is what happened during the time of Xerxes,a] the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cushb]: 2 At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3 and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.
4 For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty. 5 When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa. 6 The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. 7 Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. 8 By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.
9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.
10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
The narrator is communicating to us that Xerxes plays the part of a god in this story. He has the whole world at his fingertips – all the princes, governors, officials and everyone who matters is at his banqueting table and his command is for these men to indulge, consume, enjoy! The six-month party builds to a final seven days of drunken carousing, and it’s at the end of the 7th day that the King summons his Queen to “show herself” to his men.
It isn’t clear what exactly the King wants Vashti to do, but I think we can safely say that it wouldn’t be strictly what you’d call an evening of well-mannered frivolity. It’s clear that Vashti would rather die than do whatever Xerxes wants her to do for his party guests. Unfortunately for her, no one says no to
Gaston the great King Xerxes, and women don’t say no to their husbands without severe consequences. Despite this, the Queen tries to set a personal boundary and refuses to join this unholy eucharist. Her body is not a part of the feast.
Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times 14 and were closest to the king—Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.
15 “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”
16 Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. 20 Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”
21 The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed. 22 He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue.
Is Vashti a hero? She stands up for what she believes and refuses to use her sexual prowess to advance her position in the Empire. She refuses to stand naked at the beck and call of the King. Consider that this is exactly how Esther becomes Queen a few chapters later …
Traditionally, Christians readers of Esther have asserted that Vashti is bad, because she doesn’t submit to her husband, and that Esther is good because she embodies feminine submission. Is Vashti a bad wife? The narrator doesn’t condemn Vashti, but nor does he applaud it. We are left to wonder.
So let’s wonder. Is Vashti allowed to say no to Xerxes? Are we allowed to say no to our governing authorities? Are we allowed to say no to God? What if God summons me and I say no? What if God summons our church to engage in his mission and we say no? Will God silently move on without us, or will God force us to submit? Was Jonah allowed to say no? What about the rich young ruler who said no to Jesus in Luke 18? Jesus let him walk away. Do you think Mary could have said no to the angel? Who gets to say no? Is God allowed to say no to us?
The King of Persia wants to share everything he owns, including his wife, but Vashti says no. Haman wants Mordecai to bow down to him later in the story, and we applaud Mordecai for saying no. Perhaps some days we are Vashti. We count the cost and decide it is too much – we’d rather stay comfortably where we are. On the other hand, perhaps God is Vashti. Sometimes we summon God to attend our festivals and worship services; we summon God to attend our prayer gatherings and submit to our will – entertain our guests – and God says she’d rather stay in her part of the house, entertaining her own guests. Read Isaiah 1:12-15. Is God allowed to say ‘no’ to us?
Consider that God is free – he is not bound to us. But God is also not a coercive God – he is patient and kind. However, that does not mean that God is “on our side”, so to speak. God has a mission, and God’s mission has a church. God invites us – God is the host.
God is not a commodity or a sacred object or a product to be marketed to the world – God is not our personal golf caddy, recommending the best club in order for us to shoot our best shot. We need to pause and reflect – who gets to say no? Who is invited to the party?
At the communion table we consider that God has invited us (never coerced us) to come as guests. We have been pursued, not subdued. Held safe, never held down. Invited to feast on the living bread – the body of Jesus.
You stay hidden within that miseryGod holy, sovereign, generous———that is the first thing we know and affirm at the break of day.But then, from these old, hard texts, we notice———that your holy, sovereign, faithful, generous way with us and———with our people is in this endless tale of violence…——————war, plunder, rape, incest, deception, and death.You stay hidden within that misery,———at work even against such circumstance.We notice that our long-term narrative is just like every other tale,———wreaking with violence, just like every other…———except for you… holy, sovereign, faithful, generous.We trust your hidden ways today in our narrative———and in all the narratives of violence in force today.Work your good will,——————give us eyes to note what can be seen of you,——————give us faith to trust what stays hidden of you,——————give us nerve to obey you this day,———even where we do not see.We praying in the name of Jesus who confounds all our tales of misery.Amen.