Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Or, “Vashti is Dethroned as an Example to All Women”
Is the Bible sexist? Considering that we’re all basically worms in God’s sight (taking into account the scale of the universe) and that Christ’s sacrifice was for all (“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” [Colossians 3:11]) the answer is probably no. However it does push the envelope quite a bit some times. Let’s look at one of the more questionable stories of the Bible, the dethroning of Queen Vashti, and see what the Holy Spirit showed me about it.
Vashti was the Queen of Persia. One day, her husband, Xerxes, decided to throw a party. History records,
This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 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 (Esther 1:1-3).
At the same time, his wife, Vashti decided to throw a party of her own, as is written in Esther 1:9, “Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.” As it happens at massive multi-day parties, the king was feeling quite good and decided to show off his queen. We read,
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 Carcas- 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 (Esther 1:10-11).
However, for some unknown reason, the queen refused: “But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger” (Esther 1:12). What could be done for this queen who refused to obey her king? Xerxes consulted his advisers on this topic and came to a startling conclusion. The Bible records:
Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of the law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king- Cashena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.
“According to the 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.”
Then Memucan 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 provinces of King Xerxes. 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.’ 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.
“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. 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” (Esther 1:13-20).
Wow, what just happened there? Because it looks like King Xerxes was advised to dethrone his wife in order to put every woman in Persia in their place.
Ok, so what’s going on? Although the story is true (as the Bible is an accurate account of history), much of the Old Testament is also symbolic. Basically God manipulated events for certain people and he then used the Holy Spirit to make sure they got written down in order to teach us today various lessons. Paul calls attention to this style of reading the Bible in Galatians 4:21-24 where he explains,
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.
Although in other writings Paul (and Jesus as well) acknowledges that the Old Testament was history, he also shows that the events are open to symbolic interpretation as well. God doesn’t waste space, even when recounting history. With this knowledge, rather than apply the message of Vashti’s dethronement (“know your place, women”) directly, we should try to understand what deeper meaning God was getting at. Scripture interprets Scripture, so let’s start with pieces that we know. First off, our King and our Husband are both Jesus Christ, the son of God who is God. When Jesus shows up in Revelation, John writes, “On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:16). And as for Jesus being our husband? Paul wrote a whole message comparing our relationship to Christ like that of a husband and wife (to the point where he seems to confuse the two). He teaches,
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:22-24).
Shortly after he clarifies this by saying,
In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church- for we are members of his body (Ephesians 5:28-30).
So we’re deeply connected to each other in marriage and we’re deeply connected to Christ through his salvation, much like you and I are deeply connected to our bodies (or I’d hope so at least). Paul concludes by noting,
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery- but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you must also love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Ephesians 5:31-33).
Now if Paul has trouble separating the concepts of marriage and a relationship with Jesus, then it’s safe to say that Jesus is our husband. So when we look at Xerxes and Vashti, we’re looking at a model of humanity and God (as Jesus is God in the flesh). Specifically, the situation involves the replacement of one queen (or bride) with another; this would be God trading one group of people for another as his followers- which actually happened. Vashti represents the Israelites, who were later put aside as the church reached out to the Gentiles. So the story of Vashti and Esther (her replacement) is one of God leaving the Jews and focusing on the Gentile believers- a major issue that occurs in the New Testament.
King Xerxes enjoyed showing off his wife to his kingdom. Likewise, our King likes showing us off to his kingdom as well. Check out the way he talks in Job 1:8, “Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’” Or what he says of David in Acts 13:22,
After removing Saul, he made David their king. He testified concerning him: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.”
The Lord loves showing us off, even calling out his followers by name in order to praise them. At the same time though, God calls us to obey his commands. He told the Israelites,
Be careful to obey all these regulations I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 12:28).
However, if we fail to obey the Lord, he asks us to repent and try again. We read,
“Come now, let us reason together,”
Says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red as crimson,
They shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
Repeatedly though, the Jews denied God. The Bible notes in just one of many occasions of this constant ignoring of the Creator, “The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention” (2 Chronicles 33:10). They even responded harshly to the Lord’s mouthpieces on earth, his prophets. Jesus, speaking in accord with the Father and the Holy Spirit, said, “Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town” (Matthew 23:34). And so, after repeated attempts to reason and to reach out to his chosen people, the Lord eventually turned away from Israel. Paul writes,
I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:13-15)
Since God had turned away from his chosen people, the rest of the world (the Gentiles) was able to receive salvation through Jesus Christ. Just like with Xerxes and Vashti, our King could not tolerate the disobedience of his original queen and called for the dethronement for the Jews. This was a message that was to be taken seriously by all people (not just the Israelites). Paul writes on this,
If some branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either (Romans 11:17-21).
So we see the same lesson from Vashti’s dethronement being used as a warning to the new Gentile church. Esther (the new queen) is a symbol of the rise of the Gentiles after the coming of Christ- and the standing warning to all people about obeying the Lord.
Rather than being sexist, the story of Vashti being dethroned is a warning not to think lightly of our position in Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 describes what being a person of God is like:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful life.
Most of us are Gentiles, and as such, we were called out of the darkness into God’s originally very exclusive light. But unlike Xerxes, the Lord leaves the door open for his chosen nation to return. Paul writes in Romans 11:22-24,
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
So worry not for God’s chosen people, unlike Queen Vashti, those who come to Christ will be welcomed back into the fold with open arms.
The relationship between the king and queen changed after Vashti was dethroned. To speak to her the king used intermediaries. In the same way, the Jews didn’t like the idea of direct contact with God and asked for a mediator. History records,
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:18-19).
In fact, in Vashti and Esther’s time, it was dangerous to speak to the king. We read,
Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, “All the king’s officials and all the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king” (Esther 4:10-11).
However, the king was very happy to see his wife when she came,
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
Then the king asked, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you” (Esther 5:1-3).
Our Lord is happy when we approach him too. So, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus actually tells us, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7). So rather than being a story that enforces a submissive role for women, the dethronement of Vashti teaches us to revere our Lord and Savior and receive all of the good things that come with it. Don’t distance yourself from God, rather embrace him and watch him elevate you and show you off to the rest of the universe!