When the descendants of noble Queen Vashti approached me to undertake her defense, I was, frankly, dubious about the prospects. After all, the eyewitnesses, unreliable as their DUI testimony may have been, have long since left the scene, and no DNA evidence survives. Further, I have a reputation as the Alan Dershowitz of lost causes of historic proportions to maintain.
Yet, as they continued to importune me, the merits of the case, the dimensions of this miscarriage of justice, and of my potential fee became apparent. Despite the 2,500 years that have elapsed, justice must be served, along with the rest of the menu.
First, some context for those of you who were not alive during the glorious reign of Queen Vashti. Unfortunately, due to the miscarriage of justice and the “disappearance” of the queen, the only extant record of her story is the one in that self-aggrandizing Jewish scroll of Esther, which hardly can be trusted as an accurate record.
Vashti is reputed to have been the daughter of Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon, whose final days in about 550 B.C.E. were recorded, alas, only in that Jewish book of Daniel. How can we give it credence when it speaks in forked languages? Further, Rembrandt, whose pictorial representation “Belshazzar’s Feast” was painted in 1635, was clearly not present.
Unlike her successor, that well-oiled Jewish girl Esther, Vashti was of royal lineage. I am sure that I don’t need to tell you that the story about the beauty contest must have been composed by one of Ahasuerus’s drunken guests. Queens were – and are – chosen for their political usefulness, not for their prowess, you will excuse me, between the sheets. For that, in those glorious days, there were harems.
The rabbis, in a flight of imagination that is our only record, proposed that on the night Belshazzar was killed Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Mede were guests at his table – an improbable troika given that they were enemies. The candelabrum fell, killing Belshazzar. In the ensuing chaos in the palace, Darius was named to succeed Belshazzar and sat on his royal chair. Vashti, Belshazzar’s young daughter, confused by the palatial pandemonium, sought comfort from her father. In the dark she did not realize that the lap on the royal chair belonged to Darius. This was no lap dance. Taking pity on his orphaned lap lady, Darius moved her from the lap of fortune to marriage to his son Ahasuerus, aka Xerxes.
A slightly more credible story, but, I again warn you, only rabbinic in origin, maintains that Ahasuerus, who was in charge of the royal stables, acquired regal status by marrying the princess. Which laps were involved here is somewhat obscure.
This fictional reconstruction goes some distance in explaining the remarkable disparity between this unlikely king and his blameless queen. As the book of Esther attests: “on the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine” – in other words, completely soused. Public inebriety is not consonant with royalty.
Before moving on to the charges against Vashti, allow me also to point out that this royal match could have no spark. According to those rabbis, when the prophet Isaiah said “instead of the nettle, the myrtle shall rise” he was predicting that Vashti would be dethroned to make way for Esther, whose Hebrew name, Hadassah, means myrtle. Vashti was the “sacrificial queen,” whose sole purpose was to provide an excuse for that “beauty contest.” Of course, that “prophecy” of Isaiah was made after the putative date of the occurrences recounted in the Esther scroll, augmenting its reliability.
The first charge is that Vashti disobeyed her husband when he ordered her to come, wearing her crown, into the binge-drinking party he was hosting. This charge is groundless. What respectable woman would enter such a scene wearing only her crown? Besides, the custom was that no respectable woman, even completely dressed, would enter the scene of such debauchery. The only women whose business it might have been to be present were, shall we say, in business in the world’s oldest profession.
Some rabbinic traditions appear to have had access to the transcript of the recorded messages that flew between the drunken commoner king and his lucid royal queen. Here is the transcription.
When Ahasuerus sent his important ministers, some of whom were eunuchs, to bring Vashti, she gave her husband the ritually mandated three opportunities to withdraw his demand.
First she told him: “If they see me and think me beautiful, they will want to lie with me, and they will kill you. And if they see me and think me ugly, you will be disgraced because of me.” Appealing to logic, she tries to convince him that, as we say to our children, actions have consequences.
Vashti’s second attempt was: “You were my father’s stable steward, accustomed to having naked harlots come before you. Now that you have become king, you have not mended your degraded ways!”
Although she addresses his sense of honor and self-respect, demanding that he act as a king should, she also reminds him that he did not come into this high office on his merit, but on hers. Since it is her authority he wields he cannot force her to act against her will
There is an unexplained chai – an 18-minute – gap in the recording here. We can only imagine what might have been erased.
Finally she told him: “You want me to come naked. Even my father, when he judged litigants in a trial, would not judge them when they were naked.” He would do well to emulate her father.
Clearly we have ample evidence that Vashti has the wisdom to appeal to Ahasuerus using multiple intelligences. Ahasuerus, on the other hand, acts rashly, without thinking even one step ahead. She should be vindicated and held up as a paragon of virtue, rather than punished.
Likewise the charge that Vashti’s behavior was contagious, modeling uxorial disobedience that would be emulated by wives everywhere in the 127 provinces of the Persian Empire, is baseless. The only reason that anyone outside the palace learned of this domestic contretemps is that the king stupidly publicized it. Vashti did not control the imperial records, the press, the web, or even Wikileaks.
Let us recall that the king’s idiotic mis-advisers were eunuchs. What could they know of the way that power is shared in marriage? I hate to admit it, but those rabbis had a much better perspective on domestic tranquility. They argue that Ahasuerus was stupid to think that a man can impose his will upon his wife: “If a man wants to eat lentils and his wife wants to eat beans, can he force her? Surely she does as she likes.”
The Jews, who later became notorious as supporters of liberal – some might even say socialist – causes, indicated their support of labor as early as the rabbinic period. Supporting labor is fine, as long as it does not become an excuse for maligning management or raising taxes on the rich. In this case spurious charges were drummed up against Vashti, particularly by those rabbis in Babylonia who had to show that Jews were superior to the local population.
They charged that Vashti had Jewish girls work naked, so being ordered to appear naked herself was, one might say, tit-for-tat, or for tit. Another tit-for-t?t claims that her punishment came on the seventh day of the feasting because she forced Jewish girls to work on their seventh day – Shabbat.
Those rabbis even go so far as to suggest that she refused to appear naked because she suffered from leprosy. Their over-active imaginations fantasized that the angel Gabriel came and attached a tail to her, making her unwilling to appear. That’s clearly ridiculous, as it is well known that Ahasuerus, when he finally came to, looked all over the palace for his beloved Vashti, having no memory that she had been excised.
In a more valid midrashic depiction, when Ahasuerus grew sober, he regretted what he had done. He recalled Vashti and her proper behavior, as well as how he had improperly condemned her.
Yet another tradition has Ahasuerus inquiring after his wife when the effects of his intoxication wore off. He was told: “You killed her!” “Why?” “You said for her to come before you naked and she did not come.” He admitted to them: “I did not act nicely. And who counseled me to kill her?” They told him: “The seven ministers of Persia and Media.” He immediately killed them. Consequently, the seven eunuchs are not mentioned again in the Book of Esther.
In fact, Ahasuerus regretted getting rid of Vashti so much that he kept pictures of her above his bed, which he would look at any time he had a woman there, which was generally at least once a day. Vashti continued to reign in his bedroom until he met that commoner Esther, whose pictures went up as Vashti’s were torn down.
By now it should be clear to you that Vashti is the blameless victim of this story. While I here have been arguing for an official reversal of her punishment and the restoration of her portrait to the gallery of the queens and kings of the Persians, whatever you decide is on some level irrelevant. After all, Vashti was not a happy queen. She was not comfortable with the licentiousness of the palace scene. All she wanted was some quiet.
In those ancient times, she could not achieve her goal by leaning in. She leaned out and plotted her own escape from the palace. She took her crown and enough jewelry with her to live happily ever after in a quiet corner of a neighboring kingdom, surrounded by her beloved and caring children and staff.