Despite the fact that she makes all the events of the Book of Esther possible, Vashti is often left out of her own story. In fact, “Vashti” is not even a proper name. It is a pet name meaning “desired” or “beautiful one.” She is the queen of Persia and wife to one of the most powerful men in the ancient world. When her husband, King Ahasuerus, orders her to come to his banquet, she refuses. This defiance has left Vashti painted as a disobedient, prideful, haughty wife by both Ahasuerus’ council and by modern readers of the Bible. Vashti’s refusal, however, was actually the best decision she could have made in the ancient world.
In ancient Persia, wives were sent away when men broke out the wine for feasting. Concubines and servants took their place so that if a drunken man raped a woman, he was raping a woman of lower status instead of his wife. Wives, in turn, were supposed to rejoice that they were spared such degradation. Plutarch’s “Advice to the Bride and Groom” wrote, “When Persian kings dine, their legal wives sit beside them and share the feast, But if [the men] want to amuse themselves or get drunk, they send their wives away, and summon the singing-girls and concubines. And they are quite right not to share their drunken orgies with their wives. So, if a private citizen, intemperate and tasteless in his pleasures, commits and offense with a mistress or maidservant, his wife ought not to be angry or annoyed, but reflect that it is his respect for her that makes her husband share his intemperance or violent behavior with another woman.” When Ahasuerus calls for Vashti, he is relegating her to the role of concubine. As a queen, responding to the summons would have been extremely culturally improper. As a woman, Vashti would have been putting herself in very real danger. Ironically, the actions that paint her as a disobedient and prideful woman were born of obedience to her culture and humble fear.