Vashti has become one of the favourite heroines of the Jewish feminist movement. This much-maligned queen, the argument goes, should be appreciated as a positive rôle model, a woman who dared to disregard a royal decree that would have her displayed as a sex object before King Ahashverosh's rowdy drinking companions. Her ultimate downfall should accordingly be viewed as a martyrdom to the cause of sexual equality.
The rabbis of the midrash were not so sympathetic to the fate of the queen. This attitude can partly be explained on the grounds of their belief in divine justice: God would not have allowed her to be punished unless she had in fact done something to deserve it. We cannot however deny that the sages shared a certain sympathy with the king's basic assumptions. At one point they ridicule him for having to assert publicly "that every man should bear rule in his own house" (Esther 1:22), since this is so patently obviously as to go without saying!
However the rabbinic vilification of Vashti cannot be explained entirely as a manifestation of male chauvinism. We must keep in mind that the Jewish sages tended to view the heroes and villains of the Bible not as individuals, but as instances of recurrent historical patterns. Vashti, they learned, was in fact the great-granddaughter of the arch-villain Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon, who had destroyed the sacred Temple. Vashti's ruin embodied the final stages of her grandfather's defeat, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah (14:22): "And I will rise up against them, saith the Lord, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant, and offshoot and offspring." Vashti's downfall marked the final cutting-off of the Babylonian royal offspring, following a pattern of typological thinking that has been applied in recent days to the likes of Saddam Hussein .
It was of course not enough to have Vashti penalized for the sins of her ancestor. The Rabbis tried to show that she was culpable on her own "merits." For one thing, they insisted that Vashti had actively continued to pursue her ancestor's policies, lobbying against any royal inclination to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
In their determination to show how Vashti had deserved her fate, the Jewish sages followed the midrashic method of deducing her crimes from the nature of her punishment, assuming that God always metes out justice measure for measure.
A clue to her misbehaviour was the fact that the king's summons to her had come "on the seventh day, when the king's heart was merry with wine" (Esther 1:10). Surely this did not refer to the seventh day of the feast, since Ahashverosh had presumably been merry with wine from the beginning. The allusion must therefore be to the seventh day of the week, the Jewish sabbath. Vashti was ordered to appear naked before the King on a sabbath as a fitting punishment for enslaving Jewish maidens and forcing them to work on their day of rest.
The question remained: If she was really such a depraved creature, then why would she have declined an opportunity for exhibitionism? Here as well, the Rabbis had to add some supplementary details to the biblical narrative: Vashti was indeed willing to display her charms before the king's drinking partners, but God had interfered by inflicting upon her a humiliating physical deformity. According to one view Vashti succumbed to leprosy. According to another one, the angel Gabriel came "and fixed a tail on her."
This last possibility was widely understood as a euphemism for a miraculous transformation to male anatomy. This interpretation was too risqué for some readers, and the offending sentence had to be censored out of some editions of the Talmud. In Louis Ginzberg's compendium of midrashic lore The Legends of the Jews, the passage appears (in the footnotes), but in Latin.
In its own way the midrashic tradition tried to "liberate" Vashti, portraying her as a wily politician, not merely a passive royal ornament. As the scion of a once-mighty royal dynasty, she would flaunt her pedigree in Ahashverosh's face. She was also adept at subtle political manoeuvering. For example the fact that she held a separate feast for the ladies of the imperial nobility, rather than participating in the general festivities, was interpreted as a wise strategic move: In case a coup should be attempted during Ahashverosh's celebration, she would have under her control a prestigious group of hostages to use as a bargaining card. We see, by the way, that the use of "human shields" as practiced by Saddam Hussein is not a recent innovation in that region of the world.
Whether or not these details justify her inclusion among the pioneers of women's liberation,Vashti remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in the Purim story.
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