Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton. They, like their biblical foremothers, negotiate how to advance their aims and their values.

Vashti and Esther: Two Models of Queenly Resistance in the Purim Story

Joshua Krug
7 min readMar 20, 2019

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How do we get what we need and practice “resistance” in an upside-down world?

With the advent of our current political leadership, how does one relate to political authorities, as well as the (practical and ideological) structures that undergird them?

The book of Esther, which I reread the other day, presents two models of “resistance.” First, we have Vashti, who embodies the model of Rejection. And then, we have Esther, who represents the model of Ingratiation.

The model of REJECTION:

At the outset of the book of Esther, Persian King Ahashverosh is throwing a lavish and wild party. He becomes inebriated and orders his servants to fetch his wife, Queen Vashti, so that she can come to the party and strip for him and the ministers, “wearing only her royal crown.” (Esther 1:11) When Vashti hears this, she refuses to come out and do so.

The furious king confers with his ministers about how to respond to Vashti’s insolence. Fearing the implications for gender relations across society, one minister predicts,“the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahashverosh himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.” (Esther 1: 17) The king orders that Vashti never be allowed to enter his presence again, and further, that she be dethroned. (Esther 1:21)

The text does not mention Vashti again. As such, one wonders how Vashti feels when she hears from a servant that her husband wants her to strip in public. Further, one wonders how she feels when she learns of her husband’s decision to banish her from the palace and ghost her. Vashti, in chapter 1, stands up for herself and her beliefs. She suffers steep consequences for doing so. Clearly, she feels that she is doing the right thing for herself and others, by maintaining her self-respect; loss of her position and capacity to influence are another issue.

While Vashti wants to keep the crown on her head, she is unwilling to do just anything to keep it there. Her decision renders her ineffective at getting and keeping something that she wants for herself, and undermines her ability to project her vision for the broader society.

I am calling Vashti’s behavior “rejectionist.” She says “no” to a powerful person, a person who is unaccustomed to being said “no” to.

Consider for yourself:

Are there situations in which you feel you cannot engage in dialogue or conversation? Are there moments in which you simply put your foot down, and will live with consequences, in light of what you know to be right?

The model of INGRATIATION:

The story line:

This Jewish girl, Esther, enters a beauty pageant, wins, and replaces Vashti as Queen of Persia.

When King Ahashverosh- at the request of the cynical Haman- decrees an impending genocide of the Jewish people, Esther first avoids taking action. She is afraid to approach the king, without being summoned to do so (which is a capital offense). (Esther 4:11)

Ultimately, however, she decides to act and approaches Ahashverosh, who is unaware that his wife is Jewish.

The words of the text speak for themselves:

Chapter 5

1 … Esther dressed in her royal clothes, and she stood at the king’s inner court, facing the king’s apartment. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the palace, facing the entrance.

2 When the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased, and he extended to Esther the golden scepter he was holding. Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.

3 The king said to her, “What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? I would give you up to half the empire.”

4 Esther said, “If it please the king, could the king and Haman come today to a banquet I am making for him?”

5 The king commanded, “Tell Haman to hurry and do Esther’s bidding.” So the king and Haman came to the feast that Esther had prepared.

6 At the wine feast, the king asked Esther, “What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

7 “My wish,” replied Esther, “my request —

8 if Your Majesty will do me the favor, if it please Your Majesty to grant my wish and accede to my request — let Your Majesty and Haman come to the feast which I will prepare for them; and tomorrow I will do Your Majesty’s bidding.”

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Esther is deferential to the king and surprisingly composed, since she and her people are scheduled to be annihilated. One discerns her patience, as she has planned this party in order to extend a second invitation to another party, and her restraint, as she goes through with her plan (to not yet make the big ask), even though her husband, the king, conveys the extent of his devotion to her.

Let’s zoom forward in the narrative.

Chapter 7

1 The king and Haman came to drink with Queen Esther.

2 On the second day, the king said again to Esther, over the wine, “Whatever your desire, Queen Esther, you shall have. And whatever you request, up until half the empire, will be done.”

3 Queen Esther answered, “If the king likes me, and if it please the king, grant me my life as my desire, and my people as my request.

4 “My people and I have been sold to be destroyed, killed, and eradicated. Had we been sold as slaves I would have stayed silent, but this enemy is not concerned about the king’s financial loss.”

5 King Achashverosh said to Queen Esther, “Who is this? Who would dare do this?”

6 Esther said, “That man, the persecutor, the enemy, is that evil Haman there!” And Haman became terrified of the king and queen.

… 9 Charvonah, one of the king’s attendants, said to the king, “There’s also a fifty-cubit-high gallows in Haman’s house that Haman made for Mordechai, who saved the king.” Said the king, “Hang him on it.”

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There is much of interest here- including the articulation of Haman’s depravity, and of the ultimate punishment that awaits him. For our purposes, however, we will focus on how Esther makes a big ask of Ahashverosh. Her words of beseeching are stirring, “grant me my life.” Perhaps more intriguing, though, is what Esther tells Ahashverosh in her account, “Had we been sold as slaves, I would have stayed silent.” This seems like a strange thing to say. One wonders how Esther has calculated that she will maneuver in these moments, so as to get what she needs from the king. One may doubt the sincerity, if not the truth (not to mention the practical merit!), of Esther’s words here.

Esther’s approach to Ahashverosh here contrasts from that of Vashti (in chapter 1). Esther ingratiates herself to Ahashverosh and then says whatever it takes to save her life and that of her people. While Vashti rejects Ahashverosh’s ultimatum, Esther makes a request. In so doing, she is strategic, in terms of both process and rhetoric. She masterfully and effectively plays the “game” of politics, as it is played in the Persian court culture in which she finds herself.

Hers is a different model of “resistance” to political authority. This model involves getting into bed (literally) with the power that be, and doing (almost?) whatever it takes to secure what one needs. This model of resistance involves a “no” disguised as a “yes. In Ahashverosh’s eyes, Esther perhaps seems a model traditional and innocent Persian girl. However, Esther proves that she is, in fact, a strong and powerful woman. She is so powerful, indeed, that she plays Ahashverosh, and the grandiose king is too oblivious to realize it. While he thinks that he is the powerful one, (and he is in the sense that he does make decisions of state), she strategically influences his decisions. Esther proves effective, and she gets what she wants.

Consider for yourself:

(When) are you willing to strategically ingratiate yourself to others? Are there situations in which you take exceptional steps in order to get what you need?

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CONCLUSION

In my view, the important question is not which of the above models, Rejection or Ingratiation, is “better.” They are actually both imperfect models for an imperfect world. The former model, Rejection, seems less effective at enabling social change, while the latter model, Ingratiation, seems to allow for the possibility of losing oneself and one’s core values in the process of exerting influence in the political arena. These are both relevant models for a world in which “Ahashveroshes” and the ideologies that undergird them flourish.

I believe there are times and places for both of these (and other!) models of resistance.

As individuals, we may be more temperamentally inclined to one or the other (or another) model of resistance. For this reason, we might consider if we want to focus on deepening our ability to use one particular model, or to experiment with harnessing another model in a way that works for us- our values as well as our aims.

Regardless, I invite us to reflect for ourselves on how we as individuals and as community(s) will both get what we need and resist injustice around us.

May you have a happy and powerful Purim!

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Joshua Krug

As a scholar and educator, Josh explores how traditional and contemporary Jewish sources animate lives. He writes, dances, and sings (sometimes, all at once!)