June 17, 2019

Breaking Free of the Esther/Vashti Complex

“The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus” by Jan Victors

Call it the “Esther/Vashti Complex” — the perennial Purim impulse to define Esther and Vashti against each other as foils, opposites, rivals, or enemies.

They were none of these. This false dichotomy has been superimposed on the narrative, enduring through the ages, reducing the women to two-dimensional figures, robbing them of the dignity of human complexity. It obscures a story of female empowerment behind a mask of misogyny. 

For 25 centuries, scholars, rabbis and other thinkers have tried to pit two courageous women against each other, depicting Vashti as wicked and Esther as angelic, venerating Esther by vilifying Vashti. 

But Harriet Beecher Stowe praised Vashti as early as 1878 for standing up for women’s rights, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton applauded Vashti’s defiant resistance in 1898. In recent decades it has become increasingly fashionable to vindicate Vashti and even to devalue Esther with faint praise or outright scorn. “Vashti fights for her modesty and her honor, while our heroine Esther is willing to work through the bedroom,” writes Rabbi Ruhama Weiss. Isabel Kaplan derides Esther for having “slept her way to the top.” Scriptural slut-shaming seems particularly ill-advised and retrograde. 

Not only were Esther and Vashti never adversaries, there is historical evidence to suggest they were the same woman. The next time you thumb through ancient secular sources such as “The Histories” by Herodotus or Plato’s account of Socrates’ dialogue with Alcibiades, you’ll notice they name only one woman, Amestris, as the wife of Xerxes, the Persian king identified with Ahasuerus.  

Drop the “V” from Vashti and the “Am” from Amestris, and it’s not much of a stretch from the remaining “ashti” and “estris” to “Esther.” Etymologies reaching back to ancient Greek, Persian, Babylonian and Hebrew are complex and uncertain at best. Esther derives from Ishtar, a Greek goddess and “star.” Vashti and Amestris also share roots. 

Esther and Vashti contend with the same husband, the same patriarchal authority. They never appear together, or even at the same time. For interpretive purposes, we may conclude that they were two women of valor. Or one. 

Ahasuerus throws a party, a six-month government shutdown to energize his base.  Wine is served in vessels of gold. The décor is garish. 

Later, the king convenes a smaller party of cronies, patrons, sycophants and generals while Queen Vashti fêtes the real housewives of Shushan’s noblest families. 

The king orders Vashti to abandon her female posse and her dignity, and dance naked in front of the men. Vashti refuses.

Ahasuerus can have Vashti brought to him by force. But he needs her to appear voluntarily so he can seem like a benevolent husband with a loving, compliant wife. Vashti’s refusal shatters the illusion. 

Ahasuerus spins his personal embarrassment as a political question. He asks his advisers what to do. Vashti’s defiance — a courageous declaration of self-ownership — terrifies the king’s men. They fear that Vashti’s chutzpah will inspire their wives to rebel and disobey.

Vashti is banished. Details are sketchy. Perhaps she is simply relegated to the king’s harem, hidden from the public and banned from the royal bedroom.

Ahasuerus is left embarrassed and alone.

A search for Vashti’s replacement commences with young women commanded to compete for the role, sequestered in the palace, bathed in frankincense and myrrh. Each woman spends a night on the king’s casting couch. There can be only one leading lady. After, uh, auditioning them all, the king will anoint his favorite. 

This process is described as a beauty contest. The winner will wear the royal crown that provided no honor and no protection to Vashti. These women will be raped and enslaved as concubines. (How strenuously we must avert our attention from these sordid details to maintain the fairy-tale illusions we associate with this happy holiday.)

Esther is conscripted into this beauty contest by her cousin and guardian Mordecai. She is the orphaned daughter of his uncle. Having raised Esther from childhood, Mordecai offers her to the king. This act is troubling, to put it mildly.

But Esther is a strategic thinker. She enters the contest without protest. Esther gives Ahasuerus what Vashti refused him — in private, not in front of an audience. What she chooses to reveal is superficial. She conceals her Jewish identity. 

The king requires Esther to agree to remain obedient, an ironic legacy of Vashti’s refusal. Esther formally consents. Perhaps this is a sadder but wiser Vashti, transformed into the savvy Esther, pursuing a new strategy. 

Ahasuerus decrees a festival to honor the new queen. He never asks Esther to dance. To win popularity, he cuts taxes.

Meanwhile, Haman wants the world to bow to him. Mordecai won’t bow. And when Mordecai discovers a plot to assassinate the king, he sends a warning through Esther, earning the king’s gratitude and Haman’s wrath. Haman then plans to kill all the Jews. 

Mordecai wants Esther to get the king to prevent the pogrom. But even the queen may not visit the king unless he summons her. Aware of what happened to Vashti, Esther hesitates to approach the erratic king. Mordecai argues that self-preservation and Jewish solidarity compel her to act.

So, Esther presents herself to the king. He invites her to approach and kiss his scepter. She complies. We pretend not to understand. The visit is conjugal. It’s been a month since husband and wife last saw each other. 

As it turns out, the king is delighted that his wife took the initiative. The now-uxorious Ahasuerus protects Esther as he failed to protect Vashti. Esther has won a victory on the metaphorical battlefield where Vashti fell.

Haman is then hung from the gallows he built for Mordecai. Enabled by Esther, the Jews defend their lives. 

Esther takes the baton of female empowerment passed by Vashti. Or, if you prefer, Vashti reemerges as Esther. The Jewish people get a seat at the table of power. The tradition of matrilineal descent in intermarriage affords Esther the prospect of bearing children who will be Jewish Persian royalty. 

On Purim we drink wine until we cannot tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman. Better to drink wine until we cannot tell the difference between Esther and Vashti, and break free of the Esther/Vashti Complex.


Alan Robert Ginsberg is a historian and the author of “The Salome Ensemble.”