Julie Lyles Carr: Sunday Selah

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Selah

"But when the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come."
Esther 1:12

Her story has always been compelling to me.
Or, should I say, her lack of story.

We know of Queen Vashti through a few brief verses at the beginning of Mordecai Ben-Jair's account of the events surrounding the establishment of the Jewish holiday of Purim, the writing we today call the book of Esther. We learn that she was known for her great beauty. We know that she was throwing her own dinner party while the king held his.

And we know that when the king commanded her to come before his dinner guests, she refused.

Which led to her being deposed by King Xerxes, the event that made the way for an orphaned Jewish girl named Hadassah to become the Queen of Persia.

It struck me as I was studying this era of the Persian empire and the mighty kings who ruled during this time how Greco-Roman centric we tend to be in our view of history, at least in this country. The Greek and Roman dominance of the European and Middle Eastern borders lasted about seven centuries combined. We see the influence of that rule in our architecture, our forms of logic, our art and our language.

But what of the Medes and Persians?

The golden age for the Persian Empire dawned several centuries before Greco-Roman dominion. The Babylonian kings and the Persian kings jostled one another's borders for many years before Cyrus the Great unified the Medes and the Persians of present-day Iran and overran his Babylonian neighbors to the north in what is now Iraq. The Persian Empire by the time of Vashti's husband, Xerxes, stretched from India to Egypt and skirted the borders of Greece. When Xerxes took the throne in 485 BC, he was not only known as king, he was also ipso facto Pharaoh over Egypt.

Not too shabby.

While there is a great deal of recorded history outside Scripture surrounding Xerxes and his constant war campaigns against Greece, his building of incredible palaces and his civic law, Vashti is virtually absent from these records. Scoffers say that this 'proves' the book of Esther is simply fairy tale, but most archeologists would have to grudgingly admit that when a ruler was deposed in many cultures, there was an all-out effort to scrub that person's memory from the national records.

Vashti is remembered in a few sources outside of Scripture, in the Midrash, a collection of rabbinic approach to various stories in Scripture, 'filling' in where question marks have remained. Some of the rabbis say that Vashti was the daughter of Belshazzar, the king of Babylon defeated by Darius, Xerxes's father. Midrash legend says that Vashti was the only surviving member of the royal family and that Darius took pity on her, sparing her life and giving her to his son in marriage. Some rabbis taught that Vashti was an especially cruel mistress to the young Jewish girls who served her, forcing them to work on the Sabbath in the nude, huge violations of their religious practices. Some say that Xerxes was a doorkeeper in the house of Belshazzar and that Vashti always held disdain for her upstart husband who overthrew an empire.

And perhaps the reason for these Midrash traditions is an attempt to understand Vashti's refusal to come before her husband at his banquet. Some modern commentaries try to assert that she was told to come wearing 'only' her crown and her refusal was a moral stance, a chaste and honorable posture of a true queen. Some say her refusal stemmed from political intrigue, an attempt to undermine her husband's authority before the court. But the wording of the Scripture carries no connotation of these intrigues and would even seem to counter the claim that she was to appear wearing 'only' her crown. In Persian culture, it would have shamed the king for other men to have looked that intrusively on his treasure.

I've been pondering on her for many weeks now.

And after the tales and legends and politicking and posturing, I feel like the Holy Spirit has taught me this:

It's about trust.

Vashti didn't trust Xerxes.

She didn't trust him with her image, her position, her identity.

Whether Xerxes gave Vashti good reason to not trust him or whether he had always been a consistent leader, her refusal exposes the core flaw to their marriage.

Because when all is said and done, she decided to keep the reigns of her image solidly in her hands.

And lost a kingdom for it.

Vashti has now become something of a feminist heroine in our modern day. Her brief story is often claimed to be a tale of unfair male dominance and the bravery of a queen-as-chattel who dared to stand against it.

Uh, maybe.

But perhaps is goes deeper. Perhaps we might find an allegory for our lives here.

Because we've all been invited to a banquet, even in the midst of throwing the private dinner parties we call our lives.

Jesus tells a parable of this banquet in Matthew 22. He talks about those who have been invited to this banquet, a feast thrown by a king for his son, the bridegroom. But there are those who have been invited who refuse to come. And in chapter 22, in verse 5, Jesus gives this telling detail, saying, "But they paid no attention and went off, one to his field, another to his business."

They decide to keep hold of their calendars, their interests, their images. And in so doing, they miss a kingdom.

They choose not to trust their King with their lives.


I feel a certain sympathy for Vashti. She no doubt had gone to some trouble to put together her guest list, her menu, her preparations for her banquet. Perhaps one of the women in her party was just getting to the punchline of a gossipy bit of news. Perhaps Vashti had just finished ushering her last guest to the door and was dreaming of a hot bubble bath. And then this summons comes.

But I take her story as strong medicine. I want to trust my King. I want to trust that whatever He calls me to do, where ever He calls me to show up, if it's day or night, even in the middle of a dinner party, I want to be sensitive to His summons.

And I want to remember the words of my Messiah as He tells of His banquet..."Many are invited, but few are chosen."


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