Sunday’s sermon: Vashti: Woman of Doomed Dignity

Text used – Esther 1:1-21

  • For 10 yrs., starting in 1947, he wore #42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson – one of the best baseball players to play the game, and the first Black man to play Major League Baseball.[1]
    • Pretty astounding player
      • Key stats for those who know baseball:
        • .311 batting average
        • 137 career homeruns
        • 734 career RBIs
        • General infielder → 1950: led the league in double plays made by a 2nd baseman with 133 double plays in 1 yr.
      • For those of you who aren’t that familiar with baseball, that basically means that Jackie Robinson was incredibly talented both with his bat and his glove.
        • Rookie of the Year: 1947
        • League MVP: 1949
    • And yet despite these stats and accolades and Robinson’s clear talent on the field, he faced an uphill from the minute he put on that blue and white Dodgers’ uniform. As I said, Robinson was the first Black player to play Major League baseball, and being a trailblazer in the public eye in regards to integration and Black/white relations in the 1940s and 1950s was a hard and dangerous path to walk.
      • Robinson was supported by a few key figures, namely Branch Rickey (president of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Robinson), Ford Frick (MLB’s National League president), Happy Chandler (baseball commissioner), Leo Durocher (Dodgers’ manager at the time), and a small handful of his Dodgers teammates including Pee Wee Reese (team capt.)
    • But beyond that small group of supporters, Robinson was met with ugliness and racism at every turn – from the teams the Dodgers played as well as the fans of those opposing teams, especially when the Dodgers were playing away games on the road; from the Dodgers own fans; from the press; even from his own Dodgers teammates, some of whom threatened to refuse to play if they had to play with Robinson.
      • Dealt with a disgusting array of heinously racist insults/remarks
      • Dealt with threats of violence to both himself and his family
      • Dealt with violence on the field → pitchers who deliberately threw pitches straight at Robinson’s head and runners who would try to gouge him with their spikes as they rounded bases[2]
      • Dealt with barriers thrown up by segregation → everything from where he could stay to where he could eat to where he could use the restroom when he was on the road with his team
    • But through it all, Robinson maintained his dignity. When he signed on to play Major League baseball, Robinson promised Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey that he would not fight back when confronted with the racism that they both knew he would face.
      • Powerful line from movie “42”[3] (w/Chadwick Boseman as Robinson) – scene where Rickey is talking to Robinson about the obstacles and racism and ugliness that he’ll face, deliberately bating him with fully plausible segregationist scenarios and racial slurs to get at Robinson’s temper, all the while reiterating the fact that Robinson can’t fight back: Robinson finally stand up and says, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” And Rickey replies, “No. No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.” → Sure, that’s only a movie, and while I looked, I couldn’t find anything that authenticated that as an actual line in the conversation between the real Branch Rickey and the real Jackie Robinson. But whether it’s a line from real life or a line written just for the movie, the essence of Robinson’s strength and dignity is still there. Despite the adversity and isolation that Robinson faced throughout his career (but especially during his first few seasons), his dignity remained.

  • Dignity = essence of the story for today’s woman of the Bible: Queen Vashti from the beginning of the book of Esther → Now, I have to be honest with y’all, I have been waiting for this day because Vashti is one of my favorite women of the Bible. She’s definitely one of the women that we know the least about. Her appearance in Scripture is both singular and brief, but I love the impact that she makes all the same.
    • Beginning of the text gives us some background and context for the story = height of the Persian Empire
      • Vastness of the Persian Empire is laid out in our text: This is what happened back when Ahasuerus lived, the very Ahasuerus who ruled from India to Cush – one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all.[4] → We need to pause for just a minute to understand how vast a portion of land this is.
        • Cush = region along the Nile River that follows the Blue Nile to the east
        • So these 127 provinces that were under King Ahasuerus’ command covered what is today Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, part of Tajikistan, half of Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, part of Greece, part of Libya, and part of Egypt. That is a massive territory! Imagine the power and might that it would have taken to rule an empire that was that far-reaching. → gives us some insight into King Ahasuerus
    • More insight into who Ahasuerus was = partier!
      • Text speaks of the insane party that Ahasuerus threw “for all his officials and courtiers”[5]
        • Party was 6 months long!
        • Ahasuerus’ motives clear in our text: He showed off the awesome riches of his kingdom and beautiful treasures as mirrors of how very great he was.[6] → So clearly, Ahasuerus doesn’t have any self-esteem problems.
      • But the fun doesn’t stop there! → after the 6-month party, Ahasuerus decides to throw another party just for everyone in the fortified part of his capital city, Susa
        • Party is for everyone – text: Whether they were important people in the town or not, they all met in the walled garden of the royal palace.[7] → goes on to detail the lush and extravagant furnishings for this party
          • Gold and silver
          • Yards upon yards of red/purple cloth (most expensive because they were the hardest dye colors to achieve)
          • Crystal and marble and mother-of-pearl
          • Text: They served drinks in cups made of gold, and each cup was different.[8] → party favor heaven!
        • And for those cups, the wine was flowing! – text: The king made sure there was plenty of royal wine. The rule about the drinks was “No limits!” The king had ordered everyone serving wine in the palace to offer as much as each guest wanted.[9] → So clearly, when Ahasuerus decided to do a thing, he did it the. way. No halfway about it for him.
  • Okay, so this is where Vashti enters the story.
    • Text tells us Queen Vashti had thrown her own party – “a feast for women” – within the palace itself → presumably separate from Ahasuerus crazy drunken free-for-all out in the garden
    • Icky twist in the story – text: On the seventh day, when wine had put the king in high spirits, he gave an order to … the seven eunuchs who served King Ahasuerus personally. They were to bring Queen Vashti before him wearing the royal crown. She was gorgeous, and he wanted to show off her beauty both to the general public and to his important guests.[10] → So this is a loaded verse in more ways than one.
      • FIRST, clearly the king and his guests have literally been drinking for a week, so they aren’t exactly in their right mind → And because Scripture tells us that Vashti was throwing a separate party for the women, we can guess that all the guests at Ahasuerus’ party are men (which is also supported by historical accounts of cultural practices at the time). So you have a garden full of horrifically drunk men calling for a single woman to come to them.
        • Sharifa Stevens (author, speaker, activist) explains: [Ahasuerus] put [Vashti] between a rock and a hard place. As queen, it was likely culturally inappropriate for her to be present for risqué soirees. As a woman, it would have been potentially dangerous for her to be around inebriated, uninhibited men. … That these [eunuchs] were to escort her into a room with hundreds of men engaged in a week-long bender may have been a more terrifying proposition to Vashti than refusing the King of Media and Persia.[11]
      • SECOND, deep dive on Heb. “to show off” (text: “[the king] wanted to show off [Vashti’s] beauty”) = the basic root word for “see” or “be seen” → But with the form that it’s in, it takes on a particular connotation of ostentatiousness, of displaying and gloating over something. And because we’re applying it to a person, it also taken on this unsettling, voyeuristic quality of examining in detail and enjoying looking at. In fact, some scholars have argued that because of the way this word is used, King Ahasuerus was calling for Vashti to appear before them in her royal crown and only her royal crown so he could better prove to all his drunken buddied and subjects that he did, indeed, have the most beautiful wife around.
        • Even creepier when we remember that the text said Ahasuerus wanted to “show off her beauty both to the general public and to his important guests
        • Something very possessive about the way this word is used
        • Something very dehumanizing about the way this word is used
    • So it’s no surprise, really, when we read that Vashti refuses the king’s request. She refuses to go with the eunuchs to the king’s side. She refuses to put herself on display. She refuses to be King Ahasuerus’ arm candy and to be everyone else’s eye candy. (Does anyone else feel like cheering right now? Yeah … me, too.) It’s not surprising … and yet it’s this very action – this very refusal – that seals Vashti’s doom.
      • Text tells us that King Ahasuerus is furious
        • Fury at being denied
        • Fury at being humiliated in front of his guests
        • Fury at Vashti choosing her own guests over him
      • Ahasuerus consults his royal advisors regarding what he should do about Vashti’s actions → And this is where things get even grosser (if that’s possible). – text: Then Memucan spoke up in front of the king and the officials. “Queen Vashti,” he said, “has done something wrong not just to the king himself. She has also done wrong to all the officials and the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. This is the reason: News of what the queen did will reach all women, making them look down on their husbands. They will say, ‘King Ahasuerus ordered servants to bring Queen Vashti before him, but she refused to come.’ … There will be no end of put-downs and arguments.”[12]Clearly, Memucan thinks that Vashti standing up for herself is going to cause women all across the country to stand up for themselves (God forbid!), and civilization as they know it will basically implode. God forbid the women of the empire have agency over their own bodies. God forbid the women of the empire have agency over their own minds.
        • Not so different from the arguments that have been used against women throughout the ages
          • Arguments against women learning
          • Arguments against women making their own living
          • Arguments against women being in charge of their own lives (as opposed to being the ward of a husband or male relative)
          • Arguments against women in the workplace
          • Arguments against women in the military
          • Arguments against women in the pulpit
  • Do you see now why I love Vashti so much? She embodies the struggle that women have faced from time immemorial. She embodies the “No” that so many women throughout history have not been able to say … or the “No” that they have voiced but has been ignored. This is especially interesting because throughout this whole story, this refusal is the only direct interaction we get with Vashti. It’s the only thing she does. Actually, it’s the only thing that she does throughout all of Scripture which makes it even more Vashti’s only act in the entirety of Scripture is to cling to her dignity and deny her husband’s lascivious, drunken, degrading request.
    • Result: Ahasuerus carries out the plan that Memucan outlines for him → banishes Vashti and begins searching for a new queen → Actually, even this outcome is unsure. There are some scholars who argue that, because of some nuances in the Hebrew and the cultural practices at the time, when it says “Vashti will never again come before King Ahasuerus,” it means he had her executed, not just deposed and banished. Either way, we never hear from or about Vashti again. After her refusal and the king’s declaration, she disappears.
    • But the legacy that Vashti leaves is a critical one. There are all kinds of ways that we are told we are not enough today. There are all kinds of ways that society and those in it try to tear us down for who we are. “Your hair isn’t right. Your body shape isn’t right. Your gender identity isn’t right. Your language isn’t right. Your country of origin isn’t right. Your immigration status isn’t right. Your sexual orientation isn’t right. Your family make-up isn’t right. Your education level isn’t right. Your income level isn’t right.” But Vashti’s story reminds us of the importance of standing up for who you are and maintaining your dignity in the face of adversity. She knew who she was, and she refused to let anyone – even the most powerful person in her world – take that away from her. Each and every one of us has been created by God to be unique, to be different, to be special in our own ways, many of them ways that society deems flaws to fix instead of blessings to celebrate.
      • Sharifa Stevens: Vashti is remembered in the first and second chapters of the book of Esther not for her looks, but for her courage. God’s gaze is never skin-deep; [God] values the heart.[13]
      • Friends, be like Vashti. Amen.

[1] https://www.biography.com/athlete/jackie-robinson.

[2] Christopher Bergland. “The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back: Valuable lessons from Jackie Robinson (No. 42) on mindfulness training” from Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201304/the-guts-enough-not-fight-back. Posted Apr. 12, 2013, accessed July 18, 2021.

[3] 42, directed by Brian Helgeland, featuring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford (Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment), 2013.

[4] Est 1:1.

[5] Est 1:3.

[6] Est 1:4 (emphasis added).

[7] Est 1:5.

[8] Est 1:7 (emphasis added).

[9] Est 1:7b-8.

[10] Est 1:10-11.

[11] Sharifa Stevens. “Vashti: Dishonored for Having Honor” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 243.

[12] Est 1:16-17, 18b.

[13] Stevens, 246.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: Vashti: Woman of Doomed Dignity

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Lydia: Woman of Means and Message | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s