The opening chapters of Esther describe how—after months of lavish drinking banquets—the king sent his eunuchs to fetch his queen, Vashti, that he might display her beauty to the men he had gathered around him. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the book’s opening is captured in this painting by Richard McBee—while the grandeur of the king’s court is also hinted at: white cotton curtains, marble pillars, porphyry, mother-of-pearl, and coloured stones picked up in the pinks and blues of the composition.
This unusual and complex interpretation of the Vashti vignette appears to project the king’s fantasy, for in reality (as the text tells us) Vashti refused to come. A naked Vashti, adorned with little except her tiered crown, a sparkly belt, and possibly a veil, performs a cabaret-style dance, for the implied male gaze of the king and his guests. Her intended objectification as described in the text is here suggested by her representation as an animal with a tail. And she is not just an animal, but a domesticated one—turned into a pet for the king; harnessed, obedient, and performing.
Vashti’s tail, clearly evident in this painting, derives from a collection of rabbinic midrashim that present Vashti in a negative light, implying that she had licentious intent when she organized her own banquet at the other end of the king’s castle. According to an associated tradition, the angel Gabriel came and fixed a tail to her (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12b). God intervened in various ways to prevent Vashti from heeding Ahasuerus’s request. Thus God directed matters so that Vashti would be deposed and Esther would reign in her stead.
The intriguing second figure in the painting—a naked female ‘hiding’ in the shadows on the other side of the wall—may be interpreted in more than one way. She might be the real Vashti of the text who refused to come forth and be paraded before the men—rejected, isolated, and cast out; stripped of royal status for her refusal to obey. Or she could be Esther, the young woman who would soon be paraded before the king and win his favour.
Berlin, Adele. 2001/5761. Esther, The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society)
1 In the days of Ahasu-eʹrus, the Ahasu-eʹrus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, 2in those days when King Ahasu-eʹrus sat on his royal throne in Susa the capital, 3in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his princes and servants, the army chiefs of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces being before him, 4while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, a hundred and eighty days. 5And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the capital, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings caught up with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. 7Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8And drinking was according to the law, no one was compelled; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as every man desired. 9Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasu-eʹrus.
10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuʹman, Biztha, Harboʹna, Bigtha and Abagʹtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served King Ahasu-eʹrus as chamberlains, 11to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
13 Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times—for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, 14the men next to him being Carsheʹna, Shethar, Admaʹtha, Tarshish, Meres, Marseʹna, and Memuʹcan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom—: 15“According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasu-eʹrus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16Then Memuʹcan said in presence of the king and the princes, “Not only to the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also to all the princes and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasu-eʹrus. 17For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt upon their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasu-eʹrus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18This very day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will be telling it to all the king’s princes, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. 19If it please the king, let a royal order go forth from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is to come no more before King Ahasu-eʹrus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low.” 21This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memuʹcan proposed; 22he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be lord in his own house and speak according to the language of his people.