The book of Esther begins with a description of King Xerxes (or Ahasuerus) of Persia celebrating with the leading men of his kingdom. At the conclusion of seven days of feasting, the king called Queen Vashti to appear before him. We are told this was “in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at” (Esther 1:11). However, Queen Vashti refused to come before the king and his men; “then the king became furious and burned with anger” (verse 12).
The text itself does not clearly address why Vashti refused to appear. A variety of theories have emerged. According to Esther 1:11, Queen Vashti was told to appear “wearing her royal crown,” and one rabbinical tradition interprets this as the king’s instruction to wear only her royal crown—in other words, she was told to appear in the nude. According to that tradition, Queen Vashti refused because she did not want to be put on display before a group of salacious, drunken men. This view is not found in the biblical text, nor can it be supported by history.
However, it is likely that Vashti refused to appear because she would have been humiliated in some way. The king and his men had been feasting and drinking for seven days. It is almost assured that they did not have noble intentions in calling her to the party. While nothing more specific is noted, the context—especially the reference to her beauty—indicates that her attendance at the feast was sought to entertain the men in some way.
Queen Vashti likely knew the potential consequences of refusing the king, but refuse she did. One of the king’s wise men, named Memucan, saw a dangerous precedent being set: “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord” (Esther 1:16–18). Such a bad example as Queen Vashti had set must be dealt with harshly, according to Memucan.
Xerxes agreed with his adviser’s appraisal, and the result was that Vashti was never again to come before the king. Her royal position as queen was to be given to another “who is better than she” (Esther 1:19). Queen Vashti’s removal from the throne opened a vacancy in the Persian kingdom. Chapter 1 thus sets the stage for the introduction of Esther, an unlikely candidate for queen, since she was an orphaned Jewess raised by a cousin.
However “unlikely” Esther may have been, God chose her to perform a great work in protecting the Jewish people from genocide. Still today, Jews around the world commemorate Esther and the deliverance she wrought with the Feast of Purim. Many scholars believe this is the same feast that was observed by Jesus in John 5:1.