Queen Vashti in Ephesus

Don’t push modern sensibilities into story holes, point and yell “Ah ha!”

If you read Esther chapter 1 and your takeaway is that Queen Vashti is the hero because she stood up to the patriarchy, you’re reading it wrong. I don’t say that to defend the patriarchy but to defend the historical setting of the text.

In a nutshell, Ahasuerus was the king of the known world and he threw a party. When you’re king of the known world, your parties tend to be epic and not in the sense in which we use the word “epic” to describe a burrito. At the end of a feast, when the king had a pleasant wine buzz, he called for Queen Vashti to come and present herself before the princes and the people (verse 11). Vashti was a beautiful woman and judging from the way Ahasuerus threw a dinner party, I’m sure she would be decked out in the best clothing and jewels the kingdom had to offer. Ahasuerus wanted to parade her out as he did with the decorations of the palace (verse 6-7). Vashti refused to come.

Why? The Bible doesn’t say because it doesn’t matter. The chapter isn’t about a brave proto-feminist standing up against the patriarchy. Vashti didn’t burn her bra in protest, she simply refused to come (verse 12). The author’s point isn’t Vashti. It is Ahasuerus. He consumes the first chapter of the book and that chapter establishes the magnitude of Ahasuerus’ power and his ruthlessness. If anyone, including his wife, defies his orders they are dealt with in a swift, kingdom-wide manner (verse 20). The intent is for us to fear Ahasuerus, not the patriarchy. Vashti isn’t a hero, she is a victim just as the Jews will be targeted to be, just as Mordecai will be targeted to be, and just as Haman will be after his attempt to manipulate Ahasuerus’ power becomes known.

Along similar lines, there is an interesting account of the history of first century Ephesus. According to the article, the people who eventually go on to establish the city were a pretty vicious matriarchy lead by a queen who “promulgated laws whereby she led forth the women to martial strife, while on the men she fastened humiliation and servitude.” These women may have been the fabled Amazons from whence comes Wonder Woman.

If this accurately represents the historical background on the city of Ephesus (granting, for the moment, that it is correct), we may get a richer, more nuanced understanding of 1 Timothy. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he was writing to a young minister working to establish the church in Ephesus. Establishing leadership would require that he take care to not allow any abusive control present in the culture to be included within the new community of the church.

Where we can run into the same danger of misreading Timothy the way we might misread Esther when we want to layer on top of the text our current culture issues. When we think we’ve found the approach that shows how the text speaks to our current issue, we can be blind to other parts that may make it not fit. So with Esther the silence as to why Vashti refused to do as the king commanded could be filled in with our pet issue.

Likewise with Timothy. The article linked to above applies the history briefly recounted and concludes:

Given this understanding of “authentein” and the religious history of Ephesus, it is unlikely that Paul was warning against women (in general) “exercising authority” over men in the church. It is more likely that along with his warnings against false teaching, mythology, and forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods, he was also warning against an abusive form of power.

The meaning of the Greek word authentein is disputable since it only appears in 1 Timothy 2:12, but the article trys to explain its apparent prohibition on women in authority in church by pointing to a history of abusive matriarchy in Ephesus. In the end, the author believes, this does not establish patriarchy in the place of matriarchy but rather 1 Timothy 2 is supposed to ensure that there is no abusive leadership in place in the church.

Except it doesn’t. You can’t take half of 1 Timothy 2 in isolation, even with this historical data, and claim to have correctly interpreted the meaning of one word. Let’s assume for a moment that 1 Timothy 2 doesn’t establish patriarchy. Okay. Keep reading. When you get to chapter 3 you run into Paul’s requirements for the role of elder/bishop/presbyter and deacon. An elder must be “the husband of one wife.” That’s not something a woman can do. Also, all of the qualifications for elder are given in masculine pronouns; “he must”, “he must not”, etc. This sounds like Paul is indeed establishing a patriarchy.

What about deacons? A similar thing happens there but then we get to 1 Timothy 3:11. The ESV says “Their wives likewise must be dignified…” but that’s not a translation, it is an interpretation. The word behind “wives” is gune which can be translated as “wife” or “woman”. Paul is allowing for women to be deacons but not elders. Let that sink in for a moment. Paul give the qualifications for female deacons but not for female elders. And just to make the point that this is not a unique situation in Ephesus, he tells the same thing to Titus on Crete in Titus 1:5-9. Again, all masculine pronouns and no qualifications for female elders.

Looking beyond the verse in question and asking more of the text can give us better answers. The rest of the book of Esther is not about ending patriarchy but about God delivering his people though brave and faithful Esther and Mordecai. The rest of the context of Paul’s instruction to Timothy about establishing leadership is about faithful men as elders and men and women as deacons.

But let’s go back a little. The history of Ephesus used in the article is sketchy. According to the Wikipedia article on Ephesus:

The mythical founder of the city was a prince of Athens named Androklos, who had to leave his country after the death of his father, King Kadros. According to the legend, he founded Ephesus on the place where the oracle of Delphi became reality (“A fish and a boar will show you the way”)…

Later, Greek historians such as Pausanias, Strabo and Herodotos and the poet Kallinos reassigned the city’s mythological foundation to Ephos, queen of the Amazons.

Catch that? “Later” they “reassigned” the foundation to the queen of the Amazons. The foundation of Ephesus is wrapped in mythology. This seems a very shaky foundation to build Biblical exegesis on.

When interpreting scripture, we must resist the desire to push our modern ideas and sensibilities into gaps, point, and yell “Ah ha!” Let’s keep Vashti out of Ephesians.

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