The dignity of a great refusal

The dignity of a great refusal

The Star of absence/2 - The strength of Queen Vashti's objection to reducing herself to the glory of her king and husband.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  27/11/2022

“The king then ordered these seven princes to bring the queen Vashti naked. His regal crown was his by merits of his father Nebuchadnezzar who had clothed Daniel in purple”.

Targum of Esther, I

In the book of Esther, we soon encounter another biblical story of women that also helps us to reflect on the many courageous and necessary "no” that today's women know how to say.

For the truly powerful, wealth is not enough. They need wealth to be seen, praised and envied, hence it needs to be excessive, squandered and wasted on useless things. Because, in reality, being rich and powerful is not enough for them: they want to be gods, divine beings and thus adored and revered by their subjects. The golden calf of the Bible is not only an icon of idolatrous objects; it is also the image of an idolatrous subject, of someone who, once all goods have been conquered, feels the invincible desire to obtain that final good, because as a prerogative of the gods it is excluded from mortals. Thus, he tries this last crazy flight, that is sometimes stopped by someone who manages to say "no" during the journey between yesterday's earth and tomorrow's heaven.

In the Greek version of the Book of Esther, the one adopted by the Bibles of the Catholic tradition, the book begins with the figure of Mordecai, who came from the Babylonian exile to the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes. The text tells us of a dream of his: «Two enormous dragons advanced, both ready to fight, and their cry rang out» (Esther, 1e). The text in the Book of Esther based on the Greek version has a special numbering for the additions present only in the Greek text: in the first chapter, it goes from 1a to 1r. After the dream, Mordecai foils a conspiracy against the king orchestrated by two court officials (1.1m). He denounces them, and the king rewards him with gifts, appointing him an «official of the court» (1,1q).

So far, the prologue, which performs a similar function to the Prefaces of books written by more or less illustrious characters: the reader either skips them or reads them in a hurry, eager to get to the heart of the story as soon as possible. Thus, here it is: «In the time of Ahasuerus, of that Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, King Ahasuerus, in the citadel of Susa, in the third year of his reign gave a banquet to all his princes and to his ministers. The army leaders of Persia and Media, the nobles and governors of the provinces were assembled in his presence. He showed them the riches and the glory of his kingdom and the magnificent splendor of his greatness, for a hundred and eighty days» (1:1-4).

The author leads us to a Persian palace, in the city of Susa, one of the four capitals of the empire, in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes, in Greek), a historical setting dating back to 483 BC. The environment is dominated by excess, by a magnificence that is so overflowing as to appear comical and perhaps even ridiculous. A party to which the army chiefs, ministers and governors of the provinces are invited, which lasts six months. The king's purpose is explicit: to show his men the "glory" of his kingdom and the "pomp" of his greatness. Then, «once these days had passed, the king made another banquet that lasted seven days, in the courtyard of the garden of the palace, for all the people who were in the citadel of Susa» (1,5). This time the party is popular, and takes place in the park of the palace. With magnificence and excess in all its details: «There were curtains of fine linen and violet purple (…) columns of white marble, sofas of gold and silver on a floor of green, white and mother-of-pearl marble and colored stones» (1,6). Wine in abundance and without limits «was offered in golden vessels of various shapes» (1,7).

The ancient Jewish reader-listener did not empathize with this jaw-dropping magnificence. The biblical view on wealth is in fact always rather ambivalent, because if on the one hand it can be a blessing on the other it is also the raw material of all sorts of idols. The only possible good wealth, in any case, is a moderate wealth, which is partly shared with the poor. And the only good "glory" to show everyone is that of God, while the glories of men and kings are always suspect. This is why when we biblical readers, educated by the prophets and by the wisdom tradition as we are, are faced with a story featuring excessive wealth, we immediately begin to expect corruption and decadence as the story unfolds. While reading these first pages in the Book of Esther, we should therefore keep the words that Samuel spoke to his people who were asking for a king, firmly in our eyes and in our hearts: «He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses… some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers"» (1 Samuel 8,11-13). Furthermore, it is precisely regarding the fate of the women of kings, of the "perfumer daughters", where the narrative heart of this first chapter can be found, one of the most beautiful in the book.

In the midst of this atmosphere of pomp and excessive, thus vulgar, wealth, an unexpected, unedited event, the twist, the "black swan" of the story arrives: the freedom of the queen, who with her gesture illuminates the whole book with an auroral light. The text tells us that while the men were having their excessive and therefore wrongful celebrations, Queen Vashti, wife of Ahasuerus, «held a banquet for the women in the king's palace» (1,9). A parallel all women's feast that recalls what used to happen until a few years ago during any summit of heads of state (or of high finance): while the husbands had their encounters and long meetings, the wives would carry out a parallel program. We do not know what kind of feast Vashti’s banquet was, but the Targum (an ancient Aramaic text commenting on the Hebrew text) imagines some other details of that smaller feast: «The women asked her how the king slept, where he ate, where he drank and where he slept» (Targum of Esther, II), not improbable details.

By the end of the second banquet, the king and his guests were full and drunk from drinking too much, and here is the worthy conclusion of that semester of celebration and splendour: «On the seventh day, the king, high on the wine, ordered the seven eunuchs who were his personal servants (Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas) to bring Queen Vashti resplendent in her royal crown. He wanted to show off her beauty to the guests and officials» (Esther 1,10-11). Note the detail of the "seventh day", not a randomly chosen number: the life of that king is an emblem of the anti-Shabbat.

Having reached the end of the feast, all that was missing was the cake, the final toast and possibly the apotheosis of the "glory" of the king, which had to be worthy of such a spectacular party: what better way to show the leaders and all the people the king's most precious wealth, the most shining jewel of the palace, "his" wonderful woman? So far, we cannot be surprised by this royal initiative, because it is what all powerful males have (almost) always done, and which, in more or less new forms, they still continue to do. In part, because there are many things on earth that are beautiful, but to men their women are the most beautiful "thing" of all. Instead, what amazes us, greatly, is the wife's answer: «But Queen Vashti refused to come, refused the summons delivered by the eunuchs» (Esther 1,12).

It takes a few seconds of silence to digest the beauty of this gesture of feminine dignity... The extraordinary strength of a fragile "but": but the queen refused. A splendid adversative conjunction that alone says more than any treatise on theology or sociology. Reminding us that sometimes the wrongful plans of men fail due to a simple "but"; because a human being, who can be much freer than a powerful person could ever have imagined, goes beyond the script, jumps off the stage and does not perform the script already written for him/her, committing a transgression and blowing up both the plans and the party. That refusal of a woman alone had a greater force than all the glory that had been displayed during 187 days.

However, it was imagined and written, in part, because it is not difficult to guess, especially if we look at the king's request from a woman’s perspective. Who knows, maybe the hand, or the gaze, of a woman was also behind the composition of this very different kind of biblical book? Ahasuerus’s double banquet was a party of only males, moreover made tipsy by a lot of wine. In her husband's script, Vashti should have arrived in the garden, begin by parading through the small crowd, surrounded by a thousand male gazes and then continue into the palace, in front of her husband's guests. When the eunuchs came to her, Vashti saw herself in that scene, and simply said: "No", "not a chance"! She said the way many women would say it today, perhaps all of them, placed in different and similar contexts. Women are capable of these different no's, and when saying them, they continue to save themselves and the world.

However, what truly amazes us to the point of finding it moving is that we find that "no" and that "but" in a book written about twenty-four centuries ago, where women, even queens, did not have the freedom to say "no" or "but” in the face of the demands of those in power. The biblical author of this book was well aware of this, and by writing this story with that "no" included, he prophetically anticipated new times, the messianic times when the dignity of women would finally be recognized. This too is the Bible. Thus that author in ancient times, raised the civil temperature of history while writing this chapter against his time, giving voice to the yearning for the dignity of women, of the poor, of victims, of everyone. Vashti, an ephemeral figure of only a few verses in a single chapter, comes right in among the women of the Bible hidden in minor roles, often losers, always wonderful: Hagar, Dinah, the witch of Endor, Puah and Shiphrah, the anonymous wife of Jeroboam , Huldah, Michal, the two Tamar, the woman of Tekoa, Rizpah mother-sentinel of hanged children, Mary Stabat Mater of a crucified Son.

By preserving Vashti’s "no", the Bible brought it all the way down to us. Thus, in that "no" of a woman from Persia, the ancient name of Iran, today, once again we are able to see the wonderful "no" of Mahsa Amini, of Hadith Najafi and of all the Iranian girls and women who continue to say "no" to the wrongful demands of those in power.

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