10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him. NKJV
More to the story?
On the face of it this event looks like a rebellious wife who refuses the order of her husband/king. Is there more to the story? Yes, I believe there is.
The Woman’s Study Bible notes that Persian monarchs insisted on deference. “Not even the queen was allowed into the throne room unless summoned.” So for Vashti to refuse such an order was the height of disrespect and rebellion. She had to know that. Commentators have puzzled over her actions. Was she pregnant? Did she fear being ogled by a group of men? Was she a woman of nobility and character who refused an unjust command from her husband?
Historians note the reason for the 180-day spectacle mentioned in Esther 1 was for Xerxes to impress his officials and servants of his kingdom, and to present his grandiose plan to invade and conquer Greece. The culminating banquet featured “royal wine in abundance, according to the generosity of the king” (Esther 1:7-8). When Xerxes called for his wife to appear, several sources offer the possibility that he wanted to display Vashti as a trophy (my words), one of his most beautiful crowning possessions.
“Persian feasts were famous for their magnificence. Esther 1 gives a glimpse of the opulence of these feasts. It describes the common Persian manner of eating by reclining on couches or beds (vs 6), and it states that all drinking utensils were made of gold, no two being alike (vs 7). The Greek historian Xenophon said the Persians prided themselves on their number of drinking vessels. When the Greeks destroyed the Persian Empire, a part of their spoil consisted of golden drinking horns and cups” (Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, Nelson, 1980, p. 157).
I found the following comment insightful: “The refusal of Vashti to obey an order which required her to make an indecent exposure of herself before a company of drunken revellers [sic] was becoming both to the modesty of her sex and her rank as queen; because, according to Persian customs, the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze: and had not the king’s blood been heated with wine, or his reason overpowered by force of offended pride, he would have perceived that his own honour as well as hers was consulted by her dignified conduct” (from Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1997, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)
McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia (article “Vashti”), citing Plutarch, says “that the kings of Persia have their legitimate wives to sit at table with them at their banquets; but that, when they choose to riot and drink, they send their wives away and call in the concubines and singing-girls. Hence, when the heart of Ahasuerus ‘was merry with wine,’ he sent for Vashti, looking upon her only as a concubine… .” (Biblesoft, Inc.)
There are more justifications put forth for her actions in other sources, but these seem enough to present her refusal to appear in a more complete context. Josephus writes that Xerxes later regretted his actions, but the laws of his empire did not accommodate a change of mind.