“Also, Queen Vashti made a feast for the women” (Est. 1:9): “Four women have borne sovereignty, namely, Jezebel and Athaliah in Israel and Semiramis and Vashti among the Gentiles.” (Midrash Esther Rabbah 3:2).
Semiramis is a semi-historical figure who was at least regent if not ruler of the Assyrian Empire in the 9th century BCE. The others we know from the Bible and will be the focus for our talk tonight. How are these women, one Jew and two (probably?) not, portrayed in their stories and in Rabbinic tradition? Are there reasons to suspect the biases of those reporting on them? How might we understand them today?
In the Bible: Her story is found in I and II Kings. She is a Phoenician princess who is married to King Ahab, the ruler of the Kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) from about 870BCE to 850BCE. Ahab’s existence is testified to in historical records from outside of the Bible.
Within the Bible, he is known like all the other Northern Israel kings as being what we might call a heretic; he worships God, but incorrectly, and on top of this, he allows his wife Jezebel to introduce worship of Baal into Israel. The two of them are often at odds with the prophets of God including Elijah and Elisha.
Despite the criticism of his religious beliefs, the Bible’s account of Ahab’s reign cannot help but reveal he was an effective, cosmopolitan king who expanded his borders, married his daughter Athaliah (see below) to the king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and maintained international relations with the various peoples around him.
After Ahab’s death, two of his sons succeed him while Jezebel retains influence as Queen Mother. Finally, a revolt against her son Joram is successful. He is killed and Jezebel, almost like Cleopatra, dresses in her finery to meet Jehu, the new king, but he orders her thrown from a window and trampled by horses with the all but her skull and hands being fed to the dogs, in fulfillment of a prophecy made about her demise by Elijah.
Idolatry was Jezebel’s most grievous sin. She would fatten the prophets of Baal and Asherah, thus vexing God (Cant. Rabbah 1:6:4).
Jezebel, who was the daughter of Ethbaal of the Phoenicians, came into Ahab’s home she taught him pagan practices, and thus he fell into the web of idolatry ( Eliyahu Rabbah, para. 10).
Ahab [Aḥ-av], although he was a brother [aḥ] to Heaven, he was a father [av] for idol worship. He was a brother to Heaven, as it is written: “And a brother is born for adversity” (), and in desperate times, he turned to Heaven. He was a father for idolatry. This is the highest level of attachment, as it is written: “As a father has compassion for his children” ( ). (BT Sanhedrin 102b).
The midrash continues that Jezebel was the cause of the downfall of Ahab’s dynasty by exerting a negative influence on her family and by destroying her house with her own hands. Prov. 14:1: “but folly tears it down with its own hands” aptly describes Jezebel and other women of her ilk (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 10).
R. Levi would expound I Kings 21:25: “Indeed, there never was anyone like Ahab, who committed himself to doing what was displeasing to the Lord,” he would censure Ahab’s conduct, since this verse attests that none of all the kings of Israel had committed acts as notorious as those of Ahab. At night Ahab came to R. Levi and asked him: “How have I sinned against you, and what crimes have I committed against you? Why do you read only the beginning of the verse, and not its end, that says: ‘at the instigation of his wife Jezebel’?” From that day forth R. Levi portrayed Ahab in a positive light when he expounded the verse, for of all the kings of Israel who had irked the Lord, Ahab was the only one whose wife had provoked him to do so. (JT Sanhedrin 10:2, 28b).
Despite their negative description of Jezebel, the Rabbis did not refrain from enumerating her merits when she was worthy of praise. When Elijah forecasts Jezebel’s end he prophesies (I Kings 21:23): “The dogs shall devour Jezebel in the field of Jezreel.” This prophecy is only partially fulfilled, for when her body is eaten by the dogs, they leave her feet and hands (II Kings 9:35). The midrash explains that these parts remained because of the acts of kindness that Jezebel performed with them. Jezebel’s home was close to the marketplace, and whenever a funeral procession passed by, she would come forth from her house, strike with her hands, lament with her mouth, and walk ten paces. When a bridegroom passed through the marketplace, she would come out, clap her hands, call out with her mouth, and walk ten steps after him (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 17). Similarly, the Rabbis teach Ahab ruled 22 years because despite all the bad he did, he revered the scrolls of the Torah (San. 102b).
Bible Account: Queen Athaliah is the only woman in the Hebrew Bible reported as having reigned as a monarch within Israel/Judah. Her story is in II Kings and II Chronicles. She is most probably the daughter of Ahab, but there is some confusion about this. Athaliah married Jehoram (reigned 851–843 b.c.e.) of Judah. After Jehoram’s death, their son Ahaziah reigned for one year, and “his mother was his counselor in doing wickedly.” After Ahaziah is killed in a dynastic struggle, Athaliah sets out to kill the rest of the royal dynasty and seizes the throne of Judah. She manages to remain sole monarch for six years (842–836 BCE). In the seventh year a revolution puts on the throne the seven-year-old Joash, her grandson. Athaliah shouts out “Treason! Treason!” before she is taken to the horse stables and killed so her blood shouldn’t stain the Temple.
The biblical evaluation of her rule is negative. Both Kings and Chronicles connect Athaliah with Baal worship. The priestly objection to her could also be motivated by hatred for a non-Davidic ruler and, particularly, a woman ruler. However, that she managed to sustain her reign for six years can be attributed to her successful use of various sources of power: her royal origins and connections, involvement in her husband’s and son’s reigns, economic independence, personal ability, and political knowledge—all of which are not mentioned, apart from notes on her wicked influence on her husband and son.
Her story parallels that of her (possible) mother, Jezebel. They are both outsiders who introduce foreign ideas into the courts they enter and are successful to one degree or another creating power-bases and retaining power, for a while anyway, even against numerous men who seek to defeat them
According to the Rabbis: Because of her malicious actions, Jehoash was compelled to repair the Temple as soon as he ascended the throne ( Olam Rabbah 24). During the reign of Athaliah, the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, left people’s mouths, and they ceased greeting one another in the name of the Lord— “The Lord be with you”—as had been customary since the time of Boaz (Ruth Rabbah 4:4:5). Athaliah almost eliminated the Davidic line, except for Joash, who was saved from her sword, thanks to the blessing of the women to Naomi: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today!” (Ruth 4:14). The Rabbis understood this blessing to mean that, just as Naomi has a redeemer today, so, too, there will always be a monarch in Israel from among the descendants of King David. Athaliah’s plot to extirpate the Davidic dynasty failed, by merit of the blessing given it by other women (Ruth Rabbah 4:14:15).
Biblical Account: Esther 1:9 Queen Vashti, too, made a feast for the women in the royal palace of King Achashveirosh. 10 On the seventh day, when the king's heart was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzeta, Charvona, Bigta, Avagta, Zeitar and Charkas, the seven chamberlains who attended King Achashverosh, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing the royal crown, to show her beauty to the nations and ministers, for she was indeed beautiful. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to appear by the king's order brought by the chamberlains, and the king grew furious and his wrath seethed within him.
13 So the king conferred with the wise men… 15 [He asked them:] "By law, 16 Memuchan declared before the king and the ministers: "It is not against the King alone that Queen Vashti has sinned, but against all the ministers and all the nations in all the provinces of King Achashverosh… 17 "For word of the queen's deed will reach all the women and it will belittle their husbands in their eyes… 19 "If it please the King, let a royal edict be issued by him, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media and let it not be revoked, that Queen Vashti may never again appear before King Achashverosh, and let the King confer her royal title upon another woman who is better. with Queen Vashti for failing to obey the order of King Achashverosh, brought by the chamberlains?"
Vashti: Midrash and Aggadah: The midrash conveys that Vashti was the orphaned daughter of Belshazzar, the last king of the Babylonians, who was overthrown by the Persians (the Biblical and Rabbinic accounts get this all sort of right) On the night that Belshazzar was killed, Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Mede were guests at his table. The candelabrum fell and dashed out Belshazzar’s brains. Darius was crowned in his stead and sat in Belshazzar’s customary place. Vashti, Belshazzar’s daughter, was a young girl. She saw the tumult in the castle and ran among the guests. Thinking that her father was still alive, she mistakenly sat in Darius’s lap, in the belief that he was her father. Darius took pity on her and married her to his son Ahasuerus. (Midrash Panim Aherim version B, para. 1).
According to another midrashic tradition, Vashti was a princess and Ahasuerus was her father’s steward, in charge of the royal stables. He acquired regal status by marrying her (Esth. Rabbah 3:14; BT Megillah 12b). The difference in their stations was reflected in Ahasuerus’s behavior at the banquet, when he summoned Vashti to appear before the men at their revelry (see below). - (BT Megillah loc. cit.).
Vashti’s feast is portrayed various ways in the midrash including that she hosted them in an inner chamber of the king’s palace so the women might be kept as hostages to make their husbands loyal and in other tellings her banquet is depicted as shallow and materialistic. (Midrash Panim Aherim, version B, para. 1).
The Talmud says Vashti had licentious intent when she organized her banquet, just like her husband Ahasuerus (who later summoned her to appear before the men). The Rabbis cite the immoral intent of each as an example of the popular saying, “He with gourds and his wife with cucumbers,” in other words, the husband and the wife are alike, and both act in the same manner (BT Megillah 12a–b).
Esth. 1:10 records: “On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine,” on which the Rabbis observe that the seventh day of Ahasuerus’s banquet was also the seventh day of the week, that is, the Sabbath. When the Israelites eat and drink on the Sabbath, they utter words of Torah and praises to God. But when the non-Jewish peoples eat and drink on this day, they begin with indecent talk as happened at the banquet of Ahasuerus, where an argument erupted among the men over who was the most beautiful woman, leading Ahasuerus to call for Vashti to appear naked. This demand is derived from Esth. 1:11: “to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem”—wearing only a royal diadem, without any other clothes on her body (BT Megillah 12b).
These Rabbis maintain that Vashti wanted to appear at Ahasuerus’ lewd party. Her plans were upset when leprosy erupted over her entire body, so that she could not make an appearance. According to another tradition, the angel Gabriel came and fixed a tail to her (BT Megillah loc. cit.). God intervened in order to prevent Vashti from heeding Ahasuerus so that Vashti would be deposed, and Esther would reign in her stead.
Elsewhere the Rabbis see her in a positive light, suggesting she tried putting off the king’s decree three times, telling him: “If they see me and think me beautiful, they will want to lie with me, and they will kill you. And if they see me and think me ugly, you will be disgraced because of me.” She hinted to him, but he did not take the hint; she aimed her barb at him, but he was not stung. She sent a message to him: “You were my father’s steward, and you were accustomed to have naked harlots come before you. Now that you have become king, you have not mended your degraded ways!” She hinted to him, but he did not take the hint; she aimed her barb at him, but he was not stung. She sent a message to him: “You want me to come naked—even my father, when he judged litigants in a trial, would not judge them when they were naked” Esth. Rabbah 3:14.
The midrash tells us that Ahasuerus acted improperly when he issued the decree (Esth. 1:22): “that every man should wield authority in his home.” This is not the way of the world: if a man wants to eat lentils, and his wife desires peas, he cannot force his will upon her. Rather, she acts as she wishes. Similarly, Ahasuerus acted inappropriately when he attempted to compel Vashti to obey him (Esth. Rabbah 4:12).
The Book of Esther is not explicit regarding Vashti’s fate. Esth. 2:1 relates: “Sometime afterward, when the anger of King Ahasuerus subsided, he thought of Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her,” but without specifying what had befallen her. The Rabbis seem to believe she was executed.
When Ahasuerus grew sober, he regretted what he had done. He recalled Vashti and her proper behavior, and he also remembered how he had improperly condemned her (Esth. Rabbah 5:2). Another tradition has Ahasuerus wanting his wife when the effects of his intoxication wore off. He was told: “You killed her!” He asked: “Why?” They replied: “You said for her to come before you naked and she did not come.” He admitted to them: “I did not act nicely. And who counseled me to kill her?” They told him: “The seven ministers of Persia and Media.” He immediately killed them. Consequently, the seven eunuchs are not mentioned again in the Book of Esther.