Seems to be that for every weight of cry to respect the dignity and humanity of a woman there is an equal and opposite outcry on the part of oppressed and felt-put-upon men. It’s a phenomenon that is as old as…well…the bible!
“It’s a scary time to be a man,” said Memukan, or at least something like that. Never heard of him? Well he was a senior public figure who commanded respect and authority in his day. And his day just happened to be the day of King Xerxes.
In a very early example of male entitlement what he actually said was, if this woman gets away with this, and other women jump on the bandwagon, “There will be no end of disrespect and discord” (Est 1:18).
The background to his assertion was a drinking party that lasted several days in lavish surroundings, where men were “allowed to drink with no restrictions,” (Est 1:8). As is often the case when too much alcohol is consumed by companies of men their thoughts, and sometimes their actions, turn to sex. So in a drunken state the King commands his wife Vashti to parade before these lecherous men so they could ogle her beauty. Here is a woman denied her humanity and being treated as an object for the gratification of men.
Vashti refused. How much courage did that take? I wonder if this was simply the last straw for the Queen, and if so, what kind of treatment had she been subjected to over the course of her marriage to this man?
I’m astounded that a woman’s assertion of her bodily autonomy immediately becomes a matter of law and justice necessitating a national enquiry (Est 1:13). It also shows how naive I am and how unconscious I have been to what is the reflexive and often unconscious defensiveness of women in the presence of men.
Then I watch or read the news, and attend to the political podcasts.
Or I listen to two young women, on my last day in Holden this year, thank me for treating them as intelligent human beings during the fortnight we were there. Then, no doubt amused by my quizzical look and my stumbling questions, they metaphorically sit me down to enlighten me on what it is to be a twenty-something year old woman in a highly sexualised world high on male privilege. I never knew!
What I now understand is that the courageous actions of Vashti were received as disgraceful and shaming and served to emasculate fragile Xerxes. And so, the conservative Supreme Court of the day is assembled and a new decree is sought to restore the rightful place of men. This Court of named men is noted for two things, its members can read the runes of their culture, and they were close to the King (Est 1:13-14). The pressing issue on which they must rule is what to do with a woman who had the temerity to know her own mind (Est 1:15).
A decree is issued by Chief Justice Memukan which recognises the national significance of this one act of domestic disobedience. His ruling states, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the King but also against ALL the nobles and ALL the peoples of ALL the provinces of King Xerxes,” (Est 1:16). Think about that for a moment. One act of defiance. ALL people everywhere.
The thing is, those Justices were right. There is no exaggeration at work here. Unless this civil disobedience is cracked down on, swiftly, ruthlessly and cruelly then there are undesirable consequences, according to Memukan’s ruling, “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 will respond to the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord” (Est 1:17-18). I say again, this is not an over-reaction. Give women a place and the world will be changed.
And this is at the heart of these gender wars I think. The fragility of the male ego and the willingness to defend our status at all costs. The readiness to humiliate women to keep them in their, often so-called-God-ordained, places. The inclination to violate women to assert our power. The solidarity we affirm and by which we dismiss disgraceful male behaviours with a disdainful ‘boys will be boys.”
And so we claim that if one man can be brought low by the actions of one woman, then surely none of us men are safe. Therefore sort out the women and protect the men. Believe her, but consider her mistaken. Shrill. Hysterical.
In the ancient story Xerxes and his allies issue a decree and write it into the constitution so it cannot be changed, that the disobedient woman is banished and replaced with someone more compliant. And perhaps most bizarrely, a proclamation is declared throughout the land that “ALL the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” (Est 1:20).
I’m ashamed by this. The reality that men’s behaviour towards women wasn’t of a kind to elicit respect, that it had to be commanded. It’s so often true in our culture, and shamefully so in the Church, where there seems to me to be a resurgence in conservative theologies, most often promulgated by men, which want to put women in their rightful place, which coincidentally happens to be beneath a man.
Of course the king and his nobles were delighted with this advice (Est 1:21). I dare say it would receive applause in some quarters today. It’s noteworthy that even back then Xerxes and his men make sure their exegesis is crystal clear, and they send dispatches to each province “in its own script and to each people in their own language” proclaiming that every man should be ruler in his own household “using his native tongue” (Est 1:22). There is no room here for ambiguity. They know what they want to say and they have the language (and the power and the media channels) to say it.
Then, when Xerxes anger and humiliation have been sated, his thoughts turn to sex again (Est 2:1-2).
There cannot be many passages of the bible more contemporary than this one, and yet how often do we skip this chapter by treating it as the prologue to the ‘real’ story. I think there may be a pernicious theology at work here. By treating this account as a prologue it’s almost as if we are saying it was necessary for Vashti to be treated this way in order to open the way for Esther to enter the royal court. But that’s simply unacceptable today.
Sometimes the bible acts as a mirror. It speaks to us not of what to do or what not to do, but to show us what we’re like. And men, this is what we are like far too often. And it is scary. But unless we look we’re not likely to see.