The Story of Vashti (1:1-22) The first female character the book of Esther introduces is Vashti the queen, the wife of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus summons her to appear before his court in the midst of a wild drinking party, in order that he may show off her beauty. She refuses, and Ahasuerus, on the advice of his nobles, who fear that her example may cause other wives to rebel against their husbands, banishes her from court.
The author here introduces a touch of the burlesque; Vashti’s refusal to comply with the king’s demand is perceived by the men as a grave threat to the dominance of every husband in the kingdom. Ahasuerus and his courtiers appear as hapless buffoons before the calm strength of Vashti and, by implication, of all their wives!
The motive for her refusal is not given in the text, which has led to much speculation in the commentaries. For instance, the Targum [the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible] in- forms the reader that the king wished Vashti to appear naked before the company and that out of modesty she refused.
Vashti serves mainly as a foil for Esther, although her character is in some ways more congenial to the modern woman. She is a strong female character who loses her position as a result of her refusal to acquiesce to the greater society’s demands upon her. It is ironic that her punishment gives her exactly what she wanted: she is no longer to appear before the king!
….Esther is taken, with all the other virginal women in Susa, into the king’s harem. The text gives no judgment on the matter and seems to take her obedience to the king’s command for granted. To disobey would be suicidal. Verse 9 begins to portray Esther as more than merely beautiful. She earns the regard of Hegai, the king’s eunuch who gives Esther the best of everything in the harem. Esther, in other words, has taken steps to place herself in the best possible position within her situation.
Mordecai’s reaction to Haman’s plot is less than helpful to his own cause. He appears to go into a panic, putting on sackcloth and wailing in the king’s gate (4:1). Mordecai’s sole response to the crisis that he set in motion is to bring the problem to the attention of Esther. Esther now reappears in the story, responding to the report of Mordecai’s behavior by sending messengers to discover the cause of his actions. Mordecai responds by sending word to Esther of the disaster and charging her to go to the king.
This is the turning point of the story. Esther ceases to be the protégee of the male characters surrounding her and instead becomes the chief actor and controller of events.
In 4:11 Esther speaks directly for the first time in the narrative. All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live.
Esther’s reaction to Mordecai’s demand is not cowardice but a statement of fact. If she goes to the king unsummoned, the chances are good that she will die. In addition, what influence would she have with the king if he has not wished to see her in thirty days? Mordecai responds, however, by prodding her to act, emphasizing the importance of human action in accomplishing God’s purpose.
Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe Eds., Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville,1998, p.134-5