1 Comment


One of the most enduring narratives of a woman in scripture has to be the story of Esther, the preeminent queen of the Old Testament. Although her tale is familiar to most of us in our traditional tellings of it, we often neglect to mention the other woman central to her story: Queen Vashti—the queen Esther replaced.

Although her appearance in scripture is a short one, we suffer a great loss when we omit her from our narrative. This is true because while Esther may be the preeminent queen of the Old Testament, Vashti is the preeminent sovereign. Her story has a great deal to teach us about feminine modesty precisely because it teaches us so much about feminine power.

All we need are eyes to see.

In ancient Persia, a very long time ago, a king named Ahasuerus sat on the throne. In the third year of his reign he hosted an extravagant feast in his garden court. Blue, green, and white banners billowed against a marble floor from marble pillars. At the tables the wine was poured into gold chalices; each one different from the first. The men of Shushan dined with the king, and the women feasted with the queen.

After seven days of revelry the king found himself in a state the Book of Esther describes as “merry with wine.” Today we might describe this state as plastered, intoxicated, or inebriated. This king was sloshed, and so were his visiting dignitaries. It was in this drunken state that Ahasuerus summoned Queen Vashti. His rationale? “To show the people [read: men] and princes her beauty; for she was fair to look upon” (Esther 1:11). What follows next is hardly a surprise given the circumstances.

Vashti refused.

Some might say that her rebellion was born out of vanity, or egotism. That she knew denying the king would hurt his pride, and that she was obviously willing to hurt his to serve her own. But how could that be? Ahasuerus was the same regent who could lawfully execute anyone who came into his courtroom unbidden. Would Vashti be so foolish? In this climate, would she refuse her husband merely to vaunt her own conceit?

Vashti’s actions make little sense in a world where women are cast as objects, and are expected to conform to every spurious male whim and desire. When we view her through the warped spectacles of that world, the truth is easily obscured. We see a shadow where we could see a sovereign; a shadow for a queen standing her sacred ground.

In the Midrash (an ancient Jewish commentary on the Old Testament) the tradition goes that when Ahasuerus asked Vashti to appear before his drunken guests wearing ‘her crown royal’ he meant something more. He wanted her to appear with only her crown on. Some might contest this idea. Where’s the proof? If it doesn’t say in the Bible that she was expected to present herself wearing only a crown, then we can’t accept it as factual.

While we may not be able to verify the historical validity of this tradition, it does make an important addition to our understanding of the story. It illustrates the king’s intentions in a very visceral way. Under crosshairs almost, it magnifies the condition of his heart for the searching reader. It feels important to mention that the condition of the king’s heart may have been darker than what I have acknowledged thus far. It seems reasonable to assume that at best, Vashti would have been humiliated walking into that banquet hall. But at worst, the possibilities are far more dire and reasonably include some form of sexual assault. I think we can all agree that whether Vashti was commanded to come clothed or unclothed, the king and his men did not intend to show her the respect she deserved as their queen or as their sister.

We would never fault Vashti for refusing the king if he truly wanted her to parade in the nude for his drinking buddies. We might even praise her for her modesty! Why then would we withhold our praise when she refused to appear clothed? And here lies a valuable kernel: modesty is more than skin deep.

If we were to boil Vashti’s story down, we would be left with exactly two dregs: a bid, and a refusal; a command, and a no. We may not know what ran through Vashti’s head in the moment she received the summons. We may not know the exact words she voiced to the chamberlains in response. But we do know that in essence Vashti said no, because we do know that she “refused to come at the king’s command.”

And no is a powerful word.

No tells us that Vashti saw through the distortions of ancient misogyny. It tells us that she was converted to the truth about herself, which enabled her to act from an empowered place. Queen Vashti understood that she was designed to be autonomous, to have sovereignty over her body. In the words of David O. McKay, she understood that she “should be queen of her own body” ((in Conference Report, Apr. 1952, 86). She could decide what was comfortable, what was safe, what was right, and she could say no when a given circumstance conflicted with those personal standards.

When women say no, they might be accused of being angry. They might be accused of being frigid, haughty, unsympathetic, or willing—perhaps even seeking—to humiliate the man making the demands. These are illusions. A woman is never responsible for the adverse reactions of a man when she says no.

The reality is that no is a sacred word, and when it is issued as a declaration of boundary, many offenders will create mirages to protect themselves from the truth. It can be easier to believe that a woman is angry, frigid, haughty, or unsympathetic than it is to believe that an offender is licentious, selfish, unboundaried, or disrespectful.

And Ahasuerus? In this biblical moment he was licentious, selfish, unboundaried, and disrespectful. His request was by nature derogatory, and in today’s speak we could fairly deem it sexual harassment. And this, dear reader, is what makes Vashti’s refusal so remarkable. She didn’t fold. She didn’t cower. She didn’t trick herself into thinking it was nothing. She stood her sacred ground.

I believe that Vashti truly was an exemplary sovereign. In standing her ground, she acted as a righteous steward over the God-given gift of her body. She understood its sanctity, thereby understanding its power. I believe Vashti understood that she, herself, was the seat of great power and that her action communicated deep integrity on the part of her belief. In this way Vashti teaches us that true and sustainable modesty grows out of sovereignty.

When we tell girls that modesty is a dress code that prevents them from tempting men (however well meaning we might be in that expression) we are putting the cart before the horse. These messages actually serve to disembody our girls, because we are teaching them that their bodies are not their own. We should tell our girls, first and foremost, that they were designed to have sole proprietorship over their bodies. We should teach them that God intends for them to care for and possess their gift that is wrapped in skin.

With sovereignty as our foundation, hemlines, leggings, and bikinis fall into their proper place because they become self-defined and self-owned. As women come to love and understand their instruments they will naturally begin to love and understand the instruments of their male counterparts. In turn, they will understand how each yes and each no creates ripples in the pond. Yes, female bodies are powerful. Yes, female bodies affect men—men who also possess an equally innate ability to make choices—but the female body belongs to the female. That is what God intends.

When we teach women that they are allowed to step into their power, we are inherently teaching men the same thing. As we give women permission to inhabit their tabernacles, we can trust them to act as Vashti did. Empowered and good, they will stand in holy places. They will stand their sacred ground.

Full Citation for this Article: Richardson, Amber (2019) "Want to Teach Your Daughters About Modesty? Tell Them About Queen Vashti," SquareTwo, Vol. 12 No. 1 (Spring 2019), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleRichardsonModesty.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 1 Comment

I. Amber Richardson

Thank you for reading! If you interested in reading more of Amber's writings on queens in the scriptures, check out her Kickstarter for a book-in-process titled 'Woman, Crowned.' This book brings 12 queens in holy writ to life using photography and prose, and seeks to imagine the heart of the Queen of Heaven through the stories of some of her notable, righteous, scriptural daughters. The link is below!