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Jason Gaines





But Queen Vashti Refused: Consent and Agency in the Book of Esther





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Jason Gaines





But Queen Vashti Refused: Consent and Agency in the Book of Esther








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But Queen Vashti Refused: Consent and Agency in the Book of Esther

Personal agency and consent—granted or withheld—pervade the book of Esther, and are inextricably related to pre-existing power structures such as gender and social status.


But Queen Vashti Refused: Consent and Agency in the Book of Esther

Queen Vashti Refuses to Obey Ahasuerus’ Command, Gutave Dore, 1866. Wikimedia

Issues around consent and agency predominate in contemporary discourse, especially around gender. Although ancient texts do not speak of these terms as abstract concepts, some biblical texts are aware of these issues.[1] The book of Esther is particularly fruitful in this regard: it contains a number of scenes with characters who refuse consent and others in which the character is never asked. In each of these scenes, a character’s ability to give or deny consent is directly related to their social power. In this book, a number of characters undergo dramatic changes in power, hinting that the ability to consent is itself ephemeral in an unjust world.

Vashti’s Refusal

After throwing a 180-day long banquet for his officials and ministers, plus the assembled armies and nobility of Persia and Media (1:3–4), King Ahasuerus holds a seven-day banquet for all the men living in Shushan (Susa), rich and poor (1:5). At the same time, Queen Vashti is also giving a separate banquet for the women. Then:

אסתר א:י‏ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי כְּטוֹב לֵב הַמֶּלֶךְ בַּיָּיִן אָמַר לִמְהוּמָן בִּזְּתָא חַרְבוֹנָא בִּגְתָא וַאֲבַגְתָא זֵתַר וְכַרְכַּס שִׁבְעַת הַסָּרִיסִים הַמְשָׁרְתִים אֶת פְּנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ. א:יא לְהָבִיא אֶת וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת לְהַרְאוֹת הָעַמִּים וְהַשָּׂרִים אֶת יָפְיָהּ כִּי טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִיא. א:יב וַתְּמָאֵן הַמַּלְכָּה וַשְׁתִּי לָבוֹא בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּיַד הַסָּרִיסִים וַיִּקְצֹף הַמֶּלֶךְ מְאֹד וַחֲמָתוֹ בָּעֲרָה בוֹ.
Esth 1:10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs in attendance of King Ahasuerus, 1:11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty, for she was beautiful of appearance. 1:12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was greatly enraged, and his fury burned within him.[2]

Michael Fox points out that the seven men with funny names are sent because “everything, even an invitation to the queen, is thick with pomp and circumstance.” [3] But even if specifically seven men are sent for ritual reasons (one eunuch could have conveyed the message by himself), the presence of these seven men raises the stakes for Vashti: surely seven men were physically capable of taking Vashti back to the king by force. Clearly, this was not an option, and even though they were delivering a direct order from the king, she can refuse it, even if she does so at her own peril.

What, exactly, does she refuse to do? Ahasuerus wishes to show off her beauty. As noted above, the seven-day party was segregated by sex, such that Vashti would be the only woman in the room. Even worse, the seven-day banquet was thrown mostly for commoners. For a Persian queen to be ogled at by drunken commoners would have been a great debasement.[4]

Rabbinic midrash picks up on this problem, and in its characteristic penchant for exaggeration, suggests that when Ahasuerus asked her to appear with her crown, he meant that and nothing else.[5] Targum Sheni—a post-Talmudic aggadic retelling of the Megillah—even depicts Vashti lecturing the king about the requirements of nobility.[6]

Although Vashti’s refusal is, to some extent, a plot device to set the scene for Esther, the text still makes it clear that Vashti is not physically forced to appear before the king at the party. Consent was hers to withhold, despite the harsh consequences she faces for her refusal, namely, that “Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus” (אֲשֶׁר לֹא תָבוֹא וַשְׁתִּי לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ) and that the king will “bestow her royal state upon another who is worthier than she” [7](וּמַלְכוּתָהּ יִתֵּן הַמֶּלֶךְ לִרְעוּתָהּ הַטּוֹבָה מִמֶּנָּה; 1:19).

Mordechai’s Refusal

The next character we see withholding consent is Mordechai. He is commanded to do something physical with his body, and he refuses: Vashti wouldn’t appear and dance, and Mordechai won’t bow.

After Haman is chosen to be Ahasuerus’ vizier:

אסתר ג:ב וְכָל עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהָמָן כִּי כֵן צִוָּה לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה.  ג:ג‏ וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ לְמָרְדֳּכָי מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה עוֹבֵר אֵת מִצְוַת הַמֶּלֶךְ.
Esth 3:2 All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and knelt before Haman, for thus had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordecai would not bow down or kneel. 3:3 Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?”

As the narrator makes clear, Mordechai’s refusal happens more than once:

אסתר ג:ד וַיְהִי בְּאָמְרָם אֵלָיו יוֹם וָיוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וַיַּגִּידוּ לְהָמָן לִרְאוֹת הֲיַעַמְדוּ דִּבְרֵי מָרְדֳּכַי כִּי הִגִּיד לָהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוּא יְהוּדִי. ג:הוַיַּרְא הָמָן כִּי אֵין מָרְדֳּכַי כֹּרֵעַ וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לוֹ וַיִּמָּלֵא הָמָן חֵמָה.
Esth 3:4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s conduct would stand—for he had told them that he was a Jew.[8] 3:5 When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or kneel to him, Haman was enraged.

Despite Haman’s anger, and even though he has the king’s backing, Haman still must go through the tortuous process of getting the king’s permission to slaughter all the Jews, including Mordechai, instead of simply forcing him to bow.

Modern audiences can imagine how this scene would play out on “Game of Thrones” or in The Handmaid’s Tale: a guard would kick the disrespectful man into a bowing position. A jab of a spear-end to Mordechai’s gut would have made him double over. This would likely have satisfied Haman’s demand; perhaps he wouldn’t have even noticed Mordechai’s refusal in the first place. Apparently, physical force was not considered an option.

Though not royalty, Mordechai’s position as a palace official—literally one who sits at the palace gate, (2:21) “וּמָרְדֳּכַי יֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ” —empowers him to withhold consent, though at the risk of retaliation by Haman or perhaps even the king.[9]

Gathering Virgins

On the opposite side of the spectrum are a group of unnamed virgin girls who have no agency and give no consent at all. After deposing Vashti, when Ahasuerus finds himself without a wife, his advisors make the following suggestion:

אסתר ב:ב יְבַקְשׁ֥וּ לַמֶּ֛לֶךְ נְעָר֥וֹת בְּתוּל֖וֹת טוֹב֥וֹת מַרְאֶֽה: ב:ג וְיַפְקֵ֨ד הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ פְּקִידִים֘ בְּכָל מְדִינ֣וֹת מַלְכוּתוֹ֒ וְיִקְבְּצ֣וּ אֶת כָּל נַעֲרָֽה בְ֠תוּלָה טוֹבַ֨ת מַרְאֶ֜ה אֶל שׁוּשַׁ֤ן הַבִּירָה֙ אֶל בֵּ֣ית הַנָּשִׁ֔ים אֶל יַ֥ד הֵגֶ֛א סְרִ֥יס הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ שֹׁמֵ֣ר הַנָּשִׁ֑ים וְנָת֖וֹן תַּמְרוּקֵיהֶֽן: ב:ד וְהַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּיטַב֙ בְּעֵינֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ תִּמְלֹ֖ךְ תַּ֣חַת וַשְׁתִּ֑י.
Esth 2:2 Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 2:3 Let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins in the harem of the fortress Shushan, under the supervision of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women. Let them be provided with their cosmetics. 2:4 And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.

Nothing in the suggestion implies that the women will be asked whether they want to be part of the king’s harem, a decision that will affect the remainder of their lives. They are simply being collected. This is the fate that befalls Esther as well:

אסתר ב:ח וּֽבְהִקָּבֵ֞ץ נְעָר֥וֹת רַבּ֛וֹת אֶל שׁוּשַׁ֥ן הַבִּירָ֖ה אֶל יַ֣ד הֵגָ֑י וַתִּלָּקַ֤ח אֶסְתֵּר֙ אֶל בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אֶל יַ֥ד הֵגַ֖י שֹׁמֵ֥ר הַנָּשִֽׁים׃
Esth 2:8 And when many girls were gathered in the fortress Shushan in the custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace, in the custody of Hegai, guardian of the women.

The verbal form used is passive, so the audience does not know exactly who takes her. The narrator does not choose to include any dialogue or further details. This silence suggests that her consent is neither granted nor even required.

After being gathered, each woman is “prepared” for the king for a year in an absurdly long perfume treatment,[10] a process that underscores their role as objects that need to be perfected as opposed to people with agency.[11] When auditioning Vashti’s replacement, the king sleeps one night with each young woman and then decides whether they are to be queen or just part of the harem:

אסתר ב:יד בָּעֶרֶב הִיא בָאָה וּבַבֹּקֶר הִיא שָׁבָה אֶל בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים שֵׁנִי אֶל יַד שַׁעֲשְׁגַז סְרִיס הַמֶּלֶךְ שֹׁמֵר הַפִּילַגְשִׁים לֹא תָבוֹא עוֹד אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי אִם חָפֵץ בָּהּ הַמֶּלֶךְ וְנִקְרְאָה בְשֵׁם.
Esth 2:14 In the evening she would go in, and in the morning she returned to the second harem in the charge of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the concubines. She would not go again to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.

Although the women’s actions are all described with active verbs, they have no agency. Only the king’s wishes matter. The women will have no say in whether they are chosen as queen, but even more, their ability to control their own lives will forever be curtailed, as they sit in the harem and only see their husband again if he feels “delight” for them and calls them by name.

Although Esther “wins” and is chosen to be the next queen, she is no more active in this process than her fellow contestants:

אסתר ב:טז וַתִּלָּקַ֨ח אֶסְתֵּ֜ר אֶל הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ֙ אֶל בֵּ֣ית מַלְכוּת֔וֹ… ב:יז וַיֶּאֱהַ֨ב הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ אֶת אֶסְתֵּר֙ מִכָּל הַנָּשִׁ֔ים וַתִּשָּׂא חֵ֥ן וָחֶ֛סֶד לְפָנָ֖יו מִכָּל הַבְּתוּלֹ֑ת וַיָּ֤שֶׂם כֶּֽתֶר מַלְכוּת֙ בְּרֹאשָׁ֔הּ וַיַּמְלִיכֶ֖הָ תַּ֥חַת וַשְׁתִּֽי:
Esth 2:16 Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, to his royal palace… 2:17The king loved Esther more than all the other women; she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins. He set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.

Again, Esther is described passively—she does not “go in,” she is “taken”—and it is Ahasuerus that loves her and puts the crown on her and makes her queen. Her feelings about this are never mentioned and are immaterial to the situation.

Nevertheless, once Esther is made queen, her own power and agency come to the fore, though not in relation to the king, since, like everyone else, she cannot even speak to him without being called on first (Esth 4:11).

Refusal and Consent Are for the Powerful

The cases I have outlined above suggest that then, as now, refusal and consent exist as options only for the powerful. The greater the power differential, the less refusal remains a possibility. Though power runs on a continuum, broadly speaking, the Book of Esther recognizes three tiers of people. On one side are commoners, like the virgins gathered for the harem, who have virtually no agency. They cannot refuse and they are not asked for consent.

On the opposite side of the continuum is the king, who has total power and does whatever he wants. In the middle are people of importance such as the queen and palace advisors (such as Mordechai and Haman) who themselves form a kind of hierarchy, with the queen at the top.

The Queen’s Power: Esther’s Parties

Esther may be risking her life when she appears before the king unbidden, but the text highlights her power over Haman. Twice, Esther tells Ahasuerus that she wants him and Haman to come to a private feast with her, and Ahasuerus agrees on behalf of them both. When Haman describes his excitement about the feasts, he presents himself as the object of verbs:

אסתר ה:יב וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֮ הָמָן֒ אַ֣ף לֹא הֵבִ֩יאָה֩ אֶסְתֵּ֨ר הַמַּלְכָּ֧ה עִם הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ אֶל הַמִּשְׁתֶּ֥ה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂ֖תָה כִּ֣י אִם אוֹתִ֑י וְגַם לְמָחָ֛ר אֲנִ֥י קָֽרוּא לָ֖הּ עִם הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃
Esth 5:12 Haman said, “Queen Esther did not bring anyone to the feast she had with the king besides me, and tomorrow too I am called by her along with the king.”

At first, Haman is happy about being called to the banquets. However, his joy is fleeting. When the time comes for the second feast, Haman is in the midst of discussing with his advisors his unhappiness about honoring Mordechai. But, this upsetting conversation has no effect on whether or not he goes to the banquet—again, he isn’t being invited, he is being summoned:

אסתר ו:יד עוֹדָם֙ מְדַבְּרִ֣ים עִמּ֔וֹ וְסָרִיסֵ֥י הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ הִגִּ֑יעוּ וַיַּבְהִ֙לוּ֙ לְהָבִ֣יא אֶת הָמָ֔ןאֶל הַמִּשְׁתֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁר עָשְׂתָ֥ה אֶסְתֵּֽר.
Esth 6:14 While they were still speaking with him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurriedly brought Haman to the banquet Esther had prepared.

Esther’s power over Haman, like Haman’s power over Mordechai, is partly chimerical, since in the end the king decides who is queen and who is not, who is vizier and who is not. The book’s opening scene clarifies what really constitutes power in Ahasuerus’ palace.

The Opening of the Story and the Reversal of Power

During his second party thrown for all the inhabitants of Shushan (including the commoners), the king decides that his guests will be treated like nobility. Here the theme of consent is mentioned explicitly:

אסתר א:ה …עָשָׂ֣ה הַמֶּ֡לֶךְ לְכׇל הָעָ֣ם הַנִּמְצְאִים֩ בְּשׁוּשַׁ֨ן הַבִּירָ֜ה לְמִגָּ֧דוֹל וְעַד קָטָ֛ן מִשְׁתֶּ֖ה שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בַּחֲצַ֕ר גִּנַּ֥ת בִּיתַ֖ן הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃… א:ז וְהַשְׁקוֹת֙ בִּכְלֵ֣י זָהָ֔ב וְכֵלִ֖ים מִכֵּלִ֣ים שׁוֹנִ֑ים וְיֵ֥ין מַלְכ֛וּת רָ֖ב כְּיַ֥ד הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ א:ח וְהַשְּׁתִיָּ֥ה כַדָּ֖ת אֵ֣ין אֹנֵ֑ס כִּי כֵ֣ן ׀ יִסַּ֣ד הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ עַ֚ל כׇּל רַ֣ב בֵּית֔וֹ לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת כִּרְצ֥וֹן אִישׁ וָאִֽישׁ׃
Esth 1:5 [T]he king gave for all the people present in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike, a banquet lasting for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden…. 1:7 Drinks were served in golden goblets—goblets of varied design—and the royal wine flowed as befits a king. 1:8 And the rule for the drinking was, “No coercion!” For the king had given orders to all the palace stewards to comply with each man’s wishes.

This is an unprecedented treatment of commoners, who, if invited at all, would ordinarily be served whatever the king said they would be served, and who usually wouldn’t dare ask for anything or refuse anything offered.

During this very party, the king calls for Vashti to appear before these commoners for them to ogle, an unprecedented insult to a Persian queen. Queens do not drink with their male subjects,[12] and thus, in refusing, Vashti is preserving expected power dynamics and behaving as a queen should.[13] And yet, when she insists on her right not to appear before commoners to titillate them, she loses her position.

In other words, the story begins with a topsy-turvy world created by the king, in which the commoners are treated as nobility and the queen is treated as a commoner. This is because the ultimate power in this story is the king himself. The idea that Ahasuerus is the real power, and that everyone else’s position and power derives from his, is the key to understanding how the Megillah presents Haman’s downfall, which begins in chapter 6.

Haman’s Loss of Agency

During a bout of insomnia, the king has his record book read to him and hears again about how Mordechai saved him from a plot against his life. When his servants tell him that nothing has yet been done to show the king’s gratitude, Ahasuerus asks Haman, who had come in that night to ask for permission to impale Mordechai on a fifty-cubit-high stake, what should be done for someone whom the king wishes to honor (6:1–6).

Haman, thinking the king means himself, suggests that the man should be paraded around town on a royal steed, wearing royal garb, with a man running before him yelling “this is what to happens to men whom the king wishes to honor” (6:7–9). Ahasuerus likes this idea and responds:

אסתר ו:י מַ֠הֵ֠ר קַ֣ח אֶת הַלְּב֤וּשׁ וְאֶת הַסּוּס֙ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבַּ֔רְתָּ וַֽעֲשֵׂה כֵן֙ לְמׇרְדֳּכַ֣י הַיְּהוּדִ֔י הַיּוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ אַל תַּפֵּ֣ל דָּבָ֔ר מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ.
Esth 6:10 Quickly, take the clothes and the horse, as you have said, and do thus for Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate. Omit nothing of all you have said.

As Haman hates Mordechai and was literally about to ask for permission to impale him on a giant stake, one would imagine Haman would like to refuse this request. However, refusal does not appear to be an option; the king speaks directly to Haman in imperative and prohibitive verbal forms, and what the king commands thus cannot be ignored.

Instead, Haman carries out the order exactly as requested, and he returns to his home depressed. Whereas Mordechai is able to refuse to bow before Haman, Haman is given no such option, since the order came directly from the king with no buffering intermediaries. As his wife and advisors tell him, this incident is the beginning of the end for Haman (6:13).

Is Haman Upending the Hierarchy?

In the account of Haman’s downfall (ch. 7), he is thrice portrayed to the king as someone acting against an individual under the king’s protection, in direct contravention of the power structure in the palace.

The first time is when Esther finally tells Ahasuerus what is troubling her:

אסתר ז:ג אִם מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְאִם עַל הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ ט֑וֹב תִּנָּֽתֶן לִ֤י נַפְשִׁי֙ בִּשְׁאֵ֣לָתִ֔י וְעַמִּ֖י בְּבַקָּשָׁתִֽי׃ ז:ד כִּ֤י נִמְכַּ֙רְנוּ֙ אֲנִ֣י וְעַמִּ֔י לְהַשְׁמִ֖יד לַהֲר֣וֹג וּלְאַבֵּ֑ד וְ֠אִלּ֠וּ לַעֲבָדִ֨ים וְלִשְׁפָח֤וֹת נִמְכַּ֙רְנוּ֙ הֶחֱרַ֔שְׁתִּי כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין הַצָּ֛ר שֹׁוֶ֖ה בְּנֵ֥זֶק הַמֶּֽלֶךְ:
Esth 7:3 “If I have found favor in the king’s eyes, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me as my wish, my people as my request. 7:4 For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, killed, and exterminated. If we had only been sold as male slaves and slave girls, I would have stayed silent; for the foe is not worth troubling the king about.”
אסתר ז:ה וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ וַיֹּאמֶר לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה מִי הוּא זֶה וְאֵי זֶה הוּא אֲשֶׁר מְלָאוֹ לִבּוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן.ז:ו וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר אִישׁ צַר וְאוֹיֵב הָמָן הָרָע הַזֶּה וְהָמָן נִבְעַת מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַמַּלְכָּה.
Esth 7:5 King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who has dared to do this?” 7:6 Esther said, “The adversary and enemy is this evil Haman!” And Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

The surface accusation here is that Haman, the king’s servant, is plotting to destroy the queen. This charge outrages the king not merely because of his fondness for Esther, but also because it reflects an unacceptable power imbalance. The vizier doesnot get to threaten the queen, certainly not without the king’s knowledge or consent.[14]

While this idea is percolating in the king’s head, the next situation presents itself, though this time, it is a farcical misunderstanding:

אסתר ז:ז וְהַמֶּלֶךְ קָם בַּחֲמָתוֹ מִמִּשְׁתֵּה הַיַּיִן אֶל גִּנַּת הַבִּיתָן וְהָמָן עָמַד לְבַקֵּשׁ עַל נַפְשׁוֹ מֵאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה כִּי רָאָה כִּי כָלְתָה אֵלָיו הָרָעָה מֵאֵת הַמֶּלֶךְ. ז:ח וְהַמֶּלֶךְ שָׁב מִגִּנַּת הַבִּיתָן אֶל בֵּית מִשְׁתֵּה הַיַּיִן וְהָמָן נֹפֵל עַל הַמִּטָּה אֲשֶׁר אֶסְתֵּר עָלֶיהָ וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ הֲגַם לִכְבּוֹשׁ אֶת הַמַּלְכָּה עִמִּי בַּבָּיִת הַדָּבָר יָצָא מִפִּי הַמֶּלֶךְ וּפְנֵי הָמָן חָפוּ.
Esth 7:7 The king rose in fury from the wine-feast, towards the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg for his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. 7:7When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had fallen down on the couch where Esther was reclining.[15] The king said, “Will he even subdue [=violate sexually] the queen with me even in the house?!” As the words left the king’s lips, they covered Haman’s face.[16]

Clearly, Haman’s actions are not meant to be sexual. In fact, he is not trying to dominate Esther at all; rather, he is assuming a posture of supplication. Nevertheless, this is how Ahasuerus interprets his actions, emphasizing the gall Haman has to do this in the king’s own palace while the king is literally in the next room.[17]

Moreover, the king does not suggest that Esther invited Haman’s actions. To Ahasuerus, Haman’s motives were to “subdue” or “conquer” (לִכְבּוֹשׁ), which necessarily implies that the action happens against the queen’s will and without her consent.[18] This fits with Esther’s own account of Haman’s treatment of her: First he wants to kill her and next he wants to rape her. Haman is treating the queen like his own property, when she really “belongs” to Ahasuerus.

The nail in Haman’s proverbial coffin comes next:

אסתר ז:ט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר חַ֠רְבוֹנָ֠ה אֶחָ֨ד מִן הַסָּרִיסִ֜ים לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ גַּ֣ם הִנֵּה הָעֵ֣ץ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂ֪ה הָמָ֟ן לְֽמׇרְדֳּכַ֞י אֲשֶׁ֧ר דִּבֶּר ט֣וֹב עַל הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ עֹמֵד֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הָמָ֔ן גָּבֹ֖הַּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים אַמָּ֑ה
Esth 7:9 Then Harbonah, one of the king’s eunuchs, said, “Look, the stake that Haman made for Mordecai—who spoke well concerning the king—is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.”

Harbonah’s point is that Haman has chosen to execute one of the king’s advisors, something he has no right to do (again, Mordechai is not a commoner). Moreover, this is the very man whom the king has just honored and who saved the king’s life—a massive act of insubordination on Haman’s part.

Finally, Haman had planned on executing Mordechai in an enormous display of Haman’s own power—a fifty-foot stake in his own yard—without even informing the king of his intentions. All this agency on Haman’s part is simply too much for the king, and he orders Haman impaled on his own stake.[19]

“The Opposite Happened”

The book of Esther offers an explicit message about the connection between consent and power. The more power a person has, the greater latitude he or she has to refuse consent or grant it. As long as someone else has more power, however, even people with nominal agency, like Vashti, are in danger of losing it, and people without agency, like Esther, can gain it.

But, in this story (and others), only the king has ultimate power, and he can single-handedly reverse a person’s fortunes. This theme of topsy-turviness, highlighted in chapter 1 and referenced explicitly in chapter 9 as “and the opposite happened” (‎וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא), typifies the Book of Esther.

In this particular story, the Jewish heroes often seem to have agency themselves; they do not wait passively for a king—or even God—to decide their fate. They are successful because they understand how to manipulate Ahasuerus behind the scenes. At the same time, the success has a “skin of their teeth” feeling, since if the plan hadn’t worked or Ahasuerus had reacted differently, Haman could have prevailed and the Jews could have been killed. In that sense, Esther and Mordechai’s world is a frightening place; most people have no agency at all, and even those that do are subservient to the king and subject to his whims.

Perhaps this is why the celebration of Purim is so fraught, with the practice being to drink to the point that one no longer knows the difference between “bless Mordechai and curse Haman.” In a world with such stark power imbalances, where everything can be turned on its head by the whim of a dictator, the power of consent, refusal, and agency are always ephemeral.


March 19, 2019


Last Updated

September 6, 2023


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Dr. Jason Gaines teaches Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and religious studies at Fairfield University and Mt. Holyoke College. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, and is the author of The Poetic Priestly Source (Fortress Press)