It was always a source of disappointment for me that I was not able to find a role model for myself in the Bible. As a gay man, I have scoured and looked between the lines for someone whose story has a special meaning for me, whose situation addresses my own.
Since the Bible has meant a great deal to me, I particularly wanted to find a personal, empowering connection to it. It’s not that certain stories are not of great value to me (for example, the Exodus story, or the many prophets’ calls for justice), it’s rather that among the wide range of experiences depicted in the Bible, my particular dreams and needs are not included.
As a Protestant university chaplain and professor of religion, I have been part of that apologetic scholarship which has worked hard to find hidden messages of suppressed voices that might speak to me. I have argued, for example, that the sin of Sodom wasn’t really homosexuality (but inhospitality or gang rape); I have favored a homoerotic reading of the stories of David and Jonathan and of Naomi and Ruth; and I have found a graceful, nurturing, friendly sexuality expressed in The Song of Songs.
But more and more I am convinced that to read these stories—which after all revolve around the concerns and control of powerful heterosexual men and those who serve them—without criticism or protest, is to allow myself to be flattened by them. Wanting to find approval within that huge document has often overshadowed for me the numbing and painful impact of being excluded from it.
Finally I am facing the fact that my link to Scripture is precisely in my exclusion from it, not in my bending the material so that it fits me. The link is in coming to terms with that exclusion.
And yet, I find that link in the Bible. There is someone, a minor, minor character, mentioned ever so briefly, to whom I feel connected, and about whom I get excited: Queen Vashti, from the Book of Esther. Though her role in the story is a quick one (she disappears from the action after she refuses to obey her husband’s order to show off her beauty to his drunken, ogling friends), and though she is replaced by the compliant, dutiful Queen Esther (of whom the authors of the book approve), she cuts a powerful figure, causing significant patriarchal panic.
Her disregard for the King’s orders, claim His Majesty’s ministers, have serious implications for the entire social order. “This deed of the Queen will become known to all women,” they report, “causing them to look with contempt upon their husbands.” An official proclamation goes out across the land: All women must obey their husbands.
So what is the good news here?
First, it is in the fact that someone, in this case Vashti, goes against the normal flow of events at all. More to the point, the good news is not so much in the story itself, but in our response to it—that some of us are willing to rescue those who are punished or silenced for the sin of acting like whole, independent human beings rather than obedient, non-thinking non-persons.
The good news is in our looking critically at (rather than automatically accepting as authoritative) the Biblical document, or, to extrapolate, in our looking critically at the situations in which we find ourselves, or into which we were born. Amidst the normal flow of events and under the pressure of that which is taken for granted, the good news is in saying, “Hey, wait a minute, the aunt whom my family shunned—she’s the one who saved my life;” or, in this case, “Vashti’s refusal, not Esther’s behind-the-scenes manipulations, that’s what encourages me to assert who I am and what I need.” The good news is that we find company, relief, and even salvation in embracing the oddities and refusals of those people who are normally dismissed, silenced or trivialized.
I am under no illusion about the purpose of Vashti’s story as it appears in the Book of Esther. It is meant to frighten women. But it is our task, if we choose it, to insist instead that Vashti’s was a righteous action and an unjust punishment. I would go even further and say that Vashti’s story is an occasion to reconsider the priority given to the various Biblical stories that we inherit. Just as there came a time in my personal life when I realized that those role models and activities which my biological family offered me were not necessarily what I valued, so I say also that even though Abraham, David and Hosea are central figures in the Bible, they are not central for me.
In bringing Vashti’s story from the margin to the center, in re-writing her story in our actions today, we thus use the Bible as a resource of moral agency, of making justice. In stead of looking to the Bible for answers that can be copied to solve today’s problems, our confrontation with the Bible becomes a model for confronting the moral dilemmas we face in our own lives today.
People like myself do not expect life’s normal course of events to be sustaining and nurturing. We know that solutions to social problems are rarely found in the official word, but can be constructed out of lifting up (and listening for) the silenced word.
The story of Vashti, then, has been re-written many times. It was re-written when an underground railroad, and not complacency, was the response to a people’s ignored cry for freedom; it was rewritten when a boycott, and not further obedience, was the response to the arrest of a tired woman who dared sit down on the wrong seat of a bus; it was rewritten when a few lesbians and gay men finally did not go gently into that ever-waiting paddy wagon outside the barroom door, but staged the Stonewall Rebellion—the founding event of today’s lesbian/gay movement.
The story of Vashti is rewritten in the hearing, the taking to heart, and the changes wrought when those who by saying “no” give us the power to say “yes.” We cannot predict when such a voice will speak, or when it will have the power to start a movement, raise consciousness, or change our lives. We only know that the voices usually come from the margins, from those desperate enough to see clearly.
We can place ourselves in their midst, listening to the voices that come not from on high, but from below and outside.
Gary David Comstocli is the Protestant Chaplain at Wesleyan University, where he is also a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion, teaching courses in social ethics and lesbianl gay theologies. His book. Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men, was published in 1991 (Columbia University Press).