“Lessons in Womanhood: Insights for Latter-day Saint Women from the Lives of Vashti, Miriam, Ruth, Hannah, Jezebel, and Esther,” Ensign, Oct. 1973, 70
A group of women were chatting informally about woman’s place in the world. Most of them felt greatly blessed to be wives and mothers, but one complained bitterly about employment discriminations she had experienced. “Oh, but the situation for women has improved,” explained another. “We can be thankful we didn’t live in Bible times.” Then she shared with them the story of Vashti.
About 500 B.C. Persia was a vast empire consisting of 127 provinces, and the king, Ahasuerus, had prepared a great feast in the palace gardens for the province princes. On the seventh day of the feast when the king was merry with wine, he commanded his chamberlains to bring Vashti, the queen, before him, wearing her royal apparel so the princes could see her beauty.
The queen refused to come. An embarrassment to King Ahasuerus, the incident filled him with anger. He called to him seven of his wisest princes who knew law and judgment and asked them, “What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, because she hath not performed the commandment of the king … ?”
One of the princes answered, “Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.
“For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands. …
“If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.
“And when the king’s decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour. …” (Esth. 1:15–17, 19–20.)
The saying pleased the king and the princes. Ahasuerus had letters sent to every province that each man should “bear rule” in his own house and his word should be law to his wife.
It is true that customs have changed, giving women more freedom than they had anciently. But God has not changed. Men and women are both his creations, sons and daughters of God whom he loves and always has loved. Woman’s stewardship, while different, is as important and soul-satisfying as is the one given man.
Women of the Old Testament teach women today that God loves and watches over them. While he sustains and blesses them when they do right, he may rebuke them to bring them back when they do wrong.
The story of Miriam is a dramatic example of such a rebuke.
Miriam was Moses’ elder sister and had loved him from the time he was a baby, and she had watched over his basket hidden in the bulrushes of the Nile. Knowing Moses was called of God, she supported him when he led the children of Israel from Egypt. Miriam, a great influence for good in the camp of Israel, led the women in singing and praising God after Moses divided the waters of the Red Sea for them and destroyed their pursuers. (See Ex. 15:20–21.)
The time came when Moses married a second wife; not approving, Miriam talked bitterly against him. Then the Lord asked Miriam, “With him [Moses] will I speak mouth to mouth, … and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num. 12:8.) And Miriam became “leprous, white as snow.”
Aaron besought Moses in Miriam’s behalf, and Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.” (Num. 12:13.)
The Lord could have healed Miriam instantly, but he did not. She had to be isolated from the camp one week before she was healed.
A week of isolation surely gave Miriam time to contemplate the seriousness of speaking against the Lord’s anointed, and if a Latter-day woman speaks against the Lord’s appointed leaders, she can also be sure of a rebuke. In all probability it will not be leprosy. But to the degree that she condemns the Lord’s prophets and leaders, she will lose the Spirit of the Lord—a malady more deadly than leprosy.
Another Bible story shows that a woman who serves and sustains a prophet or leader whom God has called is blessed according to her needs with the necessities of life, the Spirit of the Lord, and a testimony.
Following a three-year famine and drought in Israel, the Lord told the prophet Elijah to go north to Zidon and added, “I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.” (1 Kgs. 17:9.) When Elijah arrived, the woman was out gathering firewood, and he asked if she would bring him a drink of water and a piece of bread. She explained that she had no bread and only enough meal and oil to make two small cakes. After those cakes were gone, she said, she and her son would surely die.
Elijah said that if she would first make one small cake for him and then two more for her and her son, her meal and oil would last until the famine was over. The woman did as the prophet asked, and her supply of meal and oil never diminished, even though Elijah lodged with them many days.
During the famine, the widow’s son became very ill, and one day he stopped breathing. Elijah carried the boy into his own room and asked the Lord to let the child’s spirit return to him. The boy revived and Elijah took him to his mother. She said, “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth.” (1 Kgs. 17:24.)
There are many young women today who have given up everything to join the Church. The Lord is mindful of their sacrifices, and he will bless and reward them as he did Ruth of old, who was converted and followed the Lord’s way without faltering.
Elimelech lived with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons in Judea. Because of a famine, they moved to Moab, an idolatrous country. There Elimelech died and his two sons married Orpah and Ruth, young women of Moab. Before long, however, both sons also died.
Naomi had been away from Judea for ten years and yearned for her own land and people. She decided to go back home to live, and she asked her daughters-in-law to return to the homes of their mothers. In Moab they could find husbands among their own people.
Orpah and Ruth wept when Naomi kissed them goodbye. Orpah went back to her own family, but Ruth had been converted to the religion and God of Israel. She clung to Naomi and pleaded, “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” (Ruth 1:16.)
Naomi and Ruth reached Naomi’s old home in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Ruth, according to custom, gleaned the barley left by the reapers so she and Naomi might have food to eat.
The field where Ruth was gleaning belonged to Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi’s husband. When Boaz came to the barley field, he noticed Ruth and asked the reapers who she was. They told him that she was the Moabite, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, and that she had worked diligently.
Boaz told Ruth to glean in no other fields but his. She would not be molested in any way, and she was to eat the food and drink the water provided for his reapers.
Ruth bowed herself before Boaz and asked why he was so kind to her, a stranger. Boaz answered her, “It hath fully been shewed me … how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore.
“The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.” (Ruth 2:11–12.)
The Lord did reward Ruth for her sacrifices; she later married Boaz, and they had a son, Obed. Through Obed, Ruth became the great-grandmother of David, king of Israel, and she was an ancestor of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Another truth learned from women in the Old Testament is that God answers prayers and grants us our righteous desires. One Latter-day Saint woman commented, “My patriarchal blessing promises me that the righteous desires of my heart will be granted. For years I have prayed for something that without question is a righteous desire, and it has not been granted. My faith is wavering.”
Similarly, Hannah of the Bible had a righteous desire that she felt was not granted.
Elkanah, an upright man of Israel, had two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. While Peninnah had children, Hannah had none. The desire of Hannah’s heart was to have a son, yet year after year it did not happen, and she became so grief-stricken that she wept and could not eat. Elkanah, who loved Hannah, said to her, “… why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8.)
Every year Hannah accompanied Elkanah to Shiloh to offer sacrifices to the Lord. One year as she went into the temple, Hannah’s heart and mind were consumed by her longing for a son. In bitterness of soul she prayed unto the Lord and spoke a vow, saying, “O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed … give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life. …” (1 Sam. 1:11.)
Eli, the temple priest, told Hannah, “Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition. …” (1 Sam. 1:17.) Hannah was no longer sad. Soon she did conceive, and in due course her son Samuel was born.
Hannah must have made a special effort to teach Samuel to take care of himself and to love the Lord, because he was still a young child when she left him with Eli at the temple. There he served the Lord diligently and became a prophet in Israel.
Hannah was blessed with three more sons and two daughters. What a beautiful illustration of the abundance of the Lord’s blessings to the faithful! She freely gave one child to the Lord and in return he gave her five more.
The Lord had glorious blessings in store for Hannah, as she was to be the mother of a great prophet. But before Hannah could receive that blessing, her desire for a son had to become so intense that she would be willing to give him up to the Lord. Sometimes we are like Hannah; the Lord has to prepare us before he can grant our righteous desires.
The Lord will bless a wife who supports and influences her husband in righteousness. But when she uses her influence in an unrighteous way, she will bring harm to herself and her husband.
Women have more influence on their husbands than many realize. It is possible for a woman who does not respect her husband’s religion, faith in God, or priesthood to cause him to go her way instead of the Lord’s. This is what Jezebel did. The Bible explains that Ahab “did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up.” (1 Kgs. 21:25.)
Ahab, the king of Israel, married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre. Although she was a strong, resourceful woman, her religion and her values were contrary to the commandments of Israel’s God. Entreated by Jezebel, Ahab built a house of worship to Baal, her idolatrous god, and Ahab himself turned from the living God and sacrificed to Baal. Jezebel had many of the prophets of Israel killed, and the nation was led to the worship of Baal.
Naboth, a righteous man of Israel, had a vineyard by the palace of King Ahab. Ahab wanted that vineyard, but Naboth felt he had no right to sell his vineyard, because it had been in his family for many years and was assigned them by the Lord.
When Jezebel inquired why Ahab was downcast, he told her about Naboth’s vineyard. Jezebel responded “… let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard. …” (1 Kgs. 21:7.)
She wrote letters in Ahab’s name, sealed them with his seal, and sent them to the elders and nobles of the city. The letters commanded them to assign two false witnesses to testify that Naboth had blasphemed against God and the king. Then they were to stone him to death. The edict was carried out.
When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he went down to take possession of the vineyard. There Elijah the prophet found him and told him of the great calamities that were to befall him and Jezebel because of their wickedness.
It came to pass as the prophet Elijah had foretold. Ahab was killed in battle and Jezebel was killed and trampled in the streets.
Each Latter-day Saint woman must keep her Church standards and goals in mind. Should she allow current trends to influence her to “fulfill” herself, she may strive so hard to gain admiration and honor that she could lose the only way to gain real fulfillment. The woman who sacrifices some of her personal ambitions to meet the needs of her family—her husband and her children—is truly fulfilled. Jesus’ statement applies to her: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 10:39.) This woman has the proper balance between her service both in and outside the home, because her motive is to help others, not to receive praise and honor for herself. Her home and family have priority. Such a woman will be sustained and helped by the Lord as was Queen Esther.
Jerusalem had been captured and many of its leading citizens taken into the lands eastward as slaves. By the time Ahasuerus became king of the Persian empire, hundreds of Jews were scattered throughout his provinces.
After Queen Vashti lost her royal estate by refusing to appear before the king, officers of all the provinces were asked to send their fairest virgins to the palace so King Ahasuerus might select another queen.
In the capital city of Shushan lived a Jew named Mordecai. He had taken Esther, his uncle’s daughter, into his home when her mother and father died, and had brought her up as his own child. Exceedingly beautiful in face and form, Esther accompanied the other virgins to the palace as a candidate for queen.
After months of preparation and grooming, it was finally Esther’s turn to be presented to the king. He chose her to be his queen and placed the royal crown upon her head.
Shortly after Esther became queen, Mordecai heard two chamberlains plotting against the king. Mordecai reported this to Esther, who warned the king and thus saved his life.
King Ahasuerus chose Haman, one of his nobles, to be next to him in power. All the people were commanded to pay homage to him, but since Haman hated and mistreated the Jews, Mordecai would not bow down to him.
Filled with wrath, Haman told the king there was a people who observed their own laws and disobeyed those of the king. Haman received permission to destroy them, both rich and poor, young and old, women and children. There was weeping, fasting, and praying among the Jews when they learned that the day had been set for their deaths.
Mordecai sent word to Esther to make supplication to the king on behalf of her people. Queen Esther did not feel threatened—she was safe and secure; she had honor, position, and prestige. It was not known in court that she was a Jew, and she could have ignored the needs of her family and her people.
To Mordecai’s plea Esther replied that by law the king put to death anyone who came into his presence without being summoned, unless he held out his golden scepter, which indicated favor. Esther had not been summoned into the king’s presence for thirty days, and she was afraid to go unbidden.
Mordecai replied that possibly the Lord had made Esther queen so she could save the lives of her people. Esther sent a message to Mordecai asking: “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.” (Esth. 4:16.)
Mordecai did as she requested. On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and went to the inner court, where King Ahasuerus sat upon his throne. When he saw the queen, he held out to her the golden scepter and asked: “What wilt thou, queen Esther, and what is thy request? …” (Esth. 5:3.)
Esther replied, “If it seem good unto the king, let the king and Haman come this day unto the banquet that I have prepared for him.” (Esth. 5:4.) The king consented.
At the banquet the king again asked of Esther’s request. Esther asked only that the king and Haman come to her banquet again on the morrow.
When Haman reached his home that day, he told his wife, Zeresh, all the honors that had come to him. Only one thing was a blight to his joy: as he came through the palace gate, Mordecai was there and refused to pay homage to him.
Zeresh told him to have a gallows made that afternoon; then he should go merrily to the queen’s banquet. Tomorrow morning he should suggest to the king that Mordecai be hanged on the gallows. Haman had the gallows made.
That night King Ahasuerus was wakeful. He ordered that the records of royal affairs be read to him, and there he learned that it was Mordecai who had exposed the two chamberlains who had plotted against his life. Ahasuerus asked what honor had been given Mordecai for his loyalty. His servants answered, “There is nothing done for him.” (Esth. 6:3.)
Early the next morning, Haman was waiting in the outer court to speak to the king about hanging Mordecai. The king summoned him into his presence and asked, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?” (Esth. 6:6.)
Haman thought the king meant him, so he suggested that the princes clothe the man in the king’s royal apparel and place the king’s crown on his head. Then Haman said that they should take him through the streets on the king’s horse and proclaim, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour.” Then the king said, “Make haste, … and do even so to Mordecai the Jew. …” (Esth. 6:9–10.)
Sorrowfully Haman carried out the king’s command.
At the second banquet, the king again asked Esther to tell him her request and it would be granted, even to half his kingdom. Queen Esther answered, “… if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request: For we are … to be destroyed. …” (Esth. 7:3–4.)
The king asked Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so?” Esther answered, “The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman.” (Esth. 7:3–6.)
The king’s heart was filled with wrath, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Haman’s position of power was given to Mordecai, and the Jews throughout the Persian empire were saved.
Today, as anciently, a woman’s influence for a happy, fulfilled life is to love and serve the Lord and her household. The Lord said through King Solomon that the worth of a woman is far above wealth. (See Prov. 31:10–31.) Her husband safely trusts in her and praises her. She does him good all the days of her life. She accepts the responsibility of caring for her home and children. She feeds and clothes her family and is never idle; she stretches out her hands to help the poor. Her wisdom and kindness are shown in both her words and works; her children will call her blessed. A woman who loves the Lord shall be thus honored and praised.
What could more aptly describe a good Latter-day Saint woman?