We are studying Esther 7:1-10 for Sunday, April 19. This is the climactic scene in the story of Esther where Haman is almost literally “hoist with his own petard.” [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re in the book of Esther, which is primarily a story – and a complicated story at that, with an intricate plot that depends on people being in the right place at the right time, and on “coincidence,” and on ironic reversals of fortune.
Furthermore, everything about the book of Esther is exaggerated and excessive, almost cartoonish. It opens with a drinking party that lasts half a year, Esther has to undergo A YEAR of beauty treatments before meeting the king, Haman builds “a gallows” (literally, a tree) 75 feet high [and I admit, literal minded as I am, I always wonder “how on earth were they going to get anyone ON that thing?”], and there’s enough broad sexual innuendo and outlandish violence to trigger an MPAA warning.
There is A LOT of Jewish midrash on Esther, and a good amount of Christian commentary as well, maybe because the book poses interpretive problems for readers looking for a pious message in their sacred text. Suddenly, they find themselves confronting what seems on the surface to be more like an episode of Total Drama Island. Where’s the moral lesson in that??
Generally, the sages and the Christian commentators agree that the place to look is in God’s apparent absence, coupled with the comedic way everything works out to be good for the Jews in the end, implying that God has been working hard behind the scenes the whole time: making sure Esther gets into the palace so she can tell the king about Mordecai’s intelligence about that assassination plot, waking the king up just in time to remember to honor Mordecai, interrupting the evil villain Haman’s plan to execute Mordecai in the process, bumping the pur (basically, dice) to give the plot plenty of time to unfold … etc.
The book of Esther is short, so it makes sense to read the whole book to get a sense of what’s going on. In brief: the orphan Esther [Jewish name Hadassah] is cared for by her uncle Mordecai, and then after some wild events in the Persian court involving a 6-month-long drinking party and the king’s marital spat with Queen Vashti, wins the Miss Persia contest and becomes Queen herself. Meanwhile Evil Villain Haman, affronted when Mordecai refuses [to treat him like a god by] bowing down to him (which of course Mordecai won’t do, because that would be idolatrous, but the text doesn’t say this, we are just supposed to know it), and finding out Mordecai is Jewish, plans to kill ALL the Jews to get rid of him. [Overkill. Because he’s an Evil Villain.] He casts lots [pur] to decide when this will happen, the date is set for about a year from now, and the king goes along with the plan and signs it into irrevocable law. Meanwhile Mordecai saves the king’s life. Meanwhile, Haman builds a giant device of execution for Mordecai. Meanwhile, the king can’t sleep and is reminded of Mordecai’s good deed, so when Haman comes to see him about that execution the king interrupts him, there’s a misunderstanding about “whom the king wishes to honor,” and Haman ends up prescribing galling [to him] high honors for Mordecai, the very person he wants to destroy. LOL. Meanwhile, it’s almost Passover, and nevertheless Esther and all her women and all the Jews are fasting so that Esther can go in to see the king to try to get the king to do something about the execution order, and the plan involves … inviting the king and Haman to a drinking party [something we know the king really likes, but where on earth is she going with this??] …
All that leads us up to our text.
Our text is, by the way, the only passage in Esther that shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary – on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, as it happens. So if all you knew was the lectionary Bible, you wouldn’t know that Mordecai ever said “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14), or that Esther ever said “After that [the fast on her behalf] I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16) Most of us, however, seem to have learned that along the way nevertheless.
Haman is hoist with his own petard, the king gives the Jews permission to destroy, kill, and annihilate their destroyers, killers, and annihilators, they win, Purim is made an annual festival forever, and now on Purim, if we celebrate Purim, we read the scroll of Esther and send gifts of food to our friends and neighbors and the poor and are told to drink until we can’t tell the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman.” So, in other words, party like we’re kings and queens of fabulous Persia.
Because: we’re alive. It could have been otherwise.
CLOSER READING: In verse 1, the king and Haman literally go in to drink with Esther. The drinking is the point. In verse 2 they are all literally at the banquet of wine. Now that the king is in a good mood, Esther can make her request on behalf of her people. She uses a verb that has, as a basic meaning, “to seek”; Haman will seek to have his own life saved in verse 7 (our version translates it as “beg”) – yet another example of the irony in this text that is full of irony. The tables are turned.
In verse 4, notice Esther’s use of three distinct verbs for killing; she quotes language of the edict issued in chapter 3 (Esther 3:13), which is itself an instance of the way everything in the text is exaggerated, much more than necessary.
Verse 5 is unclear. She may mean that if her people had been sold as slaves it wouldn’t have been worth mentioning; she may mean that this would have been a loss for the king that no one can compensate; she may mean both of these things.
In verse 7, Haman stood to seek for his life from Queen Esther, but by verse 8 he has fallen onto the queen’s couch … we need to have in mind a scene in which the characters have been reclining at this banquet of wine. The midrash says that an angel pushed Haman. The king enters at just this moment, misinterprets the scene as attempted rape, and this seals Haman’s fate for good.
The name of the eunuch Harbona means “donkey, or ass, leader” – not too flattering, but ironically appropriate for Haman. He, strategically, gives the king the information about the tree, literally, that Haman has erected, and which is now, ironically, perfectly positioned as an instrument of execution for him.
[What precise ancient world execution procedures we ought to envision here I don’t know; the verb used is the same kind of “hanging” the exiles do to their harps on the willows in Psalm 137, but what that means for a human body is open to some interpretation. Bible Odyssey’s entry on that is here.]
I would argue that it’s going way too far to claim, as the author of our published curriculum does, that the book of Esther reminds us that “no evil deed goes unpunished” and that “justice will eventually prevail” – at least, not if we are thinking about this world, the empirical world, what some people call “the real world.” When people say things like that, I am often inclined to say “tell that to the slaves who died in Egypt,” and to all the other victims of injustice who did not, personally, see their own vindication. As long as our horizon is this world, we will be able to count plenty of evil deeds that go unpunished. And the horizon of the book of Esther is distinctly this-worldly, although also not this-worldly at all, considering how over-the-top the whole story is.
In The Threepenny Opera, which I know almost as well as the Bible from listening to it countless times in college because one of my roommates loved it that much, the main character Mack the Knife is saved from hanging at the last instant by a royal pardon delivered by royal messenger, preceded by a dramatic musical moment in which the chorus keeps chanting “Victoria’s messenger riding comes …” But yay! The messenger arrives in time! Our [anti-]hero is saved! And receives a royal appointment, a castle, and a pension for life!!
The book of Esther is like that.
King Ahasuerus’s super-fast camels arrive with the decree that the Jews can fight back against their enemies, and destroy, kill, and annihilate the ones who planned to do just that to the Jews; they prevail; now we have Purim!!
The finale of the Threepenny Opera goes on, though, and reminds the audience that “in real life the ending isn’t quite so fine, Victoria’s messenger does not come riding often.”
Neither do King Ahasuerus’s.
So it seems more accurate to me to say that Esther is fantasy literature, the revealing fantasy of the good guys winning and the bad guys losing, in a marvelously satisfying way. We might call it a tall tale. Or a miracle story. Or even, a statement of faith: not a description of the dismal world we see, but a story from the vibrant ever-living one we believe to be, ironically enough, the real real one, that we don’t often see … yet.
Some additional insights into Esther:
- Dr. Katie Benjamin on reading Esther as Christian scripture in Lutheran Forum;
- The Bible Project’s different reading of Esther as Christian scripture – alert, this one contains some graphic [literally] violence; and
- Dr. Shai Secunda on why the Babylonian Talmud contains a complete book of Esther midrash
Here’s a classic performance of The Threepenny Opera; “Victoria’s messenger riding comes!” starts about 47:00; the commentary on real life starts about 50:00.