Purim in the Bible – Part 3: The End of Haman

Xerxes I, carved in relief in a palace ruin in Persepolis, Iran. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Thanks to the bravery of Esther and Mordecai, the tide was beginning to turn against Haman and the Babylonians who stood against the Jews. Haman had been publicly shamed and paraded through the city to pronounce the greatness of a man who he desperately wanted to see dead. But Esther was not done yet– it was time for her to make her request to the king and begin the process of saving the Jews from destruction. The clock was still ticking.

This is the third part of the story of Purim. I recommend reading part one and part two first, but if you are the type of person who enjoys reading the last page first, by all means. There will be at least one more part after this one! Read on for more.

"Esther Denouncing Haman" by Ernest Normand, 1888.
“Esther Denouncing Haman” by Ernest Normand, 1888.

The Death of Haman

So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet, and as they were drinking wine on the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.
Esther 7:1-2

In the previous part, Esther had won an audience with the king, but she did not reveal her desire immediately. Instead, she played for time and arranged for her, the king, and Haman to all dine together a second night. During the intermission, the king discovered that Mordecai saved his life some years before and humiliated Haman by forcing him to proclaim the greatness of the Jew that he despised. Whether this was part of God’s plan or just Esther’s and Mordecai’s, it was going perfectly.

Even with the king’s ear, Esther needed to play her cards just right. He was a man known for extreme punishments on little pretext– he did not think twice to sentence an entire race to their deaths. He was as unpredictable as a coiled snake.

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”
King [Ahasuerus] asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”
Esther 7:3-6

Esther’s petition to the king is simple enough: spare my life and my people. The king did not know that she was a Jew, and even in this scene she does not use the term. Instead, she leaves the king in the dark so that he has to ask: “who would do this to you!?” And of course, the aggressor was right there: Haman. Each domino was set up, each domino fell. But notice how she shows deference to the king? If they had just been enslaved, that wouldn’t have been bad enough to go to the king. After all, Jews had been slaves in Egypt not so long ago. No, it is genocide that tipped the scales towards a confrontation with a surprisingly receptive Ahasuerus.

Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen. The king got up in a rage, left his wine and went out into the palace garden.
Esther 7:6-7

The king fled the scene, leaving Esther alone with Haman. You have to wonder what was going through their heads. Who was the king angry at, really? Was it Esther for making the request? Or Haman for ordering her death? Of course, it was the king that was ultimately at fault, but no one in this situation could point that out! But what happened next could not have been planned:

But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life. Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining. The king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”
Esther 7:7-8

Haman pleaded with Esther for his life, as you might expect him to do. He had been humiliated and now seemingly defeated by his adversaries, the Jews– in the person of Esther and Mordecai. But while he was pleading, the king returned and completely misreads the situation. Instead of seeing a man distraught and begging for his life, be believes that he is trying to rape Esther– the queen. The king’s reaction was swift and final.

 As soon as the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits stands by Haman’s house. He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”
The king said, “Impale him on it!” So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.
Esther 7:8-10

Esther does not speak up to correct the king, but can you blame her? Haman was put to death and this part of the story is over. Ahasuerus was still a coiled snake, but at least this time his rage was a victory for the Jews.

Ascension of Mordecai

Mordecai bowing before Ahasereus, c. 1610.
Mordecai bowing before Ahasereus, c. 1610.

Although Esther was now safe, and Haman was dead, that was not the end of the story. The Jews were still scheduled to die. But rather than deal with the big problem, the king in his myopic way decided to deal with an unimportant problem first: what should be done with Haman’s estate?

That same day King [Ahasuerus] gave Queen Esther the estate of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came into the presence of the king, for Esther had told how he was related to her. The king took off his signet ring, which he had reclaimed from Haman, and presented it to Mordecai. And Esther appointed him over Haman’s estate.
Esther 8:1-2

And just like that Mordecai was no longer a poor man, but one officially in the service to the king and queen. It was an amazing promotion! Sure, the Jews would still be killed (presumably including Mordecai and Esther), so he may not have wanted to tuck into renovations, but the situation was getting better. With that taken care of, finally the king could turn to the question of not killing all the Jews:

King [Ahasuerus] replied to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew, “Because Haman attacked the Jews, I have given his estate to Esther, and they have impaled him on the pole he set up. Now write another decree in the king’s name in behalf of the Jews as seems best to you, and seal it with the king’s signet ring—for no document written in the king’s name and sealed with his ring can be revoked.”
Esther 8:7-8

And finally, we see the tragic detail: the king cannot revoke the order without losing prestige or having his word not trusted. Once it was open season on Jews, it could not be closed. And so the king did the one thing he could do, allow the Jews to fight back.

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies.
Esther 8:11

It is difficult to comprehend the pigheaded stupidity of this pair of orders. The king was essentially forcing his kingdom to go to war against the Jews, who were equally commanded to strike back. For one day, there would be civil war in the kingdom demanded by law. We might be able to imagine dozens of other ways to deal with this. What if the king created an order that no one was permitted to leave their houses on the critical day? Or that no one could carry a weapon? Either might have reduced the bloodshed. All that we are left with is institutionalized stupidity, nonsensical on its face. For one day, anyone in the kingdom (including Jews) can plunder the property of their enemies. Can you believe that?

An Unnecessary War

I had a picture of people fighting here, but it was too depressing. Please enjoy these kittens instead.
I had a picture of people fighting here, but it was too depressing. Please enjoy these kittens instead.

Suddenly, it was the citizens of Persia who were scared of the retaliating Jews. The king, for better or for worse, had ordered a bloodbath, a civil war in his kingdom between Jews and non-Jews, neither of which could refuse the king’s order to try to kill the other. It is the ultimate expression of a bureaucracy gone mad.

And yet, at least some people thought they saw how the wind was blowing. Time to convert to Judaism!

[…] And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.
Esther 8:17

Finally, the day of the bloodbath arrived and the country was torn asunder. Hundreds must have died on both sides. No mercy was showed by the Jewish soldiers, nor it seems by the Persian ones.

The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. They also killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. But they did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Esther 9:5-10

The day’s killing finally over and the sons of Haman dead, you might think that is the end of the story. But sadly, it is not as Esther will make a critical choice that will send her (in the view of some) from being a heroine to a villain. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What kinds of choices will Esther make with the ear of the king?


 

I hope you enjoyed this third look at the Esther story. Obviously, it is a long time since Purim but these stories remain relevant any time of the year. It’s a fantastic story, but like all the stories in the Hebrew Bible, show us a figure that is ultimately human and will more than their share of failings. One or two more posts and we will complete the Book of Esther! Up next may be a return to the Jacob and Esau narrative, or a quick diversion to the Dead Sea Scrolls. We will see what I finish next!

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