The Book of Esther (Part 3: A Hero and A Villain)

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The Book of Esther (Part 3: A Hero and A Villain)

Esther 2:19-3:15 is a passage incredibly rich in plot development and suspense. We will analyze these as we look at the characters.

The main players are Mordecai (Queen Esther’s cousin) and Haman (the king’s newly appointed chief official).[1] Both Mordecai and Haman are close to a royal figure at the Medo-Persian Court.

The secondary characters, enumerated below, are numerous, and some are critical to the plot:

  • Queen Esther
  • King Ahasuerus
  • the doorkeepers Bigthan and Teresh (2:21, 23)
  • the king’s servants within the king’s gate (3:2, 3, 4)
  • the Jews /people of Mordecai (3:6, 10, 11, 13)
  • the virgins gathered at the palace (2:19)
  • the king’s scribes (3:12)
  • the king’s couriers (3:15)
  • the city of Shushan (3:15)
  • the king’s satraps/governors of each province/officials of all people (3:12)
  • those who do the work [of killing the Jews] (3:9)
  • all the people [in the kingdom] (3:8, 12, 14).

Two plots are present in this passage. First, we learn that two of the king’s eunuchs, the doorkeepers Bigthan and Teresh, got angry with the king and sought to take his life. This became known to Mordecai, who told Esther, who told the king. The matter being confirmed, the eunuchs were hung and the event written in the book of Chronicles. In this first plot, Mordecai is a hero who saved the king’s life. It is noteworthy that the author breaks the narrative for a parenthesis meant to inform us that Esther had not mentioned her Jewish origin at the palace.

A second plot is built upon Mordecai’s refusal to obey the king’s command to bow down and pay homage to Haman—the king’s right hand in the kingdom—despite the servants’ daily rebukes. Eventually, they told Haman, who immediately took action.

An irony between these two plots is easily evident: Mordecai was able to save the king’s life because the murder plot of two servants within the king’s gate (two doorkeepers) came to his awareness. Later, the servants within the king’s gate brought Mordecai’s behavior to Haman’s awareness. The hero who saved the king’s life is now a villain accused of disobeying the king’s command—a grave mistake that could easily cost him his life.

When Haman found out about Mordecai, he became filled with anger. In response to this Jew’s defiance, he devised a plot by which not only the culprit would be punished, but also his entire people would be annihilated.

Not much is revealed about what the king’s servants and Haman knew about the Jews, but whatever they did know is critical in this story. First, we learn that the servants told Haman Mordecai’s behavior “to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand; for Mordecai had told them that he was a Jew. (3:4) Soon after, we learn that Haman sought to destroy all the Jews in the empire, “for they had told him of the people of Mordecai.” (3:6) Clearly, the Jews were a feared people, and a unique group among all the nations of Medo-Persia.

The intensity and extent of Haman’s revenge betrays his severe wrath: Three words are used to describe the retaliation against the Jews, confirming their doomed fate: they were to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated (3:13). The merism (figure of speech) “young and old”, indicates the extent of this retaliation meant to extinguish the entire Jewish people. No Jew was to be left alive in Medo-Persia.

In order to obtain the king’s permission to carry out his genocidal plan, Haman portrays the Jews as enemies of the empire. Genocidal plans always begin with incriminating a group of people, and a reason must always be provided. In this case, Haman misrepresents them as a people whose “laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws” (3:8). In other words, the Jews were portrayed as rebellious enemies of the empire.

Not insignificant is the fact that Haman offered the king money in exchange for his permission to exterminate the Jews. So inconsequential were their lives to a mighty king over vast regions that, without further inquiry into the matter, the king hands his signet ring over to Haman, giving him the freedom and authority to do as he pleases. Essentially, Haman bought the lives of the Jews.

Key Locations and Dates

Spatial Markers Reference
within the king’s gate 2:19
within the king’s gate 2:21
in the book of the chronicles 2:23
in the presence of the king 2:23
with him 3:1
within the king’s gate 3:2
were within the king’s gate 3:3
throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus 3:6
among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom 3:8
into the hands of those who do the work 3:9
into the king’s treasuries 3:9
from his hand 3:10
into all the king’s provinces 3:12
in every province

3:14

The passage is rich in spatial and temporal markers, some of which have special significance. For example, we notice that the phrase “within the king’s gates” is repeated four times, signaling its importance in the story. Indeed, it is “within the king’s gate” that the two major events take place: (1) Mordecai discovers the gatekeeper’s plot to kill the king, and (2) Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, causing his wrath and a genocidal decree.

Another idea repeated four times through spatial markers is “all the provinces/the whole kingdom.” The two ideas are closely connected since what happens within the king’s gates has repercussions over the whole kingdom.

Likewise, the temporal markers invite reflection. An interesting marker is the word “daily” (3:4). We know that the king’s servants who were within the king’s gates admonished Mordecai daily for not bowing down to Haman. This expression implies both that Mordecai refused to pay homage every day, and that the king’s servants observed and reproved him regularly, which he further disregarded regularly.

Temporal Markers Reference
when virgins were gathered 2:19
a second time 2:19
as when she was brought up 2:20
in those days 2:21
while Mordecai sat within the king’s gate 2:21
when an inquiry was made 2:23
after these things 3:1
when they spoke to him 3:4
daily 3:4
when Haman saw 3:5
in the first month, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus 3:7
the day and the month 3:7
until it fell on the twelfth month 3:7
then 3:8
on the thirteenth day of the first month 3:12
in one day, 3:13
on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month 3:13

Another intriguing temporal marker is the expression “until it fell on the twelfth month(3:7). This is curious as it implies that the lot was cast several times until it fell on a specific date. Typically, casting the lot involves a degree of randomness, yet in this situation, Haman seems to have a specific day and month in mind when he wanted the genocide to occur.

 

Also notable is the repetition of the phrase “on the thirteenth day” (3:12, 13). On one hand, we learn that “on the thirteenth day of the first month” (3:12) Haman wrote the decree to annihilate the Jews in Medo-Persia. On the other hand, we are told that “on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month” (3:13), the entire Jewish population in the empire was to be destroyed. The Jews were given one year of life before their complete and utter destruction, which was to take place “in one day” (3:13).

 

An interesting similarity between this passage and chapter 1 can be drawn. In both chapters, an individual in position of power gets filled with wrath because someone refuses to obey the king’s command. In anger, that individual issued a decree that would affect all those like the disobedient person within the entire Medo-Persian Empire. Below is a more detailed comparison:

 

Chapter 1 Chapter 3

 

King Ahasuerus gets angry with Queen Vashti because she disobeys the king’s command to show her beauty to his drunken company. Haman, the king’s right hand, gets angry with Mordecai because he disobeys the king’s command to bow down to him.
The king issues a decree to be made known to all the provinces and in languages Haman issues a decree with sovereign authority, which is to be made known to all the provinces and in all languages.
Because of Vashti’s behavior, male authority was enforced over all the women in Medo-Persia. Because of Mordecai’s behavior, all the Jews Medo-Persia were to be killed.

 

The king and Haman seem to share a revengeful attitude when disobeyed, and the extent of their retaliation has repercussions over the entire empire. Clearly, power is crucial for them, and its strategic use has the potential to hold large numbers of people in fear and submission. The Jews are at great risk of perishing from the face of the earth—or at least from Medo-Persia, which was no small empire. Will there be a solution to this genocidal plan?

Click here to read the rest of Adelina’s series on the Book of Esther

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Notes.

[1] After these events King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and established his authority over all the princes who were with him. (Est 3:1 NASB)

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.