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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Esther

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The Plot Unfolds ( 3:1–8:17 )

( 3:1–4:3 ) Struggle between Mordecai and Haman

The only major character not yet on the scene appears in the first verse of this section: Haman the Agagite, linked by his genealogy to Israel's archetypal enemy and historical foe of King Saul, from whose father, Kish, was descended Mordecai (see 2:5–6 ), who will be his opponent and nemesis in this tale. The issue of obedience is immediately raised, this time in relation to Mordecai. Having elevated Haman to a lofty position in the court, the king has ordered everyone to bow down to him. Mordecai refuses to do so ( 3:2 ). This act of defiance is not directly explained, but the servants who witness it and who fail to convince Mordecai to honour Haman then inform Haman of Mordecai's Jewish identity. Perhaps it is implied, as Jewish commentaries from the rabbinical period onwards have suggested, that Jews would bow down only to their God (cf. Dan 3 ). If so, the tension of binational loyalty, i.e. the problem of diaspora Jewry, appears directly in the story, and a religious dimension is indirectly introduced.

Even if Mordecai's Judaism is not the cause of his refusal to do obeisance, it becomes the reason for Haman's response: a monumental overreaction to a snub. His revenge would be the destruction not simply of Mordecai but of his entire people ( 3:8 ). The vastness of Haman's plan to relieve his malice towards Mordecai in some ways recapitulates the outrageous scale of Ahasuerus' response to Vashti's snub, whereby he subordinates all women to their husbands. The parallel between Jews and women is clear. They both must be dealt with in their entirety to rectify the impropriety of one of them towards the royal power. Perhaps, too, both women and Jews have greater potential power than their apparently subordinate status would indicate.

Haman then casts a lot, or pûr—an act well-documented as a tool of ancient imperial decision science (see Hallo 1983 )—to select the day for this genocide. This procedure is to become the raison d᾽être for the festival of Purim ( 9:24–6 ). That the date selected—the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar ( 3:7, 13 )—involves the number 13 (thought to be unlucky already in biblical antiquity) perhaps prefigures the fateful turn of events when that day finally arrives. Haman's plan is approved, at least in part because he makes a donation to the king's treasury of 10,000 talents of silver, a highly inflated sum indicative of the fictive quality of the tale.

Ahasuerus then acts in equally grandiose fashion, allowing Haman to use his signet ring, the ultimate instrument of authority. Because of this preposterous if temporary transfer of royal power to Haman, the ultimate death of the villain will mean that the subject people will have overcome the ‘ruler’, who is not the actual ruler; and Ahasuerus, the somewhat bumbling good-hearted monarch, will maintain the respect and loyalty of his subjects. The Jews will reverse their subordinate status by disposing of their oppressor while remaining loyal subjects to the real king.

Now it is time for reactions to the evil decree. First the city of Susa itself is ‘thrown into confusion’ ( 3:15 ; cf. the reversal of this situation in 8:15 ). Then, upon hearing the news, Mordecai and all the Jews throughout the empire go into mourning by donning ‘sackcloth and ashes’, by crying out, and by fasting ( 4:1–3 ). This last act, fasting, is mentioned twice more, when Esther and her maids fast ( 4:16 ), and again in the proclamation of future fasts ( 9:31 ). The emphasis on abstention from food as a reflection of and response to the impending death sentence provides a stark contrast to the joyous consumption of food at the various banquets and feasts that punctuate the tale. At the same time, the appearance of fasting may be the one possible example of Jewish religious observance in the entire, rather secular, book of Esther. Fasting together with weeping has good biblical precedent as an individual intercessory attempt to plead with God and thus save a life; the story of David's actions on behalf of his first son by Bathsheba is notable in this regard (2 Sam 12:15–17 ). Also, as a community-wide response to disaster, the events surrounding the sixth century BCE destruction of Jerusalem and the temple apparently produced several fast days (see Zech 7:4; 8:19 ).

( 4:5–5:9 ) Esther Becomes Involved

The story at last turns towards Esther's response, which will ultimately lead to a reversal. She sends the eunuch Hathach, who is one of her attendants, to Mordecai to find out about Haman's decree. Replying through this messenger, Mordecai charges her to approach Ahasuerus, in order ‘to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people’ ( 4:8 ). Now we hear Esther's voice directly for the first time ( 4:11–12 ). This first instance of reported speech for her, followed soon by a second ( 4:16 ) as she informs her cousin that no one can approach the king unbidden under threat of death, signals two important shifts. First, Esther has her own voice and is now acting in her own right, no longer under her mentor's direction. Second, her words mark her explicit involvement in her people's dilemma and in the rescue she will orchestrate. Esther's two statements in ch. 4 provide the turning point of the tale; they draw attention to her potential power evident in her astute reading of the palace rules.

In learning of Esther's response, Mordecai presses her further: she will ultimately die anyway, and she must go to the king. Mordecai's words suggest that help may come ‘from another quarter’. The Hebrew term here, māqôm (‘place’), is sometimes a euphemism for the divine presence; if so, the word provides a hint of religiosity and of the salvific working of divine providence. Similarly, the fact that Esther proclaims a fast for herself bespeaks a supplicatory or prayerful attitude, perhaps an indication of the queen's Jewish piety. In any case, Mordecai's immediate obedience to Esther's command ( 4:17 ) is an explicit reversal of her earlier acquiescence to his instructions.

In accordance with the information she sent to Mordecai, Esther takes the courageous step of approaching the king unbidden at the end of the three-day fast. She disobeys royal law in appearing before him, yet her risky behaviour is richly rewarded, for he generously offers to give her whatever she wants, ‘even to the half of my kingdom’ ( 5:3 ). But Esther cleverly asks for nothing more than an opportunity to entertain her husband and his chief officer. They are both pleased at her hospitality; and the king again offers her half the empire. This time she requests only a second banquet, thereby demonstrating to the king that her requests are easy and pleasant to fulfil. Her strategy of making the king eager to agree to whatever she wishes is in place.

( 5:9–6:14 ) The Mordecai–Haman Problem Escalates

Happy as Haman was to have been entertained by the queen, he becomes intensely distressed when Mordecai once more refuses to do obeisance. At the bidding of his wife Zeresh, he erects monumental gallows intended for Mordecai; only then can Haman feel relaxed enough to look forward to Esther's second banquet. Meanwhile, to pass the hours of a sleepless night, Ahasuerus makes the unlikely but fortuitous move of having his court annals read aloud, thereby discovering that he had failed to reward Mordecai for passing on the information about the assassination plot. In a marvellously ironic scene ( 6:4–11 ), as the tale moves inexorably to its ultimate reversal, Haman appears on the scene and is asked what a king should do to honour someone. With his arrogance and egomania, Haman believes he is the one deserving such honour and constructs a reward—parading the honoured man, on horseback and in royal garb, to the city square—that is then given to Mordecai. Haman must lead the horse and proclaim the king's favour for Mordecai. Understandably devastated, Haman is now the one who exhibits mourning behaviour. Once more his wife takes note, this time with the pessimistic notion that Haman's intent to destroy Mordecai may end up with the opposite result. The reason for this? Mordecai is Jewish ( 6:13 ). Zeresh's response conveys a powerful notion underlying the book—that the Jews are ultimately inviolable and will somehow survive.

( 7:1–8:17 ) Haman is Overcome and Replaced

At the queen's second banquet, when the king is determined to grant her any request, Esther speaks to Ahasuerus in a way that signals her readiness to take advantage of his goodwill. In 7:3 she addresses him for the first time in the second person, saying ‘If I have won your favour’, rather than using the third person, ‘If I have won the king's favour’, as in 5:8 . She is now ready to be direct in her petitions as well as in her identity. In 7:4 she paraphrases Haman's edict, written in the name of Ahasuerus, to destroy the Jews ( 3:13 ). In so doing she identifies herself for the first time as a member of the people to be killed and then requests that the lives of all this group be spared. Incredibly, the king seems ignorant of the decree. Perhaps, because Esther mentions an alternative scenario—that the order might have been to enslave the Jews rather than annihilate them—he had thought he was authorizing a servitude plan. In any case, when Esther identifies Haman as the perpetrator of the projected genocide, the king stomps out to his garden in a rage but says nothing about reversing Haman's edict.

Left alone with Esther, the terrified Haman falls upon the couch where she is reclining to plead for mercy. At that moment the king returns and sees what appears to him to be a sexual assault on his queen. This at last precipitates the climactic reversal of the tale. But it occurs on a personal level. Even with the knowledge that all the Jews were to be slaughtered, the king does not act until his own wife's sexuality is apparently threatened by Haman, just as his proclamation that all men are to be masters in their homes ( 1:22 ) is the result of the defiance of his own wife. Now his orders are first to hang Haman—with delicious irony, on the very gallows intended for Mordecai—rather than to reverse Haman's edict. The immediate threat to his wife having been removed, the king's anger is abated ( 7:10 , as in 2:1 when he dealt with Vashti).

Yet the ultimate reversal has still not been accomplished; Haman has been hanged, but his order to destroy the Jews has not been revoked. The next two acts of the king do nothing to change this situation. He continues to respond on a personal level, awarding Haman's household to Esther and giving Mordecai Haman's signet ring. Mordecai and Esther thus together assume ownership of their enemy's holdings, a development hardly satisfactory to Esther, now openly connected with the Jew Mordecai ( 8:1 ). Consequently, Esther abandons all guile and falls to the king's feet in tears. Both Esther and the honoured Mordecai are in the king's presence, but it is Esther who speaks out, reverting to the third person in beseeching Ahasuerus to order Haman's decree invalid and in asking that the calamity awaiting her ‘people’ and her ‘kindred’ be averted ( 8:6 ). Her use of those two terms, in the reverse order to that of ch. 2 , finalizes the reversal. Her previously concealed identity is asserted, changing the situation noted in 2:10 , which states that Esther ‘did not reveal her people or kindred’ when she entered the harem.

Just as Ahasuerus had given Haman the authority to issue an edict in the name of the king, he now provides for a symmetrical ending by giving a parallel right to Esther and Mordecai ( 8:7–8 ). In the language of formal royal activity, which reflects that of 3:12 when Haman formulated the terrible decree, the narrator tells us about a new irrevocable edict to be sent out to all the Persian provinces. The multicultural nature of the empire was duly noted in the account of the earlier edict, which was sent to ‘all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language’ ( 3:12 ), a situation that accords with documented Persian policy allowing peoples comprising the empire to maintain a significant amount of political and economic autonomy. In the reprise in ch. 8 of the stereotyped language of edict promulgation, however, the Jews are singled out; the new orders are of course sent to all those peoples in their own scripts and languages ‘and also to the Jews in their script and their language’ ( 8:9 ).

The new decree, interestingly enough, does not directly revoke Haman's edict; royal edicts issued with the king's signet could not be overturned ( 8:8 ). Instead, it authorizes the Jews to annihilate those who, in trying to carry out the terms of Haman's decree, would attempt to slaughter them. In other words, the peculiarity of Persian law in this tale forces the Jews to survive by engaging in the very kind of deadly physical assault to which they are objecting. The official statement, in which the Jews are instructed to assemble and to kill not only their attackers but also the families of their attackers, is a troubling sanction for Jewish violence. But its context, an edict that must overpower an unremovable earlier one, along with the absurdity of the presumably unarmed and militarily untrained Jews overwhelming the imperial forces charged with their slaughter, should ameliorate the horror of the retributive actions to take place at the appointed time. That moment, of course, is to be the thirteenth day of the twelfth month of Adar ( 8:12 ), the very day earlier selected by lot for carrying out Haman's edict ( 3:7 ).

Accompanying the new edict is the garbing of Mordecai in stunning royal apparel, with a ‘great golden crown’ ( 8:15 ). The leading Jewish male in the kingdom now joins the leading Jewish female (cf. 2:17 ) in wearing the kind of royal headgear so coveted by Haman ( 6:7 ). This vivid reversal is accompanied by a similar sea-change in the response of the people. The citizens of Susa had been ‘thrown into confusion’ ( 3:15 ) by Haman's decree; in contrast they respond with great joy to Mordecai's edict ( 8:16 ). The Jews are similarly ecstatic and initiate festive activities. This whole turn of events, in which certain Jewish annihilation has been replaced with greatly elevated Jewish status along with royal power placed in the hands of a Jewish official, leads to the astonishing statement that many of the peoples in the empire ‘professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them’ ( 8:17 ). Whether or not this is to be taken as a description of the conversion of some groups to Judaism, the statement does convey the fact that people are inexorably drawn to the security of siding with those in power and that concepts of ethnicity are complicated by the dynamics of political privilege.

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