Chapter 3 and B

Esther 3 and B:

This chapter of Esther combines Chapter 3 (the Hebrew text) with B (the Greek text).  Let’s see if including B makes a difference in context.


Chapter 3:


1) After these events King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, to high rank, seating him above all his fellow officials. 2) All the king’s servants who were at the royal gate would kneel and bow down to Haman, for that is what the king had ordered in his regard. Mordecai, however, would not kneel and bow down.


COMMENTARY:  To kneel and bow meant a prostration.  That is, you kneel, then, first raising your arms, you bring your arms and your whole body down to the ground in homage.  Custom usually reserved this gesture for kings and gods, but by bestowing this privilege on Haman, Ahasuerus declared him to speak and act as though he were the King.  (And how did Haman earn such a lofty privilege?  That we shall soon discover.)


Apparently Mordecai had been performing this prostration before the King, but not to anybody else.  Maybe he could rationalize it by saying that God caused kings to rule, but he couldn’t extend that rationalization any further, since he was already stretching a point.


Not only the Jews, but also the Greeks found it offensive to perform the prostration before a mere mortal, which gave Alexander the Great a lot of trouble, because his conquests in the Persian Empire expected to do this for their monarch, but the Greeks felt shocked—and then the Persians took offense when Greek subjects received an exemption, because Alexander came in claiming to rule them all equally and not as conquered people (strategically important, because it enabled a number of countries to surrender without a fight and without losing face.)  He eventually compromised by offering a kiss to whomever would make the prostration (a privilege normally reserved for a Persian King’s kin) thereby rehumanizing himself to them.


But the Babylonians had not, at this point conquered any Greeks.  So far the only people to have a problem with prostrating themselves before this court official was Mordecai.



3) The king’s servants who were at the royal gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” 4) When they had reminded him day after day and he would not listen to them, they informed Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s explanation would prevail, since he had told them that he was a Jew.


COMMENTARY:  So now Mordecai’s out of the closet.  He reached a sticking-point where he could no longer pass for something that he was not.  He had to explain that what they asked of him went against his beliefs, his heritage.


Haven’t we all, Christians and non-Christians here alike, faced this test at some point in our lives?  We fit in for as long as we can, but then something comes up where, in order to continue fitting in, we’d have to deny something important to who we are when all alone, something foundational to our moral core.  And then we’ve got a choice to make.  Does fitting in mean more to us than retaining that key piece of our identity? 


If we give in, we become somebody else.  Sometimes we want that, to shed an identity that no longer feels like us, to assimilate into a different group entirely; I can see the validity of that, in some circumstances.  Heck, the whole idea of Christian conversion is to be born again into a new identity.

But sometimes we only pretend that we want to become somebody else, somebody acceptable to the culture around us.  We convince ourselves that it is for the best, that we have outward advantages to gain for betraying what we once stood for.  Yet if we do that, shed our religion or culture or principles for reasons that have nothing to do with any inner change, we become something hollow, beset with secret pangs of emptiness—because we left behind our core, still attached to the foundation that we abandoned.  We then cannot really enjoy the acceptance of the group, because it’s not actually us who gets accepted—it’s like receiving a kiss on the cheek of a mask.


On the other hand, if we don’t give in, if we retain who we are, we could risk painful social consequences, maybe physical, political or financial consequences as well, and sometimes we must even lay our lives upon the line.  But sometimes we have to decide that it is better to die as ourselves than to “live” as an empty mask.  Only an authentic life is worth living.


And often it turns out not as bad as we feared.  We lose the acceptance of those who liked us shallowly, but gain the respect and love of new friends who value us to the core.  We might lose financial or political opportunities, but gain a deep spiritual joy and inner empowerment without which outward gains become like ash anyway.  What we have we enjoy more deeply, because we have the depth that can feel it fully.



5) When Haman observed that Mordecai would not kneel and bow down to him, he was filled with anger.


COMMENTARY:  He has already gotten the explanation, that Mordecai’s culture doesn’t allow this, that it’s nothing personal.  But now he faces Alexander’s dilemma—will others take the failure of one to prostrate himself as giving that person a special dignity above the rest? 

Alexander could pull off making it all better with a kiss; he had the charisma to get away with murder, and besides, he played the “cute” card with cynical abandon, turning his shortness to his advantage.  (It’s historically documented that in persuading people to do what he wanted, he would tilt his head to one side.  For some unknown reason this gesture triggers an instinctive response among human beings to regard the person doing it as cute and therefore maybe deserving the indulgence that one would extend to one’s beloved offspring.)

We may assume that Haman was not cute, and probably neither was Mordecai. And anyway, Haman’s not even thinking of strategy—he’s angry.  It’s all about emotion.  He feels disrespected.  Something had to give.



6) But he thought it was beneath him to attack only Mordecai. Since they had told Haman of Mordecai’s nationality, he sought to destroy all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the realm of King Ahasuerus.


COMMENTARY:  This is the point when one crosses over into bigotry—when one holds an entire group responsible for the deeds of one or some.  It is also a way to display ungodly power—to see how many people you can punish for a single offense.



7) In the first month, Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, the pur, or lot, was cast in Haman’s presence to determine the day and the month for the destruction of Mordecai’s people on a single day, and the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar.


COMMENTARY:  The writer preserved the Akkadian word, “pur” here as an explanation for the name of the holiday, “Purim” that celebrates the eventual outcome of the Book of Esther.



8) Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus: “Dispersed among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, there is a certain people living apart. Their laws differ from those of every other people and they do not obey the laws of the king; so it is not proper for the king to tolerate them.


COMMENTARY:  Thus he changes the spin on Mordecai’s choice, from “I will obey the King in everything that does not violate the higher law of God,” to “Jews don’t obey kings.”  One could make a case that, technically, Haman has it right—Mordecai does, in this instance, disobey the King, at least in this one matter of protocol.  But there is nothing so true that you cannot make it false by exaggeration.  Haman makes it sound as if all Jews are a lawless people dangerous to the state as a whole.



9) If it please the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them; and I will deliver to the procurators ten thousand silver talents for deposit in the royal treasury.”


COMMENTARY:  A bribe.  This gives a clue as to why Haman has such a powerful place in the court of Ahasuerus.  Because, as we’ve seen in the first chapter, Ahasuerus is an out of control spendthrift!  If he was really as wealthy as he liked to tell everyone, showing off his gold couches and jeweled floors, a bribe wouldn’t faze him.



10) The king took the signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews.


COMMENTARY:  All Kings, as well as other persons of importance, in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, going back to the beginnings of history and continuing in some places to the present, had a family signet ring or cylinder seal, incised with an intaglio of symbols representing that family.  One signed a statement by either impressing this in clay or a wax seal, or using it with ink as a stamp.  Men have fought wars of succession over who gets the royal seal and therefore with it the authority to sign executive orders.

By handing this ring to Haman, Ahasuerus declares that any order that Haman seals with that ring should be regarded as having the same authority as if Ahasuerus had commanded it himself.  Haman has reached a very powerful position in the court indeed!



11The king said to Haman, “The silver is yours, as well as the people, to do with as you please.”


COMMENTARY:  This is a smooth bit of politicking.  He seems to refuse the bribe, but in fact they both understand that “to do with as you please” means “Why yes, if you happen to feel like putting all that silver into my treasury, who am I to stop you?”  And the sign that the bribe has been accepted is that now Ahasuerus tells Haman that the people are also his, to do with as he pleases.  The King has essentially sold his people to a man who can finance his extravagant lifestyle.



12) So the royal scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and they wrote, at the dictation of Haman, an order to the royal satraps, the governors of every province, and the officials of every people, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language. It was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the royal signet ring.


COMMENTARY:  And here we see the usefulness of a signet-ring—a way to mass-produce a signature on an order that has to go to many people in many languages.



13) Letters were sent by couriers to all the royal provinces, to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, including women and children in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, and to seize their goods as spoil.


COMMENTARY:  Because genocide becomes much more appealing when the people performing it profit by it.


Now we depart from the Hebrew text to go into the Deuterocanonical Greek:


1) This is a copy of the letter:

“The great King Ahasuerus writes to the satraps of the hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia, and the governors subordinate to them, as follows:


COMMENTARY:  It’s possible that this letter might have circulated around separately from the original telling, and later got added in as a corroboration.  Or it might have been cut from some Hebrew versions that have not survived.  We don’t know.



2) When I came to rule many peoples and to hold sway over the whole world, not being carried away by a sense of my own authority but always acting fairly and with mildness, I determined to provide for my subjects a life of lasting tranquility; and, by making my kingdom civilized and safe for travel to its farthest borders, to restore the peace desired by all people.


COMMENTARY:  We’ve already seen that this doesn’t really describe Ahasuerus’s personality.  But no one can rule large numbers of people without at least a fiction that the ruler does so for the people’s benefit.  Subjects outnumber kings.  History is full of fallen tyrants who forgot this essential fact.



3) When I consulted my counselors as to how this might be accomplished, Haman, who excels among us in discretion, who is outstanding for constant good will and steadfast loyalty, and who has gained a place in the kingdom second only to me,


COMMENTARY:  And who bankrolls the King’s high-maintenance lifestyle,



4) brought it to our attention that, mixed among all the nations throughout the world, there is one people of ill will, which by its laws is opposed to every other people and continually disregards the decrees of kings, so that the unity of empire blamelessly designed by us cannot be established.


COMMENTARY:  So one man’s refusal to make a gesture of worship to a mortal has become an entire people “continually” disregarding the “decrees of kings” plural.  Ahasuerus feels compelled to exaggerate even Haman’s exaggeration, because people can’t stomach genocide without some really steep rationalizations.  And if people ask, “If they’ve been disobeying kings right and left for as long as all that, how come nobody noticed till now?” Ahasuerus can claim to be smarter than all of his predecessors.



5) “Having noted, therefore, that this nation, and it alone, is continually at variance with all people, lives by divergent and alien laws, is inimical to our government, and does all the harm it can to undermine the stability of the kingdom,


COMMENTARY:  And the exaggeration goes even deeper into the realm of frank untruth:  The Jewish people now are allegedly out to do all the harm they can to the kingdom.  So it has escalated from allegations of lawlessness to accusations of active malice.  Now we’re not talking about human beings anymore, but incomprehensible monsters.

These same charges have come up against Jews throughout a tragic history of pogroms, murders, crushing restrictions and ultimately the Holocaust.  “They are different.  Their customs are at variance with ours.  They refuse to assimilate.  Since they are not one with us, we don’t have to extend them any empathy.  And because they’re so much not like us, they must be up to no good.”


And it doesn’t just happen to Jews.  Any rumor that any group is out to collectively do immoral things without even a comprehensible motive, out of some alien kind of monstrosity that real human beings cannot and should not fathom, then that rumor has blown in on the ash-stained winds of the Holocaust.  It is the same evil spirit that whispers it, over and over, to people who stand to profit from it.


We here the whispers of that noxious wind today.  Liberals hear it against conservatives, and conservatives against liberals  (just last month, in fact, when I asked people on my wall to share what they based their morality on, one young man wrote, “Don’t be liberal”.)  We hear it against other religions, whom we see as out to destroy us for no other reason than “being evil” and against people from other countries, who supposedly only cross the border in order to commit crimes.  We readily believe that anyone not of our pack must have bizarre and horrible appetites for the destruction of others.

Worst of all, in my own Christian community, are people who warp the very Bible itself into endorsing such an unnatural view of humanity.  They take scriptures that acknowledge the reality that none of us are perfect (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”) and exaggerate it to the belief that all human beings are basically orcs unless they belong not just to our religion, but to our specific branch of it.


Resist this madness.



6) we hereby decree that all those who are indicated to you in the letters of Haman, who is in charge of the administration and is a second father to us, shall, together with their wives and children, be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without any pity or mercy, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of the current year;


COMMENTARY:  “Without pity or mercy.”  It has to be ordered.  The malice that we believe so readily about people not like ourselves does not come as automatically as we’d like to tell ourselves.  Pity and mercy come naturally to almost all of us.



7) so that when these people, whose present ill will is of long standing, have gone down into Hades by a violent death on a single day, they may leave our government completely stable and undisturbed for the future.”


COMMENTARY:  And the letter concludes with the justification—this atrocity needs done in order to keep the nation safe.  The same lie comes up, over and over, throughout history.  National security demands that we banish mercy from our hearts.  We must keep our children safe by killing theirs, or allowing them to die.  We must throw our own rules of behavior out the window when it comes to outsiders, because they are monsters and we are good.  But if you frighten people enough, the rational part of the brain switches off, and they will believe whatever you want them to, so long as you assure them that faith in you will keep them safe.



Chapter 3 of the Hebrew text continues.


14) A copy of the decree to be promulgated as law in every province was published to all the peoples, that they might be prepared for that day.


COMMENTARY:  Wouldn’t that warn the Jews to rally and fight back?  Not when they’re scattered and outnumbered.  Rally with whom?  Where?  Around what?  They didn’t even have a homeland anymore.

It might alert many to try and flee the empire, but six million Jews in Europe, in the 1940’s found that logistically impossible for the majority, even in the days of cars, airplanes and transoceanic ships.  In the days of roads that didn’t connect with each other, with only animal transportation and that for only a few, it was hopeless.



15) The couriers set out in haste at the king’s command; meanwhile, the decree was promulgated in the royal precinct of Susa. The king and Haman then sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.


COMMENTARY:  The second sentence exists to underline that Ahasuerus was indeed an irresponsible party-boy, carousing while his capitol falls into confusion by his drinking-buddy’s order.  But hey, as long as Hamon’s buying the wine...

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