Author Leonard Greenspoon
Insomnia, Gallows & Rescuing the Jews
What do they share in common? They are all in a story about a beautiful woman named Esther.
Every year in the spring, Jews gather in synagogues to hear the biblical book of Esther chanted with a special melody. Each time the name of Haman, the story’s villain, is mentioned, the entire congregation stomps their feet and makes noise to blot out the very sound of this infamous individual.
All Jews, young and old, participate in this joyous holiday. Whether they are hearing the Megillah (as the “scroll” of Esther is known) for the first or hundredth time, there is great satisfaction in discovering, just before the book’s characters do, the fate that fittingly awaits Haman.
The tale contained in the book of Esther narrates the marriage of Esther, a Jew, to Ahasuerus, king of Persia. This monarch learns of Esther’s religion only after Haman plots to annihilate the Jews, including Esther and her guardian Mordecai, who (like Haman) serves the king. Among the numerous subplots is the personal hatred that Haman bears for Mordecai, whom he conspires to hang on “a gallows fifty cubits high” (Esth 5:9–14 NIV).
Those familiar with the account know that everything Haman plans against his enemies will ultimately be done to him. Midway through the story (Esth 6:1–11), the king, suffering from insomnia, has his officials read some official state documents to him. (Was he hoping that they would be so boring that he would immediately fall asleep?)
As it happens, the very passage they read told how Mordecai had saved the king from an assassination attempt (compare Esth 2:21–23). It just so happened that Haman was walking by at that very minute and so the king queried him: “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” (Esth 6:6 NIV). The biblical text notes that Haman presumptuously assumes it is he whom the king has in mind when he replies:
“For the man the king delights to honor, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’” (Esth 6:7–9 NIV).
Readers of this biblical book, of course, are already laughing as Haman goes into vivid detail to describe what he is sure is in store for him. “‘Go at once,’ the king commanded Haman. ‘Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended’ ” (Esth 6:10 NIV).
This reversal of fortune is not lost on at least one of the characters in the story itself. Zeresh, Haman’s wife, declares: “[If] Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!” (Esth 6:12 NIV). This is the same Zeresh who only a little while earlier was urging Haman to construct the gallows for Mordecai. We are then not surprised, and even enjoy more than a moment of pleasure, when we learn that it was not Mordecai, but Haman himself, who was hanged on the gallows (Esth 7:9–10). Standing fifty cubits high (approximately 75 feet; the height of a six-story building), this would have constituted a very public execution of the once powerful villain—how the mighty have fallen!
But there is more. King Ahasuerus is portrayed as indifferent and indolent more than as treacherous and tyrannical. His previous wife Vashti was banished because she refused her husband’s demand that she dance before him and his carousing drinking buddies (Esth 1:10–12).
Thus it is supremely ironic that what actually brought Haman down was a misperception on the king’s part: after Esther reveals that she would be a victim of Haman’s plot, along with all the rest of her people, the king momentarily left the room. (To take in the just revealed fact that Esther was Jewish? To consider how to conceal from Esther how deeply he himself was implicated in the plot?) In a last-ditch attempt to beg for his life from Queen Esther, Haman as supplicant threw himself “on the couch where Esther was reclining”—which Ahasuerus took as an effort at sexual assault on the part of Haman (Esth 7:8).
In short, Haman was judged worthy of execution by the king for the one crime he didn’t commit. As for the Jews, they were saved. Mordecai was promoted, and, we suppose, Esther and Ahasuerus lived happily ever after.
Two thoughts immediately come to mind, and they can both aptly be applied to Haman and also to the more laudatory characters in the Book of Esther. First are the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2 to: “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (NIV). Second, the familiar adage, undoubtedly based on the words and thoughts of the Book of Proverbs: “Man proposes, God disposes.” Such messages, serious ones to be sure, nonetheless can bring a knowing chuckle to those who fully comprehend that there is nothing capricious in such reversals of fortune.
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