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The Queen You Thought You Knew
Video 3 of 6
“If it’s good for the king, let the king and Haman come today to a party that I have made for him…”… (Esther 5:4)
Him, who? What does she even mean by that? There are only two possibilities, really – and if you were Achashverosh, really neither of those possibilities is especially appealing.
Possibility #1 is that Esther is making the banquet for Achashverosh, that’s the him that’s she’s talking about. But if that’s the case, what’s she doing, inviting Haman to interrupt a private dinner for two?
The other, of course, is that the him is Haman. But that’s possibility is even worse, because, why is she making a party for him?
Things only get worse once the banquet actually takes place, because at the feast, the king again asks Esther to tell him what’s on her mind. Up to half the kingdom, he says, one more time, and he’s happy to give it to her.
What’s Esther’s response?
“My request, my petition? Here’s what it is. If I have found favor in the eyes of the king, if it please the king to grant my petition, to perform my request – let the king and Haman come to [another] banquet that I’’ll make for them, and I will do tomorrow as the king has said.” (Esther 5:7-8)
So, whoever the banquet was for the first time, now it’s for them, the king and Haman. What, exactly, does Esther think she’s doing here?
Okay, so Rashi, grandfather of the medieval commentators, he suggests that Esther is insinuating that something might be going on between her and Haman, but that is planting the seed of an exceptionally dangerous idea in the mind of the king. Why is she being so risky? I mean, it has to be because she thinks that she really has no other choice…
Okay, but back to the king. What’s going on in his head? Who is this banquet for? It’s for one of us, me or Haman. Either possibility is bad – but what’s even worse is not knowing which it is, it’s so ambiguous. And as if that weren’t enough, whatever the reality was yesterday, has changed today because in the next banquet it’s for them, it’s for both of us. And then, of course, the final uncertainty: Why am I letting my imagination get the best of me? Why am I making such a big deal over nothing?
It’s no wonder the king can’t sleep that night.
As it turns out, the king is not the only one who can’t sleep that night. Haman had been unable to sleep too. He’s been preoccupied with killing Mordechai, so preoccupied that he shows up at the king’s palace in the middle of the night to ask permission to hang Mordechai. But if Haman is preoccupied with Mordechai, the king is preoccupied with Haman. Why is the queen inviting Haman to all these banquets with me?
As the king lies awake, he asks for the Book of Royal Records to be read to him. And lo and behold, the book opens to a page that reveals a surprise.
Long ago, Mordechai had overheard two palace servants plotting to assassinate Achashverosh. Mordechai foiled the plot. Now, as the king lies awake, he listens as Mordechai’s deeds are retold to him – and asks whether Mordechai was ever rewarded for having saved his life. The servant replies in the negative, and just then, the king perceives that someone is out there, in the dead of night, in the outer courtyard of the palace. He asks who it is, and is informed that it is Haman. Achashverosh asks for Haman to be brought in – and before Haman can say a word about Mordechai, the king preempts him with a request of his own.
“What,” the king wants to know, “should be done with a man that the king wants to honor?”
If the query catches Haman off guard, he doesn’t show it:
Haman said in his heart: “To whom would the king want to bestow greatness and honor more than me?” So Haman said to the king: “The man the king wants to honor? Let them bring royal clothes that the king has worn and a horse that the king has ridden upon and whose head the royal crown has been placed. And let the clothes and the horse be presented [to him] by one of the king’s high ministers, and let them dress the man the king wants to honor in the clothes, and let them parade him through the streets on the horse, and let them call before him: ‘Thus shall be done to the man that the king wishes to honor!’” (Esther 6:7-9)
If you were in the king’s shoes, what would you think of that response by Haman? Look at those words carefully, count how many times the word “king” or “royal” appears in his statements. It’s all “king”; “king”; “king.” If you’re Achashverosh, and you already couldn’t sleep that night because you were worried about the possibility that Haman was after your wife – and then Haman walks into your room and gave you this advice, what would you be thinking?
Not only does he want my wife… he wants my job, too. He wants the crown.
So it’s no surprise that the king responds as he does:
“Quickly – take the horse and the clothes as you’ve just said, and do this all for Mordechai the Jew who sits in the court of the king. Don’t withhold any of the things you’ve spoken about!” (Esther 6:10)
And that’s what happens. Haman leads Mordechai through the streets on the horse, personally conducting a parade of honor for his mortal enemy.The king wants Haman in particular to be the guy who leads around this man-whom-the-king-wants-to-honor. From Achashverosh’s perspective, it’s not such a terrible thing for Haman’s balloon to get deflated a little bit.
By the time Esther’s second banquet rolls around, Haman, all but invincible just a day before, is now vulnerable. The man who was formerly Achashverosh’s closest advisor has, through his own words and Esther’s actions, come under the suspicion of the king. As the table is set and the wine poured for her second banquet, it is up to Esther to seize the moment, without getting herself killed in the process.
Let’s shift to Esther’s perspective. She is beset by two major challenges and she really has to find a way to deal with each. First, there’s her “Mother Persia” liability: should she reveal her nationality, the “girl from nowhere” risks being seen as a charlatan by the king, or even worse, a traitor. Second, above and beyond that, she has planted the suspicion of adultery. If the first liability would make her a traitor on the national stage, the second would make her a traitor on the private stage. To some extent, Esther is battling these two liabilities as much – or more – than she is battling Haman himself.
But as overwhelming as these liabilities might seem, Esther is not doomed to succumb to them. Indeed, to draw an analogy from martial arts, a weak combatant is not always destined to lose the fight. With the right technique, he or she can still win. Using finely honed techniques, weaker fighters can indeed defeat opponents who possess much more brute force than they do. Virtually all martial arts systems advocate some variation of the same basic strategy, which is basically this: Don’t pit your strength against the strength of your opponent. Instead, find a way to use your opponent’s own strength to bring about their downfall.
Watch the way a student of karate defends himself against an attacker. If a punch is thrown his way, he doesn’t thrust his palm forward to meet his opponent’s fist head-on. If he did that, he’d directly confront his opponent’s power, and if he were the weaker one, he’d lose. Instead, he moves his arm at an angle, slightly diverting, rather than stopping, the force of the blow. And, as the opponent’s strikes nothing but air, he staggers forward and is actually thrown off-balance. The next move of the weaker guy over here is just to push the opponent lightly on the side, sort of gently diverting his force just a bit more so that little nudge is enough to knock him off his feet.
If Esther is to avoid getting squashed by the liabilities she faces, somehow, she’s gotta just get out of the way, and gently divert the force of the substantial power arrayed against her. In other words, she must take the king’s fear that she is involved in an illicit relationship, and the king’s anticipated anger at the discovery that she is not the “Mother Persia” he hoped her to be – and divert these very forces so that they work in her favor, not against her. How is she supposed to do that? That’s what we need to examine next. I’ll see you in the next video.
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