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The Queen You Thought You Knew
Video 5 of 6
To fully appreciate the power, even now, of Haman’s position, we must go back and revisit a question we raised earlier. When Haman initially went to Achashverosh for license to exterminate the Jews, he chose to lodge three apparently disconnected complaints against them:
The Jews are dispersed
Their laws are different from others
The Jews don’t keep the king’s laws
Now, we argued that the first two complaints seemed kind of irrelevant: What does the king care whether the Jews are scattered, and what does he care whether or not they cling to a set of quaint, provincial customs?
In truth, Haman’s third charge, if true, would seem to demand a response on the part of the empire. If the Jews are really flaunting the king’s laws, the crown can’t rationally tolerate the situation; the Jews simply must be destroyed, or at least subdued. But for some reason, Haman takes a much milder position on the imperative of doing away with the Jews. He tells Achashverosh that it’s not worth it for the king to let them be, that’s the language of the verse. Now, why would Haman pull his rhetorical punch like this? If he wants to do away with the Jews, and is making the claim that they are lawbreakers, then shouldn’t he follow through by arguing that the king cannot afford to let them be?
The answer to all of that is that we’ve actually kind of misunderstood Haman. He wasn’t really making three separate complaints against the Jews. He was making a single, unified complaint – a complaint that had three parts and was actually built on three interlocking premises. Indeed, if you add up the three premises, the conclusion – that it’s just not worth it for the king to let the Jews be – becomes self-evident.
What, exactly, was that larger argument? Let’s piece the premises together and watch it unfold.
Haman starts his case this way:
“There is a certain nation that is scattered and dispersed throughout the other nations…” (Esther 3:8)
Notice how the word “nation” there appears at both the beginning and the end of that sentence: a certain nation that’s scattered throughout the other nations. What’s the implication? Nations, by definition, have boundaries; this one’s here, and that one’s there. They are separate from one another geographically. But not this nation – this one is scattered all over the place.
“And their laws are distinct from other nations…” (Ibid.)
When you stop to think about it, what makes any nation, a “nation”? What are the bare bones requirements for nationhood? Seemingly, it’s land and a system of governance. Everything else – distinct language, a sophisticated culture, accents, tourist attractions – all that’s nice, but it’s gravy. The essentials are land and laws.
Okay, so what about the Jews? It turns out that the Jews are different from all the other hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the king’s empire. They may have laws. But they don’t have any land. At least, they don’t anymore.
Haman is referring obliquely to a very recent development. Just a couple of generations before Haman emerged on the scene, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and sent its tribes into exile. The Southern Kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, managed to persist a little while longer. But then they, too, fell to outside conquest. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded, conquered Jerusalem, burnt the Temple to the ground, exiled the inhabitants. For all intents and purposes, Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel had come to an end.
It seemed as though Jewish nationhood was over... Except, somebody forgot to tell the Jews.
And that’s Haman’s complaint.
Somehow, even though they’re scattered, these guys have the audacity to maintain laws of their own. They are acting as if they are still a self-respecting people among the family of nations. Don’t they get it? Give it up already; assimilate, disappear into your host culture – like anyone else who’s been conquered and dispersed!
They are a paradox, these Jews, a living oxymoron – a nation scattered among other nations.
And plus, they don’t even keep the king’s laws. All the other nations in the empire, they might have their own laws – but they also have allegiance to the crown, and they keep the king’s laws, too. But not the Jews, or, at least, not Mordechai. The king says you’ve got to bow whenever I come out in my motorcade –- well, you’ve got to bow. But these landless Jews, they just don’t bow. It’s really the not bowing to Haman that’s the great example of the Jews not keeping the king’s laws. So these Jews, they’re are living here in Persia, under our good graces – but seem to exist in their own, deluded reality as a separate nation. You know, it’s just not worth it for the king to keep them around…
That’s the argument Haman made to Achashverosh, when he first asked for them to be exterminated, these Jews. And now, months later, at Esther’s banquet – while the king paces in the garden, everything once again rides on that argument, and on whether Haman can yet breathe life back into it.
Haman is in a difficult spot, but not an impossible one. If he can once again portray the Jews as a deluded band of refugees, he can still turn the tables. And of course, he can make a little exception for Esther. What if he said this:
“Look, King, Esther is our queen; she’s not like the rest of those lawbreakers, the Jews. This was all a misunderstanding! No one was trying to hurt your queen. And look, as for her former compatriots, the Jews – well, what has to happen to them is certainly unfortunate, but sometimes the good of the empire demands some painful sacrifices. Surely Esther, our queen, knows that better than anyone.”
The truth is that Haman could have buttressed his case by actually talking to Esther before the king ever returned. What if he had said this to Esther while the king was out of the room - Esther, whatever you do, please don’t cast your lot in with those miserable refugees and their pitiful national aspirations. I’m saying this for your sake, Esther. After all, you are Mother Persia. You don’t want the king to start thinking, whose queen is she – ours, or theirs?”
You know, if you were Esther, just how uncomfortable would you feel now?
Let’s pick up the trail of the actual story the Megillah tells. The king arrives back in the banquet hall, and at that moment something happens that dramatically turns the tide.
The king returned from the garden to the banquet hall, and Haman had fallen on the couch upon which Esther was [seated]. The king declared: “Would you even conquer the queen while I am yet in the house!” The words [just] came out of the king’s mouth, and they covered Haman’s face. (Esther 7:8)
The king boldly and suddenly accuses Haman of trying to seduce his wife while he is still in the house. If you think about those words, they seem utterly preposterous. After everything Esther has told him, does he really think Haman is trying to seduce her? Hasn’t Esther made it abundantly clear that Haman is her mortal enemy, that she despises him, wants him dead, and the feeling is probably mutual?
The text of the Megillah nudges us in the direction of an answer. Right after the king’s startling words about seducing the queen, the narrator adds the phrase: …the words [just] slipped out of the king’s mouth… What does this phrase add, the words just slipped out? It means he spoke without thinking. When you speak without thinking, your subconscious mind, your imaginings, start doing the talking.
For an entire day, the king had wondered whether Haman was romantically involved with his wife, but at the banquet, Esther had suddenly suggested that he wants to kill her. But, as we noted above, in the larger picture, she didn’t really contradict the king’s fears; she actually affirmed the general direction of the king’s suspicion: He’s trying to take me away from you. Now that the king sees Haman on the couch, his suspicion reignites – and as absurd as it may seem, he accuses Haman of seducing his wife. In the end, for the king, it’s really all the same: He’s trying to take her away from me.
And when the king declares that Haman is trying to seduce her while he’s still in the house, the verb he uses, listen to it, is lichvosh, that’s typically a military term that literally means “to conquer.” The euphemism Achashverosh chooses for his fantastical supposition of marital infidelity is borrowed from the very real threat that Haman actually does pose – the threat that he might kill and conquer both the queen and her people. It all makes perfect sense – if not to the rational mind, then to the irrational one.To the rational mind, once Esther reveals that Haman is trying to kill her, Haman on the couch with her means nothing. But to the irrational mind, when the words just slip right out – then, Haman on the couch means everything. I was right all along. He really does want to take her away from me.
That’s enough for Achashverosh, and with a wave of his hand, the king declares that Haman should be taken away – hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordechai. It is undoubtedly a moment for Esther. Her nemesis, and the mortal enemy of the Jews, is undone. Once Haman’s dead, the king puts the finishing touches on the celebrations by bestowing gifts upon her and Mordechai. Everybody’s smiling, and all looks wonderful. One would expect that in a few verses, the Megillah would draw to a close.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Haman’s dead, but his decree is still on the books. So there’s a last act to the megillah, an act that I address in the book The Queen You Thought You Knew. I suggest you look at it and how the end of the megillah plays out, how Esther, having killed her nemesis Haman, manages to somehow work against time to somehow work against the decree. In the meantime, though, I want to talk about what we’ve seen thus far.
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