The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #07: The Attempted Rebellion Against the King, and the
Promotion of Haman
By Rav Yonatan Grossman
conspiracy of two of the king's chamberlains, and its disclosure by Mordekhai,
is described in three brief verses (2:21-23). In contrast to the style of the text
thus far, which has been characterized by flamboyant descriptions of the royal
palace and its customs, this event is recorded in terse form:
those days, and Mordekhai sat at the king's gate, Bigtan and Teresh – two of the
king's chamberlains, among those who kept the door – grew disaffected and sought
to lay hand on King Achashverosh.
The matter became known to Mordekhai, and he related it to Queen Esther,
and Esther told the king, in Mordekhai's name. Then the matter was investigated and
found out, and the two of them were hanged on a tree, and it was written in the
book of chronicles before the king."
extreme brevity leaves us with several unanswered questions, on even the most
basic level of understanding:
Why did Bigtan and Teresh want to assassinate Achashverosh? Was this part
of a broader attempt at rebellion, they perhaps being agents meant to carry it
out (since they were keepers of the door), or was this a momentary caprice of
the two chamberlains alone?
b. How did the matter become known to
Mordekhai? Was there an attempt to involve him in the rebellion? Did he hear of
Why does Mordekhai decide to save the king? Is this an act of simple
loyalty to the king, or does Mordekhai have other, hidden motives?
Why does Mordekhai choose to inform the king via Esther? Since the
narrator has already noted that Mordekhai "sat at the king's gate," the reader
understands that he had some official status in the royal court; it is
reasonable to assume that he could have approached the king through official,
formal channels, rather than via the king's wife.
Finally, how is it possible that the king offers Mordekhai no suitable
reward for having saved him from death?
these questions pique our interest, the narrator leaves them unanswered, and we
can only conclude that the significance of this unit pertains to what it does
say, and not to the information that has been omitted - which, apparently, plays
no role in the development of the plot.
The brief description of this episode leads us to the clear conclusion
that what is important for the reader is that which we are told explicitly: that
Mordekhai's saving of the king is recorded in the king's book of
chronicles. As we know, this fact
is of significance later in the plot, along with the fact that it was not
Mordekhai himself who revealed the conspiracy to the king, but rather Esther,
and therefore it is possible that not all of the royal court were aware that
Mordekhai was involved in obstructing the rebellion of the chamberlains.
any event, it is specifically in view of the extreme conciseness of the scene
that the use of the passive form is so prominent: "The matter became known,"
"The matter was investigated," "It was found out," "Were hanged," "Was
written." This form of writing is
well suited to a scene in which the narrator wishes to skip the details. He hints to the readers, as it were,
that it does not matter who was involved, or who did what; what is important is
the final outcome – "It was found out," "They were hanged," "It was written." At
the same time, this sort of writing leaves a psychological impression with
regard to the consciousness of the characters involved: to what extent to they
themselves understand the significance of their actions? Perhaps the most
important result arising from this scene is concealed from them, too, and they
will also encounter the hidden results of their actions, together with the
reader – only later on.
scene is interesting particularly against the background of the preceding
one. Just prior to the attempted
rebellion, we are told: "Esther did not divulge her descent and her people, as
Mordekhai had commanded her; and Esther obeyed Mordekhai's word, as she had when
she was in his care (2:20)." We have already noted that this is meant as a
slight dig at the king, since Esther obeys Mordekhai's word, despite the
explicit law legislated by the king – "That each man should rule in his own
house." In describing the special
and secret relationship between Mordekhai and Esther, we sense a very slight
nuance of rebellion, of political tensions: who is loyal to the king, and who is
building himself a personal band of loyalists? And now, against the backdrop of
that sensation, it immediately turns out that it is specifically this secret
connection between Mordekhai and Esther that saves the king from the attempted
rebellion against him. It is
because of Esther's loyalty to Mordekhai, and not only to her husband, the king
(in contravention of the law, as noted), that the king is saved from his
opponents! The juxtaposition of these two images gives rise to one of the
fundamental questions in Esther – the matter of loyalty to the king: the
way in which it is measured, and the way in which it is appreciated.
This subject will continue to simmer beneath the surface throughout the
narrative, at times bursting into the open (starting in chapter 3, with Haman's
words to the king concerning the nation that does not keep the king's laws).
3 starts with a description of Haman's promotion: "After these things, King
Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamedata, the Agagite, and advanced him, and
he placed his seat above all the officers who were with him" (3:1). The sensitive reader, who is prepared to
imbibe the verse slowly, senses the surprise lurking in this verse. As noted previously, the reader expects
the king to reward Mordekhai handsomely for saving him from the chamberlains'
plot. The narrator encourages the
reader to expect such reward, by noting that the incident is recorded in the
book of chronicles before the king (2:22).
Indeed, it seems at first that this is the direction in which the verse
is headed: "After these things…" – i.e., after the revelation of Mordekhai's
loyalty to the king, "King Achashverosh promoted…" – and at this stage the
innocent reader who is not familiar with the continuation of the narrative is
certain that the next words will be, "Mordekhai the Jew, who sat at the king's
gate." Needless to say, he is
astounded to discover that it is not Mordekhai who is promoted by the king, but
rather some other person: "Haman, son of Hamedata, the Agagite."
This surprise is related, of course, to the uniquely ironic structure of
Esther; the reader's expectation of some reward for Mordekhai is realized
in a most unexpected way later on, when it is specifically Haman who delivers
his reward for having saved the king (chapter 6).
special status granted to Haman assumes day-to-day meaning, since "all the
servants of the king who were at the king's gate would bow and prostrate
themselves to Haman" (3:2). Can we
define the significance of Haman's role? Why must everyone bow and prostrate
before him? At the outset of the discussion it should be pointed out that the
position of "second to the king" was a recognized one in ancient times (like
Yosef in Egypt, for example).
According to Persian tradition, this person was called hazārapatis
(meaning "officer of a thousand"), and one was legally obligated to prostrate
oneself before both the king and the second-to-the-king.
the same time it would seem that, at least from the literary perspective, there
seems to be a specific reason why the king feels a need to appoint Haman to this
unit begins with the words, "After these things" (3:1). This is a common introduction in
Tanakh, especially in Sefer Bereishit. It has multi-directional significance:
on one hand, it introduces a new literary unit; on the other hand, it hints that
the new unit should be read against the background of the preceding one. In other words, more than just a
chronological notation - "After the events described thus far" – it means "In
light of these things," or "Against the background of these things." As Amos Chakham puts it: "The words,
'After these things' are meant to connect the events that are about to be
recounted to what was recounted before."
to this introduction, then, we are to interpret what we are told in chapter 3
(concerning the promotion of Haman) in light of the preceding unit – in other
words, in light of Mordekhai having saved Achashverosh from the attempted
It is possible that in light of the attempted rebellion, the king wanted to
appoint a man upon whom he could depend, and to whom he could entrust the task
of ensuring that there would be no repeat of this incident. This renders a very simple reading:
After these things – against the backdrop of the attempted assassination of the
king by his guards – Achashverosh appointed a man whose main job would be "head
of personal security." The
obligation to bow before Haman should be viewed as a symbolic act indicating
that Haman had the right to interrogate any person throughout the kingdom, to
invade the privacy of anyone who sat at the king's gate (in the event of
suspicion), to arrest anyone he deemed necessary, etc.
Haman, Son of Hamedata,
Haman's exact historical role was, it appears that by means of the appellation
attached to his name, the author hints at the essence of his role in this
narrative: he is Haman, son of Hamedata, the Agagite. The title "Agagite" would seem to point
to his family; it is a Persian name (as opposed "Haman" and "Hamedata," which
are Ilmi-Iranian names).
The most widely known identification of these two characters is set out in the
liturgical poem, Asher Hani'a, which is customarily recited after the
reading of Esther on the festival of Purim: "Haman gave voice to his
ancestors' hatred, and passed on the grudge of the fathers to the sons; he did
not remember the mercy of Shaul, for it was through his pity for Agag that the
enemy was born." In this context a clear distinction should be drawn between the
etymological meaning of the name and its literary significance. It is possible that the title "Agagite"
in and of itself is not meant to connect Haman with the descendants of the Agag
who was killed by Shemuel, but it is certainly reasonable to posit that the
author deliberately mentions this title because of its biblical connotations,
thereby hinting at the ancient Amalekite king as the reader encounters
Haman. This literary significance
is supported by other allusions, scattered throughout the text, to Shaul's
battle against Amalek and the replacement of Shaul with David in the wake of his
failure in this battle. (We have
noted some of these allusions in previous shiurim.) Hence, Haman's title
would also appear to contribute towards this connection.
any event, in Esther, Mordekhai – a descendant of Kish (a reminder of
Shaul's father) fights against Haman the Agagite (a reminder of the Amalekite
king). Thus, the battle recounted
here becomes a "second round" in the ancient historical battle, and Amalek is
defeated, once again, by the Tribe of Binyamin. It should be noted that this battle
itself is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in our text. The name "Amalek" does not appear even
once, but in keeping with the concealed level of Esther, the slightest of
hints in this regard is sufficient to convey this idea, which does, as we shall
see, play a role in the molding of the story and its significance.
"And placed his seat
above all the officers who were with him"
description of Haman's promotion contains an allusion to another narrative,
thereby imbuing the occasion with a profound historical dimension that whispers
beneath the plain level of the text.
We read: "King Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamedata the Agagite,
and advanced him, and placed his seat above all the officers who were with him"
(3:1). This description is highly
reminiscent of the concluding verses of Sefer Melakhim, in the
description of Yehoyakhin in Babylon: "And it was in the thirty-seventh year of
the exile of Yehoyahkhin, King of Yehuda, in the twelfth month, on the
twenty-seventh day of the month, that Evil-Merodakh, King of Babylon, in the
first year of his reign, advanced Yehoyakhin, King of Yehuda, from prison. And he spoke well with him, and
placed his seat above the seat of the kings who were with him in
Babylon. And he changed his prison
clothes and ate bread regularly with him, all the days of his life. And his allowance was a continual
allowance provided for him by the king, daily portion every day, all the days of
his life" (II Melakhim 25:27-30).
the twelfth month (Adar), the King of Babylon advanced the status of the exiled
king of Yehuda, Yehoyakhin, and placed his seat above the seats of the other
kings who were in Babylon. He also
had his prisoner's clothing changed – apparently for royal garments.
clarify the intention behind this allusion we should first consider the
significance of the concluding unit of Sefer Melakhim. Clearly, there is a special reason and
purpose in ending the book with these verses, since the preceding image is one
of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Tzidkiyahu and his
contemporaries to Babylon. This
would seem to be an appropriate ending for Sefer Melakhim: it presents
the end of Israelite sovereignty, and starts a new era – the period of
exile. In terms of the
chronological continuity of Sefer Melakhim, there is a
considerable jump to the "thirty-seventh year of the exile of Yehoyakhin, King
of Yehuda," when Yehoyakhin's status is upgraded. Clearly, there is a deliberate effort
not to conclude the narrative with a description of the exile, but rather on an
optimistic note, recording that the King of Yehuda is restored to his status, if
not his place in Eretz Yisrael. It seems reasonable to suggest that
beyond the desire to end the narrative on an optimistic note, this also
represents a message to the exiled nation, and to the reader. Yirmiyahu, we recall, prophesied that
the exile would last seventy years.
Here, following just half of that period, Divine Providence signals the
first signs of appeasement. In the
advancement of Yehoyakhin, the reader (like the exiles themselves) should
perceive a glimpse of the beginning of the redemption. It is still too early to speak of a
physical return of the exiles to their land, but their status in Babylon is
improving, and the reader – as he completes the story of the destruction as
recorded in Sefer Melakhim – starts to dream of the re-establishment of
Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. Thus, Sefer Melakhim ends not
with the punishment and exile of Israel, but rather with the message that there
is another period that will eventually come about; even if Sefer Melakhim
does not record it, it hints – through its conclusion – to this future
after the second half of the period of exile is over, and following Cyrus's
declaration, some of the exiles rally behind Sheshbatzar, and afterwards –
Zerubavel, and go up to the land to rebuild its Jewish settlement. However, as we know, may of the exiles
of Yehuda remained in Babylon.
Esther recounts the story of those who chose to remain in exile,
to root themselves in Persia, and even to become part of its institution of
in the veiled allusion to the promotion of Yehoyakhin, the author means to guide
the reader as to the proper interpretation of the promotion of Haman by
Achashverosh. Since the Jews of
Shushan did not obey the prophets' call to return to their land, since they did
not respond to the Divine message of Yehoyakhin being brought out of prison, God
will therefore appoint over them "an evil king like Haman"; He will award
prominence to another man who will remind the Jews of the Diaspora that they are
not in their proper place. This
reading relates to other hints scattered throughout Esther, and the scope
of this shiur does not allow for a full treatment of this complex
subject. In future shiurim
we shall take note of this hidden theme, which runs like an undercurrent through
the narrative as a whole and bursts through the surface at its conclusion.
by Kaeren Fish