Unraveling Megillat Esther: How the Story was Developed
The book of Esther is an ancient Jewish novel which follows the contours of Persian court tales. It has an intricate plot, with dual heroes, Mordechai and Esther, standing up against the villainous Haman. Nevertheless, a close literary reading suggests that it was built upon two originally independent stories, each of which derived from a genre of oriental romance, and each of which had one protagonist:
- Harem Intrigue (Esther) – The replacement of the ruling queen with a competitor.
- Court Intrigue (Mordechai) – The replacement of the vizier with a competitor.
Before we underline some of the seams in the current version, we will begin by summarizing each story independently.
The Harem Story: Esther and the Plot to Wipe out Her People
During the great festivities given by King Ahasuerus for the people of the empire, the ruling queen (Vashti) refuses to appear and display her beauty (1:12). She is then removed from her position as queen, and after a thorough search that includes the gathering of virgins throughout the king’s territories, she is replaced by a beautiful girl, Esther (2:17).
Meanwhile, the vizier, Haman, has concocted a plot to wipe out the Jews, whom he despises, since they act differently from other Persian subjects (3:8). Esther steps in (neither Haman nor Ahasuerus realize she is a Jew) and invites the king and the vizier to a party (5:4).
Drunk with love and wine, the king asks Esther what is on her mind, and in response, she breaks down crying and tells the king that Haman is plotting to kill her people (7:4-6). The king is furious, and while he is out fuming, Haman drops on Esther’s couch to beg for mercy. The king returns and sees what looks like an attempted sexual assault on the queen and lashes out (7:7-8). Haman is defeated and subsequently impaled (7:10).
The Court Story: A Power Play between Haman and Mordechai
This account narrates the struggle between the king’s highest minister (Haman) and one of his minor courtiers (Mordechai), who will not acknowledge Haman’s superiority and who eventually gets the upper hand.
Before Haman’s rise, Mordechai overhears two conspirators plotting to kill the king. He informs on them and they are put to death (2:21-23), but the king forgets about Mordechai’s involvement (possibly because he was in the midst of gathering women for his harem).Instead, the king promotes a man named Haman (3:1). Offended, Mordechai won’t recognize Haman’s authority and refuses “to kneel or bow” to him (3:2). Furious (3:5), Haman consults with his wife and friends, and they conclude that he should have Mordechai executed (5:10, 14). Haman prepares the stake and heads off to the palace to make the official request (6:4).
That night, when the king cannot sleep, he has his chronicles read to him and hears the story of Mordechai’s saving him from assassination (6:1-3). Acknowledging his former ingratitude, the king orders Haman – who “happened” to come to the king’s court (the reader knows why) – to lead Mordechai on the king’s horse and proclaim before him: “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor” (6:11). Haman does so, feeling humiliated (6:12). The King then hears that Haman was planning to have Mordechai impaled, and, ordering this done to Haman instead (7:9), hands over the job of vizier to Mordechai (8:2, 15)—all of which is recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Persia and Media (10:2).
Combining the Plots: The Jewish Element
These two motifs or plotlines—the court story and the harem story—are quite common in the oriental romance tradition. The two plots are combined very effectively, however, by making the two protagonists, Esther and Mordechai, cousins, and by placing the Mordechai vs. Haman account in a Jewish context. This new context is enhanced (perhaps in an even later redaction) by making Mordechai a Benjaminite from the family of Saul, while Haman becomes an Amalekite from the family of the last king of Amalek, Agag.
The key bridge between the two stories comes in chapter 4, in which Mordechai informs Esther of Haman’s plot and convinces her to go to the king and plead for her people. This addition allows Mordechai to gain “hero” status for saving the Jews together with Esther, even though Esther is the only one who speaks with the king and convinces him to join the side of the Jews. But this is just one example of many extensive and intricate supplements that were used to artfully combine the stories.
To get a sense of how the editors worked, let’s look at a few examples of how the earlier stories were interwoven and expanded.
Example 1. Haman Hates Jews because of Mordechai
In the current form of the Megillah, Mordechai “explains” to his fellow palace administrators why he won’t bow to Haman, by telling them he is Jewish. Traditional commentaries struggle to make sense of this: why can’t a Jew bow to Haman? Some suggest it is because Haman is an Amalekite; others imagine that Haman was either wearing an idol or believed himself to be a god so that bowing would be a form of forbidden worship.
A similarly odd detail is Haman’s reaction. The Megillah states that Haman finds the idea of avenging himself on Mordechai insufficient (3:6) and decides to annihilate all the Jews throughout the kingdom. This could be explained by Haman’s Amalekite origins, making him one of the primordial enemies of the Jews, or perhaps by some paranoid megalomania.
Yet, despite his plan to annihilate all the Jews in a giant battle scheduled for the 12th month, Haman still moves forward with a specific plan to impale Mordechai on a giant stick in his yard, ostensibly because he just can’t stand watching Mordechai disrespect him anymore (5:9). The odd thing is that the Megillah describes Mordechai sitting in sackcloth and mourning at this point (4:1); this is hardly the image of a defiant subordinate. Even if Mordechai still won’t bow, Haman does not seem to register Mordechai’s mourning and sackcloth.
This set of problems can be explained easily from a critical perspective: the original Mordechai vs. Haman story has nothing to do with Jews. Haman doesn’t want to kill Jews; he wants to kill Mordechai. The scene in which Haman convinces Ahasuerus to allow him to kill the “problematic people” is part of the Esther story, and the reason Haman wishes to do so in that story is, as he says himself (3:8): “these people follow their own laws and they don’t follow the king’s laws.”
In order to connect the Mordechai story to that of Esther, the editors added the section in which Mordechai tells his colleagues that he is a Jew as well as the explanation for Haman’s action (v. 3:6):
ג:ו וַיִּ֣בֶז בְּעֵינָ֗יו לִשְׁלֹ֤חַ יָד֙ בְּמָרְדֳּכַ֣י לְבַדּ֔וֹ כִּֽי הִגִּ֥ידוּ ל֖וֹ אֶת עַ֣ם מָרְדֳּכָ֑י וַיְבַקֵּ֣שׁ הָמָ֗ן לְהַשְׁמִ֧יד אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֛ר בְּכָל מַלְכ֥וּת אֲחַשְׁוֵר֖וֹשׁ עַ֥ם מָרְדֳּכָֽי:
3:6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
This verse attempts to explain Haman’s extreme reaction, but the explanation feels forced. Once the killing of the Jews is removed from the Mordechai story, this problem goes away and we are left with a simple story in which Haman wishes to kill Mordechai.
We can see the textual fingerprints of the original Mordechai story, by noting a classic Wiederaufnahme (resumptive repetition).
ג:ב וְכָל עַבְדֵ֙י הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ כֹּרְעִ֤ים וּמִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִים֙ לְהָמָ֔ן כִּי כֵ֖ן צִוָּה ל֣וֹ הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וּמָ֙רְדֳּכַ֔י לֹ֥א יִכְרַ֖ע וְלֹ֥א יִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶֽה׃ // ג:ה וַיַּ֣רְא הָמָ֔ן כִּי אֵ֣ין מָרְדֳּכַ֔י כֹּרֵ֥עַ וּמִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה ל֑וֹ וַיִּמָּלֵ֥א הָמָ֖ן חֵמָֽה׃
3:2 All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. // 3:5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage.
ה:טb וְכִרְאוֹת֩ הָמָ֙ן אֶֽת מָרְדֳּכַ֜י בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ וְלֹא קָם֙ וְלֹא זָ֣ע מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וַיִּמָּלֵ֥א הָמָ֛ןעַֽל מָרְדֳּכַ֖י חֵמָֽה׃ ה:י וַיִּתְאַפַּ֣ק הָמָ֔ן וַיָּב֖וֹא אֶל בֵּית֑וֹ וַיִּשְׁלַ֛ח וַיָּבֵ֥א אֶת אֹהֲבָ֖יו וְאֶת זֶ֥רֶשׁ אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃ // ה:יד וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לוֹ֩ זֶ֙רֶשׁ אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְכָל אֹֽהֲבָ֗יו יַֽעֲשׂוּ עֵץ֮ גָּבֹ֣הַּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים אַמָּה֒ וּבַבֹּ֣קֶר׀ אֱמֹ֣ר לַמֶּ֗לֶךְ וְיִתְל֤וּ אֶֽת מָרְדֳּכַי֙ עָלָ֔יו // וַיִּיטַ֧ב הַדָּבָ֛ר לִפְנֵ֥י הָמָ֖ן וַיַּ֥עַשׂ הָעֵֽץ׃
5:9b But when Haman saw Mordecai in the palace gate, and he did not rise or even stir on his account, Haman was filled with rage at Mordecai. 5:10 Nevertheless, Haman controlled himself and went home. He sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh, // 5:14 Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Let a stake be put up, fifty cubits high, and in the morning ask the king to have Mordecai impaled on it.”// The proposal pleased Haman, and he had the stake put up.
Verses 3:5 and 5:9b are nearly identical; they are seams between which the editor added material (both from the Esther story and editorial material). Once we remove this material, we see the sequence of the original court story.
Haman notices Mordechai’s defiant behavior, he goes home to seek council with his wife and friends about what to do, and is happy with their answer that he should impale Mordechai publicly on a giant stake. There is nothing here about killing all of Mordechai’s people as there is no need to do so; this is a personal struggle between two men who believe they should be vizier.
Example 2. Esther’s Two Parties
In order to convince Ahasuerus not to allow her people to be slaughtered, Esther throws an intimate party for herself, her husband, and Haman. Surprisingly, when the king lovingly tells her that her any wish will be granted, she invites him and Haman to another party, set for the next day. Did Esther get cold feet? Why wait for the second party?
On a literary level, this could be explained as a way of stretching out the tension. The mystery allows Ahasuerus to begin wondering why Haman was invited to this party. Perhaps this mystery is what keeps him awake that fateful night. This may very well be what the editor was trying for, but nothing in the text says that Ahasuerus was suspicious about Haman or ties his insomnia into uneasiness about the upcoming party. In the simple presentation of Ahasuerus, he is a fool who suspects nothing, thinks nothing of the future, and reacts impulsively in the moment.
Following the two-source model, it seems likely that the two parties are a result of the editor’s need to add the Mordechai material in the middle of the Esther story. The original Esther story contained only one party. The editor simply cut and pasted the opening scene of the one party and used it for both:
ה:ה …וַיָּבֹ֤א הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וְהָמָ֔ן אֶל הַמִּשְׁתֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁר עָשְׂתָ֥ה אֶסְתֵּֽר׃
5:5 …So the king and Haman came to the feast that Esther had prepared.
ה:ו וַיֹּ֙אמֶר הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ לְאֶסְתֵּר֙ בְּמִשְׁתֵּ֣ה הַיַּ֔יִן מַה שְּׁאֵלָתֵ֖ךְ וְיִנָּ֣תֵֽן לָ֑ךְ וּמַה בַּקָּשָׁתֵ֛ךְ עַד חֲצִ֥י הַמַּלְכ֖וּת וְתֵעָֽשׂ׃
5:6 At the wine feast, the king asked Esther, “What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”
ה:ז וַתַּ֥עַן אֶסְתֵּ֖ר וַתֹּאמַ֑ר שְׁאֵלָתִ֖י וּבַקָּשָׁתִֽי׃ ה:ח אִם מָצָ֙אתִי חֵ֜ן בְּעֵינֵ֣י הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ וְאִם עַל הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ ט֔וֹב לָתֵת֙ אֶת שְׁאֵ֣לָתִ֔י וְלַעֲשׂ֖וֹת אֶת בַּקָּשָׁתִ֑י…
5:7 Esther replied, “My wish, my request—5:8 if Your Majesty will do me the favor, if it please Your Majesty to grant my wish and accede to my request…”
ז:א וַיָּבֹ֤א הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וְהָמָ֔ן לִשְׁתּ֖וֹת עִם אֶסְתֵּ֥ר הַמַּלְכָּֽה׃
7:1 So the king and Haman came to feast with Queen Esther.
ז:ב וַיֹּאמֶר֩ הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ לְאֶסְתֵּ֜ר גַּ֣ם בַּיּ֤וֹם הַשֵּׁנִי֙ בְּמִשְׁתֵּ֣ה הַיַּ֔יִן מַה שְּׁאֵלָתֵ֛ךְ אֶסְתֵּ֥ר הַמַּלְכָּ֖ה וְתִנָּ֣תֵֽן לָ֑ךְ וּמַה בַּקָּשָׁתֵ֛ךְ עַד חֲצִ֥י הַמַּלְכ֖וּת וְתֵעָֽשׂ׃
7:2 On the second day, the king again asked Esther at the wine feast, “What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”
ז:ג וַתַּ֙עַן אֶסְתֵּ֤ר הַמַּלְכָּה֙ וַתֹּאמַ֔ר אִם מָצָ֙אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְאִם עַל הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ ט֑וֹב תִּנָּֽתֶן לִ֤י נַפְשִׁי֙ בִּשְׁאֵ֣לָתִ֔י וְעַמִּ֖י בְּבַקָּשָׁתִֽי׃
7:3 Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request…”
In short, because the scene in which the king orders Haman to lead Mordechai around Shushan on his horse must be added into the story before Haman is executed, the final party must be postponed until the next day. Instead of just postponing the party scene, the editors artfully created an earlier party, allowing the dramatic effect of it to give color to Haman’s fall and Ahasuerus’ insomnia. Haman is pictured on a high from the party, giving him the confidence to suggest killing Mordechai, and making his humiliation that much more palpable when he ends up having to honor Mordechai instead of executing him.
Example 3. The Stake in Haman’s Yard
One final example of the editor’s artful combination of the stories is the fortuitous timing of Harbona’s comment to the king that Haman has put up a fifty-cubit stake in his yard upon which to impale Mordechai. In the Megillah, this appears immediately after the king accuses Haman of trying to rape the queen. Considering that an attempt to rape the queen is clearly punishable by death, Harbona’s comment feels like overkill. The rabbis seem to recognize this in the Shoshanat Yaakov prayer, which playfully ends with, “also remember Harbona fondly (וגם את חרבונה זכור לטוב).”
If we assume, however, that Harbona’s comment was not originally part of the Esther account but rather part of the Mordechai account, the comment has much more force to it.
Mordechai and Haman are in the midst of a power struggle. Haman has thus far succeeded and has been lording it over all of his subordinates, making them bow to him. Now, with Haman parading Mordechai around the city shouting honors, the other officials see that the wind is beginning to blow in the other direction.
Harbona takes the opportunity to mention to the king that Haman has actually put up a stake upon which to impale the very man who saved the king’s life. This is certainly problematic behavior, and Harbona’s calculated risk pays off, when the impulsive King Ahasuerus orders Haman impaled upon it himself.
ו:יב וַיָּ֥שָׁב מָרְדֳּכַ֖י אֶל שַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְהָמָן֙ נִדְחַ֣ף אֶל בֵּית֔וֹ אָבֵ֖ל וַחֲפ֥וּי רֹֽאשׁ׃ // ז:ט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר חַ֠רְבוֹנָה אֶחָ֙ד מִן הַסָּרִיסִ֜ים לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ גַּ֣ם הִנֵּה הָעֵ֣ץ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂ֪ה הָמָ֟ן לְֽמָרְדֳּכַ֞י אֲשֶׁ֧ר דִּבֶּר ט֣וֹב עַל הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ עֹמֵד֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הָמָ֔ן גָּבֹ֖הַּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים אַמָּ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ תְּלֻ֥הוּ עָלָֽיו׃
6:12 Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate, while Haman hurried home, his head covered in mourning. // 7:9 Then Harbonah, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “What is more, a stake is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai—the man whose words saved the king.” “Impale him on it!” the king ordered.
Thus, both stories end with Haman impaled, but for different reasons. In the Esther story, it is because Ahasuerus thinks Haman has attempted to rape her; in the Mordechai story, it is because the king learns that Haman was going to have Mordechai executed—an attempt to execute the man who saved the king’s life is suspiciously treasonous behavior.
Connecting the Esther-Mordechai Story to the (Preexisting) Purim Holiday
The final step for the creation of the Megillah was connecting the combined story to the (preexisting) festival of Purim. The name “Purim” is based on the Akkadian word for “lots” (pūrū). Many scholars believe that the holiday originated as a Persian new year celebration, which included the casting of lots as one of the rituals.
The Megillah, however, uses these festival lots in a different way, imagining the lots as having been cast by Haman to determine the most auspicious time to kill the Jews. It was at this stage that verses like 3:7, which explain how the 13th of Adar was chosen as the fateful day, and much of chapters 8-9 were written.
This recast the story of Mordechai and Esther vs. Haman into a story that undergirds the festival calendar. It justified the Persian Jewish community’s celebration of a new year festival by turning it into a Jewish festival. Thus the same process that we can see having occurred for Pesach and Sukkot in the Torah, and Shavuot in Second Temple and Rabbinic literature, occurred for Purim as well.
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March 20, 2016
June 25, 2020
Prof. Sara Japhet is Professor (Emeritus) of Bible at the Hebrew University. She holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the Hebrew University. Among Japhet’s many publications are The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and its Place in Biblical Thought and The Commentary of Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) on Qohelet (with Robert B. Salters).
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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