Why Does Mordechai Not Report the Assassination Plot Directly to Ahasuerus?
Bigtan and Teresh’s Plot to Assassinate Ahasuerus
The second chapter of Esther describes an incident in which Mordechai saves King Ahasuerus’ life:
ב:כא בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם וּמָרְדֳּכַ֖י יֹשֵׁ֣ב בְּשַֽׁעַר־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ קָצַף֩ בִּגְתָ֨ן וָתֶ֜רֶשׁ שְׁנֵֽי־סָרִיסֵ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ מִשֹּׁמְרֵ֣י הַסַּ֔ף וַיְבַקְשׁוּ֙ לִשְׁלֹ֣חַ יָ֔ד בַּמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵֽרֹשׁ: ב:כב וַיִּוָּדַ֤ע הַדָּבָר֙ לְמָרְדֳּכַ֔י וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאֶסְתֵּ֣ר הַמַּלְכָּ֑ה וַתֹּ֧אמֶר אֶסְתֵּ֛ר לַמֶּ֖לֶךְ בְּשֵׁ֥ם מָרְדֳּכָֽי: ב:כג וַיְבֻקַּ֤שׁ הַדָּבָר֙ וַיִּמָּצֵ֔א וַיִּתָּל֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־עֵ֑ץ וַיִּכָּתֵ֗ב בְּסֵ֛פֶר דִּבְרֵ֥י הַיָּמִ֖ים לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ:
2:21 At that time, when Mordecai was sitting in the palace gate, Bigtan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, became angry, and plotted to do away with King Ahasuerus. 2:22 Mordecai learned of it and told it to Queen Esther, and Esther reported it to the king in Mordecai’s name. 2:23 The matter was investigated and found to be so, and the two were impaled on stakes. This was recorded in the book of annals at the instance of the king.
The phrase “Mordechai sits at the palace gate (ישב בשער המלך)” implies that Mordechai was a low-level court official who did have not direct access to the king but who had access to people who had access to the king. Yet, having uncovered the plot against the king, he tells Esther to tell the king rather than informing his superior. This seems like an inexplicable choice, since it risks Esther’s cover, threatening to reveal her Jewishness. This contrasts sharply with Esther 2:20:
אסתר ב:כ אֵ֣ין אֶסְתֵּ֗ר מַגֶּ֤דֶת מֽוֹלַדְתָּהּ֙ וְאֶת־עַמָּ֔הּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ מָרְדֳּכָ֑י…
Esther 2:20 Esther would not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her…
Why would Mordechai needlessly risk Esther’s cover?
R. Moshe Alshich (1508-1593, Safed), in his commentary (ad loc.), suggests that Mordechai wanted to endear Esther to Ahasuerus. Though possible, the text never describes this action as having had that effect. Instead, I want to offer an alternative suggestion, from the best-known case in the ancient world concerning deception, revealing secret conspiracies, and assassination: the assassination of King Sennacherib of Assyria in 681 B.C.E.
The Sons of Sennacherib: A Conflict over Succession
King Sennacherib (Sîn-aḫḫī-erība) was an extremely powerful monarch who ruled over the Assyrian empire for 24 years. He was the second king from his dynasty, son of the powerful usurper, Sargon (Šarru-kinu) II. In 694 BCE, his eldest son and heir to his throne, Aššur-nādin-šumi, who had been ruling Babylon as a vassal state, was captured and sent to Elam as a prisoner, and most probably executed.
Choosing Esarhaddon as Heir to the Throne
Despite Arda-Mullissi being the son next in line, Sennacherib favored his youngest son, Esarhaddon (Aššur-aḫu-iddin), and named him heir. It is not known why the youngest son was chosen, though it is thought that the influence of his mother, Naq’ia, in the court had much to do with it. (It doesn’t only happen in the Bible!) Esarhaddon was very young, and Arda-Mullissi was the more popular person in the royal court. Sennacherib tried to bolster his favored son with a public oath ceremony and a new name, Aššur-etel-ilāni-mukīn-apli, meaning, “Ashur, prince of the gods, is establishing an heir.”
Nevertheless, the two sons were at odds with each other, and Arda-Mullissi even accused Esarhaddon of treachery (ironic considering what happened next). Sennacherib sent his beloved son Esarhaddon to live away from court, possibly to protect him from his brother, but also because of the accusations of treachery. This protected Esarhaddon from his brother, but it did not save Sennacherib himself. Three ancient sources tell us that Sennacherib was assassinated by his own sons, and two of these sources directly implicate Arda-Mullissi.
The Babylonian Chronicle (1:3, ln. 34), an ancient text cataloguing key events that occurred throughout Babylonian history, writes:
On the twentieth day of the month of Ṭebētu, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, was killed by his son in a rebellion.
The Babylonian Chronicle does not name the (single) assassin, though the book of Kings does:
מלכים ב יט:לז וַיְהִי֩ ה֨וּא מִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֜ה בֵּ֣ית׀ נִסְרֹ֣ךְ אֱלֹהָ֗יו וְֽאַדְרַמֶּ֨לֶךְ וְשַׂרְאֶ֤צֶר בָּנָיו֙ הִכֻּ֣הוּ בַחֶ֔רֶב וְהֵ֥מָּה נִמְלְט֖וּ אֶ֣רֶץ אֲרָרָ֑ט וַיִּמְלֹ֛ךְ אֵֽסַר־חַדֹּ֥ן בְּנ֖וֹ תַּחְתָּֽיו:
2 Kings 19:37 While he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech (=a corruption of Arda-Mullissi) and Sarezer struck him down with the sword. They fled to the land of Ararat (Asia Minor), and his son Esarhaddon succeeded him as king.
Berossus, a Babylonian historian writing in Greek (3rd cent. BCE), whose work has been lost but fragments of which have been preserved in quotes by other authors, confirms the outlines of this story:
[Sennacherib] was assassinated by his son Adremelos (=Arda-Mullissi), but Axerdis (=Esarhaddon), his brother by the same father but not by the same mother, [in turn] killed him (=Arda-Mullissi).
Berossus’ pithy line ignores the events that occurred subsequent to the assassination, in which the supporting troops of both sons fought. Esarhaddon was triumphant in this battle and became the king of Assyria in his father’s stead.
The Failed Warning
In a broken cuneiform tablet (ABL 1091) written in Akkadian, Finnish Assyriologist Simo Parpola (b. 1943) uncovered a part of the assassination account that was previously unknown.An official in Sennacherib’s court got wind of what was about to occur and decided to report Arda-Mullissi’s plot to the king. The tablet is broken at the beginning and the end and even the middle has some indecipherable signs. Here is Parpola’s reading of some of these middle lines:
When they heard about the [tre]aty of rebellion which […], one o[f them] ap[pealed] to the king before… Nabû-šuma-iškun and Si[llaya] came and que[tioned him]: “[What] is your appeal to the king ab[out]?” He (answered): “It is about Arda-[Mullissi].” Th[ey covered] his face with his cloak and made him stand before Arda-Mul[lissi himself], saying: “Look! [Your appeal] is being granted, say it with your own mouth.” He said: “Your son Arda-[Mullissi] will kill you.” They uncovered [his] face, and after Arda-Mu[llissi] had interrogated him, th[ey] …for hi[m] and his brothers.
Blindfolded and Brought to the Wrong Person
Though uncertain, this is likely what the text is describing. One of the officials who learned of the plot approached two high level courtiers, Nabû-šuma-iškun and Sillaya, with a request to speak with the king. These courtiers appear to have been in on the plot, and when they learn that the official wishes to speak to the king about Arda-Mullissi, they trick him. They blindfold the official, which was not out of the ordinary. As Parpola writes, “ordinary people were not permitted to look at the king face to face.”
Once the official is blindfolded, they tell him that they are taking him to the king, but instead, they really take him to Arda-Mullissi himself. Thus, the official ends up blurting out in plain language that Arda-Mullussi is plotting to kill the king to none other than Arda-Mullissi. The conspirators then remove the blindfold, and the official realizes the jig is up. Arda-Mullissi interrogates the official and ostensibly he (and his family? coworkers?) is put to death.
The rest of the tablet is even more difficult to understand, but it seems to imply that other officials who knew of the plot tried to warn a high official in Sennacherib’s court, Nabû-aha-ereš, and then Sennacherib himself, but to no avail. The conclusion of the tablet is broken, but we know the end from other sources: Arda-Mullissi assassinated his father.
The Danger of Reporting an Assassination
Two elements in this account are significant for our understanding of the Megillah’s Bigtan and Teresh story. 
- The Blindfold – One key feature is the blindfold. It was forbidden for low officials to look upon the king, and thus, they could not know for certain whether they indeed were speaking with the king.
- Co-conspirators – Assassins rarely act alone. The official who got wind of Arda-Mullissi’s rebellion accidentally revealed his knowledge of the plot to Arda-Mullissi’s co-conspirators. Consequently, instead of saving the king, he succeeded only in getting himself, and perhaps his family and friends, killed.
Telling Esther was the Safest Option
This brings us back to the story in the Megillah. Once Mordechai gets wind of the plot, whom should he inform? As a low official, he could not speak to the king without the consent of a higher official, and it is not clear whether he could even “see” the king anyway. (Persian monarchs acted like Assyrian monarchs in many regards, perhaps this one as well.) It is not impossible that the story of famous King Sennacherib was still known to the authors of the Megillah in the Persian period and influenced the portrayal of Mordechai’s actions in the story.
How could Mordechai turn to an official, when that official could be part of the conspiracy? For this reason, Mordechai turns to Esther, since he could be sure of Esther’s loyalty to both him and to the king. Moreover, Esther, as queen, would likely have enough influence to convince Ahasuerus to take the threat seriously, as indeed happens. Mordechai’s intervention, thus, ends in success. Unlike Sennacherib, in the Megillahstory, Ahasuerus is not assassinated and the conspirators are caught and executed.
The Context of Ancient Near Eastern Courts
Once we understand the context of ancient Near Eastern courts, the author’s decision to have Mordechai inform Esther is shown to be the safest and most reasonable course of action. There may have been risk to Esther’s identity from using her, but much less risk than to Mordechai’s head (or to the king’s) if he did not.
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March 21, 2016
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as 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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