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Humor in the Book of Esther

Illuminated Esther Scroll from Italy
Illuminated Esther Scroll from Italy

Very briefly, the biblical book of Esther narrates the marriage of Esther, a Jew, to the Persian king Ahasuerus. This monarch learns of Esther’s Jewish identity only after Haman, the story’s villain, plots to annihilate the Jews, including Esther and her guardian Mordecai, who (like Haman) serves the king. Among the numerous subplots is the personal hatred that Haman bears for Mordecai, whom Haman conspires to hang on “a gallows fifty cubits high” (Esth 5:9-14). Although little humor is evident in this summary, astute readers quickly appreciate the fact that everything Haman plans against his enemies ultimately befalls him.

Thus, midway through the story (Esth 6:1-11), the king, suffering from insomnia, has his officials read some royal records to him. The passage they read tells how Mordecai had saved the king from an assassination plot (as related in Esth 2:21-23). As it happens, Haman is walking by at that very minute, and so the king queries him: “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” Presuming it is he whom the king has in mind, Haman replies, “Let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. … [Let a royal official] conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.’”

Knowledgeable readers laugh when Haman goes into such vivid detail to describe what he is sure is in store for him. The king’s command to Haman confirms that Haman is in for a rude awakening, to say the least: “Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.”

The full significance of this reversal of fortune is not lost on Zeresh, Haman’s wife. Only a little while earlier, she had urged her husband to construct the gallows for Mordecai. Little did they know that it would be Haman, not Mordecai, who would be hanged on it (Esth 7:9-10). Standing fifty cubits high (approximately 75 feet, the height of a six-story building), this constitutes a very public execution of the once-powerful villain.

But there is more. King Ahasuerus is portrayed as indifferent and indolent rather than treacherous and tyrannical. When, for example, Haman proposes that “a certain people” within the king’s empire were not following established laws and customs, the incurious monarch gives Haman the power to destroy them—without even asking who they are (Esth 3:1-11).

Thus it is supremely ironic that a misperception on the king’s part brings Haman down. After Esther reveals that she herself would be a victim of Haman’s plot, along with all the rest of her people (until this moment, Haman does not realize she is Jewish), the king momentarily leaves the room in a fury. In a last-ditch attempt to save his life, Haman as supplicant throws himself “on the couch where Esther was reclining” (Esth 7:8). When he returns, Ahasuerus, mistakes this action for sexual assault and is furious at Haman, whose fate is now sealed. Thus the king judges Haman worthy of execution for the one crime he does not commit. How the mighty have fallen!

 As for the Jews, they are saved. Mordecai is promoted, and, we suppose, Esther and Ahasuerus live happily ever after. All of this proving, to confirm the sentiment of Prov 16:9, that even if “man proposes, it is God who disposes.”

  • Leonard Greenspoon

    Leonard Greenspoon is Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University, where he is also professor of classical and Near Eastern studies and of theology. He is coeditor (with Sidnie White Crawford) of The Book of Esther in Modern Research (T&T Clark, 2003), for which he also wrote an article, “From Maidens and Chamberlains to Harems and Hot Tubs: Five Hundred Years of Esther in English.” In addition, Greenspoon is a columnist for Biblical Archaeology Review, for which he writes “The Bible in the News,” a humor column.