Esther chapters 7 and 8 ‘See-sawing fortunes’
Reflection by Anne Stewart
We join the story of Esther this week, at the point where the king and his chief advisor Haman are sitting down to the second banquet that Queen Esther has invited them to. It’s a very private affair with just the three most powerful people in Persia present. The exclusivity of the event has been a matter of pride for Haman, who had boasted of it to his family and friends. Further proof of his magnificent ego blinding him to the reality of what he was actually walking into.
As we noted last week, Queen Esther is delicately poised on a knife edge as she sets about revealing her true identity in an effort to save her Jewish people from the annihilation Haman has planned for them. She has one chance to get this right; one chance to risk everything to save her people. She not only has to reveal her true identity and risk what might result, but in so doing she needs to turn the king against his most trusted advisor. As things proceed, she reveals not only her true identity, but also her bravery, a very smart brain, and a wisdom beyond her years. She begins by showing the deference required of a queen when addressing her king. She pleads first for her own life, which the king has already shown he is much pleased with. Then she quickly she aligns her life with that of her people, ‘give me my life, and give my people their lives’ she says, showing how closely the two are aligned. Then she tells the king what has been done to her people. He is outraged and demands to know who would do such a thing to his favoured queen. And Esther names Haman. The king seems to have conveniently forgotten that earlier he was the one who signed the decree that Haman brought before him demanding this very course of action. So, he storms off into the garden to give himself a moment to think about how he might get himself out of this predicament.
Haman is aghast watching the scene playing out in front of him. This week, among other things, I have been learning, about harem protocol – these are important things to know! Apparently, it is a crime punishable by death, for a man who is not the ruler of the harem – the king – to be alone with a woman, especially a queen. So, protocol dictates that Haman should have left the room when the king did. But he had nowhere to go and he knew he was seriously in trouble here, so he did the only thing he thought might save him, he fell at Queen Esther’s feet and begged for his life. In that beath-takingly short opening sequence, we have first heard Esther begging for her life and now Haman begging for his. I don’t know about you, but I have never been to a dinner party where this level of action happens! The king returns to find Haman on the couch at Esther’s feet, and, in that act, Haman has thrown the king a way through the dilemma. Now the king knows what to do, he must demand Haman’s death to save Esther. This is now on two counts, firstly Haman has ordered her death through his order to kill all the Jews and secondly now he has dishonoured her by being alone with her in an intimate setting. Haman’s demise is the only way to make this right. Esther knows that touching her is the furthest thing from Haman’s mind but, she lets the scene play out with no attempt to justify his actions or stand up for him. She let’s the process take its own course.
Of course, Haman is technically innocent of both of the actions that he will die for. He never ordered Esther’s death – he didn’t know she was a Jew (she had hidden that from him and everyone else), her elderly relative Mordecai is the only one we meet in the story who knew her true identity. And, Haman, was never attempting to seduce, or molest Esther; he was begging for his life. None of these things mattered though, his future was secured by the king’s perception of what had taken place. Esther has managed the scene with cunning, flair, bravery, and strength. She has not given in to pity for Haman as we might have expected; she has held firm believing that this was the only course of action that would see her people freed from the grip Haman had in his power over them. Haman is left to die on the very gallows he had had built for the planned execution of Mordecai. A quick point here too about the gallows. It’s not a nice thing to think about, but, while the English term gallows means a noose made of rope with which to hang someone, this is not what was meant in these times in Persia. Back then gallows meant a stake secured in the ground upon which someone was impaled. Charming eh! We had quite a discussion at worship on Thursday as to how this could be done when the gallows where 75ft high, but I’ll leave you to ponder the intricacies of this, if you so wish. The 75ft bit is apparently a device to impress upon the reader the full height of Haman’s fall from grace. The bigger we are, the further we fall.
And fall from grace Haman most certainly did! One moment he was arguably the most powerful man in Persia. As second in command to the king, who, let’s face it, was fairly easily manipulated, Haman could do pretty much whatever he wished, including ordering the annihilation of a whole race of people. Persia in those times was a big place stretching from the top part of Egypt, across to Turkey, and right the way down to India. It was a very large area over which to have such unfettered power. Haman’s boots were big but he had, by now, outgrown them as the power increasingly went to his head. His ego was unrestrained thus he too was able to be manipulated. We saw last week how quickly he took his wife’s advice to simply kill Mordecai the Jew for getting in his way and not showing the required deference to him. Unrestrained power can go to the head and with Haman it did. Unrestrained power can also blind people to reality and to truth. It can produce acts of evil. When you can’t see the truth, you can convince yourself that your course of action is right, and you can justify almost anything because you are right. You can also convince yourself that despite all the evidence to the contrary, you are clever enough not to get caught. Once this level of self-deception is reached, logic, common sense, and empathy are lost. It’s as though a person’s narcissistic ways trap them in their sense of self and they lose all connection with reality. I have been thinking about the mosque shooter here in Christchurch and what might have played out in his mind over those treacherous two years he spent in Dunedin planning his ghastly attack. What did it take to convince him that his action would be the right one? Who had he become, that this craziness could make any sense? I wonder too, what has been playing out in his head over the past two years, post that horrific day.
It’s a strange quirk of our humanness, but all too often, these characters with narcissistic tendencies find themselves elevated to positions of power and influence. A former president springs to mind! What is it about them that convinces us that these would be good people to lead? When Martin and I were in England two years ago we watched in horror as the British tabloid media did their level best to annihilate Prince Harry’s new wife Meghan. The onslaught was relentless. She just couldn’t do anything right. The cruelty was led by a character called Piers Morgan, who had great power and position in the press. He had once tried to befriend Meghan, who was wise enough to sense the nature of his character, and he seems to have never recovered from being rebuffed. We all know characters who feel they have the right to make judgements and make them known, most of us have one somewhere in our family circles, or in other groups we are part of. They are difficult enough to handle on that level but, when they are elevated to positions of power and influence, they can do irreparable damage, often to those with limited power to make them stop!
I have thought a lot about how Esther made this particular power-hungry narcissist, Haman stop. In revealing her true identity and naming Haman’s plans, Esther spoke truth to power. This is tremendously risky but generally the only way to effectively expose evil. During the Second World War there was a German Christian theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who took such a risk. He was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot failed, just a few weeks before the German surrender Bonhoeffer was hung for his part in it. That’s the price he paid. He is reported to have said, when questioned about how, as a Christian, he could justify planning an assassination, “I don’t know if its right or wrong I just know the evil had to stop.” Esther, too, knew that the evil had to stop, and she had to let things take their course for that to happen. No doubt you will all have your own views about the Harry and Meghan saga but it appears that they too had to make something happen to make the madness in their lives stop.
If the violence and mayhem of Esther’s story has made your skin crawl, we have to remember that this story is set in a different world-view from ours; it’s a story told through a different lens than ours. It’s doubtful that our story would make any sense to those who lived in Esther’s time either! But that doesn’t stop their story having a fair bit to tell us about things like power and how we exercise it, in our world. How do we stop the misbehaving family member, or employer, or spouse of a good friend, exerting power inappropriately? How do we attend to racist or rude behaviour when it has been tolerated for so long that it’s hard to call without risking the relationship? This is not easy stuff, is it! Perhaps we might find inspiration in remembering Esther’s brave stand. And, most importantly, how might we react if we hear that we might have acted in ways that have left others feeling powerless? Did I mention that this is not easy?? But it matters! Because, if it goes unchecked for too long then the behaviour gets normalised, hearts get hardened, and people get hurt, and we find ourselves wandering off on another path, far from the way of our God.