This is a draft of Chapter 5 of Esther which I hope to publish in 2015 or 2016 as “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith.”
Esther acts, but with hesitation
After fasting for several days, Esther dons royal clothes, and on the third day she stands in the courtyard, outside Ahasuerus’ inner court, seemingly hesitant, waiting for the king to notice her and allow her to enter. Ahasuerus sees her, stretches out his scepter, indicating she could enter, and says, “What is it that you want Queen Esther? Whatever you request, even up to half of the kingdom, will be given to you.”
Esther responds, “My petition and response is…if I have found favor in the king’s sight, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition, let the king and Haman come to the banquet that I will prepare for them.” The king agrees.
When Haman hears how the queen honored him he is overjoyed. But leaving the king’s presence, he sees Mordecai who “neither stood up nor moved for him” and is enraged. He goes home and brags about his accomplishments, but adds that it is all diminished because of Mordecai’s insult. His wife and friends advise him to seek permission from the king to kill Mordecai. Certain that his request will be granted, Haman orders the construction of a gallows fifty cubits high on which to hang his oppressor.
We should note:
The chapter begins “And behold on the third day.” In 4:16, Esther states she will fast for three days, days and nights. We would imagine that she would appear to Ahasuerus after the fast on the fourth day. Why does the text say third day? Is this another instance where the Bible uses the number three for literary purposes? If so, why?
Another typical literary usage is the number seven. Vashti was summoned to appear before Ahasuerus on the seventh day of a banquet and refused to come. In contrast, Esther is unsummoned but arrives on the third day. Perhaps Esther wanted her husband to think that she came for erotic reasons because he failed to call her for thirty days (another use of three). If so, he would wonder, why is she inviting Haman?
Esther does not enter the inner court but remains outside waiting for the king to notice her and invite her in. This may indicate hesitancy. Similarly, while she seems to begin to express her plea – “My petition and request is” – she changes course and invites the king and Haman to a banquet, as if she is again hesitant, fearful that her request would not be granted. Again, a third time (three again), she does not reveal her request later during the first banquet and invites the king and his minister to a second banquet.
The rabbis reject the notion that Esther was hesitant. Esther had a plan and was executing it. The Babylonian Talmud offers as many as a dozen reasons why Esther invited the pair to two banquets. Among other suppositions, Esther invited the king and Haman to two banquets to make him jealous of Haman and want to kill him. Still another is that Esther wanted to expose Haman suddenly in the king’s presence without giving the minister time to prepare excuses. Chachmei Tzarfat suggests that she felt she needed to speak to her husband when his officials, many of whom supported Haman, were not present and could not aid Haman. Rashi also states, without any source, that Esther told Ahasuerus that she will reveal her ancestry to him at the feast, a request he had constantly made to her. The Aramaic second Targum offers three reasons why Esther invited Haman: (1) to excite the king’s jealousy, (2) to prompt the Judeans to pray for her success, and (3) to appease Haman’s anger against her for she knew that Haman had killed Hathach because he served as a messenger between the queen and Mordecai. Paton argues that all of these reasons are unsatisfactory: Ahasuerus was in a good mood and promised Esther whatever she wanted; this was the psychologically best moment to act. He supposes that the invitation to Haman and the postponement of her revelation is nothing more than a literary devise that the author devised to provide him time to dramatically describe Haman’s downfall (page 234).
The Hebrew text does not state that Esther dressed in “royal clothes” for her meeting with Ahasuerus, only “royalty,” which led Rashi and others to suppose suggests that she was clothed with the divine spirit.
Verse 2’s “And behold when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the courtyard” seems to indicate that Ahasuerus did not notice Esther immediately perhaps because of involvement in royal business and Esther had to stand waiting in the courtyard for some time (Chacham, page 35 and Moore, page 44). This must have been stressful. The apocryphal Greek additions to Esther captures her stress in its description of Esther’s entrance. Esther is lovely, but she is very fearful and leans on her maid languishingly. The king has a stern angry countenance that causes Esther to faint. God intervenes and causes Ahasuerus to accept Esther with love. Still afraid, as he speaks to her, she faints again. The second Aramaic Targum increases Esther’s strain: Haman, the king’s executioner, is about to kill Esther for arriving unsummoned, however the king saves her by extending his scepter.
The king reacts to Esther’s entrance by asking her what she wants because it is clear to him that she must have had a serious need to put her life in danger by visiting the king in violation of the law (Gersonides).
The phrase “petition and request” does not indicate two acts. The words are synonymous and were combined as an idiomatic expression (Y. Klein, page 249).
The king did not intend to have Esther understand his promise to grant her up to half the kingdom literally (Cohen, page219). It was a commonly-used expression of Xerxes to indicate he would be lavish. Herodotus relates that Xerxes offered his mistress anything. She took him at his word and requested the gaily colored mantle that the queen, his wife, wove for him. Xerxes tried to avoid fulfilling her request by offering her cities, but she refused, and he gave her the mantle (Moore, page 55). The Judean King Herod also made the same offer to the daughter of Herodias when she danced before him and she chose the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:23).
Rashi states that the king was offering Esther to resume the rebuilding of the destroyed temple in Judea if this is her request. This is a curious since Ahasuerus didn’t know she was a Judean.
Why is Haman seemingly surprised and angered that Mordecai did not show him respect? This shouldn’t have surprised him. Both parties knew that Haman planned to kill Mordecai and all Judeans, and a victim should not be expected to show respect to his killer. This question apparently also bothered the rabbis. Rashi quotes a view in the Babylonian Talmud that Mordecai showed Haman the contract he signed when he sold himself to be Mordecai’s slave because he lacked food to eat.
Haman had to ask permission from the king to kill Mordecai because while he had great authority, the king retained the power over life and death (Cohen, page 222).
After being invited with the king to Esther’s private party, Haman returned home, assembled his friends and his wife, and told them how the king elevated him to high office above other officials, his successes, and his many sons. Herodotus wrote that Persians who had many sons were held in the highest honors.
Ibn Ezra reads Haman’s statement as a lament: even though I have been raised to high office, am wealthy, have successful sons, and am even invited to Esther’s feast, these successes are diminished because the Judean Mordecai also has some official recognition: he sits in the king’s courtyard as a judge.
Haman’s wife and friends suggest that Haman build a gallows fifty amot high and ask the king for permission to hang Mordecai on it. Ignoring that the advice is not only from Haman’s wife, but also his friends, and focusing on the irony that Haman will be hung from this gallows, ibn Ezra comments: women generally react emotionally without considering consequences.
 It is pointless to attempt to discover how long Esther fasted (Moore, page 55).
 Many biblical events occurred on the third day, such as Abraham seeing the place to sacrifice his son Isaac on the third day (Genesis 22:4) and the revelation of the Decalogue (Exodus 19:16). Is the author purposely prompting readers to think of these ancient events?
 The term bakashateikh appears in Esther seven times (here, 6, 7, 8, 7:2, 3, and 9:12.
 Megillah 15b.
 In Megillat Esther im Perushei Harishonim.
 I do not understand what the targumist means by the last two reasons.
 Histories 9:109-11.
 Megillah 15a.
 Histories 9:7ff.
 Between 25 and 35 meters (Chacham, page 39), over 75 feet high, an obvious exaggeration.