Exaggeration and hyperbole: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (2)

Esther_Denouncing_Haman

“Esther Denouncing Haman” by Ernest Normand, 1888. In the public domain.

Exaggeration and hyperbole (gross exaggeration to the point of absurdity) frequently occur in satirical literature. A text is not necessarily satirical simply because it contains exaggeration, but when clustered with other markers such as irony, ridicule, wit and wordplays, its presence in a text is a strong indicator of satire. I mentioned some examples of exaggeration in Esther in my previous post and here are a couple more.

One of the main characters in the story of Esther is Haman who, for undisclosed reasons, plots to commit genocide against all the Jews in the Persian empire. One of the features of the Esther-story is that it doesn’t provide explanations for some of the key events or decisions. Haman is a key character, although he doesn’t appear until chapter 3 where his promotion to the highest position in the empire next to the king is announced but without a reason being given.

After these things King Ahashverosh promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. (3:1)

We learn little about Haman from the book of Esther. The fact that he was an “Agagite” suggests he wasn’t a native-born Persian (although his name may be Persian, as are the names of his 10 sons), but how he came to be an important official and why he was promoted to the highest office isn’t explained. From ancient times scholars have noted that “Agagite” probably means he was descended from Agag, king of the Amalekites – long-term enemies of Israel – who was executed by king Saul after defeat in battle (see 1 Samuel 15; Numbers 24:7; Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19). They also note that Mordecai, the protagonist or “hero” of the Esther-story, was “son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (2:5). If this is the same Kish who was father of king Saul (1 Samuel 9:1-3), and if we “read between the lines,” then there may be an indication here that the hostility between Haman and Mordecai was the product of historical enmity between the two families. If so, this isn’t spelled out in any way in the story and we are left to simply speculate about it. I will come back to this in a later post because there may be a clue here as to the target of the satire.

Haman’s promotion isn’t the only unexplained detail in this episode. It should be noted that his advancement comes immediately after the episode where Ahashverosh became aware that Mordecai had saved his life by foiling a plot to assassinate him (2:19-23). Mordecai wasn’t rewarded for that at the time, and no explanation is given: the fact was simply noted in the court records. As part of Haman’s promotion Ahashverosh commands that all the king’s officials should bow down and pay Haman homage, as the representative of the king (3:2). There is nothing unusual or surprising about this, and treating the monarch’s representative with respect as though you were dealing with the monarch themself is a practice which has continued to this day. What is surprising is that Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. No reason is given for this, and for centuries scholars have tried to find a reason. Some have suggested that Jewish law prohibits bowing down to someone, as it implies an act of worship. However, several other characters in biblical narratives bow down to kings or nobles to show respect and Esther herself later falls down at the feet of king Ahashverosh (8:3), so it seems there was no explicit prohibition against bowing to a person of rank. Even when repeatedly questioned about his refusal to bow to Haman, Mordecai provides no explanation. Apparently this went on for several days without Haman even noticing, and it was not until it was brought to his attention by officials that Haman flew into a rage and set out to not only destroy Mordecai but to commit genocide on his people throughout the kingdom (3:2-6). This in itself is an absurdity because Haman’s response to the insult was disproportionate to the offence. A modern reader would be justified in thinking that wholesale genocide is always disproportionate and there can be no justification for it, but it would be anachronistic to read this back into the story as though the writer is making that point. If Haman was descended from the biblical Agag, king of the Amalekites, then he may have felt some historical justification for revenging the slaughter of his own people centuries before at the hands of Mordecai’s ancestors. However, the writer never explicitly makes this point and there is nothing in the story to suggest that until this incident Haman knew who Mordecai was, and even then that he knew Mordecai was a distant relative of Saul.

While no reason is provided for Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman, his actions appear to be quite unreasonable in the face of the genocide of his own people. The whole story hangs on Mordecai’s inexplicable refusal to show respect to the king’s representative, and in the light of potential genocide it is somewhat surprising that Mordecai makes no attempt to avert the catastrophe by simply demonstrating his respect for the king’s man. From the beginning almost nothing is explained in this story. Why did the king have a six month long celebration? Why did he not reward Mordecai for saving his life? Why did he promote Haman? Why did Mordecai disrespect the king by disrespecting his representative? Why did he not swallow his pride to avert disaster for his own people? The story raises more questions than it answers!

In what follows there are two noteworthy exaggerations. First, Haman approaches Ahashverosh and offers to pay 10,000 talents of silver into the king’s treasury in return for a decree to slaughter all the Jews. That is an extraordinary amount to pay. According to some commentators it was equivalent to 340,000kg of silver (according to my calculations at today’s prices that’s worth more than $300 million [Australian dollars]). What was that in ancient terms? The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that running the Persian empire cost 15,000 talents of silver per year, so Haman’s bribe was equivalent to two-thirds of the entire running costs of the Empire! That is an unbelievable amount for one man to be able to afford, no matter how wealthy, and even if he was that wealthy Haman could almost certainly have obtained approval by offering a considerable lesser amount. While the writer makes the point that Haman was prepared to pay handsomely, even way beyond what was necessary, the actual amount offered is undoubtedly a gross exaggeration.

Another exaggeration soon follows. Haman plots for Mordecai’s execution, and working on the assumption that Ahashverosh will go along with his plan he erects a 50 cubits high gallows (or stake)  in preparation (5:9-14). Fifty cubits is approximately 25 metres. That’s extraordinarly high for a gallows! The form of execution was probably impalement or crucifixion, rather than hanging by a rope, but however it was to be carried out 25 metres is unnecessarily high. Even if the purpose of a high gallows/stake was so that the victim would be publicly seen and disgraced, the risk associated with such a high gallows is that it is too high and the victim would be almost out-of-sight. This is clearly another exaggeration designed to demonstrate the extent of intended humilation rather than a high gallows serving any practical purpose. It seems that almost everything in this story is exaggerated.

One of the ironies of the story is that Haman himself and his 10 sons were eventually hanged on these gallows (7:9-10; 9:13-14). In fact, Haman’s execution on the gallows he’d built for Mordecai is just one of several ironies in the book. There are a number of twists and turns throughout the story and the writer hints near the end that “reversal” is at the core of the tale:

… on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred (וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ): the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them (9:1)

The word וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ means there was a turn, a twist in the story. Coming back to Haman’s promotion, there is a “reversal” here as well, for in 10:2 the writer uses the same word used earlier for Haman’s “promotion” (גדל) to describe the advancement of “Mordecai, whom the king promoted“. Earlier in the story no reason was given for Haman’s promotion, nor is any reason offered for why Mordecai wasn’t rewarded at the time. Perhaps the writer was highlighting that in the “upside down” system of rewards and punishments in Ahashverosh’s court good behaviour wasn’t necessarily rewarded and that the king was arbitrary in his judgments and with his rewards. He didn’t need a “reason” for any of his actions. While the point is repeatedly made that the king was all-powerful, he is also portrayed as lecherous, as a drunk, as capricious, arbitrary and easily manipulated. Is he really in control?

… to be continued

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