1 That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. 2 It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. 3 “What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?” the king asked. “Nothing has been done for him,” his attendants answered. 4 The king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him. 5 His attendants answered, “Haman is standing in the court.” “Bring him in,” the king ordered. 6 When Haman entered, the king asked him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” Now Haman thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?” 7 So he answered the king, “For the man the king delights to honor, 8 have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. 9 Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’” 10 “Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.” 11 So Haman got the robe and the horse. He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”
Esther has rightly been seen as an impressive piece of literature. It is a masterful concoction of irony, satire, and reversal. No where are all three of these felt more forcefully than in chapter six. Chapter six is the turning point of the story and sits in the center of a chiastic structure. We will begin with a close reading of Esther 6:1-11. This close reading will expound upon the centrality of this passage as well as look at what meaning we can take from this passage. We will then conclude with an investigation of my chiastic structure of Esther.
Close Reading of Esther 6:1-11
In setting the scene, the author starts of with letting us know the king has had trouble sleeping. We are not given any reason for this moment of insomnia (Levenson, pg.95), but it functions to set up the possibility of Haman’s entrance. In 5:13, Haman decides he will go see the king in the morning to discuss his plans for Mordecai and so we may conclude that this scene is taking place early in the morning. As we move down into verse three, we see the king has forgotten the great deed Mordecai did for him back in 2:23 in uncovering the assassination plot. A considerable amount of time may have passed though between the present moment and Mordecai’s good deed. In some estimates, it has been five years since Esther has become queen. However, given the satirizing of the king in the first five chapters, I take this to be criticism of the king’s general deficiency as a leader and adds to our dismissiveness of the king. This need to honor Mordecai also sets up the massive reversal that takes place in this passage.
At this exact moment, Haman enters the outer court. If we remember in 4:11, Esther tells us that anyone who enters the inner court without being called is liable of death unless the king pardons them. Haman is careful not to endanger his life and only enters the outer court, even though his early time of arrival displays his uncontrollable eagerness to kill Mordecai. This eagerness turns against him, it is the reason he is there to be the one to suggest and fulfill the honoring of Mordecai.
Upon being called into the king’s presence, Haman is asked a question that exposes his unlimited pride. Haman simply cannot imagine the king honoring anyone besides himself as is clear by verse six. This is ironic because we never see nor are told why Haman has received his high position. We see no reason for Haman to have this confidence in himself because we have seen no evidence that he has delighted the king and thus should be honored.
This verse provides Haman as a case study of Proverbs 16:18 which warns that pride comes before the fall. This verse epitomizes Haman’s pride and triggers our remembrance of this proverb, putting us on the lookout for Haman’s epic fall. This fall is also set up and dramatized throughout the rest of the story through rhetorical and metaphorical uses of the idea of rising and falling. With regards to Haman we see phrases using bowing, falling, and rising. As we find out in chapter seven, the author sees no better fall from pride than for Haman to land on the high gallows he has constructed for Mordecai.
In verses seven through nine Haman details how one should be honored because they have delighted the king. These should cause some skepticism in the king. To start, these seem to be quite extravagant praises and honors for someone who has only “delighted the king”. Even if someone saves the king’s life as Mordecai, the king should be skeptical of giving someone this sort of public image. Haman’s suggestion is essentially saying that someone should be paraded around as the king for an afternoon. It would seem that Haman has more in mind that just receiving honor with these rewards, but a way to position himself to eventually ascend to the throne. Yet, none of this occurs to the king as he happily accepts Haman’s suggestions. Again, we are drawn to notice the foolishness of this all-powerful king.
Verse ten carries with it a weight of irony and reversal that is unparalleled. As noted earlier, at the end of chapter two, it was Mordecai who has done praise worthy work for the king. Yet, immediately following that act of service, it is Haman who is elevated to a high position in the beginning of chapter three. The praise due to Mordecai went to Haman. This verse uses irony and reversal to correct this wrong. Now the honor Haman thinks he deserves will go to Mordecai. This foreshadows the inevitable defeat Haman will suffer to Mordecai and Esther.
The irony and humor get deeper. Haman has just planned to kill Mordecai and was going to the king to get permission for this execution. What started as a hope to eliminate the person who has made life meaningless, has turned into the despair of personally honoring this person. Even deeper still, the idea for this honoring has all come entirely from Haman. It is his hopes, dreams, and expectations being given over to his enemy, and he is the one giving it to him! Haman has helped in exulting Mordecai’s public image above his own. Can Haman really expect to be able to execute Mordecai after dressing him in royal garb and riding him through the empire with the king’s horse?
There is still more to be unpacked and investigated in this verse. This verse is the first time that the king identifies Mordecai as a Jew. It is clear that the king is unaware of the contents of Haman’s edict. Would he agree to honoring a person that he has sealed to destruction and death by an imperial edict? We are reminded yet another time of the king’s deficiency as a leader. Not only did he not interrogate Haman on the details of the edict, but he did not even take the time to look it over before it was sent out. If he had looked it over, he would have known that Mordecai is a target of the proposed genocide.
Lastly, we will finish by looking at verse 11. This verse is strangely quick and silent. The history of these two comes to the unimagined moment of Haman honoring Mordecai, the one person who refused to honor him. Yet, we are met with silence in terms of how this interaction went. The awkwardness and tense nature of this meeting may have been more than either character could bear and thus the verse mimics a grim silence shared by Mordecai and Haman during the honoring ceremony.
Meaning of this passage
After looking at this passage we should pause and consider what has been revealed and its significance. This chapter has coincidence after coincidence stacking on top of another culminating in an extraordinary moment of irony, reversal and comedy. The plausibility of this scene should move us to see that maybe these are not just coincidences as such, but events controlled by someone more powerful than any of the characters. This should lead us to consider the sovereignty of God in this book.
God may not be named in the text, but his hand at work is almost undeniable. We must first recognize that in identifying our characters as Jewish, this is more than just an ethnic identity but also has an implicit religious connotation that is ultimately inextricable. However, Esther does not provide any sort of unified religious system of practices and beliefs. In being ethnically Jewish, you are tied to the Jewish literary tradition, shared historical memories, and common bloodlines that are fundamental to Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. This is why it would be naïve to view Esther as a secular book or one without theological perspectives or comments.
The abundance of coincidence in this passage, and the book as a whole, that lead to Jewish survival may be the central theological claim of Esther. That is, that God will always preserve the Jewish people. I take the theological perspective of divine providence to be the lens we interpret human initiative. So, instead of thinking God is just in the background creating opportunities for the Jewish people to seize in order to deliver themselves, I think we can make a stronger claim. We can claim that the human actions are being used by God in conjunction with his providence to save the Jews, even if the characters don’t realize it. This is what we are seeing in this chapter. Haman’s eventual destruction is being displayed as being divinely orchestrated, yet God uses the actions of Esther, Mordecai, and even Haman to bring this about.
If we look at God’s sovereignty, we must also consider human initiative in Esther. Without any explicit reference to the divine, our attention is drawn to human activity and initiative. The importance of human initiative in the thought of the author cannot be overshadowed by focusing too much on providence. As such, it has been proposed that a reason for making chapter five the center is because it makes a clear connection between human initiative and Jewish Salvation. Jewish deliverance is because Esther invites the king and Haman to a feast. I fear this is focusing too much on human initiative at the expense of divine providence though. It is God’s providence that assures the Jewish preservation, not their actions. Their actions just get used to bring about this goal of God’s sovereignty. If providence is more central to Jewish salvation than human initiative, then we should find centrality of the story grounded to a revelation of God’s providence rather than human initiative. There is no clearer display of God’s providence in this book than in this passage.
Since Christ has now grafted gentiles into Israel as God’s people, we Christians can trust in God’s providence that he will continue to be a promise keeper and preserve his people, which now includes us. We may live essentially non-religious lives like Esther and Mordecai, putting confidence in our human ability alone, yet God is powerful enough to work good for those who love him. This should highlight God’s grace for us. Even when we live as though he is absent, he is committed to protecting and sustaining us. As a response to this faithfulness, we should see the subtle hint that at some point, coincidence becomes more than just coincidence. If we are observant, we may see how God works behind the scenes, building up a string of coincidences which urge us to see his activity in our life.
As noted earlier, this passage also contains a case study of some sort of Proverbs 16:18. Haman has embodied a prideful life, and the fall that came after him was deathly. This hopefully should work as a warning for us not to follow in Haman’s footsteps. Esther exposes the selfish and short-sighted assumptions pride tempts us to affirm and live out of. When we aren’t able to see past ourselves, we will be consumed with ourselves until we are utterly consumed.
This passage does more for the plot than just provide us with theological reflection, as important as that may be. Functionally, it provides a gap between the two ever important banquets Esther holds. In doing that it sets up the fateful demise of Haman. It works to show that Haman will fall and Mordecai will rise above him to stand next to the king. This passage also provides rapport and recognition for Mordecai in the eyes of the king. This is important because it adds support and evidence to the testimony Esther gives about Mordecai to the king in chapter eight, which results in Mordecai’s exultation. Without the elevation of Mordecai, the counter edict does not get drafted and the Jews still suffer destruction. This passage aids in the crucial promotion of Mordecai that results in the Jews salvation.
I would lastly just like to note that the magnitude of this reversal event is calling for us to put it at the center of the book. The sheer weight of this passage points towards the author’s intent on making this the focal point of the book, and the point of reversal for the rest of the book. This reversal is what sets the scene for all the subsequent reversal that will take place. Considering this point, and the comments made above, I believe that we should see this passage as the hinge of the story as we move into evaluating my chiastic structure for Esther.
What is a Chiastic Structure?
Chiasm are literary devices that repeat either words, grammatical structures, or even concepts in reverse orders, in the same or a modified form. Chiasms are frequent in the bible, but normally tend to only span a few verses. I claim that Esther as a book is set up as a chiasm. A chiasm on this scale is sometimes referred to as a “macrochiasm”. It possesses a structure of particular events and concepts that are mirrored and repeated in a reverse order centered around a particular event. Chiasms draw our attention to this center point, which I believe in Esther is found in 6:1-11.
My Chiastic Structure
When it comes to chiastic constructions of Esther, some may vary in the verbiage of labeling events or themes or even the number of events they identify, however by and large most of them have chapter six as the hinge. That has been challenged quite convincingly though, with an argument placing chapter five in the hinge position. The main contention is that chapter six is not essential to the story and the book could be summarized well enough without reference to this chapter. However, from our close reading of chapter six, I believe I have put forth arguments that do show the centrality and necessity of chapter six. These arguments give us good reason to put chapter six in the center of a chiastic structure.
- Introduction: Glory of Xerxes (1:1-3)
B. Fall of Vashti and the feasts (1:4-22)
C. Esther pretends not to be Jewish, becomes queen (2:8-18)
D. Haman elevated and distributes edict (Ch. 3)
E. Mordecai and Esther plot to save the Jews(Ch. 4)
F. First threesome feast (5:1-8)
G. Haman’s friends and wife encourage him to kill Mordecai (5:9-14)
H. Great reversal and royal procession (6:1-11)
G. Haman’s friends and wife say he will fall to Mordecai (6:12-14)
F. Second threesome feast (7:1-6)
E. Haman, the threat to the Jews is killed (7:10)
D. Mordecai elevated and releases counter edict (8:1-14)
C. Non-Jews pretend to be Jews (8:15-17)
B. Fall of Jews enemies, feasts are had and established (ch.9)
A. Conclusion: Glory of Xerxes and Mordecai (ch.10)
It’s clear that feasts and reversal are two essential features to Esther. These two are more than important themes or motifs, but also have structural significance. Either one or both of these features are working in every level of my proposed chiastic structure. This gives support to organizing Esther in a chiastic structure to start, and also means that any chiastic structure that is constructed needs to be constructed with these two features in mind. When looking at the literary history of biblical writers and the intent of the story of Esther, it shouldn’t surprise us the importance feasts and reversal play in this text. Feasts are integral to the structure and plot of Esther given that the primary purpose of Esther is etiological, attempting to account for the establishment of Purim.
Reversal and irony are also common literary devices used throughout the Bible in other stories. We see these themes in the beginning in Genesis with Lot and Abraham where Lot has chosen to take the plains because it looks like the “garden of the Lord”, yet it ends up being the home of Sodom and Gomorrah. Irony and reversal are used all the way through the Pentateuch into the Prophets. In the Prophets, irony and reversal are painted over every occasion of the destruction that befalls those nations God is using to bring destruction, punishment, and justice to the Israelites. Although God is using them to bring judgement and correction to the Jews, they too will be judged for what they end up doing to the Jews.
In establishing these two features, we have some principles for governing the chiastic structure of Esther. When it comes to deciding the central moment of this structure, there is argumentation to take chapter five as the pivotal point of the book since it includes a feast, is integral to the plot, and indicates the true point of reversal in the story. This feast is indeed integral to the story, but no more integral to the second threesome feast that happens in chapter seven. It also is not clear to me that this is a turning point in the story. No reversal has actually happened yet, it functions more as raising tensions than enacting a reversal. This is partly why I prefer the centering of 6:1-11 as the focal point of Esther. It shows important consideration to both the feasts by Esther in allowing them to mirror one another around the central embodiment of reversal and irony in Mordecai’s royal procession.
We must also note that a chiastic structure is to follow natural breaks in the story. This means creating divisions either along changes in scenes or acts, or even changes in themes or motifs. It mitigates against attempts to cut the story in anyway just to fit into a particular construction. This guides us in trying the read the story as the author intended it to flow. If we are disrupting the flow, by either inserting breaks that are not there or not pausing to break when we should, then this hints towards a problem with a particular chiastic construction. This focus on natural breaks, being sensitive to the functioning of the feasts and reversals, and seeing the central purpose of chapter six have been the main forces that have led me to my chiastic construction.
Esther is a complex and masterful work of literature. It uses themes of feasting and reversal to organize the plot’s structure. After reflecting upon the theological concerns, plot, structure, and use of literary devices, we are shown the centrality of 6:1-11. A close reading of this passage shows it is the center of a chiastic structure that is built around it. This passage functions not only as a hinge for the festival etiology, but also as a reservoir of theological reflection on divine providence, human initiative, and the disaster of pride.
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