Notes (NET Translation)
1 So the king and Haman came to dine with Queen Esther.
The verb sata is translated “to dine” by the NET but literally means “to drink”.
2 On the second day of the banquet of wine the king asked Esther, “What is your request, Queen Esther? It shall be granted to you. And what is your petition? Ask up to half the kingdom, and it shall be done!”
The “second day” refers to the day after the first banquet, it does not mean the banquet lasted two days.
3 Queen Esther replied, “If I have met with your approval, O king, and if the king is so inclined, grant me my life as my request, and my people as my petition. 4 For we have been sold – both I and my people – to destruction and to slaughter and to annihilation! If we had simply been sold as male and female slaves, I would have remained silent, for such distress would not have been sufficient for troubling the king.”
Esther’s reference to her people being sold refers to Haman’s bribe in 3:9; 4:7.
Paradoxically, in the moment when she pleads for her own safety, she puts herself in her greatest danger by revealing her Jewishness, for the unalterable law of the Persians and Medes (cf. 1:19) still stands written against them. And in the moment when she is most obedient to Mordecai’s exhortation to her, she first disobeys his one command — not to make known who her people are (2:20).1
The ingenuity of Esther’s tactics becomes evident here. By using the passive form of the verb, Esther cleverly avoids casting any blame on the king in this matter. Indeed, it would be possible for the king to imagine that Esther’s distress has nothing to do with him at all. She also uses the personal pronoun “I,” striking home the fact that this queen, who (by the king’s own admission) has pleased him and found favor in his sight, is now slated for execution. The decree is, in fact, an indirect attack on the king. But the real genius of Esther’s appeal is that she will couch the affair in terms of the king’s self-interest — just as Haman had done in 3:8–9 when proposing the pogrom. There, Haman appealed to the king’s greed: “It is not profitable to the king to let them be” (3:8). Esther does the same here. With exaggerated obsequy, she volunteers, “If we had been sold as slaves . . . I would have kept silent.” Presumably, such a sale would have brought revenue to the king. This destruction, however, will not prove profitable.2
The meaning of the Hebrew in the last part of verse 4 (translated “for such distress would not have been sufficient for troubling the king”) is not clear. Tomasino writes:
In short, then, we should understand the bulk of Esther’s appeal here to be a request for her people to be spared, but couched in terms of the king’s financial interests. The Jews have been sold, but not as slaves. Presumably they would have brought market value in the slave trade, and the king would have benefitted handsomely. But they have been sold simply to be destroyed, and the compensation the king received (grand though it was) was not sufficient to offset the loss of revenue from tribute, gifts, and labor that the king would receive from allowing the Jews to live.
There is certainly some merit to Esther’s argument. If every Jew in the Persian Empire were indeed sold as a slave, the revenue would have been vast. While we do not know how many Jews lived in the Persian Empire, it could have numbered more than a million: according to the census taken by Emperor Claudius in A.D. 48, there were about seven million Jews in the Roman Empire in the first century; the Jewish population in the time of Augustus has been estimated to be 4.5 million. If there were a million Jews in the Persian Empire (or if the narrator thought there were), their value on the slave market would have far exceeded Haman’s bribe. Haman offered the king 36 million shekels of silver for the destruction of the Jews. Slaves in the Persian era sold for about sixty to ninety shekels, so the Jews’ “market value” would have far exceeded the value of the bribe. As Esther presented the issue, Haman appeared to be swindling King Xerxes out of a huge sum of money.
Another cunning aspect of Esther’s plea is that it invites the king to consider the question of whether the Jews really deserved to be enslaved. According to Herodotus (Hist. 6.32), rebellious vassals could indeed be sold as slaves. But how could Xerxes brand the Jews as rebels on the very day when he had ordered Mordecai to be honored for saving the king’s life? If the Jews could not reasonably be painted as insurrectionists and sold as slaves, then they would surely not be deserving of the much harsher penalty of genocide.3
5 Then King Ahasuerus responded to Queen Esther, “Who is this individual? Where is this person to be found who is presumptuous enough to act in this way?”
The king himself was responsible for selling the Jews into destruction.
6 Esther replied, “The oppressor and enemy is this evil Haman!” Then Haman became terrified in the presence of the king and queen.
7 In rage the king arose from the banquet of wine and withdrew to the palace garden. Meanwhile, Haman stood to beg Queen Esther for his life, for he realized that the king had now determined a catastrophic end for him.
Haman makes a plea for his life from one whom he unknowingly sought to destroy.
8 When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet of wine, Haman was throwing himself down on the couch where Esther was lying. The king exclaimed, “Will he also attempt to rape the queen while I am still in the building!” As these words left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.
It was the custom of Persian nobles to recline on couches when they dined. Haman had risen from his couch, but Esther remained recumbent, seemingly unmoved by the vizier’s plight. In a severe breach of protocol, Haman throws himself on the queen. According to Plutarch (Artaxerxes 27.1), touching the Persian king’s wife was a capital offense. In Assyrian law, no man was allowed to draw within more than seven paces of a member of the king’s harem. Haman must surely have been out of his mind to have made such an error.4
The prediction of 6:12-13 is fulfilled and Haman’s face is covered.
The queen’s plot for the removal of Haman, while effective, is ethically troublesome. She uses her sex appeal to win an audience with the king. She does not address, much less refute, Haman’s charge that the Jews are rebellious. Instead, she suggests that Haman is attempting to swindle Xerxes. She allows the king to form the misapprehension that Haman is trying to rape the queen, and then does nothing to correct that misunderstanding. While her methods were effective and her goal was just, we are prompted to consider the question, “Does the end justify the means?”
This book is not the only one that raises this question. Judges is teeming with such questionable incidents: Ehud lies to Eglon to gain a private audience, then assassinates the unarmed king (Judg 3:12–29); Jael deceives and murders a sleeping general (Judg 4:17–22); Samson kills thirty men in order to steal their cloaks (Judg 14:19–20). In Judg 14:1–4, God uses Samson’s lust for a Philistine woman to stir up trouble between Israel and its overlords. The text does not necessarily endorse or excuse such actions. In fact, the final words of the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever they thought was right” (Judg 21:25), could be seen as an indictment of the behavior of the whole lot of them.
But it is not beyond God to use evil actions to accomplish his goals. This principle is stated explicitly in the Joseph narrative, where God used the abduction and enslavement of Joseph to bring about the preservation of Egypt and the Israelites during a famine: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). The supreme example of such serendipity is the crucifixion of Christ: an unambiguously evil act was used by God to accomplish the greatest of all possible goods, the salvation of humanity (Acts 2:22–24). It is not an endorsement of bad behavior, but an acknowledgment that there is precious little else to work with in this world. Indeed, if God refused to use evil people, He would have no one to work with at all.5
9 Harbona, one of the king’s eunuchs, said, “Indeed, there is the gallows that Haman made for Mordecai, who spoke out in the king’s behalf. It stands near Haman’s home and is seventy-five feet high.” The king said, “Hang him on it!”
Harbona’s reference to the gallows in effect introduces a second charge against Haman — his attempt to kill the king’s benefactor. . . . [Harbona] had been sent earlier to bring Vashti and thus set in motion the events that would lead to her fall and the choice of Esther (1:10); now he is instrumental in the fall of Haman and rise of Mordecai.6
10 So they hanged Haman on the very gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. The king’s rage then abated.
Haman’s preparation of the gallows is found in 5:14. Just as the abating of the king’s anger over Vashti led him to choose a new queen, so the abating of the king’s anger over Haman will lead him to choose Haman’s replacement.
Barker, Kenneth L. ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Brown, Raymond E. ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Mays, James L. ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (Revised Edition). San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000.
Meeks, Wayne A. ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Tomasino, Anthony. Esther. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013.