Esther’s Ambiguity

01 Mar 2011
OU Press

Rabbi David Fohrman, in OU Press’ new book, The Queen You Thought You Knew: Unmasking Esther’s Hidden Story (pp. 43-46), addresses some difficult language surrounding Esther’s banquets.

Dangling Pronouns

Esther doesn’t remain silent. But she doesn’t ask the king to save her people, either. Instead, Esther chooses a third option. She invites the king to a party. But she doesn’t just invite him. She invites Haman, too.

If I have found favor in your eyes, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet I have made for him…”… (Esther 5:4)

What is Esther doing here?

As it turns out, a clue comes in the form of a grammatical incongruity in the verse. There is a subtle ambiguity in Esther’s words, a dangling pronoun:

“… let the king and Haman come today to a banquet I have made for him… “ (Esther 5:4)

Him, who?

Esther has invited two people to this banquet – but then says she is making it for only one of them. Who, exactly, is the “him” that this banquet is for? There are only two possibilities – and if you were Achashveirosh, neither is especially appealing.

One possibility is that Esther is making the banquet for Achashveirosh. But if that’s the case, what’s she doing inviting Haman, too? What is he doing interrupting a private dinner for two?

The other possibility, of course, is that she’s making the party for Haman. But that possibility is even worse. Why is she making a party for him?

Things only get worse once the banquet actually takes place. At the feast, the king again asks Esther to tell him what’s on her mind. Up to half the kingdom, and he’s happy to give it to her. Just tell me, Esther – and it’s yours.

Esther’s response? She seems almost surprised that the king has asked her what’s on her mind:

“My request and my petition? If I have found favor in the eyes of the king and if it please the king to grant my petition, and to perform my request – let the king and Haman come to [another] banquet that I shall make for them, and I will do tomorrow as the king has said.” (Esther 5:7-8)

Now go back and check the pronouns. Notice anything?

Now, all of a sudden, Esther uses the plural. The banquet is for both of them, both the king and Haman. Things are in flux. Whoever the banquet was for the first time – the king or Haman – it’s changed now. Now it’s for the king and Haman. What, exactly, does Esther think she is doing here?

Shared Destruction

Stop and ask yourself: How would you characterize Esther’s choices here? Would you call them safe or hazardous?

Esther is planting the seed of an exceptionally dangerous idea in the mind of the king. As Rashi, grandfather of the medieval commentators, suggests, Esther is insinuating, without quite saying it, that perhaps something is going on between her and Haman. If we look at what she is doing without the benefit of hindsight – without knowing that in the end, things worked out safely for her ^ndash; it would seem that Esther is embarking on something close to a suicide mission. In Persia during the fourth century BC, how long is the average lifespan of a queen whom the king suspects of adultery?

Why is she being so risky? Evidently, Esther has concluded that she has little choice. Yes, if the king perceives Esther to be involved with Haman, then maybe they will both hang on the royal gallows before the banquet on the morrow. But if that is the case, so be it. She will at least have brought the Jews’ tormentor down with her, and perhaps her people will somehow emerge whole from her and Haman’s shared demise.

The Only Thing Worse than Knowing is Not Knowing

Having embarked on this perilous path, Esther plays the part to the hilt. Not only does she suggest the possibility of a dalliance with Haman, she cloaks that possibility in ambiguity. Who is the banquet for? Could be for the king. Could be for Haman. And then, a second invitation for them, for both the King and Haman. The situation is dynamic and in flux. If the king is trying to figure out what’s going on, he is pursuing a moving target.

Often, when we find ourselves faced with difficult or dangerous circumstances, the most unbearable part is not the danger itself, but the uncertainty associated with it. When the doctor tells the patient that yes, something is seriously wrong – but he doesn’t know what it is; he needs to order more tests that’s when the patient’s blood pressure skyrockets. When, in a horror novel, the victim walks slowly through the corridors of an empty house and nothing happens – yet – that’s the most frightening part of the book. From the king’s perspective, the worst part of these banquets is the not knowing. Who is the banquet for? Either possibility is bad – but what’s even worse is not knowing which it is. And as if that weren’t enough, whatever the reality was yesterday, has changed today. And then, of course, the final uncertainty: Maybe I misheard her. Maybe she just stumbled over her words. Why am I letting my imagination get the best of me? Why am I making such a big deal over nothing?

It’s no wonder the king can’t sleep that night.

That night the king couldn’t fall asleep, and he asked that the Book of Chronicles be brought before him to be read to him…(Esther 6:1)

Learn more about the book here: link.
And here is a video about the book: