Hoist with his own petard

First United Methodist Church, Shelbyville, Tenn.— Sept. 30, 2018

When I looked to see what this week’s Lectionary passages were, my eye was immediately drawn to the book of Esther, one of the most fascinating and unusual stories in the Old Testament. I wanted to sort of set things up a little bit before I actually read the scripture passage, since it’s sort of the climactic scene in a whole story, and if you haven’t read the whole story, or haven’t read it in a while, the passage will make more sense if you consider it in context.

The story of Esther takes place in Persia, during a period when Judaea had been conquered and most of the Jewish people were living in exile. They were immigrants, and not of their own doing. They were scorned.

The king of Persia at the time is identified here as Ahasuerus, which is a sort of Hebrew translation of the name that would be rendered as Xerxes in Greek. Historians attempting to place this book in the context of documented history have argued about whether this was Xerxes I, Artaxerxes II or Artaxerxes III, or someone else.

Ahasuerus has a wife, Queen Vashti, but she displeases him, and so he banishes her from his presence and decides to take a harem. The plan is that he will find all the most beautiful women in the kingdom, then give them beauty treatments — yes, the Bible actually says “beauty treatments” — and put them on a special healthy diet. Then Ahasuerus will choose the most beautiful woman from the harem to be his new queen.

Now, there are some elements of this story — the most beautiful girl, being made even more beautiful, and chosen from among many others to be the new queen — that we’ve been conditioned to think of as something out of a fairy tale, but we have to be very careful here not to romanticize this.

It’s important in our day and age that we recognize this for what it is — slavery. Sex trafficking. This was a patriarchal society, and this was an evil and abusive thing, and it needs to be recognized as such. Ahasuerus is forcing these women to be with him, plain and simple.

The servants who recruit the harem end up taking in one of the Hebrew expatriates, a young woman named Esther. Esther has an uncle, Mordecai, but — and this is important to the story — Mordecai is not known to any of the palace officials as having any connection to Esther. In fact, Mordecai advises Esther not to be too open about her ethnic background and heritage, and so she doesn’t talk about it. No one at the palace knows she is a Hebrew or thinks of her as one. Esther ends up finding favor with the king, and being given the position once held by Queen Vashti. We don’t know what happens to the rest of the harem.

Mordecai, who is concerned about his niece’s fate, begins spending time just outside the royal palace. Mordecai overhears two members of the king’s court plotting to kill the king, and tells Esther about it, and the plot is thwarted — but even though he has saved the king’s life, Mordecai doesn’t actually meet the king in person.

Later, Mordecai finds himself on the bad side of the king’s top advisor, Haman. Mordecai, in his usual location just outside the palace, refuses to bow down to Haman, not unlike the way that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in similar circumstances, had refused to bow to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar. Refusing to bow to the second-in-command of all of Persia was, a dramatic and offensive gesture. Mordecai stands on principle, but Haman sees it as an insult and a rejection. Haman becomes furious.

When Haman finds out that Mordecai’s refusal to bow down is somehow related to his being from the land of Israel, he becomes determined not only to eliminate Mordecai but to eliminate the whole Hebrew population in Persia. He convinces the king to sign a royal degree putting the plan in motion.

Mordecai approaches Esther, telling her about the plan and instructing his niece that she has a duty to save her people. He tells her that perhaps she was made queen “for such a time as this.”

Esther then takes a great risk by entering the king’s chamber without being summoned — which was punishable by death unless the king gave his permission. Fortunately, the king welcomes Esther. Esther invites the king, and Haman, to a dinner. Haman still has no idea that Esther is a part of the population he is trying to wipe out. In fact, he thinks the fact that he has had a private dinner with the king and with Esther is a sign of his high status with the king.

Haman is all the more determined to carry out his plan, and he orders the placement of a high pole — or, in some translations, a gallows — upon which he is going to impale, or hang, Mordecai.

The king, meanwhile, has a dream, and as a result of his dream he realizes that he never got to meet, or thank, the man who discovered the plot against him. He finds out that his hero’s name is Mordecai, and asks what was done to thank Mordecai for his service. When they tell him “nothing,” he decides that he wants to do something to honor Mordecai.

The next scene is right out of a movie — or even a sitcom. The king calls in Haman, and tells Haman that there’s someone the king wants to honor. He asks Haman for advice on what would be appropriate. The king is talking about Mordecai, of course, but he never says a name, and so Haman thinks the king is talking about him, and just being clever about it. Haman is convinced that the king is about to heap even more glory onto his loyal servant Haman. He looks forward to what he is sure will be a ceremony in his honor, even as he moves forward with his plan to eliminate Mordecai and all the Jews.

That brings us up to today’s Lectionary passage, in which the king, Haman and Esther gather for a second banquet.

Esther 7:1–6, 9–10 (CEB)

When the king and Haman came in for the banquet with Queen Esther, the king said to her, “This is the second day we’ve met for wine. What is your wish, Queen Esther? I’ll give it to you. And what do you want? I’ll do anything — even give you half the kingdom.”
Queen Esther answered, “If I please the king, and if the king wishes, give me my life — that’s my wish — and the lives of my people too. That’s my desire. We have been sold — I and my people — to be wiped out, killed, and destroyed. If we simply had been sold as male and female slaves, I would have said nothing. But no enemy can compensate the king for this kind of damage.”
King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is this person, and where is he? Who would dare do such a thing?”
Esther replied, “A man who hates, an enemy — this wicked Haman!” Haman was overcome with terror in the presence of the king and queen.
Harbona, one of the eunuchs serving the king, said, “Sir, look! There’s the stake that Haman made for Mordecai, the man who spoke up and did something good for the king. It’s standing at Haman’s house — seventy-five feet high.”
“Impale him on it!” the king ordered. So they impaled Haman on the very pole that he had set up for Mordecai, and the king’s anger went away.

What a dramatic image — Esther suddenly pointing the finger of accusation at Haman. It’s a classic part of storytelling for the villain to get his comeuppance, and even more poetic when the plan the villain has set in place ends up being the means of the villain’s demise.

Shakespeare had a term for it: “Hoist with his own petard.” He used the term in “Hamlet,” Act 3, Scene 4: “For ’tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petard; and ’t shall go hard.”

A petard, from a seventeenth-century manuscript of military designs. (Image from Wikipedia)

A “petard” was a type of small explosive, a sort of makeshift bomb, and the metaphor depicts the image of a man being blown up by the bomb he planned to use to kill someone else. Shakespeare uses the line as foreshadowing, because “Hamlet,” the play, ends with the villain, who had planned to slash Hamlet with a poisoned sword, being slashed by that same sword, and dying from that same poison.

In this play, Hamlet is also poisoned, and both of them die, so it’s not a complete reversal. This is a tragedy, after all. But at least the villain suffers the consequences of his actions, which must have been satisfying for Shakespeare’s audience.

When I mentioned earlier that I am fascinated by the book of Esther, I didn’t mention one of the most famous things about it. Some of you probably already know this bit of trivia. Esther is the only book of the Bible — or one of two, depending on who you ask — that never mentions God. Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon, never uses the term “God,” but the male and female characters in the book are commonly taken as an allegory of God’s love for his people, and so by that interpretation, he is mentioned throughout the book. But in Esther, God isn’t mentioned at all.

You can certainly see God working behind the scenes, providing a way for Esther and Mordecai to save their people from slaughter. When Mordecai tells Esther that she was made queen “for such a time as this,” you can put two and two together. But the writer of the book doesn’t feel the need to connect the dots and specifically say that God’s hand is at work.

And in the case of Haman’s fate, I think in some ways that is strangely appropriate.

When we’re growing up, as children and adolescents, we haven’t yet learned to think about the long-term consequences of our actions. And so, parents and teachers have to impose rules on us, rules that we sometimes don’t understand and that we struggle against. We think that these parents and teachers are just being mean to us, and we sometimes don’t understand that they have our best interest in mind. Those rules are for our own good, of course, and as we get older we start to realize the value of being polite, or washing your hands, or learning how to communicate effectively.

Many of you have heard me talk about my nephew Jacob, who was a star in Division II college football season before last and is now a graduate assistant helping to coach his old team. My sister did a great job teaching all three of her children the value of good manners. When my nephew was a football player, there was one year when the coach asked all of the football players on the team to write “thank you” notes to some of the football program’s biggest and most generous boosters. Many of the players dashed off quick notes, but my nephew wrote a very sincere letter talking about what football, and sports in general, had meant to him, and what he’d gained from it.

A few weeks later, one of the boosters came to see the coach about some matter or another, and while they were talking the booster pulled Jacob’s letter out of his pocket. “Tell me about this boy,” he said. The coach told him a little bit about Jacob, and the booster said, “You tell him that once he gets out of school, if he ever needs a reference or anything I can do for him to help him get started in life, he should call me.”

I doubt that when Jacob was five years old, he would have understood the value of good manners, or being able to communicate effectively. Sometimes, we have to learn the actions before we are in a place to be able to see the long-term consequences.

Actions do have consequences. Jesus told his disciples, when Peter tried to prevent Jesus from being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, that all who live by the sword will die by the sword.

There are times when we are too quick to ascribe things to God’s punishment which are really God’s wisdom. Let me explain what I mean by that.

When you tell a child, “Don’t touch that skillet — it’s hot,” and the child touches it anyway and burns her finger, the burnt finger is not because you were punishing the child. On the contrary, you were trying to protect the child. The burnt finger is just the natural consequence of touching a hot skillet.

Too often, we are quick to see God as eager to punish — we are either afraid that he’s eager to punish us, or we are hopeful that he’s eager to punish our enemies. But God is a God of love. God is trying to steer us towards actions and attitudes with good consequences, and away from actions and attitudes with bad consequences.

Haman lived a life of hatred and vanity and blind ambition and xenophobia. He had been given power, and he wanted people to bow down to him, and when one Jew refused to do so, he had hatred in his heart for all Jews. And the consequences of his attitudes and actions came back to him.

Now, admittedly, justice doesn’t always work as quickly as we would like. We become impatient. When I was in college, I was involved in student government, and our advisor was a professor from the business department named Dr. George Gillen. Even though I never had Dr. Gillen for a class, just from our student government meetings I can still remember one of his favorite proverbs: “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.” If you live your life in contempt of other people, it’s going to come back and find you. Maybe sooner; maybe later. Maybe in big, dramatic, visible ways; maybe in a subtle pain that no one around you knows anything about. But, make no mistake; the way in which you live your life has consequences.

That principle isn’t just applied to evil people or grand acts of villainy. It has to do with every decision you make, every point of ethics, every opportunity you have to build others up or tear them down. Every action you take has consequences, for good or bad.

Some of the Bible’s other villains were defeated in miraculous ways which were clearly the result of direct divine intervention. We think of the Red Sea drowning Pharaoh’s armies, for example, or the fire and brimstone raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah.

In this case, we see justice at work, but the mechanism by which it operates is entirely through human effort — the heroic refusal of Mordecai to bow down, the heroic effort by Esther to place her life on the line by taking her people’s cause directly to the king, and the decision by Haman to raise a stake, or build a gallows, in greedy anticipation of humiliating his worst enemy. Haman suffered the consequences of his actions. He was, going back to the Shakespeare reference, hoist with his own petard.

Mordecai, however, had no problem seeing God’s hand at work in the bigger picture, the salvation of his people. Following Haman’s demise, Mordecai is elevated to a position of power, and he uses his new status to make sure that all the Jews living in Persian territory knew exactly what had happened and that they remembered it.

Esther 9:20–22 (CEB)

Mordecai wrote these things down and sent letters to all the Jews in all the provinces, both near and far, of King Ahasuerus. He made it a rule that Jews keep the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as special days each and every year. They are the days on which the Jews finally put to rest the troubles with their enemies. The month is the one when everything turned around for them from sadness to joy, and from sad, loud crying to a holiday. They are to make them days of feasts and joyous events, days to send food gifts to each other and money gifts to the poor.

That holiday proclaimed by Mordecai is still celebrated by the Jews; it’s known as Purim. This year, it fell on the 28th of February through the 1st of March.

The holiday, as Mordecai proclaimed it, was one of joy and gratitude, a remembrance of a remarkable reversal of fortune. The Jewish people in Persia had gone from the brink of genocide to a position of power and respect.

While it must have been tempting to gloat in the poetic justice of Haman’s fate, that is not what Mordecai commands his fellow Israelites to remember. He casts the holiday in a light of generosity and gratitude, and tells people to send food to each other and money to the poor, to those in need.

It is wrong for Christians to gloat in anyone’s downfall. We may recognize that downfall as some sort of reckoning, some sort of natural result of wrong behavior. But we should not, must not, get on our high horse. If we believe that God loves everyone, we must believe that God loved Haman, and that God was grieved at the way Haman’s story ended. We must never hope for revenge, always for redemption. Because it’s just possible that we may be the Haman, the bad guy, in someone else’s story.

If this story was just about consequences, it it were just about Haman’s bad luck and Mordecai and Esther’s good luck, there would be no point in celebrating or remembering it, no reason to have a holiday. What makes it worth celebrating is that the story is clearly about God’s presence, God’s provision, God’s protection, whether or not God is mentioned anywhere in it by name. Haman’s fate may have been the the result of his own actions. But the protection of the Jewish people was a sign of God’s grace. That sounds like a paradox — is this story about inevitable consequences, or is it about God’s miraculous presence? In some ways, it’s both, and that’s the glory and the joy and the frustration of it.

We have to be grateful for whatever happens, whether it’s explainable or unexplainable, whether it’s the stuff of science or the stuff of miracles. I think Mordecai had the right idea when he urged his people to remember God’s protection and provision with joy and gratitude and humility and generosity. We should do the same, as we look back and recognize all of the ways God has protected us.