The Conspiracy of Haman & Counselors and Concubines: Life in an Ancient Royal Palace

Finger Pointing UpThe king was Greek, and Esther a Jew, and they didn’t do things like that back then.  You must have had Your hand in it to make it work.

“After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him.

Purim is celebrated by giving mutual gifts of food and drink (mishloach manot), giving charity to the poor (mattanot la-evyonim), a celebratory meal (se’udat Purim), and public recitation of the Scroll of Esther (keriat ha-megillah), additions to the prayers and the grace after meals (al hannisim).

Other customs include drinking wine, wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebrations.

Purim is celebrated annually according to the Hebrew calendar on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (Adar II in leap years), the day following the victory of the Jews over their enemies.

In cities that were protected by a surrounding wall at the time of Joshua, Purim is instead celebrated on the 15th of the month on what is known as Shushan Purim.

Today, only Jerusalem celebrates Purim on the 15th.

And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence.

Then the king’s servants, which were in the king’s gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment?

Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew.

2. Haman
Haman was a high official, in effect the prime minister, of the Persian king Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes (reigned 485-465 B.C.).

He was an Agagite, apparently because he, or his parents, originated from Agag, a region bordering on Media.

Haman is known to Bible History from the book of Esther where, because Esther’s cousin Mordecai (who was in fact very loyal to the king himself) would not bow down to him, Haman spitefully tried, and failed, to destroy all Jews within the kingdom.

And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath.

And he thought scorn to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had shewed him the people of Mordecai: wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.

In the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, that is, the month Adar.

And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them.

If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.

And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy.

And the king said unto Haman, The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee.

3. Haman Begging
Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt.
Haman is the main antagonist in the Book of Esther, who, according to the Bible, was a vizier in the Persian empire under King Ahasuerus, traditionally identified as Xerxes I.

As his name indicates, Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalekites, a people who were wiped out in certain areas by King Saul and David.

Haman in the Hebrew Bible

Haman is described as the son of Hammedatha the Agagite.

In the story, Haman and his wife Zeresh instigate a plot to kill all of the Jews of ancient Persia.

Haman attempts to convince Ahasuerus to order the killing of Mordecai and all the Jews of the lands he ruled.

The plot is foiled by Queen Esther, the king’s recent wife, who is herself a Jew.

Haman is hanged from the gallows that had originally been built to hang Mordecai.

The dead bodies of his ten sons Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha (or Vajezatha), are also hanged after they die in battle trying to kill the Jews.

Then were the king’s scribes called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and there was written according to all that Haman had commanded unto the king’s lieutenants, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the rulers of every people of every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and sealed with the king’s ring.

And the letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.

The copy of the writing for a commandment to be given in every province was published unto all people, that they should be ready against that day.

The posts went out, being hastened by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given in Shushan the palace. And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city Shushan was perplexed” (Est 3:1-15).

“When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry;

And came even before the king’s gate: for none might enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.

And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.

So Esther’s maids and her chamberlains came and told it her. Then was the queen exceedingly grieved; and she sent raiment to clothe Mordecai, and to take away his sackcloth from him: but he received it not.

4. The Last Public Hanging in America 1936.
The Last Public Hanging in America, 1936.

Hanging is one of the oldest means of execution, dating back to the times of The Old Testament in The Book of Esther. where the ten sons of Haman were hanged.

Hanging has been practiced legally in the United States of America from the nation’s birth, up to 1972 when the United States Supreme Court found capital punishment to be in violation of the eighth amendment to the United States Constitution.

Four years later, the Supreme Court overturned its previous ruling, and in 1976, capital punishment was again legalized in the United States.

However, today hanging is only legal in the states of Washington and New Hampshire.

Then called Esther for Hatach, one of the king’s chamberlains, whom he had appointed to attend upon her, and gave him a commandment to Mordecai, to know what it was, and why it was.

So Hatach went forth to Mordecai unto the street of the city, which was before the king’s gate.

And Mordecai told him of all that had happened unto him, and of the sum of the money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the Jews, to destroy them.

Also he gave him the copy of the writing of the decree that was given at Shushan to destroy them, to shew it unto Esther, and to declare it unto her, and to charge her that she should go in unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him for her people.

And Hatach came and told Esther the words of Mordecai.

Again Esther spake unto Hatach, and gave him commandment unto Mordecai;

All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or women, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre, that he may live: but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.

5. Statue of Yang Guifei
Statue of Yang Guifei (719-756), the favoured concubine of Emperor Tang Xuanzong of China.
Concubinage is an interpersonal relationship in which a person (usually a woman) engages in an ongoing sexual relationship with another person (usually a man) to whom they are not or cannot be married.

The inability to marry may be due to differences in social rank (including sex slave status), or because the non-concubine is already married.

The woman in such a relationship is referred to as a concubine.

Historically, concubinage was frequently voluntary by the woman or her family, as it provided a measure of economic security for the woman involved.

And they told to Mordecai Esther’s words.

Then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther, Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.

For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Then Esther bade them return Mordecai this answer,

Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.

So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him” (Est 4:1-17).

Counselors and Concubines:
Life in an Ancient Royal Palace

Piecing together the nature of palace life in the ancient world is fraught with difficulties, since what was true for one place and time may not have been so for another.

7. Sex in Ancient Athens
Prostitutes, Concubines and Courtesans
With the citizens’ wives cloistered in their own homes for most of their lives, the state felt they had a duty to ensure availability of sexual partners.

Prostitution not only had no social stigma associated with it, it was totally legal and even taxed.

Many of the brothels in Athens were owned by the state, although some were private enterprises.

Athenian society had five different types of prostitutes: slaves in the brothels, streetwalkers or pornai (from whom we get the word “pornography”), symposia call girls called heteras who often danced and played musical instruments, concubines and courtesans.

Prostitutes in brothels and on the street had a fairly miserable existence, the rate they could charge was limited by law, and women in brothels were often expected to spend time between clients weaving or engaged in other crafts to further generate income for the brothel.

Concubines generally entered into longer-term arrangements with a single man, and enjoyed better pay and an overall higher standard of living than street and brothel prostitutes.

The courtesans were educated women, sought after for more than just sexual intercourse, they were skilled conversationalists and the most worldly of Athenian women.

Although the social freedoms enjoyed by a courtesan were limited by contrast with many other contemporary cultures, they were greater than those enjoyed by any other group of Athenian women.

Not all ancient courts, for instance, followed thesame rules. Nevertheless, it is possible draw together some general tendencies about ancient Near Eastern palace life from various examples from the Biblical world.

Counselors and High Officials

As advisors to the king, counselors and courtiers were held in high esteem. Their advice influenced the king and the court in many matters; this influence could be either for evil (2 Chr 22:3), or for good (e.g., Baruch used his influence to read Jeremiah’s prophecies not only to the people but to his fellow officials as well; Jer 36:5).

High officials were expected to be “wise,” but in the ancient Near East wisdom involved not only education or good judgment but also an ability to read omens and practice divination (as was the case in the examples of Joseph’s and Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams or solve riddles).

The fundamental duty of royal counselors was to give the king advice that would enable him to retain his power and prestige.

6. Prostitutes Concubines and Courtesans
Sex in Ancient Athens
To understand sexuality in ancient Athens it’s necessary to remember that the Athenian culture had no corollary to many of the ideas at the root of modern Western attitudes towards sex.

Athens had no Eve, shamed by her nakedness, no commandments carved in stone.

What they did have carved in stone were phalluses.

Lots and lots of them, by some accounts.

Male sexual organs were frequently included in art, literature, drama and even the streets of Athens.

Stone pillars called herms, featuring a bust of the god Hermes at their top and an erect phallus at their base, were placed outside houses for good luck.

Nudity was, if not exactly commonplace, perfectly acceptable.

Athletic competitions and many artistic representations of the human form were undertaken nude.

Sex was an act defined by the phallus.

It was not an act done with a partner, but rather to a partner.

The active party penetrated the passive; in all but the rarest case the active party was an adult male citizen.

The division of rights, responsibilities and roles in sexual relationships was not simply split along gender lines, but also lines of class, and of age.

Thus a wise counselor could make or unmake a king, and the counselor’s prestige (and sometimes his life) depended upon whether or not the king regarded his advice as sound (see 2 Sam 15:32-17:14).

King Xerxes offi­cials advised him to remove Vashti from her position as queen and to replace her with another queen, lest other women hear of her actions and treat their husbands with con­tempt and the king himself become an object of scorn (Est 1:13).

The Royal Wives and Concubines

The king maintained separate quarters from the women; at Mari, the queen was also housed separately from the concubines and other women.

The concepts of “harems” and “concubines” have derogatory connotations in modern times, but this was not the case in the ancient Near East.

“Harem” simply referred to the palace women (including concubines and slaves) or to the area where they lived.

Persian royal women not only could attend banquets (2:10-11) but also accompanied the king on hunts and even on military campaigns.  Concubines in the Persian period included foreigners – daughters of other kings with whom alliances had been made.

The fact that they had their own attendants indicates that they were not of low social station, though within the royal family they possessed only the rights of secondary wives.

In some con­texts access to the palace concubines was equated with the right to the kingship (cf. 2 Sam 3:7; 16:21 -22; 1 Kgs 2:22), so the harem was guarded by a eunuch or other official.

While the access of the concubines to the king was limited (Est 2:14, 4:11), this was not a function of their status; no one of any position could ap­proach a Persian king without having been summoned (4:11).

Offi­cials, however, could not meet with royal women alone (e.g., Mordecai sent word to Esther about Haman’s plot via the eunuch Hathach; 4:5-9). In the Assyrian court the penalty for a courtier attempting to meet alone with a royal woman was death.

Royal women could use their influence to intercede with the king, particularly on behalf of or for the benefit of family members.

In this way Esther was able to reveal a plot against the king that was dis­covered by Mordecai (2:21-23), as well as to intercede on behalf of her people when Haman tried to destroy them (7:1).

Queens, in addition to supervising household man­agement and overseeing the harem, also owned and managed estates and oversaw work details.

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