Purim 2: no noose

Esther the name of the heroine of the book of Esther comes from the same root as natsar, meaning hidden. “Hidden” suggests that we should look for some hidden, that is prophetic, message in Esther. One surprise is the fate of Haman, the enemy of Mordechai and the Jewish people. He erects a gallows to hang Mordechai from (Esther 5:14) but ends up hung from it himself (7:9-10). But was he hung?

The Hebrew words used are talah (suspend) and es (tree or wooden thing). One or both words are used to describe legal executions under the Egyptians (Genesis 40:22), Mesopotamians (Lamentations 5:!2) and Persians (Esther 2:12) as well as the general statement in Deuteronomy 21:23 that he who hangs on a tree is cursed. Ancient reliefs and the Roman historian Heroditus (History 3:125, 159) identify such ‘hanging’ as impalement and then llfting up the victim on display. The Roman form of crucifixion was a development of this. The noose was not used, presumably because hanging was an insufficiently awful form of execution.

Haman's punishmentThe execution of Haman marks the salvation of the Jewish people from a terrible threat. At the feast of Purim, Jewish people celebrate this in playful fashion by reading the book of Esther with cheers and boos in appropriate places and, for example, hanging a toy figurine representing Haman. In the early centuries CE, the custom was to crucify and burn the figurine but this proved unwise in Christian countries. Michelangelo’s Punishment of Haman in the Sistine Chapel (left) shows him being crucified.

As if by agreement, both synagogue and church have substituted the less awkward figure of Haman suspended by a noose from a gallows. What this hides is that:
– anti-semitism in the Christian church has made the cross symbolic of those who are enemies of the Jewish people
– salvation for the Jews may yet be associated with such a symbol and the curse upon he who ‘hangs from a tree’.

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