Achashverosh's Shock and Fury

Exegetical Approaches


Commentators struggle to understand both how Achashverosh did not know that Esther was referring to Haman's plan and why he became so furious.  In searching for solutions, many are influenced by whether they perceive Achashverosh to generally be a benign, inept, or shrewd and opportunistic king.  According to a large group of commentators, Haman had not been upfront with Achashverosh about the details of his plan, and the king had never been aware that Haman was intending to kill the Jews.  Achashverosh, thus, was not an evil king, nor negatively disposed to the Jews; he had simply placed his trust in the wrong person.

A second school of thought suggests instead that Achashverosh had understood Haman's intent fully, but being a capricious and foolish king, he never gave it a second thought after removing his signet ring.  Thus, when Esther said that her nation was in danger, he did not immediately put two and two together.  Finally, a last approach asserts that Achashverosh was not truly surprised, but only acted as such so as to pin the blame on Haman.  Intervening events had led him to be suspicious of Haman, and he seized Esther's plight as an opportunity to quickly dispose of Haman.  This position views Achashverosh as a despot, quick to eliminate any potential threats to his throne.

Misled by Haman

Achashverosh had been deceived by Haman, who had hidden the identity of the nation he was intent on destroying and/or misled him regarding what he planned to do to that nation.  Thus, it was only after Esther pointed to Haman as the source of danger that Achashverosh first became aware that Haman had been plotting to annihilate the Jews.1

Haman's request – "יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד" – Most of these commentators2 point out that when Haman petitions the king to approve his plan, he never names the particular nation to be punished,3 but refers to merely a generic "עַם אֶחָד".  Achashverosh, due to either his ineptitude4 or his trusting of his right hand man,5 did not ask any questions and simply gave his rubber stamp without being aware that it was the Jewish people Haman sought to harm.
Haman's request – "יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם" – According to many of these commentators,6 Haman, when speaking to the king, was purposefully misleading in choosing the ambiguous language of "לְאַבְּדָם"‎.7 Only in the official letters to the various states did Haman disambiguate, adding ‎"‏‎לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד‎".8 These exegetes disagree, though, regarding how Haman meant for Achashverosh to understand the term "לְאַבְּדָם":
    • Despoiling – The commentary attributed to Ramah9 suggests that the king understood "לְאַבְּדָם" to mean that the nation would be dispossessed and lose their property.10
    • Enslavement – R.  Arama and R. Ashkenazi11 suggest that Haman tried to mislead Achashverosh into understanding that he wanted to enslave (and/or evict) the nation.12  Akeidat Yitzchak does not bring any textual proof to support such an understanding of the word "‎‏לְאַבְּדָם‎",13 instead positing that Haman was suggesting that through hard labor they would perish.
    • Exile – R. Reggio points to the verse "וּבָאוּ הָאֹבְדִים בְּאֶרֶץ אַשּׁוּר"‎14 as evidence that the root "אבד" can refer to exile and he thereby suggests that Haman told the king that it was best to banish the lawless nation15 from his empire.16
    • Religious persecution – Malbim asserts that the word "לְאַבֵּד" can refer to not only physical destruction, but to spiritual destruction as well.17 Haman convinced the king that the nation's observance of different religious customs was detrimental to the kingdom and that they should be forced to abandon their faith.18
Shock and fury – According to this approach, both Achashverosh's surprise and his anger stem from the one source, Haman's deception.
10,000 pieces of gold – Haman's offer is understood differently by the commentators in accordance with their respective understandings of the connotations of "לְאַבְּדָם" above:
  • Compensation for lost tax revenues – R. Reggio could suggest that Haman was offering to pay the amount that would be lost in taxes if the nation was to be exiled.19
  • Profits – According to those who suggest that Haman's words were understood as either selling the nation into slavery or dispossessing them, Haman might be telling the king that the profits from such a sale/plundering would go to the royal treasury.20 
  • Self-financed – According to Malbim, Haman was saying that, in their religious fervor, the officers would be so happy to fulfill the decree that they would finance it by themselves.
"וְהָעָם לַעֲשׂוֹת בּוֹ כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ" – According to most of these commentators, these words signify Achashverosh's unwitting approval of Haman's plan, allowing him free reign to do as he wished.21
Did Achashverosh know Esther was Jewish? Most of these commentators likely assume that Achashverosh was unaware of Esther's identity.  R. Arama, though, proposes that Achashverosh knew all along that Esther was Jewish;22 he simply did not know that Haman's edict referred to Jews.   As support for this hypothesis, he notes that Esther, when pleading for her life, never explicitly mentions her nationality (as would have been expected had it been unknown).  In addition, Achashverosh's surprise is not over Esther's identity but about who could have proposed such a plan, and Haman does not defend himself by saying that he was simply unaware of the queen's nationality.23
Honoring Mordechai – According to this approach, Achashverosh's honoring of Mordechai is not the sign of a fickle king who decides to exterminate the Jews one day and revere them the next, but part of a consistently positive attitude toward the Jewish nation.  In fact, according to most of these sources, the king's disposition is what led Haman to hide the identity of the nation he wanted to harm.
"וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת" – This position might view the drinking as a way of sealing a pact or signing an agreement, much like covenants in Tanakh are made over a meal.24 It need not signify that Achashverosh was a callous drunkard.
Two different letters – R. Ashkenazi , R. Reggio and Malbim interpret the doubling in the description of the dissemination of the edict to indicate that Haman sent out both open and sealed letters.  The open letter ("פַּתְשֶׁגֶן הַכְּתָב... גָּלוּי") simply told the provinces to ready themselves for war on the thirteenth of Adar, but did not reveal the identity of the enemy.  The name of the nation was contained only in the sealed25 missive which was not to be opened until the thirteenth of Adar.  Thus, Haman attempted to ensure that word of his true plans would not get back to Achashverosh until it was too late.26
Mordechai's report – R. Yonatan Grossman27 suggests that Mordechai told Esther about both the money that Haman meant to give the treasury "לְאַבְּדָם" and the letters which were sent "לְהַשְׁמִידָם"‎,28 not to emphasize the looming threat, but rather to alert her to the fact that Haman had misled the king,29 telling him one thing but writing another.30
Esther's tactics – "וְאִלּוּ לַעֲבָדִים וְלִשְׁפָחוֹת נִמְכַּרְנוּ הֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי" – With these words Esther tried to create a rift between Achashverosh and Haman, suggesting that one was in the right and the other wrong.31 She thus "innocently" suggests that if the only wrong done had been to sell her nation into slavery (as Achashverosh had intended), she would not have troubled the king, but when the stakes are life and death (as per Haman's deception) she can no longer remain silent.
Why does Haman not defend himself? According to this approach, Haman has no defense since he actively misled the king.  His best hope is to seek mercy from the queen who has exposed him, and this is exactly what he does.
Significance to hanging? M. Lehmann32 asserts that Haman may have been killed specifically by hanging since this was the general punishment for treason against the king, and Haman was viewed as having rebelled against the king by veering from Achashverosh's desired edict.33
Biblical parallels – R"Y Grossman34 points to several linguistic parallels between this incident and the story of Achav and Navot's vineyard.35  He notes that, in both cases, someone uses the king's seal to send a death warrant.  The allusions suggest that just as in the story of Achav the king was unaware of his proxy's actions, so too Achashverosh was not privy to Haman's real intentions.
Portrait of Achashverosh – Most of these commentators view Achashverosh positively, suggesting that he honored the Jewish nation, and was innocent of any intent to kill them.  Thus, they view him, not as a foolish king, but as one who unintentionally placed his trust in an evil adviser.36

Fickle and Foolish

Achashverosh had previously known of Haman's plan to annihilate the Jews, but being  a dimwitted drunkard, he did not immediately make the connection between it and the threat to Esther's life.  Moreover, caring more about his personal pleasures than running the affairs of his kingdom, he had no qualms about agreeing with one person one day, only to discard them in favor of another on the next day.

Haman's request – This position assumes that Haman was upfront when discussing his plan to annihilate the Jewish people and that Achashverosh knew from the beginning both to which nation Haman was referring and what he wanted to do with them, but did not dwell on the fact.
10,000 pieces of gold – This approach might suggest that Haman offered the money as a bribe to Achashverosh, assuming that the foolish king would be swayed more by riches than by logical explanations or principles.
"וְהָעָם לַעֲשׂוֹת בּוֹ כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ" – Achashverosh, not particularly adept at governing on his own, was only too ready to hand over the necessary powers to Haman. He permitted Haman to do as he pleased, and was not overly concerned with the details.
"וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת" – The verse highlights that, as the edict went out,  Haman and the king drank to it, perhaps suggesting that, even while discussing the issue, Achashverosh was not totally sober.  The repeated mention of drinking throughout the story adds to the portrait of a drunkard who hardly remains sober long enough to process what is going on in his kingdom.
"לֹא הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר אֶת עַמָּהּ וְאֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ" – This approach assumes that Esther hid her full identity until the party and that it was only then revealed to Achashverosh.  Lekach TovEsther 2:10About R. Toviah b. Eliezer suggests that Mordechai insisted that she do so from the beginning knowing that such secrecy might later play a role in saving the nation.  By revealing her religion only at an opportune moment, she would be able to save her people.
How did Esther hide her identity? There are a variety of approaches which attempt to explain how Esther managed to keep her Jewish identity a secret, especially in light of Mordechai's apparently known Judaism. For details, see How Did Esther Hide her Identity?
Honoring Mordechai – It is odd that days after signing an edict to exterminate the Jewish nation, Achashverosh showers honor on Mordechai, a Jew, without any show of discomfort about the hypocrisy of his actions.  This approach would view this as further proof of the king's fickle nature and "out of sight, out of mind" attitude.37
Why does Haman not defend himself? R. Arama questions this approach by pointing to Haman's silence in face of the king's accusation.  Had the king really approved the plan and both he and Haman had been unaware of Esther's Jewish identity, why did Haman not say so in his defense?  This position would assert that Haman was all too aware of the king's capricious nature and knew that the facts would make no difference.38
Esther's tactics and Achashverosh's Anger – This approach might suggest that Esther purposefully chose a non-threatening setting to reveal her nationality in order to maximize the surprise.  Moreover, she ensured that Haman would be present during her revelation so that the king would take out his wrath immediately before once again changing his mind.
Significance to hanging? According to this approach, Achashverosh on his own might not have insisted on the hanging of Haman.  It was only Charvonah's words which put the thought into his head, and, as was often the case, on the spur of the moment, he decided to act.
Portrait of Achashverosh – This position views the king negatively, but considers him to be more inept, foolish, and fickle, than actively wicked.

Feigning Innocence

Achashverosh understood immediately that Esther was referring to Haman's plan which he himself had originally approved.  However, he pretended to be unaware in order to be able to use the opportunity to eliminate the threat to the throne posed by Haman.

Haman's request – As Haman had shared with Achashverosh both the identity of the nation he wanted to destroy and his desire for their destruction, Achashverosh was fully aware of the decree that was sent out in his name.
"וְהָעָם לַעֲשׂוֹת בּוֹ כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ" – This position would view Achashverosh's words as a granting of permission to a (then) trusted adviser to carry out a plan that he whole-heartedly agreed to.
"וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת" – Like the first approach above, this position does not view Achashverosh's drinking as a sign of hedonism, but more simply as a way of sealing a deal, or perhaps celebrating an important decision.
What happened between the edict and the party? The night before the party, Haman had advised the king that the "one the king desired to honor" be robed in the king's garments and ride on the royal horse.  Achashverosh interpreted these words as evidence of Haman's aspirations to become king.39 Esther's accusations, thus, opened a perfect opportunity to condemn the no longer trustworthy adviser.
Shock and fury – According to this position, Achashverosh's shock is not genuine, though his fury is.  The anger, though, stems not from the immediate conversation, but from the events of the night before and his suspicions of Haman.
Did Achashverosh know Esther was Jewish? According to this position, the revealing of Esther's Jewish identity was irrelevant and on its own not a reason to reverse the edict.  Had the king desired, he would have simply exempted her from the destruction,40 but Achashverosh took her plea as a chance to easily punish Haman.
Esther's tactics – This approach might suggest, like R. Elazar HaModai in Bavli Megillah15bAbout the Bavli, that Esther tried to make the king jealous of Haman.41  Thus, rather than make an intimate party for two, she invited Haman as a third wheel.  Haman's falling on her bed to plea for his life played perfectly into her plan.  This reinforced Achashverosh's previous worries, leading to the conclusion that Haman was actively rebelling, wanting both the crown and the queen.
Why does Haman not defend himself? Haman had no defense since the king viewed him as actively vying for the throne.
Honoring Mordechai – It is possible that Achashverosh was unaware that Mordechai was Jewish.  The Chronicles did not mention this fact and Achashverosh had no reason to ask.  Thus, there was no hypocrisy in his actions and Achashverosh never associated Mordechai with Haman's decree.
Did Achashverosh want to undo the original decree? This approach might suggest that Achashverosh was actually ambivalent about undoing the original decree.  At the banquet, his only goal was to punish Haman; his feelings about the destruction itself might not have changed. This would explain why Esther must approach Achashverosh again in Chapter 8 with a special request to negate the decree.42
Why hanging? When Achashverosh hears that Haman had planned to kill Mordechai, a person who had proven his loyalty by saving the king's life, Achashverosh's suspicions that Haman is a traitor are further confirmed. Charvonah helps to seal Haman's fate, and he himself is hanged, the punishment of choice for treason.
Portrait of Achashverosh – Achashverosh was an opportunist, fully alert to the goings-on in his kingdom, and ready to remove all potential threats to his throne.