My Name Is Harbona
My Name Is Harbona
My name? Harbona. My job? The title depends on what country you're in. In Britain, I would be called a personal valet. In America, I would be a male private secretary. In my country, I am Harbona, chamberlain to Xerxes, king of Persia. You may know him by the name Ahasuerus. I am his chamberlain. At first I hesitated to take the job. You never knew about Xerxes. One day things would be going smooth; everything would be going okay; you'd be friends with him. But without warning, he would turn on you, and it was all over.
For example, I remember once that Pithias, one of his leading officials, offered Xerxes $40 million to finance one of the Persian military campaigns. Forty million. Xerxes was overwhelmed by this loyalty. He refused the gift, and in fact he even gave Pithias a present besides. But a little later, when Pithias hinted maybe his oldest son could be excused from the military campaign, Xerxes was so infuriated that he hacked the poor boy in two and marched the army between the pieces. You never knew about Xerxes.
Another time, a storm at sea destroyed three hundred of his ships. Xerxes grabbed a strap, went down to the seashore in blind rage, and beat the sea three hundred times: once for each ship. See why I hesitated to take the job? But, I took it. I thought, I'm going to get along with Xerxes. Never rub him the wrong way. Go with the tide.
But let me tell you about a series of amazing coincidences that have happened in Persia lately. We have had the most peculiar chain of events take place. It's kind of funny how it all worked out. It all started years ago with what we call the Bay of Salamis fiasco. Xerxes was making a bid to take over Greece and expand the Persian military empire. In one naval battle, in the Bay of Salamis, the entire Persian navy was destroyed. Xerxes had to sneak back to Persia on a fishing boat. For the longest time after that, he was down in the dumps. He brooded all day long. No spark. No interest.
Then he started moaning about Vashti: "Poor Vashti!" He'd done her wrong. Hey, I'll admit it was an unfortunate affair. Vashti was the queen he had gotten rid of, but it was too late to do anything about it now, and it wouldn't do any good to mope about it. I thought to myself, something's got to be done to put some life back into Xerxes. What could we do? I know: Women, and lots of them. So I told him my idea: "Xerxes, why don't you gather beautiful young virgins from all over the kingdom here to the palace? Why don't you get to know them? Maybe you'll find one you like well enough to make your new queen." He went for the idea. It wasn't long until we had the best-looking girls in all Persia right here at the palace. Xerxes saw them all, and it did wonders for him.
There was one in particular that caught his eye, and he began to see more and more of her. Soon, she was the only one he cared about. Xerxes had found his new queen. The girl's name was Esther. As far as I was concerned, he'd picked the best onea real beauty. Esther didn't look Persian to me. But what difference does that make? She was a good-looking queen, and Xerxes was his old self again. Things went on real smooth for about five years, and then one day when Xerxes was holding court, in hopped Haman. Haman was the king's favorite. Haman had been rapidly rising in our state department over the previous few years until he was the number two man in the kingdom. I didn't care for Haman. I didn't trust him. I never told Xerxes. I go with the tide.
Haman had this little speech all prepared for Xerxes. "Xerxes, scattered throughout your kingdom, there is a very disruptive group of people. They have their own peculiar laws. They don't observe our Persian ones. It's to your disadvantage to continue to tolerate them. I suggest that we pass a decree that they be destroyed. I myself will advance personal funds to take care of this matter." Xerxes said, "Sounds like a good idea, Haman, follow through on it. But keep your money. Use government funds." Xerxes didn't ask Haman who he was talking about, but that was just the way Xerxes was sometimes. And it wasn't Xerxes who puzzled me as much as it was Haman. I couldn't see what Haman was getting after. It's not like him to be so free with his money unless there's something in it for him. So I decided to find out what was going on.
The fellow who taught Haman's sons was a friend of mine, so I asked him if he knew about this. He did. Haman wanted to wipe out an entire race of people because he was irritated with one member of that race. Just because he was upset with one, he wanted to destroy them all. Here was his problem. In Persia, we have a citizens' council. The council is made up of one representative from every racial and ethnic group within the nation. Each nationality selects one representative to sit on the council. The council decides cases that are too minor to trouble the king. As the number two man in the kingdom, Haman drops in on this council every so often to make sure everything is going okay.
Whenever Haman comes into the council, all the representatives rise and bow down to him. But the Jewish representative remains seated in his chair. And that's all Haman saw. "Okay for you, Mr. Jewish representative. I'll get you and your people." Haman wanted to liquidate the Jews. Liquidate! I saw the decree after he got through writing it. It was brutal. "Destroy, kill, and annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, on December 13, and confiscate their property." You couldn't misunderstand it. "Destroy, kill, and annihilate." That ought to do it. Those Jews had eleven months to live.
As I thought about it, the whole thing didn't make sense to me. As near as I could tell, the reason the Jewish representative wouldn't get up and bow down had something to do with his religious beliefs. We Persians have always been tolerant of other people's religions. That Haman gets my goat! I thought of saying something to Xerxes, but why stick my neck out? Besides, it was too late, anyway. The decree was being circulated throughout the kingdom. A few days later, I was on the second floor of the palace, walking by an open window, and I heard a commotion in the courtyard. I looked out the window, and some guy down there was wailing and screaming and making an awful noise. His hair was frizzed and tangled. His face had been smeared with charcoal and ashes. His clothes were ripped and shredded and torn. I thought to myself, Somebody's got to tell that guy to get away from the palace.
And I was going over to the steps to tell him when I bumped into Hathach, the queen's attendant. He seemed to be going the same direction, and he had some clothes. I said, "Where are you going?" He said, "The queen wants me to take these new, clean clothes to that fellow out in the courtyard." I thought. Well, okay. I'll let you handle it. As he left, I said, "Tell him to get away from the palace." That Esther, she's all heart. How many queens do you know that would care about a bum that needed new clothes?
I see Hathach coming back in, and he still has the clothes. "What's the matter? Weren't they his size?"
"Do you know who that is out there?" he asks. "That's the Jewish representative to the council."
"He probably does have something to holler about then, if he's seen the decree."
"He gave me this piece of paper and told me to see Esther."
"Let me see it. It's a copy of the decree. But why go through Esther? What's she got to do with it?"
"I don't know," said Hathach. "He just told me to tell her to see Xerxes about it."
"Xerxes doesn't know anything. He knows there's a decree, but he doesn't know it's against the Jews. Besides that, why go through the queen? It's none of her affair."
A little later that day, I saw Hathach again. He looked as if he were sitting on a powder keg. "Harbona, you'll never believe it. The queen is Jewish." (No wonder she didn't look Persian to me!) "When I showed her the decree against all Jews, she turned real pale, but she didn't want to go in and see Xerxes about it. He hasn't called for her in a month now."
"I know," I said, "he's having one of his moods again."
"The queen told me the man is her Uncle Mordecai, and I should tell him this is not a good time. If she went in uninvited, Xerxes might do something severe. Her uncle told her the decree is against all Jews and being queen won't spare even her."
"So what's Esther going to do?" I asked.
"She's going to take her chances and go in to see Xerxes. Harbona, do you think we ought to say something to Xerxes about this?"
"Are you kidding? I'm not about to get caught between Haman, Xerxes, and Esther. Let events take care of themselves."
But I thought to myself: Boy, oh boy, oh boy. Things are going to get interesting around here. Haman's got a decree out against all Jews. He doesn't know that Esther is a Jew. And Xerxes is in the dark about everything. A couple of days later, Xerxes is holding court when the side door opens. It's Esther. Man, she looks good. She fixed herself up. Xerxes put the scepter down, and Esther came forward. He could tell by looking at her something was bothering her, and he said, "Esther, what is it? What do you want? Name it, and you can have it." I thought she was going to come out with it, but she didn't. Instead she said she had arranged for a specially catered lunch that day. Would Xerxes and Haman join her for lunch in the queen's apartments?
Lunch came. Xerxes again tried to find out what it was that she had on her mind, and again she said that tomorrow she had another lunch and asked if they would join her tomorrow. I thought, what is she waiting for? But you know, it's kind of funny that she didn't tell him at that first lunch because a couple of very interesting things happened before that second lunch. If she had told him at the first lunch, it would have been too soon.
The first thing that happened between those lunches, (and I got this from the tutor at Haman's house), is that Haman practically floated home on a cloud from that first lunch. He threw a party and invited all his friends that night. He told them his own success story and how much money he had. He told how he'd been rapidly promoted to the number two spot in the kingdom. Today climaxed it all: a private luncheon engagement with royalty. The only moth in his Persian rug was Mordecai. Even with the decree out, Mordecai still would not get up and bow down. Haman and his friends decided Mordecai himself would have to go before December 13. They made a huge gallows from a tree in Haman's back yard. First thing next morning, Haman would talk to Xerxes about hanging the Jewish representative.
The second thing that happened between these two lunches is really weird. That night, Xerxes had insomnia. He couldn't sleep. And he usually slept like a baby. About two o'clock in the morning, I heard it, "Harbona! Harbona! I can't sleep. Bring something to read to me."
"How about the memoirs of your reign?" I asked.
"That would be good," said Xerxes. I got the scrolls and asked, "Any particular place you want me to start reading?"
"Two, three years back." I started reading, and after about fifteen minutes, I came to a very interesting paragraph. It told how one day, on his way to the citizens' council, the Jewish representative overheard a plot to assassinate the king. The Jewish representative tipped off the queen, foiled the plot, and saved the king's life. Xerxes perked up when I read that. He said, "I remember Esther telling me something about that. Was anything ever done to reward this fellow what's his name? Mor-dikky?"
"Was anything ever done to reward him?" I scanned the next few paragraphs and said, "No."
"Harbona, first thing in the morning, you remind me. We'll take care of that oversight." This was a fine how-do-ye-do. Haman was going to hang Mordecai, and Xerxes was going to honor him. I couldn't wait for morning. First thing in the morning, Xerxes took his throne. He didn't need any reminding: "Are any of my advisers available?"
"Haman is outside."
"Send him in." In came Haman, raring to tell the king about hanging the Jewish representative, but he never got the first word out. "Haman, there's a man in my kingdom that I owe a lot to. I'm deeply indebted to this man, and I want in some public way to show my appreciation. Haman, do you have any ideas?" Did Haman have any ideas? He thought it was himself.
"Oh, yes, Xerxes. What could you do for this man, whoever he might be? Xerxes, I would put a gold crown on his head. I would drape the king's ceremonial robes over his shoulders. I would set him on the king's stallion, and then have one of your leading officials conduct him through the public squares, shouting 'This is the man the king wants to honor.'"
"Haman, that's good. You're a leading public official. I want you to do all of that for the Jewish representative. Mor-dikky's his name. He'll be getting out of the council meeting right about now. You meet him there with all those trimmings that you mentioned and, Haman, shout loud. I owe this man a lot."
I wish you could have seen Haman's face. I mean, one minute he's exultant, and the next minute he's looking whipped. Xerxes turned to me and said, "What's the matter with Haman? Doesn't he feel well?"
"No, I don't think so," I said. See what I mean about things falling into place? The morning went by, and we got glowing reports of Haman's little parade. When he arrived for that second lunch, he looked a little peaked, but he had pretty well pulled himself together. That second lunch went well: Haman, Xerxes, Esther. While they were lingering over dessert, Xerxes turned to Esther and said, "Esther, something's been on your mind the last few days. I want you to tell me what it is. Can I do anything for you? Can I give you anything?" I thought to myself, Here it comes.
Sure enough: "Yes, Xerxes, there's something you can do for me. There's something you can give me. Give me my life. Give me the lives of my people. We are about to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated." Each word was like a slap in the face to Haman. Xerxes is saying, "What are you talking about, Esther. Who would dare do such a thing? Name the man!"
"Haman? The decree!" Xerxes strode through the patio doors into the garden patio to cool off and think. When Xerxes left, Haman fell apart. "Esther, I had no idea," Haman said. "You've got to be I never would have " Esther turned her face away from him. He got out of his chair, came over to where she was sitting, got down on his knees, and begged her to listen. She wouldn't pay any attention. He began to grab at her so that she would listen to him, and she had to fight Haman off. Just then Xerxes came back in, took one look, and came up with the wrong idea.
"Will you molest the queen in my own palace? Cover his face!" And that was it for Haman. When you cover the face, when you draw up the death veil, it's all over. I spoke up then. I don't usually, but it seemed safe. "Xerxes, Haman had fixed up that tree in his back yard in order to hang the Jewish representative. It makes a high gallows."
"Hang Haman on it," said Xerxes. They did. They also passed a new decree. In Persia, you cannot revoke a decree once it has been given, but you can balance it off with a second decree, and they passed a second decree. The second decree said that when December 13 came, the Jews could use whatever means they wanted to defend themselves against anyone who came to do them harm. In fact, the second decree even went so far as to say the Jews could band themselves together and take the initiative against any of their enemies, and the government would ask no questions. You should have seen the Jews dancing in the street when that one came out.
Later that day, I was on the second floor at that window, thinking back over the amazing chain of events. Esther being picked queen out of all those girls. Mordecai being the Jewish representative and saving the King's life. Xerxes had insomnia on just the right night. As I looked out in the street, I saw the Jews celebratingdancing and laughing in the street. I looked over the palace wall into the distance, saw Haman dangling from the tree, and I thought how all those coincidences had worked together. I thought to myself: Those Jews they sure are lucky.
A resource of Christianity Today International
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.