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In Esther 5:14, Haman makes plans to kill Mordecai.

Esther 5:14 Haman’s wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, "Have a gallows seventy-five feet high built, and in the morning tell the king that Mordecai should be hanged on it. Then go with the king to the banquet contented." [NET Bible]

The Hebrew word translated as "gallows" is the Hebrew עץ ('etz) which means at its base simply "tree" or "wood." Strong's shows it is translated in the KJV as:

tree (162x), wood (107x), timber (23x), stick (14x), gallows (8x), staff (4x), stock (4x), carpenter (with H2796) (2x), branches (1x), helve (1x), planks (1x), stalks (1x).

Other translations show variation in their understanding of the instrument Haman intended to use.

Gallows: KJ21, ASV, AMP, CJB, Darby, ESV, ESVUK, GNT, HCSB, JUB, KJV, AKJV, et. al.

Pole/Post: CEB [adds "pointed"], ERV, GW, NOG, NIRV, NIV, NIVUK, NLT (adds "sharpened"), VOICE (adds "wood"),

Tower: CEV, NLV

Beam: DRA (as "great beam"), WYC (as "high beam")

Platform: EXB, NCV

Stake: NABRE

Tree: GNV, YLT

Coming from 'etz, it would obviously be made of wood. What was it, precisely? How definite can we be of the identification?


[Sidenote: I originally intended to ask about the size of the instrument of death, but found nothing mentioning a text critical issue on the height. So I refocused to the identification as described above.]

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2 Answers 2

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It's most likely a "stake" (ʿēṣ) for "impalement" (√tlh); this is how the 1985 JPS Tanakh consistently translates it in each of the 9 occurrences in Esther (2:23; 5:14; 6:4; 7:9; 7:10; 8:7; 9:13; 9:14; 9:25). The actual mode of execution is not specified -- although perhaps exposure is thus implied.

My understanding is that death by "hanging" on a "gallows" (implying by noose around the neck) is not a form of capital punishment known in the ancient Near East.1 On the other hand, impalement as exposure of corpse is very well known -- as the grisly detail from the Nineveh palace relief of the siege of Lachish unfortunately demonstrates (middle at left edge):2

Nineveh relief detail

It is sometimes thought that the size of the ʿēṣ militates against impalement and requires a "gallows" -- this was Paton's argument, at any rate.3

This paragraph from Jon Levenson's Esther commentary makes some excellent points here:4

It has been thought that at fifty cubits, or about eighty feet, the structure that Haman is advised to erect in 5:14 is too large to be a stake, which would come from a single tree, and must thus be a gallows instead. This may be, but given the tendency of the book to gross exaggeration (e.g., the 127 provinces [1:1], the 180-day party [1:4], and the twelve months of cosmetic work [2:12]), such realism is out of order. That the action in question was to be performed on Haman's ten sons after they had been killed (9:6-10, 13) strongly argues for impalement on stakes rather than hanging on gallows. The point of impalement is not punishment, but exposure to disgrace. Simply killing Mordecai would not assuage what feels like an enormous injury to Haman, with his fragile ego. Only an enormous visible disgrace of Mordecai will bring him satisfaction.

One might add by way of corroboration, that the "baker" in the Joseph story suffers a similar fate -- (√tlh on an ʿēṣ) -- but after being (apparently) beheaded (Genesis 40:19, 22).

For these reasons, I think the "impaling/stake" interpretation is to be preferred over the "hanging/gallows" understanding.


  1. I make this observation tentatively. In answer to a question on History.SE, @fdb produced Homer's Odyssey Bk. XXII.453-473 as an ancient and unambiguous (and graphic) account of hanging by rope. That dates back (roughly) to 1200 BCE. Some observations: (a) that's Greeece; (b) connections between Homer and Persian (or Esther) traditions would need some thought; and (c) the account in the Odyssey reads like a description of something unusual that needs explanation.
  2. Locate in context of the larger relief in this photo on Flickr (not CC licensed).
  3. L.B. Paton, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Book of Esther (ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1908), p. 191.
  4. J.D. Levenson, Esther: A Commentary (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997) p. 93
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Sorry for my ignorance, but can you tell me what the √tlh means? I guess it's a transliteration of תלה but I'm not familiar with the checkmark notation. Thanks! –  Susan Aug 5 at 12:19
    
@Susan - it's the "root" sign - it's a means of referring to all the formations of a given triliteral root, so signalling that one isn't referring to (e.g.) tlh as a word. You can see a fairly liberal sprinkling in use in the "Semitic root" Wikipedia page. See also GKC §30g, p. 100. Hope that helps! –  Davïd Aug 5 at 12:40
    
Ah yes, of course, that makes sense. I'm not accustomed to extending mathematical symbols to Hebrew, but I like it! –  Susan Aug 5 at 12:53

It is a gallows. The Book of Esther confirms this at 7:10 where it says:

וַיִּתְלוּ אֶת הָמָן עַל הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר הֵכִין לְמָרְדֳּכָי וַחֲמַת הַמֶּלֶךְ שָׁכָכָה:

And they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai, and the king's anger abated. (JPS translation.)

The root of the word יִּתְלוּ is לתלות which means "to hang." Also, I'm pretty certain that if the text even implied "impaled" that the rabbinic discussion of the text in the Talmud tractate of Megillah would have been all over that, just as they discuss many interpretations of other terms never considered in Christian texts.

Jewish Midrashic texts make it clear that the rabbis understood only that Mordechai was hung from a gallows. For example, Midrashic literature discusses Zeresh's recommendation to hang Mordechai as the best choice of execution for Haman. Mindy Kaminker writes:

The sources describe Zeresh as a very wise woman who even knew the secrets of sorcery.7 According to the Midrash, Haman had 365 advisors, but Zeresh’s advice was the best he received. She found an original way to kill Mordechai, one that had never been tried, telling her husband: "You must remember that Mordechai is a Jew. If you try to kill him with a sword, know that Pharaoh attempted to decapitate Moses and failed. If you wish to stone him, remember how David slew Goliath with stones. If you try to drown him, remember how G‑d tore the sea before Israel. If you want to exile him to the desert, remember how Israel wandered in the desert for forty years and thrived. Joseph was released from jail and became the viceroy. Chananya, Mishael and Azarya went out from a fiery furnace, and Daniel left the lion’s den. Don’t try to blind him; remember how many people Samson killed whilst sightless. There is one remaining way for you: hang Mordechai on a tree" [citing Esther Rabbah 9, Yalkut Shimoni 6:10057].

According to the midrashic source, Agadat Eshter 5:14, Zeresh went with Haman to pick out a pole or tree from which to hang Mordechai. The pole they chose was a relic from Noah's Ark, according to the Yalkut Shimoni (Esther 6:1056).

Not only does Jewish tradition accept that Haman was hung by his neck, it is exremely unlikely that the authors of the Book of Esther, the Sages of the Great Assembly, which included Mordechai, Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah and Zechariah (see Babyl. Talmud, Bava Basra 15a), would have used the word לִדְקוֹר (to impale), especially since that is the word used at Numbers 25:8 to describe what Phinehas (Pinchas) did with his spear to the copulating Baal Pe'or priestess and Zimri ben Salu (done in such a way as to preserve the evidence that the two were copulating at the time of death -- for explicit details see Bably. Talmud, Sanhedred 82b). Because the Sages of the Great Assembly were not ones to use a vague word when an explicit word would do, I can find no reason to believe that Haman was impaled.

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@FrankLuke It would be far from the first mistranslation of Hebrew Scripture by a Christian Bible. I think that there was an attempt by some translators to imply a crucifixion-type of punishment, when that simply wasn't the fashion in ancient Persia. Not much different than the mistranslation of Psalm 22:17 (JPS) where "k'ari yadai v'raglai" ("Like a lion they were at my hands and my feet") became in Christian Bibles "koari ..." ("they pierced...") even though to do so the word would have to spelled much differently and have existed in Biblical times. –  Bruce James Aug 4 at 18:52
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@BruceJames - My impression is that it's more based on ancient Persian artwork which depicts actual impalement with a pole through the body. Given that, I'm sure some translators simply said "an impaled body just hangs there, so it must have meant impaling when it says hanging". –  Bobson Aug 4 at 20:21
    
@bobson If the author of Esther wanted to say "impale" he would have used the Hebrew word לדקור which is the word used at Numbers 25:7 when Phinehas (Pinchus) puts his spear through the copulating Baal priestess and Zimri ben Salu. But thanks for the idea; I will add it to my answer. –  Bruce James Aug 6 at 12:30
    
Interesting. I hadn't considered that before, but it definitely is a good counter-point. Doesn't mean that the various translators who chose "impale" agree, but it's good enough for me. –  Bobson Aug 8 at 2:44

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