Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it. (Est. 5:14)
In the Book of Esther, much of the plot is set in motion by the hatred of Haman for Mordecai. When Haman expresses his resentment of Mordecai to his family, they recommend, “Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it” (Est. 5:14). Some of the more recent English translations offer something different from the ESV. The TNIV, for example, reads, “Have a pole set up, reaching to a height of fifty cubits, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai impaled on it.” The NLT offers something similar: “Set up a sharpened pole that stands seventy-five feet tall, and in the morning ask the king to impale Mordecai on it.” At the end of chapter 7, Haman ends up being “hanged” on that same pole. The obvious question raised by this translation comparison is twofold. First, is the construction a gallows or a pole? Second, was Haman hanged or impaled?
Our Modern Western Bias
The problem from the perspective of a modern Western reader is that “hanging” conjures a very clear image of a wooden gallows, a cross-bar, ropes, and trap doors through which the condemned would drop, as pictured in many Western movies. Impaling probably likewise suggests the image of someone thrust down upon a stake, so that the stake goes through the body, and the person is left to die in agony. What does the language suggest?
What Does the Language Suggest?
In a woodenly literal fashion (pardon the pun), the Hebrew text says, “Make a high tree (or piece of wood) fifty cubits and in the morning say to the king that they should hang Mordecai upon it.” What we glean from this is that the “tree” is to provide for the “hanging” of Mordecai. Thus, the “tree” is not simply a tree, but at least a pole, and perhaps more. But what about “hanging”? We ordinarily use the word “hang” as a synonym for suspend. Thus, when 2 Samuel 18:10, refers to Absalom “hanging in an oak,” we imagine Absalom’s hair caught in the tree, and he is suspended from the tree. That is obviously not a case of Absalom being impaled. However, that is not the only way the word is used. It is also used in the sense of “hanging something upon.” So, for example, in Song of Songs 4:4, her neck is likened to the tower of David, on which are hung a thousand shields. Here, the image is not so much of shields suspended, but rather fastened to the tower in some way. So the use of the word “hang” does not necessarily indicate the manner of hanging, whether by being suspended or by being fastened to something else. The most common use of the word in the Old Testament is to refer to a method of execution. So, Pharaoh’s chief baker is hanged (Gen. 40:22). The king of Ai is hanged (Josh. 8:29). “Princes are hang up by their hands” (Lam. 5:12). Again, however, what is not clear from these passages is the exact method of execution. The possibilities seem to be:
- to be suspended from a frame by a rope (modern Western hanging);
- to be impaled upon a pole;
- to be fastened to a pole in some fashion.
In the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, impalement is regularly presented as a Persian punishment (see The Histories, 1.128, 3,132, 3.159, 6.30 as examples). Given the setting of Esther, it thus seems likely that the manner of punishment for Haman was in fact impalement. In other words, the fifty-cubit “tree” built by Haman was intended to display Mordecai’s body impaled in such a way that no one could avoid seeing it. As it turned out, however, it was Haman, whose death (and the folly leading to it) was put on display for the entire population. This view is also confirmed by both recent commentaries (by Jon Levenson, for example) and by older commentaries (Keil and Delitzsch). In this case, I think the TNIV and the NLT to be more correct in their translation than the ESV or the NASB.