Esther 2:21-23

Below is our commentary on the final scene of the first major part of the book of Esther.

Scene 3—Mordecai saves the King (2:21-23)

At this point in the narrative, vv. 21-23 may seem incidental to the plot of the book. However, these verses lay the groundwork for the events of chapter 6. Mordecai’s deed later gives reason for the king to exalt Mordecai, thereby setting in motion the complete reversal of Haman’s and Mordecai’s fortunes.

21In those days (Mordecai was sitting in the gate of the king), Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs from the guards of the threshold, became angry and sought to raise a hand against King Ahashverosh. ‎22But the matter became known to Mordecai, and he declared [it] to Esther, the queen, and Esther said [it] to the king in the name of Mordecai. 23The matter was sought out, and it was confirmed, and the two of them were hanged on a tree. And it was written in the book of the matters of the days, before the king.

2:21 ‎‫בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם וּמָרְדֳּכַ֖י יֹשֵׁ֣ב בְּשַֽׁעַר־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ קָצַף֩  בִּגְתָ֨ן וָתֶ֜רֶשׁ שְׁנֵֽי־סָרִיסֵ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙  מִשֹּׁמְרֵ֣י הַסַּ֔ף וַיְבַקְשׁוּ֙  לִשְׁלֹ֣חַ  יָ֔ד בַּמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵֽרֹשׁ׃

V. 21 relates the crime of Bigthan and Teresh, whose plot will be foiled by Mordecai in the following verses.

בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֔ם וּמָרְדֳּכַ֖י יֹשֵׁ֣ב בְּשַֽׁעַר־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ קָצַף֩  בִּגְתָ֨ן וָתֶ֜רֶשׁ. Participle ms Qal √ישׁב and qatal 3ms Qal √קצף. Most translations and commentaries (Paton 1908:189; Moore 1971:29; Fox 2001: 39; Bush 1996:371; Levenson 1997:63) understand one clause here with the main verb קצף, modified by the Topic-fronted temporal ב-PP and a circumstantial participial phrase מרדכי ישׁב בשׁער המלך: “In those days, as/while Mordecai was sitting in the gate of the king, Bigthan and Teresh were angry.” The triggered verb-subject order of קצף בגתן ותרשׁ confirms that the initial PP בימים ההם belongs to that clause as a temporal adjunct (i.e., its Topic-fronting provides the trigger for the verb-subject inversion). Because the intervening participial clause interrupts the syntax of the main clause it should be classified syntactically as a parenthesis. The notion of a “circumstantial” clause (JM §158a) is not syntactic (there are no formal markers to indicate circumstantial-hood); rather, identifying a clause as “circumstantial” reflects a judgment concerning the relationship of two adjacent clauses and, as such, combines various constructions in an ill-conceived categorial menagerie. What many grammarians have identified as a syntactic category is actually a wide variety of syntactic constructions that may only be legitimately grouped together on semantic and discourse levels. In other words, the circumstantial relationship is a semantic judgment that is motivated by a shift in the use of verbs used in the narrative, which is fundamentally a discourse concern. On the grammar of מרדכי ישׁב בשׁער המלך, see comment on v. 19.

קָצַף֩  בִּגְתָ֨ן וָתֶ֜רֶשׁ. Qatal 3ms Qal √קצף. On the meaning and valency of קצף, see 1:12. Note the use of the singular verb with the compound subject. Normally a compound subject would appear with a plural verb. The apparent mismatch in agreement, that is, the use of a singular verb with a plural or compound subject, has been variously explained (see GKC §§145, 146; JM §150n-q and the focused studies in Moreshet 1967, Levi 1987, Revell 1993, Naudé 1999, Doron 2000, and Holmstedt 2009b). Explanations have ranged from syntactic (e.g., verb-subject order allows for “first-conjunct agreement” [Doron 2000; cf. Paton 1908:192 on this verse], or the compound NP is not the syntactic subject but rather an adjunct to the verb and the syntactic subject is null [Naudé 1999; Holmstedt 2009b]), to discourse-pragmatics (e.g., the verb is singular because the first NP of the compound is more salient in the narrative or simply the primary agent of the action [Revell 1993]). In this particular case, the simplest analysis is that the compound NP is the syntactic subject but that the agreement features are singular since the compound NP is taken as a set or unit—Bigthan and Teresh are a pair whose plural number is resolved as singular to reflect their action as a “unit” (see Holmstedt 2009b:126); compare v. 23, where the NP “the two of them” takes a plural verb.

בִּגְתָ֨ן וָתֶ֜רֶשׁ שְׁנֵֽי־סָרִיסֵ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙  מִשֹּׁמְרֵ֣י הַסַּ֔ף. Participle mp Qal √שׁמר. This NP is similar in structure to the NP הגא סריס המלך שׁמר הנשׁים in 2:3 and 2:15. Besides the fact that this case has a compound NP, the significant structural difference is the addition of the מן prefix before the participial relative clause. The PP משׁמרי הסף, with its null-head participial relative “[those who] guard the door,” modifies either the closer שׁני סריסי or the further בגתן ותרשׁ. Although modifiers (PPs, relative clauses, adjectives) typically modify the nearest possible NP, since in this case the nearer head is in apposition to the further head and thus both share the same referent, it makes no difference semantically which head is chosen: “Bigthan and Teresh …, from the guards of the threshold” in this context is functionally no different than “two of the king’s eunuchs from the guards of the threshold.” In each case the מן-PP designates origin for the item it modifies (WO §11.2.11b), that is, these two eunuchs came from the threshold guards. Another interesting feature found in this phrase is the form of סריסי, with the qameṣ (lengthened /ā/) in a distant open syllable, in contrast to סריס in 2:3, 15. Apparently some forms of the noun reflect the noun pattern qatīl, with a short /a/ vowel in first syllable, which will reduce in a distant open syllable (i.e., in the singular bound and plural forms), while other forms reflect the pattern qattīl, in which the short /a/ is not only preserved, but lengthened (to compensate for the /r/ not lengthening); see JM §96Db.

וַיְבַקְשׁוּ֙  לִשְׁלֹ֣חַ  יָ֔ד בַּמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵֽרֹשׁ. Wayyiqtol 3mp Piel √בקשׁ and inf constr Qal √שׁלח. While Piel בקשׁ often takes an NP complement (c.f., e.g., v. 2), it may also take an infinitive clause complement (BDB s.v.), as here with לשׁלח יד במלך אחשׁורשׁ. The idiom שׁלח יד “to send out a hand” is similar to the English idiom “to lay a hand on” and is a metaphor for violence and harm (HALOT s.v.; BDB s.v.; DCH s.v. 7b(2), “to raise a hand against someone”). The phrase itself does not necessarily imply killing, though the context may suggest that a death is intended or is the result (Keil 1873:341 glosses “to slay,” Paton 1908:190 glosses “[to] kill,” and Moore 1971:31 and Bush 1996:371 translate “to assassinate”). The person against whom the action is directed (i.e., the person who is harmed) is indicated by a ב-PP (or sometimes an אל-PP; HALOT s.v.; BDB s.v.). The verb שׁלח in this idiom is trivalent, taking a subject (here null), NP complement (here יד), and PP complement designating the recipient of the action (here במלך אחשׁורשׁ). On other metaphorical uses of יד, see 1:7, 12, and 2:3; on “King Ahashverosh,” see 1:2.

2:22 ‎‫וַיִּוָּדַ֤ע הַדָּבָר֙  לְמָרְדֳּכַ֔י וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאֶסְתֵּ֣ר הַמַּלְכָּ֑ה וַתֹּ֧אמֶר אֶסְתֵּ֛ר לַמֶּ֖לֶךְ בְּשֵׁ֥ם מָרְדֳּכָֽי׃

Mordecai uses Esther as a means to warn the king of Bigthan and Teresh’s plot against him.

וַיִּוָּדַ֤ע הַדָּבָר֙  לְמָרְדֳּכַ֔י. Wayyiqtol 3ms Niph √ידע. Most I-י verbs are originally I-ו, as can be seen here with the return of the consonant ו in many derived binyanim. The PP למרדכי is adjunct to the verb indicating the beneficiary of the agent-less action. The subject NPהדבר means “the matter,” that is, Bigthan and Teresh’s plot against the king mentioned in the preceding verse (see 1:17). The semantics of the Niphal ידע include an inchoative “phasal aspect” such that ויודע marks the beginning of a new state for the subject הדבר, “it became known (to Mordecai)” (see Cook 2012: 25-26; 191-94).

וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאֶסְתֵּ֣ר הַמַּלְכָּ֑ה. Wayyiqtol 3ms Hiph √נגד. On the valency, meaning, and form of Hiphil נגד, see v. 10; see 1:21 for an explanation of the ṣere in the final syllable instead of the ḥireq-yod of the Hiphil yiqtol paradigm. The complement of Hiphil נגד is null, identifiable from context as the thing (הדבר) made known to Mordecai. The PP לאסתר המלכה is an adjunct to ‎ויגד. On אסתר המלכה see comment on 1:2.

וַתֹּ֧אמֶר אֶסְתֵּ֛ר לַמֶּ֖לֶךְ בְּשֵׁ֥ם מָרְדֳּכָֽי. Wayyiqtol 3fs Qal √אמר. There is no overt NP complement to אמר here. Although elsewhere אמר may be monovalent (cf. comment on 1:18), here it is bivalent with a null complement: “Esther said/told [the matter of Bigthan and Teresh] to the king.” The PP למלך is an adjunct designating the addressee of the speech. The PP בשׁם מרדכי, crucial to the intricate plot of the story (see 6:2; also Fox 2001:162), is also adjunct to אמר.

2:23 ‎‫וַיְבֻקַּ֤שׁ הַדָּבָר֙  וַיִּמָּצֵ֔א וַיִּתָּל֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־עֵ֑ץ וַיִּכָּתֵ֗ב בְּסֵ֛פֶר דִּבְרֵ֥י הַיָּמִ֖ים לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ פ

After Mordecai’s warning is found to be true, Bigthan and Teresh are hanged. Mordecai’s good deed is recorded in the royal records—another narrative detail that will play a critical role later in the story.

וַיְבֻקַּ֤שׁ הַדָּבָר֙. Wayyiqtol 3ms Pual √בקשׁ. On הדבר in this context, see v. 22. For הדבר to be “sought out” means that what Esther told the king was investigated. The passive Pual בקשׁ is monovalent, having experienced a valency decrease from the active bivalent Piel (on the valency of Piel בקשׁ, see comment on v. 2).

וַיִּמָּצֵ֔א. Wayyiqtol 3ms Niph √מצא. The Qal מצא is bivalent, taking a subject NP and an NP complement (the thing found). As the passive form of the root, the Niphal is monovalent—the complement of the Qal is promoted to the subject role in the passive Niphal. The subject is null, but is contextually identifiable as הדבר. The idea fo the matter “being found” must mean that it was “found out to exist/be true” or “uncovered.”

וַיִּתָּל֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־עֵ֑ץ. Wayyiqtol 3mp Niph √תלה. The Qal תלה is bivalent “X hangs Y,” where the complement is an NP of the person or thing hung; the decreased valency Niphal is monovalent and promotes the complement to the subject role, “Y is hanged.” The word is often used specifically with the execution of persons by hanging on or attaching to a tree/stake (not “hanging” in the sense that involves a rope around the neck [cf. Bush 1996:373], but a form of impalement/crucifixion; cf. Hengel 1977:22-24 on this method of execution in the ancient Near East; cf. HALOT s.v.; BDB s.v.; DCH s.v.). Although תלה (with the specific sense of execution) often occurs with an על-PP adjunct designating the thing on which someone is hung, the verb also regularly occurs without it (e.g., Gen 40:19, 22; cf. Levenson 1996:65 on possible intertextuality with the story in Gen 40). The bound numeral and pronominal clitic, שׁניהם “the two of them,” is the subject of the verb and refers to “Bigthan and Teresh.” Note the full verb-subject agreement, in contrast to the singular verb used in v. 21; here the two men are not hung as a unit but individually suffer the punishment (similarly, two people cannot “die” as a unit, since their lives are independent).

וַיִּכָּתֵ֗ב בְּסֵ֛פֶר דִּבְרֵ֥י הַיָּמִ֖ים לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ. Wayyiqtol 3ms Niph √כתב. On the valency of כתב, see 1:19. The subject is null here; from the context (and given what we read later in 6:2) the null subject is probably to be reconstructed as an account of the whole ordeal, including the fact that Mordecai discovered the plot and alerted the king. ספר here refers to a “writing,” from context a collection of documents (see comment on 1:22). The English “book” conveys the size of the “writing,” however the ספר is not a book (i.e., codex) in the technical sense. The לפני-PP is adjunct to the verb (see comment on 1:19 on the origins of the preposition לפני).

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