Even when I was a boy, whenever I read Esther 7, I was fascinated by Harbonah.
The interesting part evolved from a situation from my home. It was routine for us to read the Bible on Sundays after lunch and my father would vividly explain those doubts which I raised as a boy of 12 years or so.
I couldn’t understand as to why Harbonah covered the face of Haman, when Ahaseurus asked rhetorically: Will he(Haman) force Esther in my presence in the house?
My father had to explain the context picturesquely and he said, “do you know that when I inspect prisoners and ask their grievances on Tuesdays I go on rounds to every block of the prison and all the prisoners would be lined up in front of their respective blocks and I would lead a posse of prison officials and with me would be the District Medical Officer too?”
I said yes, I do.
Dad said:” But do you know that the convict warder Khader would be to my right, just a step behind me but between me and the closest prisoner, as I pass by?”
I said: so?
Dad said: “Those prisoners are criminals and I am the head of the Central prison and have to behave in a dignified manner. Yet, if any of those prisoners were to attack me or anyone, the first line of defence would be Khader. Khader would not mind his life but would do everything within his powers to stave off any assault to me and I could still remain composed, even in an ugly situation.”
He added: Even if a Prison Superintendent was so powerful that there were officials to give their lives, can you imagine the power of a ruler who ruled 127 provinces from Ethiopia to India?
That Harbonah was like our Khader. I got his point in my own juvenile way.
I have to describe Khader, otherwise this piece would have no meaning. He was a lifer, convicted of murder and serving life term. When a convict gets upgraded, he becomes an overseer first and thereafter he could become a CONVICT WARDER.
Khader used to be in white shirts like police with half trousers and a leather belt with a brass buckle. He must have been 5’8” and stocky with no smile on his face. There was a sternness to his demeanour and a sense of decisiveness to his stride. He was also adept at electrical work and he used to have a plier slung with one handle in his right pocket. He could leave the jail unescorted anytime and he would get back for sure. He was the most powerful person inside the prison. He had his cell open in one corner of the jail and he was raising wild pigeons. It was reported that he would feed those pigeons with generous amounts of corn, supplied as per his requirements by the store in- charge. It was also reported that he ate pigeons for dinner, which were cooked inside the jail by those flunkeys, mostly remand prisoners who had come under his ‘keep’!
Khader was a man with a purpose, he looked the type who had forgotten that he was a convict, yet absolutely loyal to only one person – the Jail Superintendent.
The plier on his right trouser pocket looked like the jawbone of an ass in the hands of Samson. His sheer presence could dissipate crowds of prisoners. No small talk; no banter; no smile; always purposeful and always busy. His lunch was the food sent to the Jail Superintendent for tasting, every afternoon. I am sure, that must have been tweaked to ensure that the Superintendent is not appalled by the food dished out to the general prisoners by tasting that food, which came in a tray in stainless steel cups and bowls. The food might be from the same cauldron, but additives to give flavour and taste might have been added. I’ve tasted that a couple of times, myself, to my utter disgust – even with all that tweaking.
This Khader who lived on royal jelly and pigeon meat, no wonder was stocky, muscular and loyal – how else could he keep his supplies thus.
The prisoners on Tuesdays could lift their hands up to 30 degrees from their elbows and if the Superintendent deigned to stop, Khader would be so alert that he would not only look into the eyes of that prisoner with a grievance but also circumspect that no other jailbird pounced on his master. His role was self-exalted by presumed threats and his assumed role as a protector of the body of the most powerful person.
Such was Harbonah.
I got it, I’m sure you as a reader must have got it too.
So, Haman, the Chief Minister of the Emperor Ahaseurus, had also been invited along with the emperor, by Esther for a dinner running the second day on the trot.
When the king asked Esther what she wanted, Esther begs for her life. Ahaseurus is aghast, as to who could threaten his Queen and promptly she says that it was the “wicked Haman”. The emperor is furious and walks out and when he returns he finds Haman fallen on the bed/couch of Esther. Freeze.
In that instant the emperor says : Will he(Haman) force Esther in my presence in the house?
The Bible says:Then the king returned out of the palace garden into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the bed whereon Esther was. Then said the king, Will he force the queen also before me in the house? As the word went out of the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.
This Harbonah advises the method of disposal of Haman, by informing the Emperor that Haman had raised a gallows at his own house to hang Mordecai, cousin/uncle of Esther, because of their pre-existing enmity.
Haman, the hen-pecked, had raised the gallows in his own house at the behest of his wife Zeresh, who advised him to set up and hang Mordecai in that gallows.
Haman, who knew that Mordecai was a Jew failed to know that the Queen was not merely any Jewess, but the foster daughter of Mordecai!
All these pale into insignificance when we see Harbonah covering the face of his own Chief Minister and dragging him out no sooner had he heard the displeasure of the king Ahaseurus.
“But where was Harbonah, when Vashti had refused to come to the banquet when the same Ahaseurus had invited her for showcasing her before the emperor’s princes and nobles?” Asked I.
Dad said: There was one Harbona then, who probably was the same Harbonah. But there were six other chamberlains who were dispatched by Ahaseurus to fetch Vashti. But Vashti did not go at the invitation of the Emperor.
My curiosity got the better of me and I said after all Harbonah had access to the king’s harem too, further if Harbonah had no qualms about covering the face of the Chief Minister, why didn’t he lift Vashti and present her before the Emperor?
Being a juvenile then and not understanding the dynamics of a man woman relationship I had asked that indiscreet question.
But without getting into that, my father said something which reverberates even today in my mind: Had Harbonah got Vashti before the emperor, the Jews would not have had Purim to celebrate. Reminds me of the Verger of Somerset Maugham.😄
Divine ways to have the Festival of Lights.