Help with Hebrew in the Book of Esther: Semantic Range of Talah (tâlâh) - Hang or Impale?

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B.L.

Puritan Board Sophomore
Good Afternoon,

I was wrapping up a Bible lesson with my children just now and afterwards my 11 year old asked me a question about something she noticed in the book of Esther last night. She pointed out that the NIV translates the Hebrew word 'talah' in Esther (2:23, 5:14, 6:4, 7:9-10, 8:7, 9:13-14, 9:25) as "impale/impaled/impaling" but other translations have "hang/hanged/hanging".

I went and compared all the major translations and the NIV and NLT choose "impale/impaled/impaling" and the KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, CSB, NET, etc. etc. choose "hang/hanged/hanging"...can someone help me out with the Hebrew word 'talah'? Does the symantic range of this word include death by hanging and/or impalement?

God bless children...they know how to keep you on your toes and keep you humble! :)

Thanks!
 
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Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
It seems to me here that the translation issue has more to do with עֵץ ('ets) than תלה (talah). It depends on whether you understand עֵץ (most simply rendered "tree") to be gallows or a sharped stump used for impaling. The verb תלה seems to me to denote simply suspending someone in the air to shame them. It doesn't speak of a particular manner in which they are suspended. The determining factor, then, seems to be how we understand עֵץ. The most "literal" (I know, I know) rendering would seem to be "both were suspended on a tree." I think the variation between translations is simply a matter of them seeking to clarify how they understand what that means in terms of particular method of suspending—hanging or impaling. Might be a historical question, too, regarding what the most common practice was in that place and time.

Our resident Hebrew scholar Dr. @iainduguid can give more info, I'm sure.
 

Wretched Man

Puritan Board Freshman
I’ve often wondered about this myself. In the ESV, there is another reference to impaling in Ezra 6:11, which appears to definitely be referring to impaling and was likely written during and about a similar time period.

I’ve also wondered about the nature of the prescribed impaling if this is what these books refer to... Were they simply impaled through their stomachs or (without getting to graphic) in a way in which the pole came out of their mouths...?
 

B.L.

Puritan Board Sophomore
It seems to me here that the translation issue has more to do with עֵץ ('ets) than תלה (talah). It depends on whether you understand עֵץ (most simply rendered "tree") to be gallows or a sharped stump used for impaling. The verb תלה seems to me merely to denote suspending someone in the air to shame them. It doesn't speak of a particular manner in which they are suspended. The determining factor, then, seems to be how we understand עֵץ.

Taylor - that's a great point you've made on the decision possibly turning on the meaning of עֵץ ('ets).

I've been digging around trying to see if a particular mode of being put to death (impalement vs. hanging) was dominant in the Persian empire so far to no avail.
 

B.L.

Puritan Board Sophomore
I’ve often wondered about this myself. In the ESV, there is another reference to impaling in Ezra 6:11, which appears to definitely be referring to impaling and was likely written during and about a similar time period.

I’ve also wondered about the nature of the prescribed impaling if this is what these books refer to... Were they simply impaled through their stomachs or (without getting to graphic) in a way in which the pole came out of their mouths...?

Thanks for the point to Ezra. I missed that reference earlier.

Yeah, I too have quietly wondered about the method of impalement. Sometimes being a visual learner has its cons I suppose.
 

Wretched Man

Puritan Board Freshman
Thanks for the point to Ezra. I missed that reference earlier.

Yeah, I too have quietly wondered about the method of impalement. Sometimes being a visual learner has its cons I suppose.
I very vividly (and painfully) recall learning about the impaling process that Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) mercilessly imposed on his victims, which was of the latter sort I described.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
It seems to me here that the translation issue has more to do with עֵץ ('ets) than תלה (talah). It depends on whether you understand עֵץ (most simply rendered "tree") to be gallows or a sharped stump used for impaling. The verb תלה seems to me to denote simply suspending someone in the air to shame them. It doesn't speak of a particular manner in which they are suspended. The determining factor, then, seems to be how we understand עֵץ. The most "literal" (I know, I know) rendering would seem to be "both were suspended on a tree." I think the variation between translations is simply a matter of them seeking to clarify how they understand what that means in terms of particular method of suspending—hanging or impaling. Might be a historical question, too, regarding what the most common practice was in that place and time.

Our resident Hebrew scholar Dr. @iainduguid can give more info, I'm sure.
Taylor is correct that this isn't really a translation issue. The Hebrew simply means to suspend (in a broad range of possible manners) someone from a wooden object. So the semantic range is broad enough to cover both hanging by a rope and impaling the body (before or after death). There is not much evidence for hanging people from a rope in antiquity (except for one example in Homer's Odyssey, which is from a different culture and time period). However, impalement is well attested in Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern sources. The relief of the Assyrian capture of Judean Lachish has an example, with three men apparently hung on poles through the neck (below left hand side). Hopefully they were dead before that happened, but the Assyrians were known for cruel and unusual punishments - the same relief shows men being flayed alive. The British Museum really ought to have an R-rated warning on this particular tablet, which would of course greatly increase its attractiveness...
1594653886293.png
The Ezra 6 passage certainly seems to imply impalement, and does Esther 9, where the "hanging" of Haman's sons happens after they have already been killed (compare Gen 40:19, where Pharaoh's baker appears to be beheaded and then impaled).

The argument pro-hanging largely seems to be that a 70 foot gallows is too tall for a single tree spike, such as would be normally used for impalement (so e.g. Paton). It's also "overkill" as the height for a set of gallows, which is the whole point (pun intended). It would certainly be ironic if the noise from the overnight construction project contributed to keeping Ahasuerus awake during that crucial night.

To summarize, most modern scholars therefore think impalement more likely than hanging, at least in the case of the Book of Esther.
 

B.L.

Puritan Board Sophomore
Taylor is correct that this isn't really a translation issue. The Hebrew simply means to suspend (in a broad range of possible manners) someone from a wooden object. So the semantic range is broad enough to cover both hanging by a rope and impaling the body (before or after death). There is not much evidence for hanging people from a rope in antiquity (except for one example in Homer's Odyssey, which is from a different culture and time period). However, impalement is well attested in Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern sources. The relief of the Assyrian capture of Judean Lachish has an example, with three men apparently hung on poles through the neck (below left hand side). Hopefully they were dead before that happened, but the Assyrians were known for cruel and unusual punishments - the same relief shows men being flayed alive. The British Museum really ought to have an R-rated warning on this particular tablet, which would of course greatly increase its attractiveness...
1594653886293.png

The Ezra 6 passage certainly seems to imply impalement, and does Esther 9, where the "hanging" of Haman's sons happens after they have already been killed (compare Gen 40:19, where Pharaoh's baker appears to be beheaded and then impaled).

The argument pro-hanging largely seems to be that a 70 foot gallows is too tall for a single tree spike, such as would be normally used for impalement (so e.g. Paton). It's also "overkill" as the height for a set of gallows, which is the whole point (pun intended). It would certainly be ironic if the noise from the overnight construction project contributed to keeping Ahasuerus awake during that crucial night.

To summarize, most modern scholars therefore think impalement more likely than hanging, at least in the case of the Book of Esther.

Dr. Duguid,

This is excellent -- thank you so much for taking time out of your day to write this up!

I learned a lot and will pass this knowledge on to my inquiring daughter.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
The fact that hanging most likely means impaling helps us, I think, when we consider the choice Esther has to make in the story. Will she live for the favor of the king of Persia, or will she seek the favor of a greater, heavenly King? The entirety of the Bible makes the difference between the two kings quite clear: the king of Persia hangs his enemies, while the King of heaven allows himself to be hanged to save his enemies. Esther chose allegiance to the better King.
 
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