Each year, the Jewish people hold a holiday celebration. This celebration is known as Purim (pronounced “poor – eem”), a joyous festival of giving, feasting, and dressing up in costume.
During this holiday, the book of Esther is publicly read within the synagogue, the place of worship among the Jewish people. But in the course of reading this book, there is one character who is definitely not celebrated. In fact, whenever this person is mentioned, everyone in the audience begins to boo, hiss, stamp their feet, and exclaim ”May his name be blotted out!”
In Esther chapter three, we’ll find out who that person is, why he is so disliked, and how the celebration of Purim got it’s name.
“After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were within the king’s gate bowed and paid homage to Haman, for so the king had commanded concerning him. But Mordecai would not bow or pay homage” (Esther 3:1-2).
Esther chapter three begins with the words, “After these things…” and while it’s not obvious from the text, we’ll find out later that approximately five years had passed since the events that marked the end of chapter two. It was during this time that King Ahasuerus decided to promote a man named Haman (pronounced “hay-man”) to an important position within the Persian government.
In fact, we’re told that Ahasuerus promoted Haman to the highest-ranking position in the kingdom, “…making him the most powerful official in the empire” (TLB). Today we would recognize this position as somewhat similar to that of a Prime Minister or Vice President in a modern form of government. In any event, Haman was given a position that placed him second in command only to the king.
This verse also holds an important clue that will help explain many of the events that will occur later on in Esther chapter three: “Haman (was the) son of Hammedatha, the Agagite (NIV). Now this term “Agagite “ may simply indicate that Haman’s family came from an area within the Persian Empire known as Agag. However, it seems more likely that this term actually refers to something much more important. To understand what that “something” is, we need to travel back to the days of a man named Isaac in the Old Testament- and we’ll look at his story next.
“…Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, was lifted up and given a position of honour and a higher place than all the other captains who were with him” (Esther 3:2 BBE).
Isaac had two sons named Esau and Jacob and their births are recorded for us in Genesis chapter 25. Esau would later be described in the New Testament as a godless and sexually immoral person (see Hebrews 12:16) while Jacob eventually went on to become the forerunner of the Jewish people. So what does this information have to do with Haman? Well, Esau had a grandson named Amalek (Genesis 36:12) who later became the ancestor of a people group named after him- the Amalekites.
The Amalekites were one of Israel’s oldest enemies going all the way back to the days when the Israelites left Egypt on the way to the land that God promised to give them. Their attacks on the people of Israel eventually caused God to say this:“Write this into a permanent record, to be remembered forever, and announce to Joshua that I will utterly blot out every trace of Amalek.” (Exodus 17:14 TLB).
Later on, God said this through a prophet named Samuel: “This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1 Samuel 15:2-3 HCSB).
Samuel gave this command to a king named Saul, the man who served as leader over Israel at that time. So Saul got his army together and here’s what happened: “He captured Agag, the Amalekite king, but completely destroyed everyone else. Saul and his men spared Agag’s life and kept the best of the sheep and goats, the cattle, the fat calves, and the lambs—everything, in fact, that appealed to them. They destroyed only what was worthless or of poor quality” (1 Samuel 15:8-10).
Now there were two big problems with Saul’s response- one that should be obvious and another that’s not so obvious. The first issue was that Saul didn’t do what God told him to do. Remember that Saul’s instructions were clear: wipe out the Amalekites along with everything they owned. But Saul and his men decided instead to hold on to everything they thought was good. That was problem number one- and we’ll look at problem number two next.
“Every Amalekite was killed except King Agag. Saul and his army let Agag live, and they also spared the best sheep and cattle. They didn’t want to destroy anything of value, so they only killed the animals that were worthless or weak” (1 Samuel 15:8-9 CEV).
Instead of wiping out the Amalekites as God instructed him to do through Samuel the prophet, Saul and his military personnel decided to haul off anything they felt was valuable. They also decided to spare the Amalekite leader named Agag, and that led to another problem. You see, when Saul returned from the battle, Samuel confronted him and said this…
“The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord?’” (1 Samuel 15:17b-19a NIV).
This implies that Saul did not make war on the Amalekites until he had wiped them out- and that meant that the Amalekites continued to survive as a people group. If you’ve been following this account closely, then you may have also noticed the name of the Amalekite king that Saul didn’t kill. His name was Agag, and this probably means that he was an ancestor of Haman the Agagite mentioned in the first verse of Esther chapter three
So even though Samuel later eliminated Agag himself (1 Samuel 15:32-33), the fact that Saul did not listen to God and completely wipe out the Amalekites may have had a direct impact on the events we’re about to read in the rest of the book of Esther. You see, if King Saul had simply done what God had told him to do, it’s likely that there never would have been a Haman the Agagite.
This incident (and the Amalekites’ hostility against the people of Israel in general) may also help to explain the reasoning behind some of Haman’s actions later on in this chapter. So just as one hot coal left in a campfire can come back to start an enormous forest fire, one man’s refusal to follow God’s instructions will eventually come back to cause some serious problems for the people of Israel.
But before we get to that part, we’re first told that “…the king had given orders for his officials at the royal gate to honor Haman by kneeling down to him” (Esther 3:1 CEV). So Haman received great authority from the king, but the way he will choose to use his authority will demonstrate a lot about his character.
“…King Ahasuerus honored Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite. He promoted him in rank and gave him a higher position than all the other officials. The entire royal staff at the King’s Gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, because the king had commanded this to be done for him…” (Esther 3:1-2a HCSB).
The way that Haman will use his new position will tell us what he was really like on the inside. For instance, will he use his authority to help others or help himself? Will he seek to honor God with his authority or will he seek to honor himself? Remember that Jesus once said, “…what people say with their mouths comes from the way they think; these are the things that make people unclean. Out of the mind come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual sins, stealing, lying, and speaking evil of others.” (Matthew 15:18-19 NCV). We’re going to learn a lot about what Haman was thinking by looking at the things he said and did.
You see, Haman’s character was about to be put to the test by the actions of one man- and that man was Esther’s adopted father: “…Mordecai would not kneel and bow to him” (Esther 3:2b GW). In the days of the Old Testament it was an accepted practice for someone to bow to a person of superior rank. But this act didn’t just involve bending at the waist- it involved placing your body in a horizontal position with your face near the ground (see Genesis 17:17, 42:6, and 48:12 for some examples).
So why didn’t Mordecai follow the example of the king’s other officials? Well, one clue is found in the text itself- it says, “Mordecai did not bow nor worship” (LITV). The word used for “bow” in this verse means “to bend the knee.” (1) and would represent the typical kind of respect that someone might offer to a leader of that time.
However, it seems that Haman received more than just respect from these officials because words like “worship” (LITV), “homage” (ESV), and “honor” (NIV) are also used to describe their response to him. These words are translated from a term that means “to worship, prostrate oneself, bow down” (2) in the language that was used to write the book of Esther.
While this word can refer to the kind of respect that was usually shown to a superior during that time, the fact that these officials bowed to Haman and showed him such extreme reverence probably means that he received more than just honor or recognition from them. It means that Haman probably received an almost god-like level of respect from these officials- and that was one boundary that Mordecai refused to cross.
(1) OT:3766 kara` New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary
(2) OT:7812 shachah Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words
“…the king had given orders for his officials at the royal gate to honor Haman by kneeling down to him. All of them obeyed except Mordecai” (Esther 3:2 CEV).
One problem for Modecai probably had to do with the fact that Haman was a descendant of Amalek. You see, a Jewish person of that time would not ordinarily have an issue in showing respect to someone in authority (see 1 Samuel 24:8 for an example). And of course, the New Testament book of Romans will later go on to tell us, “…give respect and honor to those who are in authority” (Romans 13:7 NLT).
The problem was that Haman was different- he represented a group of people who were unjust and had no respect for God. For example, Mordecai was surely aware of what God had said to the people of Israel back in Old Testament book of Deuteronomy…
“Remember what the Amalekites did to you when you came out of Egypt. When you were tired and worn out, they met you on the road and attacked all those lagging behind. They were not afraid of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you as your own, you shall destroy any memory of the Amalekites on the earth. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19 NCV).
This may help to explain why Mordecai could not bring himself to show such respect to Haman. Mordecai knew that Haman’s people had been fighting against the people of Israel for generations and that they had been cursed by God as a result. In fact, Mordecai actually went on to identify his heritage as the reason to explain his refusal to join with the king’s other officials…
“Then the king’s servants who were within the king’s gate said to Mordecai, ‘Why do you transgress the king’s command?’ Now it happened, when they spoke to him daily and he would not listen to them, that they told it to Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand; for Mordecai had told them that he was a Jew” (Esther 3:3-4).
So Mordecai’s decision not to go along with the rest of the crowd eventually caught the attention of his co-workers who asked him,“Why are you disobeying the king’s command?” (NLT). In answering their question, Mordecai’s response tells us that he didn’t have an issue with respect or authority- Mordecai’s problem was with Haman himself and he made sure to let the king’s other officials know why: “Because I am a Jew” (CEV).
“Why do you transgress the king’s command?” (Esther 3:3 ESV).
The king’s officials could have accepted Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman and left it at that- but they chose not to. Instead, “They spoke to him for several days about kneeling down, but he still refused to obey. Finally, they reported this to Haman, to find out if he would let Mordecai get away with it” (Esther 3:4b CEV).
So when Haman learned about what Mordecai was doing, here’s how he responded…
“When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow or pay him homage, Haman was filled with wrath” (Esther 3:5).
It seems that Haman didn’t notice Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him until the king’s other officials decided to mention it to him. It was at that point that Haman then became furious (GNB), enraged (NIV), and full of wrath (ASV) towards Mordecai. Now Haman could have chosen to take out his anger upon Mordecai alone- but he apparently had a bigger idea in mind…
“But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had told him of the people of Mordecai. Instead, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus — the people of Mordecai” (Esther 3:6).
This reaction tells us that the bad feelings between Mordecai and Haman were more than simply personal. You see, once Haman found out about Mordecai’s cultural background, he decided to use Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him as an excuse to wipe out an entire group of age-old enemies: the Jewish people. While Haman certainly had the ability to execute Mordecai on his own authority, his thought process was apparently this: “If I kill Mordecai for refusing to bow before me, there is always the possibility that another Jewish person might refuse to bow before me as well- and then another, and another, and so on. But if I eliminate all of Mordecai’s people, then no one will ever refuse to bow before me again.”
Today we would refer to Haman’s plan as an act of genocide, or “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” (1) This is the type of mindset that Mordecai and the rest of the Jewish people were up against- a man who wanted to eliminate an entire race of people just to get even for the actions of one.
(1) “genocide.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 09 May. 2011. Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/genocide.
“In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, the lot), before Haman to determine the day and the month, until it fell on the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar” (Esther 3:7).
This verse provides us with a kind of “time stamp” that allows scholars to identify the date when these events took place. You see, “the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus…” corresponds to March or April in the year 474 BC. By this time, Ahasuerus and Esther had been together for about five years and it was during this period that Haman decided to try and figure out the best date to wipe out the Jewish people.
The way Haman proposed to do that was by casting lots or “Pur” as it says above. This is where the name of the modern day feast of Purim comes from. Pur is an ancient word that means “lot” or “piece” and the act of casting Pur was something like throwing dice while playing a board game today.
It’s believed that the lot was thrown upon a calendar to determine the right date to take a particular course of action. In this case, the date chosen was “the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar,” a period that followed eleven months later. So this meant that there was an eleven month extent of time between the date the lot was cast and the time the lot indicated for the destruction of the Jewish people.
While it may be easy to think that this date was chosen strictly by chance, we should keep in mind something that’s written in Proverbs 16:33 before we continue: ”The dice are thrown, but the LORD determines every outcome.”
“Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws.
Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain. If it pleases the king, let a decree be written that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who do the work, to bring it into the king’s treasuries'” (Esther3:8-9)
It’s interesting to notice the way that Haman presented this petition to King Ahasuerus, and we’ll take a closer look at the way he crafted his request (and the reasons why) next.
“Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them.
If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, that they may put it into the king’s treasuries'” (Esther 3:8-11 ESV).
It’s interesting to see the way that Haman presented his request to King Ahasuerus. Notice that Haman didn’t say,“There’s a man named Mordecai who refuses to bow down to me” which would have actually been a more accurate description of the real issue. The problem was that a statement like that would have made Haman sound weak and petty and was certain to invite ridicule from the king.
Haman also didn’t say, “My people have been enemies of Mordecai’s people for centuries- please give me permission to wipe them all out.” That wouldn’t work either because the king certainly had better things to do than serve as a referee for a multi-generational feud. No, what Haman needed was a way to get what he wanted by presenting his request in a way that represented a major concern for the king.
So here’s what he came up with. First, he started his request by stating, “There is a certain people…” In saying this, Haman cleverly planted the suggestion that he was speaking about a group of foreigners, outsiders, or others who didn’t fit in. These misfits were not only different from everyone else, they were also everywhere: “(they are) scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom.”
Haman then built on this idea by saying, ”their laws are different from all other people’s.” This helped to reinforce the image of a group of outsiders who just didn’t belong. Haman then went on to claim that these people weren’t just outsiders- they were also lawbreakers as well: “they do not keep the king’s laws.”
So if you were the king and you were faced with a group of lawbreaking aliens, what would be the right thing to do? Well, Haman had a ready suggestion: ”Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain.” How could the king possibly argue with that reasoning?
Without mentioning them by name, Haman had represented the Jewish people to the king as a group of lawbreaking outsiders who needed to be eliminated. But Haman also had another reason to motivate the king to take action…
“If it please Your Majesty, issue a decree that they are to be put to death. If you do, I guarantee that I will be able to put 375 tons of silver into the royal treasury for the administration of the empire” (Esther 3:9 GNB).
So according to Haman, the king could not only rid himself of a group of troublemaking outsiders, but he would also make some money on this arrangement as well. For a king like Ahasuerus who had finished a very expensive military campaign, that was sure to be a very attractive option.
Now it’s not entirely clear how Haman planned to come up with all this money. To get an idea of the amount of money Haman was suggesting, we should keep in mind that one ancient source reports that the yearly income of the entire Persian government was 14,500 talents. (1) The amount that Haman claimed would be added to the king’s treasury by wiping out the Jewish people was equal to 10,000 talents (Esther 3:9 ESV). So this means that Haman promised to deliver almost 70% of all the money that the entire government took in for a year in exchange for permission to eliminate the Jewish people.
So where did Haman plan to come up with such a tremendous amount of money? Well, it may be that Haman was exaggerating but it seems unlikely that he would waste the king’s time by mentioning such a ridiculous amount. It’s also possible that Haman was a very wealthy man but again, it seems unlikely that he would have almost as much money as the yearly income of the entire Persian government.
A more likely possibility (as we’ll see later on) is that Haman planned to kill the Jewish people and then allow their belongings to be confiscated by the other citizens of the Persian Empire. Those confiscated belongings could then be taxed as “income” or delivered directly to the king’s treasury.
If this was the case, then it meant that Haman not only planned to assassinate an entire race of people, but that he also planned to take away anything of value that had previously belonged to them as well- and that was apparently enough to convince King Ahasuerus to go along with Haman’s plan.
(1) Herodotus Histories (3.95)
“The king took off his ring, which was used to stamp proclamations and make them official, and gave it to the enemy of the Jewish people, Haman son of Hammedatha, the descendant of Agag.” (Esther 3:10 GNB).
In the world of the Old Testament, a signet ring was often used as we might use a personal signature today. A “signet ring” was a finger ring that was crafted with a raised imprint that served as an identifying mark. This identification was especially useful for things like letters and other types of correspondence.
For instance, a person could drip some hot wax onto the envelop of a personal letter and then use his or her signet ring to impress a personal seal onto the soft wax. In that way, the person who received the letter would know that it was fully authentic and not a forgery.
In this case, the king’s signet ring gave Haman permission to act with the monarch’s full authority. It could then be used to imprint any order, proclamation, or decree that Haman desired. Any such document would have just as much authority as anything that came directly from the king himself.
Now it certainly wasn’t unusual for a monarch to authorize one of his officials to act on his behalf. In fact, we can find just such an example in the book of Genesis when Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, gave his signet ring to Joseph to provide him with the authorization necessary to prepare for an upcoming famine (see Genesis 41:42-44). But Pharaoh also identified the specific reason behind his decision to provide Joseph with the authority that came with his signet ring…
“‘…Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you’” (Genesis 41:39-40 NIV).
You see, Pharaoh believed that God was the motivating force behind Joseph’s actions. Unfortunately, King Ahasuerus didn’t seem interested in finding out the motivation behind Haman’s request. He also didn’t seem interested in the fact that he just agreed to sentence untold numbers of innocent people to death- and all because one man was annoyed with someone else.
The king certainly didn’t recognize any divine authority behind Haman’s request because there wasn’t any. And because the king was irresponsible and failed to look into this request more thoroughly, he also didn’t realize that he had just signed the death warrant for his own queen.
“Then the king’s scribes were called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and a decree was written according to all that Haman commanded — to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province, to the officials of all people, to every province according to its script, and to every people in their language. In the name of King Ahasuerus it was written, and sealed with the king’s signet ring.
And the letters were sent by couriers into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their possessions. A copy of the document was to be issued as law in every province, being published for all people, that they should be ready for that day” (Esther 3:12-14).
So Haman’s orders were put into writing and delivered throughout the Persian Empire to the various levels of leadership under the king. These legal orders carried the full weight of the king’s authority and provided for one thing: the complete extermination of every Jewish person living anywhere within the Persian Empire. It didn’t matter if that person was young or old, male or female, child or adult- the orders were clear and crafted with legal precision: “…destroy… kill, and… annihilate all the Jews…”
If this order wasn’t gruesome enough by itself, the law also provided a big financial incentive that we looked at earlier: “The property of the Jews would be given to those who killed them” (Esther 3:13 NLT).
The date chosen to inflict this horror was the ”…thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar…” a date that we would recognize on a modern calendar as March 7, 473 BC. So it was not enough for Haman to take out his hatred upon an entire race of people- this date provided the additional torment of an eleven month period for every Jewish man, woman, and child to wait for what was going to happen.
With this in mind, think about what it would be like if the government of your country enacted a law that ordered your fellow citizens to kill you just eleven months from today. What would your life be like as the time of that date arrived? How would it feel to live with the knowledge that your neighbors were just waiting for the day when they could kill you and take everything you owned? That’s what like was life for the Jewish people of Esther chapter three.
“The letters were taken by messengers to every part of the kingdom, and this is what was said in the letters: On the thirteenth day of Adar, the twelfth month, all Jewish men, women, and children are to be killed. And their property is to be taken” (Esther 3:13 CEV).
Before we go on, we should take some time to think about Mordecai’s reaction when he learned about the king’s edict.
For instance, how do you think Mordecai felt about the fact that his actions had now led to a decree that guaranteed his destruction and the destruction of every Jewish person throughout the entire Persian Empire? How do you think he might have responded to an accusation that he was personally responsible for the pending deaths of untold numbers of people? Do you think Mordecai may have said to himself, “If I had only followed the law and bowed down to Haman, this never would have happened.”
Well, Mordecai did have a response to the king’s commandment and we’ll take a look at that response when we get to the next chapter. But first, Haman and the king had some other business to attend to…
“The couriers went out, hastened by the king’s command; and the decree was proclaimed in Shushan the citadel. So the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Shushan was perplexed” (Esther 3:15).
So while an entire race of people were facing their complete and total destruction, Haman and the king were out at the bar having some drinks together. This tells us something important about the characters of both Haman and the king- an act of genocide had just been authorized, the population of the capital city was in confusion, and these two men were drinking together as if nothing important had happened.
But while things looked pretty bad for the Jewish people, the truth was that Haman had actually made a deadly mistake. As Haman sat down to have a few drinks with the king, he had no idea that he had actually signed his own death warrant. You see, the Old Testament book of Proverbs tells us that there are a few things that God really, really dislikes- and Haman had placed himself on the wrong side of almost every one of them…
“There are seven things that the LORD hates and cannot tolerate: A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that kill innocent people, a mind that thinks up wicked plans, feet that hurry off to do evil, a witness who tells one lie after another, and someone who stirs up trouble among friends” (Proverbs 6:16-19 GNB).