Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: We’ll See Who’s Boss | Part 3: Selfish Aims | Part 4: The King Gets What He Wants
After Esther becomes queen, about four years pass before we meet the antagonist of the story, the wicked court official Haman. He is an Agagite (Es 3.1), which may mean that he’s a descendant of Agag the Amalekite, whom King Saul had refused to kill when the Lord told him to (1Sam 15.8, 32-33). Israel and Amalek had a long history of enmity, going back a thousand years from Esther’s time; Balaam’s blessing of Israel included the promise that Israel’s king “would be higher than Agag” (Nu 24.7). It would certainly make sense that Haman would have a deep-seated hatred for the Jews, if this is what “Agagite” means. But that is by no means certain.
At any rate, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman (Es 3.2).
That’s interesting, because the question of bowing to earthly rulers isn’t clearly answered in Scripture. On the one hand, the Law forbade bowing to false gods or idols (Ex 20.5; 23.24; Le 26.1; De 5.9), and we have the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to the image of the king (Da 3.12). But God’s people frequently bowed to human rulers, and even to Gentiles. When Abraham was purchasing a burial place for Sarah, he bowed to the Hittites from whom he was purchasing it (Ge 23.7). A woman from Tekoah bowed to King David (2S 14.4), as did a messenger when David was waiting news from the battlefield (2S 18.28). David’s wife Bathsheba bowed to him as well (1K 1.16).
So exactly why Mordecai refused to bow to Haman is not clear. Maybe it was a religious thing; maybe he just didn’t like the guy. But this single tiny incident sets in motion the motivation for Haman to isolate and execute the Jews—a motivation that will drive the rest of the story.
Haman is furious (Es 3.5). Modern readers will realize that this kind of response likely indicates weakness and insecurity rather than actual power; a confident leader doesn’t worry about such minor slights, because he has more important things to give his attention to. Haman’s weakness is further demonstrated by his response—we’ll kill Mordecai, and we’ll kill his entire people as well (Es 3.6). Of course, if he carries out his desire, God’s promise to Abraham—of a people, and of a Seed (Ge 15.4-5)—will go unkept.
On April 7, 474 BC, Haman’s staff casts the lot to determine the day on which the Jews will be exterminated (Es 3.7). The Persians often cast lots, as far as a year in advance, to determine auspicious days to do this or that. The day that comes up this time is March 7, 473 BC—11 months away. The lag time gives the Jews warning and time to prepare. Speaking of “auspicious.”
Haman figures that if he kills the Jews, he can plunder their stuff. So he bribes Xerxes to grant his horrific request (Es 3.9). He’ll pay the 10,000 talents from the plunder.
Now, 10,000 talents is a pile of money. Xerxes’ predecessor, Darius I, received about 15,000 talents in revenue for a whole year. This tells us that Haman saw the Jews as a wealthy target; they had apparently done very well in Babylon.
Xerxes acquiesces to Haman’s absurd request (Es 3.11). And so the decree goes out across the entire empire, in all the requisite languages. The announcement day is the 13th day of the first month (Es 3.12)—the day before Passover (Le 23.5). Happy holidays.
The despot takes the whole thing lightly. He signs the decree and then calls for a drink with Haman (Es 3.15). Good ol’ boys having a good time.
“But the city Shushan was perplexed” (Es 3.15). The king’s own people are bewildered by what he has done. The crowds in the city mill about in the streets, shaking their heads, asking one another what this can possibly mean. “What on earth is he thinking?!”
But he’s the sovereign. He can do what he wants.
There’s nobody bigger. Right?
Part 6: The Tease | Part 7: Any Old Tablet | Part 8: Mental Explosion | Part 9: What Goes Around | Part 10: The Missing Piece
Photo credit: Xerxes’ tomb; dynamosquito from France, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons