Esther 1 and 2 tell us a lot about the Persian Empire in the reign of Ahasuerus (as we saw in the introduction to this unit of the Bible, he governed in the years between Ezra 6 and 7). How far we have fallen from the just reigns of David, Solomon, Hezekiah or Josiah! While these Jewish kings served as examples of just rule of the land in concert with Yahweh’s just dominion over all creation, the Persian court governs with a different mentality:
Abundant prosperity exists for the consumption and pleasure of the
privileged. Remember our reading about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9. Solomon’s prosperity impressed her so that she gave glory to Yahweh for His anointed one. His prosperity was a reflection of God’s just dominion: “Blessed be the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and set you on his throne as king for the LORD your God! Because your God loved Israel and would establish them forever, he has made you king over them, that you may execute justice and righteousness” (2 Chronicles 9:8). But in the description of the Persian court in Esther 1 – 2, there is no mention of Yahweh or of any god. Ahasuerus and his chosen ones are the center of rule. Whether we speak of banquets that last for days, or the incomparable beauty of the women, or ten thousand talents of silver that Haman offers for the destruction of the Jews, prosperity exists only to fulfill the desires of the privileged.
The law exists to protect the privileges of the wealthy. Remember one of the
reasons why Yahweh gave His Law to the Israelites: “Keep them and do them, for
that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6-8) But in Esther 1 – 4, the law is based on human intelligence (or more often, human whim), not on Yahweh’s revelation, and it is conceived and exercised to preserve privilege: “When the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike” (Esther 1:20). “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” (Esther 3:8-9). “Good” is defined by what protects and benefits the privileged; “bad” is defined by what threatens their authority. Topics related to righteousness and just dominion do not even enter into the discussion. Therefore, Ahasuerus and Haman can decree the extermination of an entire ethnic group and immediately sit down and drink without remorse (Esther 3:15).
In this environment created by the pride and self-centeredness of the rulers, Jews like Mordecai and Esther try to survive. The well-being of the non-privileged depends on how much they benefit the privileged and their evasion of any action that displeases them. That’s one reason why Mordecai’s insistence in not bowing to Haman is so unusual. Why would he insist on something that will endanger him… and as we read, that will endanger his whole nation?
Mordecai answers that he is a Jew: “They told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew” (Esther 3:4). Therefore some think that perhaps there was a Biblical law that
prohibited Jews from bowing before others, or at least before Gentiles. But there is no such law in the Bible. Besides, Esther sees nothing wrong with throwing herself at Ahasuerus’s feet in submission to ask him a favor in 8:3. On the other hand, the text communicates that there is a more personal motive to Mordecai’s inaction – he is denounced before Haman, not before the king (Esther 3:4), even though it was the king’s order he was disobeying. It also says: Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him (Esther 3:5). And if we follow the personal thread of possible motives, we can see why Mordecai did not kneel before this man.
“King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, and advanced him and set his throne above all the officials who were with him” (Esther 3:1). As Esther 8:5 and 9:24 repeat, Haman is a descendant of Agag, from the royal house of the Amalekites. They had attacked Israel during their exodus from Egypt in Exodus 17:8-16. Moses said, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the
LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Agag is the king of Amalek whom Saul must destroy in 1 Samuel 15, but he disobeyed Yahweh and did not kill him (the prophet Samuel later on executed his death sentence). And now in Susa there is a descendant of Agag, someone with the royal blood of the Amalekites, placed high above all of the other princes of Persia. Meanwhile Mordecai is: “The son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjamite” (Esther 2:5), that is, from the same house as King Saul, son of Kish. Haman, a descendant of the royal house of the Amalekites, is confronted by the insubordination of Mordecai, a descendant of the former ruling house of the Israelites. That’s how we can understand Mordecai’s refusal to bow or kneel before Haman and Haman’s desire to take vengeance not only on Mordecai but on all the
Haman has more authority and privilege than Mordecai. Meanwhile, Esther’s influence with the king is diminishing: “I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days” (Esther 4:11). Can rescue come from Someone more influential than Haman? “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my
behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law” (Esther 4:16). Is there Someone with more authority than the law of Persia?