Commentary on Esther 3

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Some time later King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, exalting him and setting his position above that of all the officials who were with him.

Haman is an Agagite, a race unattested in the Persian Empire in non-biblical literature.1 It probably means that Haman was a descendant of Agag, an Amalekite king who fought Israel’s King Saul (1 Sam 15). The Amalekites were archenemy of the Israelites (Ex 17:8-16; Deut 25:17-19). Mordecai’s ancestors (2:5) also recall the line of Saul (1 Sam 9:1). This alerts the reader to the fact that Haman will play the role of the enemy of the Jews (8:1). But, whereas Agag was Saul’s downfall (costing him the kingship), Mordecai will be Haman’s downfall. Haman is second in command. Whereas Joseph used a similar position (Gen 41:37-45) to preserve the Israelites, Haman will use his position to try and destroy them.

2 As a result, all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate were bowing and paying homage to Haman, for the king had so commanded. However, Mordecai did not bow, nor did he pay him homage.

Bowing down to a leader was normally a sign of courtesy and respect, not worship (Gen 23:7; 33:3; 42:6; 44:14; 1 Sam 20:41; 24:8; 2 Sam 14:4; 1 Kgs 1:16), so Mordecai’s refusal to bow is not due to his desire to avoid idolatry. Bickerman suggests that Mordecai refuses to bow because he is jealous that Haman received a promotion and he did not. Mordecai had just saved the king but was given no reward. Mordecai refuses to explain his actions to the servants of the king (3:3-4) because he does not want to admit his bitterness. Later, Mordecai will receive the office vacated by Haman (8:2). An alternative explanation for Mordecai’s behavior is that it is due to the enmity between Amalekites and Jews. In Rom 13:7 Paul tells the Romans to show respect and honor to others, so Christians should not assume Mordecai’s behavior is to be followed.

3 Then the servants of the king who were at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why are you violating the king’s commandment?”

4 And after they had spoken to him day after day without his paying any attention to them, they informed Haman to see whether this attitude on Mordecai’s part would be permitted. Furthermore, he had disclosed to them that he was a Jew.

Some interpreters think that “for he had disclosed to them that he was a Jew” is Mordecai’s explanation for his behavior. Tomasino takes it to be a separate sentence explaining how the servants of the king knew he was a Jew. After all, Mordecai had earlier told Esther not to reveal her Jewishness.

5 When Haman saw that Mordecai was not bowing or paying homage to him, he was filled with rage.

Perhaps some of Haman’s rage was due to the fact that he had been disrespected for days without knowing it.

6 But the thought of striking out against Mordecai alone was repugnant to him, for he had been informed of the identity of Mordecai’s people. So Haman sought to destroy all the Jews (that is, the people of Mordecai) who were in all the kingdom of Ahasuerus.

Haman felt it would be beneath him to strike out against one man. If he punished only Mordecai, it would mean that Mordecai had accomplished precisely what he had intended, which was to insult Haman. Executing Mordecai would have made the insult appear significant, which Haman could not allow. But his pride would not allow him to overlook it, either. His decision to kill an entire nation because he felt insulted was, to say the least, excessive. It would sound almost comedic, if not for the fact that it has eerie reverberations in later history: it is often argued that Adolf Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was inspired partly by his rejection by a Jewish director when he had applied to art school in Vienna. The real irony of this response, however, is in its connections to other episodes in the Esther narrative and beyond. On the one hand, it is similar to the story of Vashti: when one woman had refused to submit to the will of the king, he chose to pass an edict that would order the submission of the entire sex (we might suspect this edict was generally ineffective). Now, when Haman feels insulted by one Jew, he responds with an edict that will punish the entire race. On the other hand, there is a kind of twisted symmetry in Haman’s plan: Israel had been commanded to utterly exterminate the Amalekites (Deut 25:17–19; 1 Sam 15:3), and now an Amalekite would attempt to exterminate Israel.2

7 In the first month (that is, the month of Nisan), in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus’ reign, pur (that is, the lot) was cast before Haman in order to determine a day and a month. It turned out to be the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar).

This verse tells us that these events happened five years after Esther was made queen. The feast of Purim derives its name from the Akkadian, not Persian, word “pur”. Lots were cast in an attempt to seek divine guidance. The MT reads “from day to day and from month to month to the twelfth month, the month of Adar.” This makes little sense in the context. Based on the LXX and later passages from the book, a translation such as the NRSV seems more accurate: “for the day and for the month, and the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.” Eleven months would pass between the proclamation and the pogrom. “The thirteenth day was considered an unlucky one to the Babylonians and Persians. It is almost as if ‘fate’ itself was balking at the notion of the Jewish genocide.”3

The date the lot fell on corresponds to mid-February to mid-March, eleven months later. This gives the Jews time to prepare. The number thirteen was unlucky among the Persians and thus might foreshadow that the day would turn out worse for the Persians than the Jews (Mays 355).

8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a particular people that is dispersed and spread among the inhabitants throughout all the provinces of your kingdom whose laws differ from those of all other peoples. Furthermore, they do not observe the king’s laws. It is not appropriate for the king to provide a haven for them. 9 If the king is so inclined, let an edict be issued to destroy them. I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to be conveyed to the king’s treasuries for the officials who carry out this business.”

Haman’s speech, like the courtier Memucan’s in 1:16-20, states first the precise offense, then a proposed solution, and then the advantages to be gained. In both cases the disproportion between the actual events and the proposed punishment is striking. Haman cunningly mixes truth, half-truth, and innuendo: the Jews are indeed scattered throughout the empire (though Haman manages to make that sound like a conspiracy); they do indeed have their own customs, but it is a misrepresentation to suggest that means they therefore do not obey the king’s law. (Haman is playing upon the fact that the same word means “custom” and “law.”)4

To be sure that Xerxes would not balk at the thought of the lost tax revenue that such a slaughter might entail, Haman was quick to add that he would personally provide the funds for this undertaking. Clearly, this offer constitutes a bribe, promising to provide the royal treasury with a sum far above what was needed to carry out the work of eradication. The money is to be given to the “doers of the work”–not the work of execution; their pay would be the spoils they took from the slaughtered Jews. Rather, the “workers” here refers to fiscal workers, the people responsible for the oversight of the royal treasury. They would have a large task to complete: the size of the bribe that Haman was offering was fantastic. According to the standard weight of the talent that was established by King Darius, 10,000 talents equaled about 333 tons of silver. According to Herodotus (Hist. 3.95), Persia’s annual income from taxes and tribute equaled 14,560 “Eobic” (probably meaning standard Athenian) talents, which would be equivalent to about 10,920 Babylonian talents. Haman’s bribe was almost equal to Persia’s annual revenue! It is difficult to take such a figure literally: it would be akin to the vice president offering to donate a trillion dollars to the president of the United States in exchange for a favor. There is nothing indicating here where those funds would come from, whether from Haman’s personal wealth or from the funds of his office. It could not have been from anticipated plunder of the Jews, since the Jews’ executioners were given permission to take the spoils themselves (Esth 3:13). Bechtel suggests that possibly Haman was bluffing–that he had no intention of paying such funds. If that were the case, however, we might have expected him to come up with a more realistic sounding sum. Most likely, our narrator is taking another opportunity to lampoon the excesses of the Persian Empire and Haman’s hatred of the Jews, which–in spite of his vast resources–will prove impotent.5

10 So the king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, who was hostile toward the Jews.

The signet ring was used to seal the decree and imply the king’s permission. The king approves the plan without any questions asked.

11 The king replied to Haman, “Keep your money, and do with those people whatever you wish.”

The Hebrew says “the money is given to you” and its meaning is unclear. Later, Mordecai says Haman’s money would go to the treasury (4:7) and Esther says here people have been sold (7:4). This suggests that the king accept the money.

It is worth noting that Xerxes’ decree would have violated a Persian policy noted by Herodotus (Hist. 1.137) forbidding anyone to be executed on the testimony of a single witness. Given the typical bias against the Persians in Greek literature, we should be inclined to accept this testimony as accurate. It also seems to be corroborated by the so-called “harem inscription” found at Persepolis, where Xerxes proclaims that he would not render a judgment in a case without hearing the testimony of both parties.6

12 So the royal scribes were summoned in the first month, on the thirteenth day of the month. Everything Haman commanded was written to the king’s satraps and governors who were in every province and to the officials of every people, province by province according to its script and people by people according to its language. In the name of King Ahasuerus it was written and sealed with the king’s signet ring.

Ironically, Haman issues the edict against the Jews the day before the Jews would start celebrating Passover and their deliverance from Egypt (Ex 12:1-11; Lev 23:5-8).

13 Letters were sent by the runners to all the king’s provinces stating that they should destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jews, from youth to elderly, both women and children, on a particular day, namely the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar), and to loot and plunder their possessions.

The promise of plunder was presumably incentive for neighbors to kill the Jews.

Regarding the slaughter of an entire ethnic group, Gordis notes that in 88 B.C., after conquering the Roman province of Asia Minor, Mithradates VI of Pontus ordered a general slaughter of “all who were of Italic race” within the newly subjugated territory.7

Gordis observed that Antiochus III once issued an order four months in advance of the time it was to be carried out, so the eleven-month lag between the issuing of the decree to destroy the Jews and the time it was to have been enacted is not without parallel.8

14 A copy of this edict was to be presented as law throughout every province; it was to be made known to all the inhabitants, so that they would be prepared for this day.

15 The messengers scurried forth with the king’s order. The edict was issued in Susa the citadel. While the king and Haman sat down to drink, the city of Susa was in an uproar!

Haman and the king will drink together again in the story when the fate of the Jews is once again being decided (7:1-2), but then it will be at the dissolution of their relationship and the reversal of the decree here celebrated. The celebration here is in sharp contrast to the fasting and mourning of the Jews (4:1-3, 15-16).9

The uproar or confusion was perhaps due to the questions and uncertainties such an edict would cause.

Bibliography

Barker, Kenneth L. ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Brown, Raymond E. ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Mays, James L. ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (Revised Edition). San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000.

Meeks, Wayne A. ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Tomasino, Anthony. Esther. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013.


  1. Mays 355 
  2. Tomasino EEC 3:6 
  3. Tomasino EEC 3:7 
  4. Mays 355 
  5. Tomasino EEC 3:9 
  6. Tomasino EEC 3:11 
  7. Tomasino EEC 
  8. Tomasino EEC 
  9. Barker 715 
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