Priestly Theocracy #7
Ahasuerus, king of Persia, reigned between Darius, the Second, and Artaxerxes, the First. He was not favorably disposed toward the Jews because of his trusted minister Haman, who hated Mordecai. Mordecai was a leader among his people, an opportunist, and a very clever plotter. Haman underestimated his cunning ability to build traps for his enemies. Mordecai was the kind of a person who was willing to sacrifice Esther, his own niece, to gain favor with the king. The writer of “The Book of Esther” depicts Mordecai as the innocent victim and Haman as the villain. Let us follow Mordecai’s trail and see what he did to get where he wanted to go and see who initiated the hatred that almost destroyed his people.
The story began in the capital of Susa, where the nobles plotted against Ahasuerus. They convinced the king to have a huge party; furthermore, they inebriated the king. They also had the king make a decree that Queen Vashti should dance and strip herself before these nobles. The noble Queen refused to expose herself to these drunkards. Therefore, the nobles branded her as unworthy; and therefore, they requested to have Queen Vashti replaced with a virgin.
After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had declared against her. Then the king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the capital, under the custody of Hegai the king’s eunuch who is in charge of the women; let their ointments be given them. And let the maiden who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so (Esther 2:1-4).
Mordecai’s first opportunity had arrived. Hegai the warden of the harem was a friend and a Jew. Esther was beautiful and Mordecai put her in the care of Hegai. Hegai knew what the king liked and he turned Esther into a willing vessel for royal pleasure. And no one knew that she was Jewish.
When the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. And when Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus into his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet to all his princes and servants; it was Esther’s banquet. He also granted a remission of taxes to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality (Esther 2:15-18).
Meanwhile, Mordecai began to sit at the king’s gate. Through some virgins, he stayed in touch with Esther. Mordecai happen to overhear the displeasure of two finance ministers who intended to harm the king. He reported the incident to Esther, and she informed the king. As recorded in the Chronicles, the report was verified and the two men were hung. Unfortunately, Mordecai was not rewarded for saving the king. Haman, who handled the investigation and the hanging, was promoted above all the princes and the king’s servant. And Haman was honored as if he were the king. Mordecai was not going to turn the other cheek.
But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you transgress the king’s command?” And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was filled with fury. But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, as they had made known to him the people of Mordecai, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus (Esther 3:2b-6).
There was no justification for using the ill-behavior of the two men and allow hatred to escalate into exterminating of each other. The added insult these two men caused was tragic. They regarded their misconceived actions as being God’s Will to sanction their evil-intended victory. How could a king, or God’s people be taken in by the squabble of Mordecai and Haman? Unfortunately, every generation is taken in by men and women who leave us in dire straights. Haman obtained from King Ahasuerus an edict to exterminate Mordecai and all his fellow Jews. Just think into what a predicament Mordecai had put Esther? What was it all about? Is it worth to endanger a people, just to prove a point? Is that the kind of faith we ought to promote?
Then the king’s secretaries were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the princes of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation to all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went in haste by order of the king, and the decree was issued in Susa the capital. And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was perplexed (Esther 3:12-15).
Mordecai had sown the seed, but he was not willing to harvest the results, and neither was Haman. Mordecai tore his clothes, he put on sackcloth and ashes, and then he sat at the king’s gate, risking death. Esther inquired through Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, about her uncle’s concern and she sent clothes to clothe Mordecai. Nevertheless, Mordecai refused to change clothes and ordered Esther to go to the king and plead for their lives. The eunuch relayed Haman’s decree was that “all the Jews must die” to Esther. Esther had not been called before the king in a month; therefore, Esther replied with hesitation; nevertheless, Mordecai insisted and Esther dared to face the king diplomatically (Esther 4).
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace; and when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she found favor in his sight and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. And the king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to half of my kingdom.” And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come this day to a dinner that I have prepared for the king.” Then said the king, “Bring Haman quickly, that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the dinner that Esther had prepared. And as the were drinking wine, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what if you request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” But Esther said, “My petition and my request is: If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition and fulfil my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the dinner which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said” (Esther 5:1-8).
Haman was overjoyed at the invitation to dine with the king and the queen. As he hurried home, Haman had to pass Mordecai sitting at the gate. This aroused Haman’s anger. He aired his hatred with his wife Zeresh and with his friends. They suggested that a fifty cubits high gallows be built and Mordecai be hung on it (Esther 5:9-14). That night, the king could not sleep. And the king asked for the book of memory deeds in his Chronicles, and some one very conveniently brought him the record on Mordecai’s discovery of the plot against the king, which was never rewarded. Early in the morning, Haman went and stood in the court with gallows for Mordecai on his mind. And he was surprised that King Ahasuerus was asking Haman to have an audience him. King Ahasuerus also had Mordecai on his mind and he asked Haman:
“What shall be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” And Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse which the king has ridden, and whose head a royal crown is set; and let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble princes; let him array the man whom the king delights to honor, and let him conduct the man on horse-back through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’” Then the king said to Haman, “Make haste, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.” So Haman took the robes and the horse, and he arrayed Mordecai and made him ride through the open square of the city, proclaiming, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor” (Esther 6:6-11).
When the king ordered Haman to bestow the honor on Mordecai and lead his horse with his enemy sitting on it, Haman was mortified. The event brought fear to his wife and to his friends. Yet, Haman hoped that the banquet with the king and the queen would resolve itself in his favor. Little did Haman know that Queen Esther had nerves of steal. Queen Esther was ready to choke the enemy of her people to death. King Ahasuerus was pleased with Esther’s arrangement and the king was ready to give her half of his kingdom. The king urged her to state her petition and she answered:
“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?” And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen. And the king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden; but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that evil was determined against him by the king. And the king returned from the palace garden to the place where they were drinking wine, as Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face. Then said Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, “Moreover, the gallows which Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, is standing in Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated (Esther 7:3-10).
Vengeance blinds and revenge loses sight of the consequences. The damage to the Jews that Haman instigated was far from over. Esther’s task to save her people required the a change of an edict that Persian law did not allow. For the second time, Esther hoped to gain favor and entrance to king Ahasuerus:
Then Esther spoke again to the king; she fell at his feet and besought him with tears to avert the evil design of Haman the Agagite and the plot which he had devised against the Jews. And the king held out the golden scepter to Esther, and Esther rose and stood before the king. And she said, “If it please the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and if the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. For how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” Then king Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew, “Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he would lay hands on the Jews. And you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked” (Esther 8:3-8).
The king’s secretaries were instructed to write what Mordecai had commanded. He stopped Haman’s edict to halt the execution of Jews, gave them permission to defend and avenge themselves, to be assisted by the king’s forces. The edict was sealed with the king’s ring and dispatched on fast horses to governors of every province. It arrived just in time to avert the slaughter of the Jews. Mordecai emerged as the hero of the Jews, who could celebrate with joy for their deliverance. Mordecai became the most powerful man in Ahasuerus’ kingdom; and therefore, Mordecai was greatly feared by Haman’s followers. They knew that Mordecai, like their Haman, was a merciless avenger (Esther 8:9-9:4).
We read what Mordecai’s revenge did:
So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder (Esther 9:5-10).
The Lord told Moses, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35). Esther pleaded for the life of her people that Mordecai had caused with his hatred for Haman. Unfortunately, Queen Esther did not show a wink of compassion for Haman’s misled followers. Who has or who gives one person the right to exterminate others, who do not agree with you? After the first five hundred were slain, the king asked Esther:
“Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.” And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.” So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder. This was on the thirteenth day of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made a day of feasting and gladness. But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting and holiday-making, and a day on which they send choice portions to one another (Esther 9:12-19).
Mordecai kept a record of the event; sent letters to all the Jew and instructing them to celebrate their victory in perpetuity called “Purim.” The idea came from the word “Pur”; it meant the lot which Haman had cast to destroy the Jews, ended with his own gallows and graves for his people. It was King Ahasuerus that ordered Esther to institute a memorial feast of his good will to save her people. It was not God who received the praise, but the king, the greatness of Mordecai, and the courage of Esther that were memorialized:
But when Esther came before the king, he gave her orders in writing that his (Haman’s) wicked plot which he had devised against the Jews should come upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. And therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had befallen them, the Jews ordained and took it upon themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.
Then the Queen Esther, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim. Letters were sent to all the Jews, to the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, in words of peace and truth, that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther enjoined upon the Jews, and as they had laid down for themselves and for their descendants, with regard to their fasts and their lamenting. The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing (Esther 9:25-32).
Mordecai and Esther created enough fear of the Jews and of their God that lasted to the end of the Persian Empire. Under the Persian protection, Judah was re-established as an isolated state, within the Persian kingdom. From Artaxerxes, the Second, circa 404 B.C. to Alexander the Great 323 B.C., the priests in Judah had a free hand to govern themselves and their nation. Alexander’s reign lasted only ten years, during which time the Jews enjoyed great advantages and prosperity. There is a tradition that the high priest, “Simon the Just” was ordered in a dream to change his alliance from Persia to Alexander and support him with troops and provisions in his conquest of Egypt. Alexander, the apostle of Hellenism, rewarded the Jews with religious freedom and settled many in his new city Alexander, named after him. His friendship with the Jews did not please the Samaritans. When Alexander died, his empire split into four parts and two of the parts were Syria and Egypt. And Judah became the target of both. We shall explore the conflict between the Maccabees and the Syrians in a separate chapter (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. I, p. 77).