After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. 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 disobey the king’s command?’ When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.
In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur—which means ‘the lot’—before Haman 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. Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered and separated 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 appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.’ So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. The king said to Haman, ‘The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.’
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 officials 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, giving orders to destroy, to kill, 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, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.
In this third chapter of a thrilling short story, we see characters familiar in any adventure book, like a goody and a baddy. But there is also a dark side to the tale and one that has tentacles in our own age.
Mordecai emerges as a hero of sorts. He refuses to bow to Haman, the king’s new second in command. As it turns out, Haman is an ambitious power-grabbing brute and it would be simple – and in keeping with Purim celebrations – to cheer on someone standing up to him. But why is Mordecai being so obstinate and putting his own people at risk in the process? There was no religious or social reason why he should refuse to pay respect to an official picked out by King Ahasuerus, the man whose life he himself had saved.
What drives Mordecai is pure ancestral hatred of someone he barely knows.
Haman is of the line of King Agag of Amalek (1 Samuel 15). The Israelites and Amalekites had been sworn enemies since King Saul all but wiped out the Amalekites. The Jews for their part continue to regard their old adversaries as sworn enemies of God’s people.
Haman seizes the opportunity to order the death of Mordecai and wipe out the rest of the Jews in the land – with permission from a king who is strangely indifferent to detail.
It’s an old story, still painfully alive. How many battles, how many wars are fought over grievances that go back generations – some in Israel/Palestine itself where Israelis and Palestinians are locked in seemingly endless struggles around occupation and apartheid-like structures? How many genocides are the result of long-standing racial and tribal prejudices?
By all means cheer Mordecai for standing up for his own conscience, but pray for those working to break the cycle of hatred that needlessly embitters attitudes to those of different backgrounds, generation after generation.
O God, we are one with you. You have made us one with you. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, you dwell in us. Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts. Help us to realise that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection. Thomas Merton