By: Felipe Diez III
“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.” (Esther 3:1-6)
The pericope encompassing Esther 3:1-6 presents the reader with a dramatic course of events which results in the writing up of a legal edict to exterminate the exiled Jews. The actions of the protagonist Mordecai, to many, are those of a faithful Jew refusing to capitulate to the whims of a debauched pagan king and a corrupt government, yet this defiance is not without consequence, for the lives of Mordecai’s countrymen hang in the balance. In this section of the book of Esther, was Mordecai a positive stereotype of a righteous Jew who, like Daniel, refused to taint his “Jewish-ness” and stand firm on his convictions in the face of Yahweh? Or were there other factors and motives involved that served to diminish the heroic appeal of Mordecai’s actions? This essay will comprise a topical exegesis of the passages mentioned while exploring the issue of Jewish worldview as regards the defiance of gentiles. I will not take the decisive or comprehensive position that there is enough solid evidence to classify this pericope (or Esther, for that matter) as legitimate “court heroism.” I aim to show that character flaws and ulterior motives considered, Mordecai possibly fits the profile (although not firmly) of a righteous Jew who did what he could with the resources he had to benefit his people. The impact of Mordecai’s actions played a part in Haman’s decision in verse 6. The impulse to influence the creation of the edict was, in my view, more due to the author’s use of humor to paint Haman (descendant of Amalekites) as a prideful impulsive man than as a calculated enemy of Jews.
The first verse gives us an important clue. The (Haman) appointed as the king’s main official, was an Agagite, a long-time enemy of the Jews. Like the enmity between Jerusalem and the Edomites, the Agagites proved to be stubborn foes, and the author of Esther seems to have deliberately given this information away as an important part of Haman that would influence his impulsive move to attempt to exterminate the Jews. At any rate, all the officials paid homage “obeisance” to Haman minus Mordecai. As a result, Haman’s rage at Mordecai’s “blasphemous” act causes him to retaliate in a grossly inflated manner. Before this, we note that Ahasuerus, much like Nebuchadnezzar, commanded this homage, and the officials who question Mordecai’s risky yet bold decision understandably ask him to reconsider and bow down as everyone else had done. This implicit insistence was to no avail, and Mordecai stood as alone Jew in a foreign gentile court. Surely Haman was no divine statue and Ahasuerus was not nearly as fearsome and calculated as Nebuchadnezzar, but the amount of pressure placed on Mordecai was still cumbersome. The book of Daniel records that the king gave an opportunity for the three Jews to repent and kneel, yet they stood. Although the officials’ questioning in Esther 3:3 is not nearly univocal to the occurrences in Daniel, there is a reaction of awe anyhow. But in the next verse we see an extended questioning of Mordecai which revealed his hidden identity. We may conclude that the reason for Haman’s eruption in verse 4 was due to pride, as was typical for any gentile king to possess greatly. The homage due to Haman was not full, and the normal course of action to take would have been to punish Mordecai and avenge the perceived wrongdoing. However, Haman decides to destroy all the Jews. Given the author of Esther’s desire to paint the gentile rulers as incoherent exaggerators in the most tragic yet comical sense, we may question whether Haman was simply an overly vindictive madman unlike Nebuchadnezzar, who only attempted to punish the Jewish offenders and not the whole ethnicity.
Other than the Daniel narratives, there is another example to discuss, namely, that of Genesis 41:1-45 as it compares to Esther. For one, it is Pharaoh who has sought out Joseph though in Esther we see an ambivalent king Ahasuerus who does not even know who Mordecai is nor seems to care. The final verses in the book of Esther do awkwardly record an amicable relationship between the vindicated Mordecai and Ahasuerus, yet this occurs hastily and is actually a very small segment tacked on to the end, almost to give the half-tragic comedy some gainful meaning. Pharaoh did prove to be an angry man to his servants, as Joseph observed (like Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus) but in a sense, there is a type of logic to his actions. He does not punish an imagined wrongdoing as in the case of Ahasuerus, who allows a lower official such as Haman to make decisions. There is an extended struggle toward Joseph’s vindication and relationship to Pharaoh, yet in Esther there is none of this. Mordecai, by either chance or providence, is made known to the ill-managed Persian imperial court. In such “wise courtier” conversations, Esther is usually either ignored or briefly mentioned, but in comparison to the archetypes discussed here, it seems to lack the classical epic flavor, according to many students of Esther. A. Arne and S. Thompson of the Finnish school of folklore scholarship have studied the “wise courtier” motif and have put together general criteria for these types of tales Concerning the Genesis 41 court narrative, Susan Niditch and Robert Doran write:
“Culturally nuanced motifs are once again found in the higher status role, played by the Egyptian Pharaoh, in the entourage of court advisors, who seem to be a constant in the near eastern view of what court is like, and in the nature of Joseph’s reward…These specified motifs are at home in a near eastern audience.”
Scholarly “Court Hero” Criteria
Niditch and Doran have posited the following pattern to identify a wise courtier tale:
A person of lower status (a prisoner, foreigner, debtor, servant, youngest son are all possible nuances) (Mordecai and Esther as exiles) is called before a person of higher status (often a king or bishop or chief of some kind) (Ahasuerus and Haman) to answer difficult questions or to solve a problem requiring insight. (The problem may be posed on purpose to perplex or may be a genuine dilemma. (Haman is appointed). Often a threat of punishment exists for failure to answer. (Mordecai refuses to bow) (2) The person of high status poses the problem which no one seems capable of solving. (3) The person of lower status (who may in fact be a disguised substitute for the person expected by the questioner) does solve the problem (Mordecai supplies Esther). (4) The person of lower status is rewarded for answering (by being given half the kingdom, the daughter of the king, special clothing, a signet ring, or some other sign of a raise in status).(There is no reward for Mordecai until Chapters 9 and 10, but Esther becomes a leader and part of the salvation of her people.)
In the aforementioned criteria, Daniel and Genesis are more apt to fit the mold. Unlike these, Esther seems to have been written for a different purpose and involves a great deal of comedy and intentional exaggeration. It remains to be seen whether or not, considering the variable of literary style, Mordecai’s courage is authentic.” Jon D. Levenson soberly states:
“Why Mordecai refuses to kneel before Haman is unknown…some have speculated that Haman claimed divine honors (as Nebuchadnezzar does in Judith 3:8), and thus Mordecai refused to bow out of the traditional Jewish resistance to idolatry. In support of this, one may cite the usage of the verb kara (“kneel”)…though the word need not imply homage, when it does the recipient is nearly always God…but if idolatry is the cause of Mordecai’s noncompliance, the text is strangely silent about this. In addition, it is difficult to see why the king commands that an underling be treated as a god when he himself is not…since verse 4 can be interpreted to mean that Mordecai’s Jewishness was the cause of his refusal to kneel and bow to Haman…some scholars have seen the issue as one of ethnicity”
Levenson supplies further clues as to this dilemma:
“The language with which the king’s courtiers are said to have inquired about Mordecai’s reason for not bowing to Haman is strikingly close to the language of only one other verse in the Hebrew Bible. This is the verse in which Potiphar’s wife is said to have persisted in her attempt to seduce Joseph…perhaps we should go further and infer that just as Joseph was motivated by a fear of betraying his master and sinning grievously against God (Gen. 39:8-9), so Mordecai is motivated by the desire to maintain his authenticity as a Jew – by refusing to accommodate an Amalekite, to engage in idolatry, or whatever.”
Jewish Resistance to Idolatry or Ancient Feud?
Bush agrees wholeheartedly with Levenson and states:
“The narrator gives no explicit motive for Mordecai refusing to do obeisance to Haman. The only reason we have is the fact that he is a Jew, which the narrator seems to take for granted [at first]…but, as many interpreters have noted, his refusal can hardly relate to his religious obligations, for Jews regularly did obeisance to kings (e.g.,1 Sam 24:8)…Paton attributes it simply to Mordecai’s arrogance. However, as Fox notes, this cannot have been the author’s attitude, for it is quite in opposition to his positive characterization of Mordecai throughout…that Haman claimed the status of divinity…is simply ad hoc speculation.”
Two well-known scholars agree almost decisively that Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman was not due to purely religious reasons but to an ancient feud. One wonders, however, based on OT prohibitions to unite with other cultures and the fact that Jews were the chosen people, if the religious dimension was not a token part of the ancient conflict. At any rate, if the conflict had religious undertones, this was most likely not the case in the Esther text given the evidence already provided. But is there any evidence to the contrary? John C. Whitcomb, in his commentary of Esther, provides a different account:
“It was customary for Jews to bow before their kings (2 Samuel 4:14; 18:26; 1 Kgs 1:16). But when Persians bowed before their kings, they paid homage as to a divine being. The Spartans refused to bow before Xerxes for this reason (Herodotus, 7.136). Since his loyalty to Jehovah was the basis for his refusal to bow before Haman, he had to divulge his nationality at last. At the time, this must have seemed disastrous to Mordecai; but God ultimately brought greater blessing through it, for he delights not in silent witnesses (cf. 8:17)…Discovering that Mordecai’s refusal to bow was based upon religious motives, Haman realized that nothing less than a nation-wide pogrom would finally solve the problem.”
Whitcomb has brought extra-biblical data into his argument as well as content from other sectors. One of the weaknesses of his position is that Esther lacks any reference to Jehovah or the supernatural, so in order to adduce what he did, Whitcomb must presuppose that Esther his not only a purely historical account, but also that the writer believed in divine providence in all matters. These two issues must only receive passing mention, so this essay will rely on the chosen pericope for most of its conclusions. If we observe the text alone, Whitcomb’s analysis is seriously hindered, yet the evidence must still be taken into account. Barry G. Webb writes:
“According to Herodotus, bowing to superiors was a normal part of Persian court etiquette rather than an act of worship (cf. Gen. 23:7; 1 Kings 1:16). Mordecai did not bow because “he was a Jew.” The text does not give any more reason for Mordecai’s refusal to bow, but given Haman’s ancestry and animosity to the Jews, Mordecai apparently felt he could not bow to him without compromising his identity as a Jew. It is also possible that Haman was claiming some kind of divine status and Mordecai refused to give him that kind of honor.”
In the above quote, Webb claims more epistemic humility and grants Haman’s “divine honor” theory as only a possibility not supported by any plain reading of the text, yet like Whitcomb he cites Herodotus. All four scholars in this essay so far have the strong inclination that the ancient feud played the key factor in Mordecai’s defiance. Walter Kaiser adds: “The Hebrew verbs in this passage usually describe the worship of God [v.4]. There were occasions when Hebrews bowed before kings of high officials without any violation of the prohibitions of false worship…as a Jew, Mordecai may not have been able to bring himself to show this sign of respect to one who was an ancestral enemy.”Again, another scholar is not willing to give too much credit to the idolatry argument. One more scholar, Edwin Yamauchi, rejects this theory altogether and states: “Obedience to the second commandment (Ex.20:4-5) is not the issue in Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman…only the long-standing enmity between Israel and Amalek accounts both for Mordecai’s refusal and for Haman’s intent to destroy all the Jews.”
“Evidence” against Mordecai
If Mordecai were to be indicted for not reaching the goal of a Jewish court hero, here is some evidence that would be provided against him. For one, he hid his ancestry and the author gives him a pagan name. In Aramaic, Marduku signifies “servant of Marduk.” At first glance, one may see this as a contradiction in terms, similar to Haman meaning something like “follower of Yahweh.” However, it was not uncommon for Jewish exiles to possess names in relation to the gods of the nations that captured or plundered them. It is understandable that for a Persian Jew, this acculturation would result in such a name. This need not mean that those who were named so were idolaters or less Jewish, although as in the case of Samaritans or Canaanites, Persian Jews (unless they were not of physically half-pagan blood) could be psychologically classified as possibly impure by a Jew living in Jerusalem. Esther does not tell us that Mordecai had pagan blood but only a pagan name. A reader of Esther who is trying to gain wisdom insight concerning courtroom practices may at first find it difficult to relate to “servant of Marduk” as a hero, but depending on the audience, Mordecai’s actions might erase any doubts in our minds. Why, then did he only give away his identity after some questioning by the officials? Was there something that he wished to hide? Perhaps he knew that the court might avenge itself by persecuting Jews? This is unlikely as the text does not specify anything of this sort, although Haman did retaliate and purposed to annihilate the Jews. Other than refusing to bow down, was there anything else that Mordecai did to merit inclusion into the “courtroom hero” criteria? He did, after all, supply Esther who saved her people, and was rewarded handsomely as Ahasuerus’s official in the last chapter. But Mordecai still pales in comparison to a Daniel and his compatriots, to a Ruth, to a Deborah, and to a Joseph. Readers may not find adequate inspiration in this pericope since no miracles or divine attributions are in view. Furthermore, Mordecai could even be charged with pure pride and even instigation and insubordination for having disrespected Haman and provoked him to anger. The Jews are now in grave danger.
Evaluation of Mordecai Based on Criteria
How does Mordecai fare in comparison to other characters? In the case of the three righteous Jews called to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, there is a striking difference since although there was a history of exile to Babylon, there is little reason to believe that there was a selective personal animosity between the three Jews and the King of Babylon. Clearly, the three Jews were of solid character and the text evidence mentions the reason for their refusal to bow to the great idol. Moreover, they were miraculously saved from the flames. Nothing of this sort occurs in Esther. In the case of Joseph, there is also a miraculous occurrence in the form of dreams, and just like in Daniel, Joseph (in Genesis) has no personal animosity toward Pharaoh and displayed a righteous character, especially considering the suffering he experienced for having rejected Potiphar’s wife’s advances. Yahweh explicitly reserves Joseph to preserve a remnant for the Jews. However, there is no such set of achievements or luxuries for Mordecai or Esther and no mention of God to protect or reward them. At any rate, there is a like-ability to Mordecai’s character despite the hiddenness of his heritage. Whatever the reasons for this cloaking, they are revealed implicitly in the courtroom when the defiance happens and later on upheld during the questioning. Even if there is no hint of opposition to idolatry in Mordecai, we may still admire his risky resolve. After all, he was present at a foreign court with two officials who lacked wisdom in every area of their lives. Even though there might be “evidence” against Mordecai constituting a legitimate court hero, there are a few attributes that help his cause. He is a Jew of good reputation living in exile. Even if pride was a factor in his dismissal of the command to bow, Mordecai has honored the ancient “edict” to resist the Amalekites wherever they may be, and this defiance may serve as inspiration to Jews both ancient and contemporary. So there is a mold that Niditch and Doran have created and it seems as though Mordecai’s situation causes him to fit, although not as neatly, into its etchings. The non-prominent figure who faces a court situation and solves a problem, encountering resistance and then prevailing and securing a reward is a reality in the book of Esther, and the chosen pericope proves to contain a buildup to a climactic moment. Had Mordecai bowed down, as many Jews did for kings, even while avoiding the charge of idolatry, none of us would have faulted him – yet he acted as a zealot and as a result may be placed in courtroom hero history, though not at the apex.
Haman’s reaction is undoubtedly exaggerated, as is the custom for the author of Esther. But this strong reaction was necessary for the plot to have thickened unto the end result – victory for the Jewish people. Certain variables such as literary style, other portions of the book, extra-biblical accounts, and comedy would have made for a much longer treatment, so chapter 3:1-6 and some commentary and analysis sufficed. Levenson again offers some insight:
“No reason for Ahasuerus’s promotion of Haman in v.1 is given. Whatever it was, “[t]his verse sets up a sharp contrast between the unrewarded merit of Mordecai and Haman’s unmerited rewards. Mordecai saves the king’s life (2:21-23) but receives no recognition. Haman has, so far as we know, done nothing for the king, but receives the premiership nonetheless; along with the honor and recognition of everyone except Mordecai (v.2)…Haman’s rage at being slighted is something he shares with Ahasuerus (Esth. 3:5; 2:1). It is, as we have seen, typical of a biblical food and symptomatic of impending disaster.”
This essay attempted to show that even though there are some issues that might not convince many scholars and laypeople that Mordecai is an ideal candidate for the “court hero” as it relates to Jewish folkloric motif, that given scholarly criteria (Arne & Thompson), there is a likely case that Mordecai (and Esther, for that matter) could be placed in this “hall of fame.” The weight of evidence in scholarship demonstrated that Mordecai’s problem with Haman was a feudal and personal one, and the author of Esther aided in the heightened sense of drama in Mordecai’s heroic refusal to bow down to an unworthy Amalekite “thug” by painting the latter as an impulsive and barbaric buffoon. Even if all the odds were against Mordecai’s intentions, at least the reader can enjoy the fact that Mordecai stood up to an ancient and powerful enemy even if it was out of spite. But given the context, there was much more to the history than momentary spurious antagonism. It encompasses a centuries old feud that remained for a long time with major biblical repercussions. The final chapter of Esther, although somewhat awkward and triumphalistic, closes the lid on the thesis of this essay while Mordecai enjoys his reward of prosperity and righteous rule of his people.
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Edwin Yamauchi. NIV Study Bible. Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 2008
Kaiser, Walter. NKJV Study Bible. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2001
Levenson, Jon D. Esther: The Old Testament Library. Westminster John Knox press, 1997
Longman, Tremper. Old Testament Commentary Survey. Baker Academics, Ada, MI, 2007
Pfeiffer Charles F. and Harrison Everett. F. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1962
Susan Niditch and Robert Doran, “The Success Story of the Wise Courtier: A Formal Approach,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 96 (1977)
Unger, Merrill. Unger’s Commentary of the Old Testament. AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN, 2003
Walton, John. Matthews, Victor. Chavalas, Mark: The IVP Bible Background Commentary. IVP Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2000
Webb, Barry G. ESV Study Bible. Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, IL, 2008