This is a draft of my and others interpretation of Esther chapter 3 which I hope to publish in 2015 as “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith.”


                                                                          Chapter 3

                                                   The first ant-Semite was a Semite


Sometime between Ahasuerus’ seventh year as king, when he chose Esther as his queen,[1]and the twelfth year of his reign,[2] Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, to the highest position in his kingdom,[3] similar to that of a prime minister.[4] No reason is given for the promotion and there is no information about Haman’s origin because the term Agagite is obscure.[5] However, Jewish tradition identifies Agagite with King Agag, the king of the tribe of Amalek who attacked and almost defeated the Israelites when they exited Egypt[6] and who were defeated by the Israelite King Saul many decades later and almost decimated.[7] Jewish tradition identifies Haman as a descendant of Agag.

According to Genesis 36:12 and I Chronicles 1:36, Amalek was a descendant of the biblical patriarch Jacob, the grandson of Jacob’s son Esau.  If Haman was a descendant of Amalek, he would be a Semite, and if as many think he was the first anti-Semite, then the first anti-Semite was a Semite.[8]  

Ahasuerus ordered all of his subjects to bow down to Haman whenever they see him, but Mordecai refused to do so. No reason is given for why Ahasuerus had to issue an order that people bow to Haman since this was a customary act of respect for royalty in Persia,[9] nor any clear explanation for Mordecai’s refusal to bow.[10] Haman was enraged at Mordecai’s refusal to show him proper veneration and deference and decides to kill him as well as all Jews throughout Ahasuerus dominion. There is no explanation for how Haman knew Mordecai was a Jew and no reason is given why all Jews should suffer for Mordecai’s disobedience, although it is well-recognized that anti-Semites will blame all Jews for a fault seen or perceived in a single or small group of Jews.[11] This is the first indication that of Haman being the prototype of the anti-Semite, which I will explore in more detail below.

Haman, perhaps out of superstition or perhaps following a Persian practice, casts lots – the Persian word for lots is pur, which the book needs to define for its readers, and the holiday of Purim is based on this Persian word. He casts the lots during the first month[12] and the lots determine the date when he should “wipe out”[13] the Jews twelve months later, on the thirteenth of the twelfth month, Adar.[14]

Haman offers the king a sum of money that some commentators consider “equal to the annual revenue in silver of the whole Persian Empire.”[15] It is not clear whether this money would come from Haman’s pocket or from the spoils of the slain Judeans. Ahasuerus accepts Haman’s proposal to kill the Judeans and states that Haman can keep the money. However, verses 4:7 and 7:4 seem to indicate that the king accepted the bribe. It is significant that just as Esther refused to reveal that she was a Judean, Haman does not inform Ahasuerus that the people he wants to exterminate are the Judeans, and Ahasuerus is later surprised when Esther tells him who Haman wants to kill.[16] This is another of many humorous examples of Ahasuerus’ folly.

A decree is sent to all the king’s provinces to kill every Jew, “young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their possessions.[17] Then, ironically, while the city of Susa[18] was thrown into confusion, “the king and Haman sat down to drink.” This is the fifth banquet in the story, with more to come.[19]


I mentioned above that Haman’s feeling that he should kill every Jew, even innocent children, because of the perceived misdeed of a single Jew is typical of many anti-Semites, and thus Haman serves at least in some ways as the prototype of the anti-Semite. His justification in his discussion with the king reveals additional similarities with other anti-Semites.

Haman is careful not to name the Jews. He speaks about “a nation.” While not exactly the same, this may remind readers of modern anti-Semites castigating Zionist, but not Jews, as if to claim, I do not hate this people because of their religion, I am open-minded to all people.

Closer to modern anti-Semitism, is the diabolically clever manner of his justification. He begins with a truth (the nation is scattered and unassimilated ),[20] proceeding to half-truth (their laws are different – yes, Jews had different laws and customs, but they did not interfere with the proper running of the government – there were many other minorities in the Persian kingdom that also had different laws  and customs – Haman was improperly implying, and leaving it to the king to fill in the blanks, that the Jewish laws and customs somehow injured the king’s dominion), to a bold lie (they do not observe the king’s laws).[21] Rashi interprets this last statement about the refusal of Jews to obey the kingdom’s “laws” as not paying taxes – money being a constant element in the mouths of anti-Semites.


[1] Verse 2:16. If it is the twelfth year, Esther had served as queen for five years.

[2] Verse 3:7, when Haman cast lots to determine when he would have the Judeans murdered.

[3] The promotion of Haman is mentioned after Mordecai and Esther are introduced because God prepares an antidote before the plague (Rashi quoting Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 13b).

[4] “This verse [3:1] sets up a sharp contrast between the unrewarded merit of Mordecai and Haman’s unmerited rewards” (Moore, page 35).

[5] It could be the Persian name of an unknown family, a nomen dignitaris like Pharaoh, or an allegorical nickname, or many other possibilities. It may be a malicious nickname that Jews applied to Jew-haters (Mossad HaRav Kook, page 22). We know nothing more about Haman and his origin than what is in this book (Moore, pages 35 and 36).

[6] Exodus 17:8-16, Deuteronomy 25:17-19.

[7] I Samuel 15:9. King David virtually exterminated the tribe in I Samuel 30 and the later Judean King Hezekiah killed the remainder in I Chronicles 4:42. 43. However, it is possible, even likely, that some Amalekites remained alive.

[8] This may remind some readers of Hitler who some claim had a Jewish ancestor.

[9] It is possible that Haman was of such a lowly origin and not a Persian that people thought they need not bow (A. Cohen, page209). Moore (pages 36 and 37) quotes Ehrlich who suggests that Mordecai’s act was nothing more than Jewish national pride, a refusal to bow to a descendant of Amalek. More likely, the refusal to bow is a literary device, meaning the author of Esther placed this idea in the story to highlight and explain the upcoming problem of Mordecai’s refusal to bow. Mordecai’s answer to those who asked why he refused to bow (verse 3:4) “he told them that he was a yehudi (meaning Judean or Jew) is not informative however we translate yehudi.

[10] Jews are allowed to bow to others, even the patriarch Jacob bowed to his brother Esau seven times (Genesis 33:3). All kinds of imaginative solutions are offered, including that Mordecai had owned Haman as a slave and felt it was inappropriate for him to bow before his slave (Midrash Rabbah). Midrash Rabbah, Megillah 10b, Rashi and others also suggest that Haman wore an image of an idol on his clothing and Mordecai refused to bow for religious reasons.

[11] Ibn Ezra supposes that Haman felt he needed to kill all the Jews because Mordecai was their leader and they relied on him for direction. This is strange. There is no indication that he was a leader or that other Jews followed his example, and Haman could have shown Jewry that the consequences of not bowing is death by just killing Mordecai.

[12] Most likely, Haman chose the first month for casting the lot because of the Persian belief that at the beginning of the year the gods came together to fix the fate of people (Moore, page 38). Later when the Jews changed the biblical beginning of the year (Exodus 12) from the first month (Nissan) to the seventh month (Tishrei), they adopted this notion that God decides human fate at the outset of the year and the notion became a primary theme of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

[13] “Wipe out,” lehashmid, is “A most popular word in Esther, occurring twenty-five times in ten short chapters” (Moore, page 37).

[14] Why such a long wait? This may be nothing more than a literary devise: the author extends the time to show the reactions of the Judeans, Esther, Mordecai, Ahasuerus, and Haman, to give time for two conflicting decrees, and to add suspense. Adar is the Persian name for the twelfth month. The Jews took the names of the months from the Persians.

[15] Cohen, quoting Herodotus, page 212. Haman’s offer to Ahasuerus of a huge sum of money may suggest that although the Jews “may have been politically insignificant at the time, they were of some economic and financial prominence” (Moore, page 40).

[16] Verses 7:3-8.

[17] This allowance to plunder may have been added to encourage compliance with the decree (Gersonides, page 141).

[18] Scholars differ as to whether “the city” refers to Jews, non-Jews, or both, and why only Susa is mentioned – perhaps because Susa is near the palace and heard the news first, or as a literary device, the author is portraying scenes in the same locality; Ahasuerus and Haman who celebrated while others were confused were also in Susa.

[19] Verses 1:3, 1:5, 1:9, 2:18, and 3:15.

[20] Megillat Esther, Mossad HaRav Kook, suggests an additional typical anti-Semitic canard:  “one people scattered and unassimilated” is Haman saying: despite being scattered throughout your kingdom, this people always sticks together and are therefore a threat to you.

[21] See a somewhat similar charge against Jews with a somewhat similar progression in Ezra 4:12-16 – Jews have begun to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls after the Babylonians demolished them. They are doing so to establish independence and to rebel against you. They will stop paying you tribute and will damage the king’s revenue. Look at history, this people has always been rebellious.