In continuing to read through Dillard & Longman’s Introduction to the OT, I find some fascinating background to the book of Esther. It had never occurred to me to think about possible background reasons for the antipathy Haman had toward Mordecai — I had merely thought that Mordecai wasn’t bowing before Haman because it would be in some way giving honor to a man that should be reserved for God, and that Haman’s actions against Mordecai and the Jews were predicated entirely upon Mordecai’s refusal to show him honor.
Dillard and Longman point out, however, that there is a good bit of history behind the scenario. The book of Esther takes pains to point out that, on the one hand, Mordecai is a Benjamite from the clan of Kish (5:2), while on the other hand, Haman is a descendant of Agag (3:1), who was king of the Amalekites. Now, Amalek had been a thorn in Israel’s side for quite some time; witness this postlude to the battle between Israel and Amalek on the journey to Canaan:
“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Ex 17:14-16)
So we see conflict between Amalek and Israel in Num 14:45. In Deuteronomy, we see another reminder about Amalek:
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” (Deut 25:17-19)
Amalek joins forces with Moab to subjugate Israel in Judges 3:12-14 and, along with the Midianites, stole Israel’s crops in Judges 6:1-6. And under the united monarchy, Saul is tasked with bringing about God’s promise to Israel through Moses in Ex 17:14:
“And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Sam 15:1-3)
Samuel had to finish the job, because Saul, the son of Kish, failed to kill Agag, king of the Amalekites. Apparently, though, the strike against Amalek didn’t completely eliminate the nation, for we read later that David and his men raided the Amalekites (1 Sam 27:8), and the Amalekites returned the favor (1 Sam 30:1). An Amalekite brought the news of Saul’s death to David, whereupon David had him executed (2 Sam 1), and later brought the Amalekites into subjection (2 Sam 8:11-12; 1 Chr 18:11).
Now in Esther, we have another “son of Kish” (Mordecai, speaking in terms of ancestry) in conflict with a descendant of Agag (Haman). The centuries-old conflict is renewed again in microcosm, and I suspect Jewish young people hearing the story for the first time would instantly make that connection (or have it made for them by their elders!). And this background sheds light on a number of points in Esther:
1) The long-standing enmity between Jew and Amalekite may very well feed into the unwillingness of Mordecai to bow or rise in respect to Haman.
2) The same enmity sheds light on Haman’s seemingly excessive expansion of his wrath from Mordecai to the Jewish people. The king’s servants who had acted as initial informants to Haman as to Mordecai’s unwillingness to bow, seem to have done so because he was a Jew, and Haman was very clear on that fact:
And 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 stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew. And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage 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 3:4-6)
This incident served Haman as an opportunity to re-engage a standing enemy of his people.
3) It is striking that when the counterdecree of Ahasuerus goes into effect, that the Jews killed tens of thousands of their enemies, but (as is repeated thrice!) “they laid no hands on the plunder” (Est 9:10, 15, 16). Why not? Likely, there is a connection with the initial command the Lord gave Saul: he was to destroy the Amalekites, but their possessions were to be devoted to the Lord: “the Jews at the time of Mordecai would not make the same mistake as Saul (1 Sam. 15:9-19)” (Dillard & Longman 197).