Esther 3
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him.
Chap. Esther 3:1-6. Haman offended by Mordecai’s refusal to make obeisance

1. After these things] i.e. between the seventh (Esther 2:16) and the twelfth (Esther 3:7) years of Xerxes’ reign.

Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite] Haman’s name has been held to be another form of Humman or Humban, an Elamite deity, and that of his father to be connected with the Persian mâh and data, thus signifying given by the moon. The description of Haman as an ‘Agagite’ is perplexing. The following views have been held.

(a) Josephus (Ant. xi. 6. 5) and the Targum understand the statement literally to mean that Haman was descended from Agag, king of Amalek, the latter availing itself of the opportunity of giving a complete genealogy through Amalek to Esau (see Genesis 36:12). If we accept this explanation of the word, we can see the significance which it bears for the narrator. He desires to place Mordecai and Haman before the reader in the guise of hereditary enemies, the one the descendant of Kish, and thus connected with the first king of Israel, the other the descendant of Agag, Saul’s conquered foe. As then, so now, it is a case of a contest between the Jew and his adversary.

(b) The title ‘Agagite’ may be an allegorical nickname, and intended to indicate a spiritual rather than a natural descent, one whose attitude to the chosen nation was that of the Amalekite king of earlier days.

(c) It may, however, denote a place or family otherwise unknown.

For ‘Agagite’ the LXX. here and in (Esther 9:10 and) Esther 12:6 have Bugaean (Βουγαῖος), and in Esther 9:24 and Esther 16:10 the Macedonian (ὁ Μακεδών). The former has been explained as originating in a mistake in reading the first letter in the Heb., or as arising from confusion with Bagoas, a favourite of Alexander the Great (Curtius vi. 5. 23). Either of two other explanations, however, is decidedly to be preferred, viz. (a) that it means bully, braggart, as it occurs twice in this sense in Homer (Il. xiii. 824, Od. xviii. 79), many of whose words were revived by writers of Alexandrian Greek, or (b) that it is a word denoting eunuch, and afterwards any court official. See Schleusner, Lexicon Vet. Test. s.v. The latter title ‘Macedonian’ either (a) points to the time when the Greek power, rendered dominant in the East by Alexander of Macedon (died b.c. 323), had become through Antiochus Epiphanes (died b.c. 164), who inherited Alexander’s conquests in Syria, the type of hostility to the nation of the Jews, or (b) is meant to indicate Haman as a traitor to the Persian power.

And all the king's servants, that were in the king's gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence.
2. bowed down] The Heb. expresses a more profound salutation, after the Oriental fashion, than the A.V. ‘bow.’

the king had so commanded] Bowing down before a superior was such an established custom that one would have thought the king’s command needless. It may have been that Haman’s elevation was so strongly contrasted with his origin that there was occasion for the order to be issued.

But Mordecai bowed not down] What was his reason? Although we have Greeks (Spartan ambassadors) refusing to bow down to the Persian monarch (Herod. vii. 136) on the ground that it was not their custom to worship men, yet the Jews had no objection to the act in itself (2 Samuel 14:4; 2 Samuel 18:28; 1 Kings 1:16), and disobedience to the king’s direction in such a matter was fraught with danger.

Two possible answers suggest themselves. (1) He considered Haman as the king’s representative, and, as the Persian obeisance to the sovereign involved a belief that he was in some sort an incarnation of the Deity, Mordecai, as a Jew, refused to perform an act of idolatry. If so, however, we do not see how he could avoid bowing down, whenever he happened to be in the presence of the king himself, as in Esther 8:1. (2) Mordecai, as a Jew, refused to bow down to the hereditary enemy of Israel. See last note and cp. Numbers 24:7. A characteristic piece of Targum says that the king’s servants pointed out to Mordecai that a conspicuous ancestor of his, Jacob, had bowed down before one of Haman’s forefathers, Esau (Genesis 33:3). Mordecai, however, replied that he himself was not involved in this act, as being descended from Benjamin who at the time referred to was not yet born.

Then the king's servants, which were in the king's gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king's commandment?
Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai's matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew.
4. whether Mordecai’s matters would stand] The Heb. expression signifies either matters or words. They desired to know whether his refusal would pass with impunity. In their eyes it was not only a breach of custom but a piece of unwarrantable presumption.

for he had told them that he was a Jew] The point of this clause is not clear. It may mean that they desired to see whether his nationality would exempt him from prostration, or, on the other hand that they expected him, as belonging to a captive race, to be treated with special severity.

And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath.
And he thought scorn to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had shewed him the people of Mordecai: wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.
6. But he thought scorn etc.] Haman’s wrath was so excessive that to punish the man who excited it seemed to him as nothing. The whole nation to which his enemy belonged must perish. A little more than forty years previously, at the accession of Darius Hystaspes, there had been a general massacre of the Magi, when the people “slew every Magus who came in their way” (Herod. iii. 79). This and other instances[67] which might be adduced illustrate the tendency towards passionate and excessive vengeance on the part of the Oriental disposition, which holds human life cheap. Some, however, have seen in Haman’s conduct the operation of a wider principle in the shape of race-hatred, paralleled in later days by anti-semitic outbursts upon the continent, or the persecution of Eastern Christians by the Turks.

[67] For example, when Cyaxares and the Medes invite to a banquet a large number of Scythians, whose depredations had proved troublesome, and massacre them when drunk (Herod. i. 106).

In the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, that is, the month Adar.
7–15. Haman’s scheme for the extermination of the Jews

7. In the first month, which is the month Nisan] the Hebraised form of the Babylonian Nisannu. It is the later substitute for the older Israelite name for the first month of the year, viz. Abib (see on Esther 2:16), and corresponds to the latter part of March and beginning of April. The meaning of the word Nisan is uncertain. Some make it denote fruitfulness, others, beginning or origin.

Attention has been drawn to the tragic significance of thus plotting the destruction of the Jews in the month of their memorable deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 13:4).

they cast Pur, that is, the lot] Pur is a word perhaps borrowed from the Persian pâre, a piece, fragment, and may be connected with the Latin pars, portio, or with Assyr. puru, or buru, a stone. But see further in Additional Note I, p. 67.

The custom of deciding by lot, by means of dice, or pieces of wood, or strips of paper or parchment, prevailed widely in the East, and was considered as a lawful means of committing the decision to Divine agency. Soothsayers and astrologers, who employed this among their methods of determining difficult questions, played an important part in Oriental society. The use of the lot among the Persians is mentioned by Herodotus (iii. 128) and by Xenophon (Cyrop. i. 6. 44, iv. 5. 55). For a parallel among the Jews see 1 Samuel 14:41 f. (cp. Proverbs 16:33). We may compare Acts 1:26.

from day to day, and from month to month] In order to ensure the success of the scheme Haman seems to have gone through the process of testing each day of the successive months until the twelfth month and its thirteenth day (see Esther 3:13) were reached, and declared favourable.

to the twelfth month] It would appear that by an error not uncommon among the copyists of manuscripts, the writer’s eye, owing to the repetition of the Hebrew for ‘month,’ passed over a clause, and that the original reading stood thus, and the lot fell upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month. This correction is supported by the LXX., though it reads ‘fourteenth’ for thirteenth.

According to Jewish tradition (Megillah, 13 b) Haman tried month after month till he reached Adar. Moses died in that month. Hence Haman chose it, forgetting that in the same month Moses had also been born, and therefore from his (or rather, the Jewish) point of view it was likely to be as unfavourable to his purposes as any of the preceding. It should be added that the identity of the day of the month on which Moses was born with that on which he died is inferred by the Jewish commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon, son of Isaac, a.d. 1040–1105) from the words ‘I am an hundred and twenty years old this day,’ Deuteronomy 31:2, all that follows to the end of Deuteronomy 34:5 being assumed as included in the same day.

Adar] the Babylonian ad(d)âru, the meaning, however, being doubtful. As the last month of the year, it was followed by Nisan, the first of the next.

And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws: therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them.
8. scattered abroad] better, as marg., separated.

peoples] See on Esther 1:11.

in all the provinces of thy kingdom] The Jews who availed themselves of Cyrus’s decree permitting their return to Jerusalem (b.c. 538) may have formed only that portion which had no very close ties, commercial or otherwise, with the locality in which they had grown up. Many had acted to the full upon the advice given them by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:5 ff.) to make homes for themselves in exile. This passage in Esther points out that they were widely scattered through the Persian dominions, and therefore although, as the tone of Haman’s speech intends to convey, despicable in themselves, nevertheless capable of much mischief. The Book of Tobit (the date of which, though it cannot be fixed with certainty, may at any rate be taken as pre-Maccabean) speaks of settlements of Jews at Rages (in Media) and at Ecbatana (Esther 1:14, Esther 7:1).

their laws are diverse from those of every people] The author of the Book may have had in mind Deuteronomy 4:6-8, where this diversity is claimed as a witness to the wisdom of the people.[68] With Haman’s charge here, implying, as it does, an almost necessary disloyalty on the part of the Jews towards the king, we may compare that addressed to the Persian court by Rehum and Shimshai (Ezra 4:12-16) against the Jews of the Return. In neither case was there any substantial basis for the charge. If we were to accept the historical character of the narrative, we might say that dissatisfaction arising from the Persian reverses in the late war smoothed the way for a popular agitation, though altogether unreasonable, of the kind which Haman desired.

[68] For the expansion of this verse in the hands of a Jewish commentator, see Additional Note III, p. 72, Targum Shçnî (2nd extract).

for the king’s profit] rather, as marg., meet for the king.

to suffer them] to let them alone.


(on chap. Esther 3:8).

[The passage is of interest, as no doubt representing the charges brought against Jews by their Gentile neighbours at the time when the Targum was written.]

And Haman said to king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people of the Jews scattered and dispersed among the peoples of every province of the kingdom; proud and haughty in spirit, collecting melting snows in winter[93], and putting them in summer pitchers[94], and their customs are different from those of every people and their laws from those of every province, and they do not adapt themselves to our laws, and they are not minded to conform to our customs, and they refuse to do service to the king; and when they see us, they spit upon the ground and look upon us as something unclean; and when we go to speak to them and demand of them some service to the king, they climb over walls and break through fences, and disappear into rooms, and make their escape through gaps; and when we run to lay hold of them, they turn round and stand with flashing eyes and gnash with their teeth and stamp with their feet, and they frighten us and we cannot lay hold of them. We do not take wives of their daughters, and they do not take to them wives of our daughters, and any of them who is brought to do work for the king excuses himself on that day, spending it in staring and sauntering about. And on a day when they wish to buy from us they tell us it is a lawful day, but on a day when we wish to buy from them, they close the market against us and tell us that it is an unlawful day. At the first hour of the day they say, We are reciting the Shĕma‘[95]; at the second hour they say, We are occupied by our prayers; at the third they say, We are engaged with our meal; at the fourth they say, We are blessing the God of heaven for having given us food and drink; at the fifth they are going out to walk; and at the sixth they are returning; and at the seventh their wives go to meet them and say, Bring some soup of bruised beans, for ye are wearied by your service of the tyrannical king. One day in the week they keep as a day of rest. They go up to their synagogue and read in their books and expound their prophets and curse our king and utter imprecations against our rulers and say, This is the seventh day on which our great God rested.

[93] lit. of Tebeth, corresponding to the latter part of December and the first part of January. See note on Esther 2:16.

[94] lit. ‘pitchers of Tammuz,’ corresponding to the latter part of June and the first part of July. The above is Jastrow’s rendering (Dict. of the Targumim etc. s.v. חַצְבָּא), but it seems incompatible with ויתיבין. If we do not amend this to ויהיבין, we must explain it as, sitting in bathing vessels.

[95] The title of the passage Deuteronomy 6:4-9, as commencing with the word שמע, Shĕma‘, hear. It was recited twice a day by every adult male Israelite (see Schürer, The Jewish People in the time of Jesus Christ, Eng. trans. 11. ii. 84).

If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king's treasuries.
9. that they be destroyed] lit. to destroy them. Let an edict be issued for their destruction.

I will pay ten thousand talents of silver] about £3,750,000 sterling. Xerxes, unscrupulous though we know him to have been, might well be staggered by the request that he should direct this wholesale massacre on such slender grounds as had hitherto been adduced. Hence Haman at once supports his petition by the offer of enormous pecuniary gains to follow, meaning apparently that he will pay the amount, if he has leave to plunder the Jews. The king at an earlier period of his reign had declined a gift from a subject, the value of which was much beyond four and a half million pounds of our money[69] (Herod. vii. 28). His resources, however, had not then been exhausted by the war with Greece. The condition of the imperial treasury was doubtless now very different, and if any such offer as Haman’s was now made, so tempting a measure for replenishing it, and thus supplying Xerxes with the means of gratifying his love of ostentation and excess, might well prove irresistible.

[69] The offer was made by Pythius of Celaenae (see note on Esther 1:4) to Xerxes when visiting that town in connexion with his expedition against Greece. Rawlinson (Herod. vol. iv. 30) calculates the amount to have been “little short of five millions of our money (£4,827,144).” Grote, however (Hist. of Greece, Esther 3:36 note), considers the sum an incredible one.

those that have the charge of the king’s business] i.e. the royal treasurers. The A.V. ‘those that have the charge of the business’ would rather suggest the business of the massacre. But the word ‘king’s,’ though it is not indeed expressed, is implied in the Hebrew.

And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews' enemy.
10. his ring] The possession of the king’s signet ring gave the holder full power to issue edicts in his name, since the sealing of them with his signet gave them validity. Alexander the Great is said to have intimated in this way that he desired his general Perdiccas to succeed him. Cp. for the use of a signet ring in this connexion Esther 8:2; Genesis 41:42; 1Ma 6:15; see also Josephus, Ant. xx. 2. 2.

Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy] This full description lays stress upon the terrible plight in which the Jews were placed by the delegation of unlimited powers for their destruction into the hands of their hereditary foe.

And the king said unto Haman, The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee.
11. In the East, confiscation of goods is the invariable accompaniment of capital punishment, and they are forfeited to the crown. At first sight the words seem to mean that the king declines Haman’s offer, and gives him free leave to massacre the Jews, and plunder them for his own benefit. But probably it is implied that the promised payment to the king was to be made out of the spoils. It is clear that the information which Mordecai obtained assured him that the king’s treasuries were to receive the booty (Esther 4:7).

Then were the king's scribes called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and there was written according to all that Haman had commanded unto the king's lieutenants, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the rulers of every people of every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and sealed with the king's ring.
12. scribes] secretaries, such as attended Xerxes in his expedition against Greece.[70]

[70] Herodotus says that “seated beneath a golden awning [in a Sidonian galley] he sailed along the prows of all his vessels … while he made enquiries again, as he had done when he reviewed the land-force, and caused the answers to be recorded by his scribes” (Herod. vii. 100). Again, “During the whole time of the battle [of Salamis] Xerxes sat at the base of the hill called Aegaleos, over against Salamis, and whenever he saw any of his own captains perform any worthy exploit, he enquired concerning him, and the man’s name was taken down by his scribes, together with the names of his father and his city” (viii. 90).

in the first month, on the thirteenth day thereof] The thirteenth having been found to be a lucky day for the massacre itself, Haman may have thought it advisable to choose the same day of the first month for entering upon the preparation for it.

satraps] A.V. lieutenants. The original word is aḥashdarpan, a Hebraised form of the word khshatrapava, which occurs in Persian inscriptions in the sense of governor. Our word satrap comes through the Græcised form (σατράπης) of the Persian word.

governors] Heb. pakhoth, plural of pekhah. The satrap held sway over a province, the pekhah over a smaller district or petty kingdom. The latter is a loan word from the Assyrian pakhâti, lord of a district. Nehemiah was a pekhah (Nehemiah 5:14).

the princes] A.V. the rulers. These were the chiefs of the conquered peoples. The Persians in this respect followed the same course which we have adopted in India, and placed a good deal of power in the hands of the existing native rulers.

in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written] See on Esther 3:10.

And the letters were sent by posts into all the king's provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.
13. And letters were sent by posts] Xenophon tells us (Cyr. viii. 6. 17) that these were carefully organised by Cyrus in the Persian Empire, and continued after his time. Stations were established at convenient distances apart, and supplied relays of horses and men, that the transmission of letters might be as rapid as possible, the forwarding of correspondence being often continued by night.[71] The Heb. for ‘posts’ here is literally the runners. The Greek word is angaros (ἄγγαρος), which, as denoting compulsory service, supplies a verb used three times in the N.T. (Matthew 5:41; Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21) in the sense ‘to compel.’

[71] “Along the whole line of road there are men (they say) stationed with horses, in number equal to the number of days which the journey takes, allowing a man and a horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by the darkness of night from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go. The first man delivers his despatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line like the light in the torch race” (Herod. viii. 98).

both young and old, little children and women] It was customary among the Persians (see Herod. iii. 119), and even among the Jews in early times (Joshua 7:24 f.; 2 Kings 9:26), to put to death the families of criminals. So too Appian (xii. 22) tells us that Mithridates, king of Pontus, sent out orders for the indiscriminate slaughter of Romans and all others of Italian birth. In European history the massacre of St Bartholomew is a conspicuous example of similar cruelty.

upon the thirteenth day] The LXX. has simply upon one day, and in that which purports to be the letter itself, as given in the apocryphal Additions to the Book of Esther (Esther 13:6), the date is given as ‘the fourteenth,’ as given also by the LXX. in Esther 3:7 (see note there). In Esther 9:1, however, the Greek supports the Hebrew date here given.

The copy of the writing for a commandment to be given in every province was published unto all people, that they should be ready against that day.
14. A copy] The word in the original is of Persian origin, and occurs again in Esther 4:8, Esther 8:13.

that the decree should be given out] The marg. to be given out for a decree, is probably better, the writing and the decree being one and the same.

unto all the peoples] See on Esther 1:11.

that they should be ready against that day] A few weeks would suffice for the edict to reach even remote provinces of the Empire. Thus the Jews’ enemies would have ample time to make preparations for the carrying out of its purpose. It is of course obvious that the intended victims would also hereby be given an opportunity of defending themselves; and this must be acknowledged to be a difficulty, if we assume the accuracy of the dates given for the successive parts of the transaction. Clearly, however, we are not in a position to impugn their accuracy by conjecturing a shorter interval between the inception of the scheme and the date appointed for its execution, inasmuch as a considerable time is demanded by the exigencies of the narrative for circumstances attending the overthrow of Haman, the change in the king’s sentiments, and the transmission of letters permitting the Jews to defend themselves.

The posts went out, being hastened by the king's commandment, and the decree was given in Shushan the palace. And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city Shushan was perplexed.
15. went forth in haste] Haman fearing lest the king should change his mind and forbid the decree to be published.

the king and Haman sat down to drink] We are reminded of Gloucester’s words to Buckingham (Richard III. Act iii. Sc. 1, end),

“Come, let us sup betimes, that afterwards

We may digest our complots in some form.”

The writer of the Book of Esther has an eye for the literary effect of contrasts. The callousness of the Jew’s enemy is contrasted with the dismay which even the Gentile city of Susa felt at the prospect of bloodshed.

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