Redemptive Reckonings: Purim’s Cautionary Lessons Against Disobedience, Ingratitude, and Dissatisfaction
In some ways, the Scroll of Esther is an epilogue to the episode in Samuel I concerning King Saul of Israel and King Agag of Amalek. Analyzing these texts together helps to elucidate Purim’s morals.
In the aforementioned instance, Saul disobeys the divine directive regarding Amalek to “utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not” (1 Samuel 15:3). The text later states that “Saul and the people spared Agag” (15:9). The personal consequences for Saul are immediate: he is sharply reproached by the prophet Samuel and rejected as king, despite his expression of regret at the fact that he heeded the people. He realizes that not only did he disobey God, but he delegated leadership to the people, when by definition it must be the people who delegate leadership to their leader. Saul’s royalty is stripped away just as the disobedient Queen Vashti’s will be, in both cases so as for it to be given to one deemed “better” (15:28; Esther 1:19).
We then encounter for the first time Purim’s protagonist, Mordechai. Like Saul, Mordechai descended from a Benjamite named Kish (some commentators suggest Mordechai’s “great-grandfather” Kish really means his “ancestor” Kish, Saul’s own father). It is not instantly apparent why Mordechai’s lineage is spelled out in some detail. But soon thereafter we meet Purim’s antagonist, Haman son of Hamedata the Agagite, which suddenly provides for us the framework of the Purim story — a fateful showdown between the descendants of warring royals whose preliminary conflict led to unfinished business, despite their mutual demise. There is the sense of a reckoning between traditional enemies afoot, one that must supply a solution that ties up loose ends.
We soon learn that Mordechai has inherited something of the disobedience of his tribal forebear, Saul, although this time it is the Persian ruler’s law that is disobeyed when Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman. It is quite possible that this disobedience was similarly unwise, because bowing out of respect is obviously distinct from worship and it was already in the prior Babylonian era that the prophet Jeremiah instructed diasporic Jews on how to live in exile: “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7). If a token nod in the grand vizier’s direction would keep calamity from the Jews, surely it would have been advisable to concede this nominal gesture and preserve the people in the good graces of Susa’s rulers. The Midrash adds that Haman wore an image of an idol as part of his attire, but perhaps equally at work here was a lingering enmity between ancient adversaries. Haman’s high office and privileges must have been a constant reminder to Mordechai of his ancestor Saul’s failure and downfall vis-à-vis Amalek, and prostrating himself before Haman was simply too much to demand of him.
It is also this lingering grievance from the epoch of Saul and Agag that helps explain the subsequent fanaticism of Haman, who was dissatisfied with the prospect of punishing Mordechai alone and instead sought to annihilate all the Jews, just as once the Jews were commanded to eradicate all Amalekites. Haman recognized a historic opportunity to seek measure for measure, and he did not share the scruples of Saul or the Israelites who were willing to spare. Saul was suppose to slay “both man and woman, infant and suckling” (I Samuel 15:3) and Haman issued decretal letters to slay “all Jews, young and old, toddlers and women” (Esther 3:13). Thus far, Purim appears to be Amalek’s revenge.
It is then that Mordechai bids Esther to intervene and thwart fate. Esther demurs, citing palace protocol, but a perceptive Mordechai indicates to her that the presence behind the absence is at play, that it is unlikely for her timely rise to the role of empress to be sheer coincidence. On the eve of elimination, Mordechai’s message to the Jewish People is supremely hopeful: never let your fate get in the way of your destiny.
To her everlasting credit, Esther takes responsibility and prepares to sacrifice herself for her people. Haman is given exclusive invitations to banquets with the imperial pair, but his dissatisfaction resurfaces when he encounters Mordechai, whose slight gnaws at him notwithstanding his many accolades: “all this avails me nothing, so long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the imperial gate” (5:13). Haman’s dissatisfaction can be interpreted as arising from ingratitude: it did not occur to him to be grateful to the Jews not only for the act of sparing his ancestor Agag (who was ultimately slain by the prophet Samuel), but for clearly sparing other Amalekites of that era, among whose descendants Haman numbered. Had Saul and the Israelites dutifully carried out the divine command to “spare them not”, there never would have been a Haman to begin with.
That night Ahasuerus (Xerxes I the Great) has the Persian chronicles read to him. It turns out the emperor himself was hitherto guilty of ingratitude to Mordechai for exposing the regicidal conspiracy of Bigtana and Teresh. To his credit, Ahasuerus rectifies this at once. Meanwhile, had Mordechai been reading the Jewish chronicles, he may well have bristled at the reminder that “Saul died for his transgressions that he committed against the Lord, because of the divine word that he did not keep” (I Chronicles 10:13). Would all Israel living in the Persian dominion have to pay for Saul’s and the Israelites’ perfidy all these centuries later? The tension of the hour must have been overwhelming, all the more so for Saul’s scion.
The fatalism suffusing those precarious days was in large part the result of a peculiar law among the Persians, whereby regal edicts could not be repealed. Any decree written by the emperor or in the imperial name and sealed with the regal ring was irrevocable. Haman was individually disposed of easily enough, but his decree in the emperor’s name was the real threat to Jewry, and everyone knew it. None could disobey the edict, and not even the emperor could have it rescinded.
Yet once again destiny trumps fate. Mordechai is given leave to command the Persian satraps to permit the Jews of the realm to stand their ground and defend their lives against all aggressors. In this, too, is a surpassingly hopeful moral: even those things that cannot be countermanded can yet be counteracted. What is done is done, but that does not mean it cannot be overcome. Destiny need not bow to fate any more than a person to his or her archenemy. When it comes to fate, destiny disobeys. When it comes to fatalism, hope can overcome.
Mordechai now emerges from the imperial presence clad in royal apparel and a golden crown, in some measure a symbolic restoration of royalty to the ousted House of Saul, one redemptive tikkun among many that Purim has on offer. With Mordechai enjoying the imperial favor, the Jews’ enemies suffer a setback and the reversal of fortune is complete. Not only Haman but his ten sons are strung up on the gibbet, and there is no more mention of Agag’s line. Mordechai and the Jews thereby remedy the failure of Saul and the Israelites. Heavy-handed as it may seem, the thoroughness of the Jews in extinguishing their foes throughout Persia must be seen in direct contrast to the unfinished undertaking of Saul and his generation concerning the Amalekites.
Haman was never merely the adversary of Mordechai, but was “the enemy of all the Jews” (Esther 9:24). This collapses the binary between diaspora and homeland, and it is why Purim was enjoined upon all Jewry, to be recalled and observed “throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city” (9:24).
Originally a diaspora holiday, Purim was in time adopted by the Jews in Israel as well, albeit rebranded from “Mordechai’s Day” (II Maccabees 15:36) to “Purim”. In so doing, the Jews in Israel during the Hasmonean era and later effected something of a rapprochement, long overdue, between the rivalrous House of Saul and House of David. Likewise, with the intrepid actions of Mordechai and Esther, a settlement of accounts between King Saul and King Agag was finally effected, more than 500 years after the fact.
In their day, our ancestors “had light and gladness and joy and honor” (8:16). So may it be for us in our time.