Mordechai the Spy-Master
One of the early scenes in the Megillah tells how Mordechai saves King Ahasuerus from an assassination attempt:
אסתר ב:כא בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וּמָרְדֳּכַי יוֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ קָצַף בִּגְתָן וָתֶרֶשׁ שְׁנֵי סָרִיסֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ מִשֹּׁמְרֵי הַסַּף וַיְבַקְשׁוּ לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בַּמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ. ב:כב וַיִּוָּדַע הַדָּבָר לְמָרְדֳּכַי וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּשֵׁם מָרְדֳּכָי.
Esth 2:21 At that time, when Mordechai was sitting in the palace gate, Bigtan and Teresh, two of the king’s courtiers who guarded the threshold, became angry, and plotted to do away with King Ahasuerus. 2:22 The matter became known to Mordechai and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther reported it to the king in Mordechai’s name.
The Megillah does not tell us how Mordechai learns of the plot. The Targum Sheni to Esther explains בכן איתחזי פתגמא ברוח קודשא, “the matter became known through the divine spirit.” Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba offered an alternative idea (b. Megillah 7a):
בגתן ותרש שני טרסיים היו והיו מספרים בלשון טרסי
Bigtan and Teresh were Tarsians, and they were speaking in Tarsian.
According to R. Hiyya bar Abba, the conspirators were simply unaware that Mordechai understood their language. This suggestion is a variation on the earlier Hellenistic expanded version of the Megillah, which assumes that Bigtan and Teresh thought Mordechai was asleep:
Greek Esther (OG) A:12 And Mordechai took his rest in the courtyard with Gabatha and Tharra (=Bigtan and Teresh), the two eunuchs of the king who guarded the courtyard. A:13 He both overheard their deliberations and inquired into their ambitions, and learned that they were preparing to lay hands on Artaxerxes the king, and he told the king about them (NETS with adjustments).
The image of Mordechai overhearing the conspirators is based on a misunderstanding of וּמָרְדֳּכַי יוֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ as “Mordechai was sitting at the palace gate,” but this is an honorific title, designating a low-level court official, and not an indication of location or whereabouts.
So if Mordechai does not overhear the conspirators talking, how does he learn of the plot? Several scenes in the Megillah suggest that Mordechai has people in the palace, loyal to him, who supply him with information.
Haman’s Bribe: How Does Mordechai Know?
When Haman tries to convince King Ahasuerus to have the Jews killed, he gives a reason why this is in the king’s best interest (v. 8), and tops it off with a bribe:
אסתר ג:ט אִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים כִּכַּר כֶּסֶף אֶשְׁקוֹל עַל יְדֵי עֹשֵׂי הַמְּלָאכָה לְהָבִיא אֶל גִּנְזֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ.
Esth 3:9 If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.
אסתר ג:יא וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לְהָמָן הַכֶּסֶף נָתוּן לָךְ וְהָעָם לַעֲשׂוֹת בּוֹ כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ.
Esth 3:11 And the king said, “The money is yours, as are the people to do with as you see fit.”
It is unclear whether Ahasuerus accepts the money, but either way, he gives Haman carte blanche to carry out his plan.
The destruction of the Jews is then publicly proclaimed (Esth 3:13). Mordechai soon learns of the decree and mourns publicly, complete with wailing, sackcloth, and ashes (Esth 4:1). Esther, unaware of the decree, dispatches the courtier Hatach to discover the meaning behind Mordechai’s actions, and Mordechai sends a message back explaining:
אסתר ד:ז וַיַּגֶּד לוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר קָרָהוּ וְאֵת פָּרָשַׁת הַכֶּסֶף אֲשֶׁר אָמַר הָמָן לִשְׁקוֹל עַל גִּנְזֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ (ביהודיים) [בַּיְּהוּדִים] לְאַבְּדָם.
Esth 4:7 And Mordechai told [Hatach] all that had happened to him, and all about the money that Haman had offered to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews.
How does Mordechai know about the money that Haman has offered to pay the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews? This information does not appear in the public edict itself, as it was a secret. Mordechai could only have obtained this information from sources within the palace, perhaps from confidantes of the king or Haman, or more likely, from palace guards or servants, who may have witnessed the transaction.
While Mordechai obtains secrets from his palace sources, his own secrets are kept safely.
Keeping Mordechai’s Secrets
After Ahasuerus removes Vashti as his queen and has his men round up attractive women for his harem, one of the women taken is Mordechai’s cousin and adopted daughter, Esther:
אסתר ב:י לֹא הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר אֶת עַמָּהּ וְאֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר לֹא תַגִּיד. ב:יא וּבְכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם מָרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי חֲצַר בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים לָדַעַת אֶת שְׁלוֹם אֶסְתֵּר וּמַה יֵּעָשֶׂה בָּהּ.
Esth 2:10 Esther did not reveal her kindred or her family, for Mordechai had told her not to reveal it. 2:11 Every single day Mordechai would walk about in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was faring and what was happening to her.
Esther is supposed to keep her relationship to Mordechai a secret, and yet he appears daily outside the harem to find out how she is doing. Wouldn’t his visits arouse suspicion? If they did, this information never makes it to either Ahasuerus or Haman.
Even after Ahasuerus makes Esther queen, and she is no longer under the care of Hegai the Harem keeper, she still keeps her origins a secret. And yet, she sends Hatach with messages to Mordechai, and Mordechai sends messages back. Again, neither Ahasuerus nor Haman are ever made aware of this. Apparently, Mordechai (and Esther) command loyalty among multiple palace officials.
In fact, towards the end of the story, when the king re-enters the palace only to find what looks like Haman attempting to rape the queen, it is one of the servants, Harbona, who mentions that Haman has also been planning to execute Mordechai, the king’s loyal servant. This directly leads to Haman’s execution and Mordechai’s promotion.
If Mordechai seems to enjoy wide support among Ahasuerus’ household servants, he is less popular with his fellow officials.
The Courtiers Pick the Fight
When Haman is promoted, Mordechai refuses to bow to him:
אסתר ג:ב וְכָל עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהָמָן כִּי כֵן צִוָּה לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה.
Esther 3:2 All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordechai would not kneel or bow low.
Like the readers of the Megillah, the king’s courtiers do not know why Mordechai disobeys the king’s command to bow:
אסתר ג:ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ לְמָרְדֳּכָי מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה עוֹבֵר אֵת מִצְוַת הַמֶּלֶךְ.
Esth 3:3 Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordechai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?”
Mordechai doesn’t answer the question, and the courtiers, who are with him at the gate, eventually bring about a confrontation:
אסתר ג:ד וַיְהִי (באמרם) [כְּאָמְרָם] אֵלָיו יוֹם וָיוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וַיַּגִּידוּ לְהָמָן לִרְאוֹת הֲיַעַמְדוּ דִּבְרֵי מָרְדֳּכַי כִּי הִגִּיד לָהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוּא יְהוּדִי.
Esther 3:4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordechai’s resolve would prevail; now he had told them that he was a Jew.
Why do the courtiers tell? While readers of the Megillah often assume that it was prejudice against him for being a Jew, it seems rather to stem from jealousy: Why should they have to bow while Mordechai gets away with not bowing?
Why Won’t Mordechai Bow?
As noted, Mordechai doesn’t explain why he won’t bow. The traditional rabbinic interpretation is that, as a Jew, Mordechai considers bowing to Haman a form of idolatry. Alternatively, the problem is explained as due to Haman’s being a descendent of the hated Amalekites. Yet a more mundane motivation presents itself: Mordechai refuses to pay obeisance to his political rival.
Consider what has taken place in the story up until this point. In the opening story, Ahasuerus has seven top advisors:
אסתר א:יד וְהַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו כַּרְשְׁנָא שֵׁתָר אַדְמָתָא תַרְשִׁישׁ מֶרֶס מַרְסְנָא מְמוּכָן שִׁבְעַת שָׂרֵי פָּרַס וּמָדַי רֹאֵי פְּנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ הַיֹּשְׁבִים רִאשֹׁנָה בַּמַּלְכוּת.
Esth 1:14 His closest advisers were Karshena, Shetar, Admata, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memuchan, the seven ministers of Persia and Media who had access to the royal presence and occupied the first place in the kingdom.
Notably, neither Mordechai nor Haman is on this list of those who have “access to the royal presence”—literally, “those who may see the royal face.” In the next chapter, Mordechai saves the king, and immediately afterwards, the unknown Haman, rather than he, is appointed vizier, leapfrogging over the seven members of the inner circle:
אסתר ג:א אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה גִּדַּל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ אֶת הָמָן בֶּן הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי וַיְנַשְּׂאֵהוּ וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת כִּסְאוֹ מֵעַל כָּל הַשָּׂרִים אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ.
Esth 3:1 After these things, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials.
The text does not say what prompted this promotion, or why Ahasuerus chooses someone who was not already among his closest advisors. Whether Mordechai expected to be appointed vizier, or simply added to the group of close advisors, he certainly would not have expected to be passed over completely and have another person—probably a second-tier courtier like himself—moved to a top position.
To add insult to injury, a royal edict commands the courtiers to pay obeisance to Haman, but this Mordechai refuses to abide. It is one thing to be bested by your rival, it is another to be forced to pay him homage afterwards.
Esther as Mordechai’s Ace in the Hole
Mordechai’s long-term goal to become a top advisor to the king is also why he wished Esther to keep her identity a secret even after she is chosen as queen (Esth 2:20).
אסתר ב:כ אֵין אֶסְתֵּר מַגֶּדֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ וְאֶת עַמָּהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ מָרְדֳּכָי וְאֶת מַאֲמַר מָרְדֳּכַי אֶסְתֵּר עֹשָׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה בְאָמְנָה אִתּוֹ.
Esth 2:20 Esther still did not reveal her family or her kindred, as Mordechai had instructed her; for Esther obeyed Mordechai’s bidding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.
The text doesn’t explain why he wants her to keep this secret. The Greek version of Esther explains that he wanted her to keep her Judaism a secret so that she could remain observant, without being confronted by Ahasuerus about her religious practices:
Greek Esther [OG] 2:20 But Esther did not reveal her ancestry. For so Mordechai had commanded her: to fear God and to do his ordinances, just as when she was with him. So Esther did not change her way of life.
On a political level, Mordechai’s decision is especially surprising: Wouldn’t it only be to Mordechai’s benefit to be known as the queen’s cousin and adopted father? It would seem that Mordechai’s political calculations were less along the lines of noblemen facilitating royal marriages with their daughters to gain wealth and position, and more like J.-Edgar-Hoover-style intelligence gathering.
Mordechai has cultivated informants throughout the palace, and the choice of Esther, first as a concubine and then as the queen, offers Mordechai unprecedented access to palace information that he can use to his advantage. But this only works as long as Ahasuerus, as well as Mordechai’s competitors among the palace courtiers, do not realize their relationship.
When Mordechai learns of the plot against the king, and Esther brings this information to the king in his name, they risk exposing their relationship. But this is a reasonable chance for Mordechai to take, since he fully expects that saving the king’s life will elevate him to high office. When it doesn’t, he is miffed at the person who procured it in his stead.
Why Doesn’t Haman Just Kill Mordechai?
Once he learns of Mordechai’s disrespect, Haman is enraged but considering that Mordechai is a force within the palace, and has just saved the king’s life, Haman is concerned about exacting vengeance on Mordechai alone:
אסתר ג:ו וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו לִשְׁלֹח יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּוֹ כִּי הִגִּידוּ לוֹ אֶת עַם מָרְדֳּכָי וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הָמָן לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ עַם מָרְדֳּכָי.
Esth 3:6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordechai alone; having been told who Mordechai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordechai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
The term “disdained” is the same verb used with Esau when he sells his birthright to Jacob (Gen 25:34): וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה, “Thus did Esau disdain the birthright.” That is to say, Esau rejected in scorn that which was unavailable to him. Similarly here, Haman rejects in scorn the possibility of the murder of Mordechai, which is not an option for him.
Haman’s learning that Mordechai is a Jew, therefore, gives him a pretext for getting rid of Mordechai without it looking like a personal fight of one courtier against another. He will cover up the murder of Mordechai by killing all the Jews for the crime of general disloyalty.
Telling the Difference between Haman or Mordechai: Who Is to Blame?
Although Haman is an Agagite, and becomes צורר היהודים – hater of the Jews (Esth 8:1), the incident begins with a personal gripe against an ambitious courtier who stands in his way. The Jews, at that stage, are simply ʿam Mordechai, “Mordechai’s people” (Esth 3:6).
Read this way, Mordechai is not such a heroic character, but one who must rely on Esther to clean up a mess that his pride has started. Indeed, such a reading may be behind Ravah’s comment in the Talmud (b. Megillah 12b–13a) that the Purim story is essentially Mordechai’s fault for making Haman jealous.
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Rabbi Eric Grossman is Head of School at Akiva School in Montreal, Quebec. He is the author of numerous articles on Bible and Bible education, as well as a grammar of biblical Hebrew.
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