Why Did Mordecai Not Bow Down to Haman?
Mordecai’s Risky Defiance
The Book of Esther is fraught with anxiety as it tells the story of the precarious existence of Jews in the Diaspora. The drama hinges on a perplexing conundrum: Why does Mordecai, who is known as “the Jew,” refuse to bow down to Haman, putting his people in peril?
Mordecai’s defiance provides Haman with grounds for the genocidal decree, describing the Jews as having “laws different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them” (3:8). This leads to Ahasuerus’ genocidal decree against the Jews, the “Final Solution,” though he does not know the precise cause or even the identity of the people. Surely, as a wise courtier, Mordecai would be wary of the king’s arbitrary ways. What was so problematic about bowing to Haman that it could lead Mordecai to take such a terrible risk?
The Masoretic text (MT)—i.e., the Hebrew megillah we have today—is obscure. Mordecai gives no answer to the King’s servants’ question: “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” (3:3). All he presumably told them was that he was a Jew (v. 4).
The exegetical tradition suggests two distinct lines of thought. The first is that Mordecai refuses to bow down on religious principles – obeisance to Haman is an expression of idolatry. The second points to an ethnic vendetta – the refusal serves as a pretext for the eternal battle between Amalek and Israel.
Bowing to Haman as a Form of Idolatry
At the opening of chapter 3, Haman is promoted to viceroy:
וְכָל עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהָמָן כִּי כֵן צִוָּה לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה.
And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance (Est. 3:2 NRSV).
The demand that a courtier bow down to the king’s second-in-command seems innocuous enough; the Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of bowing to human beings. No law in the Torah explicitly forbids it. But this particular collocation – “to bow down and do obeisance (יִכְרַע וְיִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה)” – only appears in the Hebrew Bible as a gesture of homage to the One God.This could be understood—at least by ancient interpreters—to imply that Haman was presenting himself as some kind of deity.
Haman is Wearing an Idol – Rabbinic Interpretation
The Rabbinic tradition suggests that Haman wore an idolatrous figure–either as a medallion around his neck or embroidered to his turban. Ostensibly, they suggest this because, as stated above, nothing in the Bible—or in rabbinic halacha—forbids a Jew to bow to a person. Nevertheless, the Septuagint and the Targum Sheni make another claim.
Only Bow Down to God – Septuagint and Targum Sheni
The Greek version of Esther (the Septuagint), presents Mordecai’s defense along these lines. By obeying the rule of the Persian King and bowing to Haman, he would betray his allegiance to the King of kings, the God of the Jewish people. In what scholars call Addition C (which follows chapter four of the MT), Mordecai turns to God in prayer, with an explicitly theological message not found in the Masoretic text:
… you know, O Lord, that it was not in insolence or pride or for any love of glory that I did this, and refused to bow down to this proud Haman; for I would have been willing to kiss the soles of his feet to save Israel! But I did this so that I might not set human glory above the glory of God, and I will not bow down to anyone but you, who are my Lord; and I will not do these things in pride. (Greek Esther, Addition C; 13:12-14, NRSV).
His tone is poignant, apologetic almost, for the dire straits he has brought upon his people. But he justifies his integrity as motivated by the “glory of God.”
The Aramaic Targum Sheni, like the Greek version, does not mention an idol, but argues that it is inappropriate that “the Jew” should bow to a mere mortal man. In chapter 3, for example, in response to the king’s servants’ question: “Why do you disobey the king’s command” (3:3, where no answer is given in the MT), Mordecai rails at the hubris of the man,
“Proud and haughty… born of woman, whose days are few… and whose ultimate end is a return to dust…shall I kneel before him? No! I only bow down to the eternal God….”
In both the Targum Sheni and the Septuagint, bowing to a man is, in and of itself, a form of idolatry, and therefore presents a challenge to monotheism, which adjures the Jew to pay obeisance to God alone.
A Jew Won’t Bow Before an Amalekite
The second possibility is that Mordecai “the Jew” as the embodiment of Israel, refuses to bow down to Haman, the Agagite, as the embodiment of Amalek. This tradition is inscribed in liturgical practice on Shabbat Zakhor before Purim, when we read (in the Maftir) the injunction “Remember what Amalek did to you,” attacking the old and the weary that straggled behind the desert sojourn out of Egypt. And so we are urged, paradoxically, to “wipe out the memory of Amalek” (Deut. 25:17-19; cf. Exod. 17:8-16).
We also read of King Saul’s failure to fulfill God’s decree when he preserves the life of Agag, the Amalekite king (1 Sam. 15 as the Haftorah). Mordecai, a descendant of Saul’s line, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin (Est. 2:5, cf. 1 Sam. 9:1-2), must then finish off the job, so to speak.
In the MT of the Esther scroll, the genealogical associations point to an ethnic vendetta that will be played out between these two characters. The Greek version, however, never calls Haman an Agagite, so the allusion to this ethnic divide would have been lost on the Greek readership. Haman is referred to, instead, as “the Bougean,” (in the Septuagint Alpha-text), presumably a pejorative association for Greek speaking Jews at the time.
By contrast, the Rabbinic tradition, based solely on the MT, cannot help but hear the trumpets of warning at the opening of chapter 3: “And after these things, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite…..”, resonant throughout the Megillah, with the added epithet “enemy of the Jews [tzror ha-yehudim]” (3:10, 7:6, 9:10 and 24).
Combining the Interpretations – Targum Sheni
The Targum Sheni (ca. 3rd-6th cent. C.E.) makes use of this same vendetta, but traces it back to Jacob and Esau. Haman is introduced, at the opening of chapter 3, with a list of ancestors that goes back 20 generations, ending with the father of Amalek, Eliphaz, Esau’s firstborn (cf. Gen. 36:12). Further along, the Targum links this genealogy to Mordecai’s refusal to bow down.
In the MT, the king’s servants report their interchange with the Jewish courtier to Haman, “in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand… (לִרְאוֹת הֲיַֽעַמְדוּ דִּבְרֵי מָרְדֳּכַי)” (3:4). Which words? Although the simple meaning of the text may refer to Mordecai’s refusal to bow down because “he was a Jew” (as he told them, v. 4), the midrash suggests a “lost” conversation between Mordecai and the king’s servants.
King’s Servants: But we find that your ancestors bowed down before the ancestors of Haman.
Mordekhai: Who was it that bowed down before the ancestors of Haman?
Servants: Did not your ancestor Jacob bow down before Esau his brother, who was Haman’s ancestor?
Mordekhai: I am descended from Benjamin and when Jacob bowed down before Esau, Benjamin was not yet born and he did not bow down before any human all his days, as a result of which the Eternal One of the World guarded him in his mother’s womb, until the time that they would go up to the Land of Israel and the Temple would be rebuilt in its land, and the Shekhinah would dwell within its borders, and all the House of Israel would rejoice there and all the nations will bow down and do obeisance in the Land. As for me, I shall not bow down and do obeisance before the evil Haman in front of this gate.
What makes this exegetical narrative unique is the combination of religious principles and ethnic pride undergirding Mordecai’s argument. In the reading we are familiar with, Haman, of course, does not accept “these words” as a legitimate reason for disobeying the king. Au contraire, they motivate his determination to kill all the Jews, “the people of Mordecai,” for he scorned to lay hands on Mordecai alone (3:6). The reasons are irrelevant, for the anti-Semite sees only that “he is a Jew.”
Conclusion – Jewish Survival in the Diaspora
The question of Jewish survival and integrity in the Diaspora lies at the crux of the drama of the Esther story in all its forms. In the Targum Sheni, composed most likely in the Land of Israel between the 3rd and 6th century CE, the answer to the anti-Semite, which Haman instantiates, is expressed by both Mordecai’s particularistic stance and his universal vision of the End of Days.
By holding fast to his refusal to bow down to Haman “in front of this gate” (in the Persian court), all peoples of the Earth will eventually come to acknowledge the one true God within the borders of the Land of Israel. The Targum conveys a clear homiletical message through Mordecai’s voice, linking national concerns to the universal, acceptance of ethical monotheism.
The Greek text, by contrast, speaks to a Jewish audience under Roman rule in the Second Temple Period (circa 1st century BCE), where ethnic identity plays a minimal role relative to religious values. Each presents a different model of Mordecai in today’s world – the one might proudly wear a kipah, guarding a synagogue in Copenhagen or Paris, the other might talk eloquently, in a pin-striped suit and tie, to Christian clergy and Statesmen. In either case, the Jewish courtier stands for the “dignity of difference,” to borrow Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack’s phrase. He carries the banner defending the singularity of the Jews in the face of assimilation and the threat of arbitrary, violent authoritarian rule.
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February 24, 2015
January 19, 2021
Prof. Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press).
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