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Why Mordechai Refuses to “Kneel and Bow” to Haman

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Rachel Friedman

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Why Mordechai Refuses to “Kneel and Bow” to Haman

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Why Mordechai Refuses to “Kneel and Bow” to Haman

A political strategy and a religious wakeup call to Jews in the Diaspora.

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Why Mordechai Refuses to “Kneel and Bow” to Haman

The Disdain of Mordechai, Jean-François de Troy, 1679-1752. RKD

A key moment in Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) that leads to the decree against the Jews is when Ahasuerus promotes Haman to vizier and Mordechai refuses to kneel and bow to him:

אסתר ג:א אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה גִּדַּל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ אֶת הָמָן בֶּן הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי וַיְנַשְּׂאֵהוּ וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת כִּסְאוֹ מֵעַל כָּל הַשָּׂרִים אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ. ג:ב וְכָל עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהָמָן כִּי כֵן צִוָּה לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה.
Esth 3:1 Some time afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials. 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.

The text does not explain why Mordechai refused to kneel and bow to Haman. In fact, Mordechai’s fellow officials are bewildered at his refusal:

אסתר ג:ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ לְמָרְדֳּכָי מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה עוֹבֵר אֵת מִצְוַת הַמֶּלֶךְ. ג:ד וַיְהִי (באמרם) [כְּאָמְרָם] אֵלָיו יוֹם וָיוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וַיַּגִּידוּ לְהָמָן לִרְאוֹת הֲיַעַמְדוּ דִּבְרֵי מָרְדֳּכַי כִּי הִגִּיד לָהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוּא יְהוּדִי.
Esth 3:3 Then the king's courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” 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, for he told them that he was a Jew.

Readers throughout the ages have been similarly perplexed as they tried to explain why Mordechai found kneeling and bowing to Haman problematic.[1]

Haman’s Idol

As Rachel Adelman notes in her “Why did Mordecai not Bow Down to Haman?” (TheTorah 2015), the lack of a clear reason in the megillah led the rabbis to the midrashic suggestion that Haman was wearing an idol, and thus, kneeling and bowing to him would be a form of idolatry. Abraham ibn Ezra accepts this solution:

ונכון מה שדרשו רבותינו ז"ל כי צורת צלם וע"ז היו בבגדיו או על מצנפתו.
What the rabbis suggested in their midrash is correct, namely that he had the image of an idol on his clothing or on his turban.

Yet, this approach lacks any textual basis, or, as R. Isaac Samuel Reggio (1784–1855) noted in his commentary on this verse, if this was the reason then הנה העקר חסר מן הספר, “the main point of the story is missing from the book.” Rashi tries to avoid this problem somewhat by suggesting שעשה עצמו אלוה “that [Haman] made himself a god.” But Haman’s purpose in commanding that everyone kneel and bow to him appears to be about his power, not about the advocacy of some religious belief.

Moreover, the solutions of Rashi and ibn Ezra do not fit the spirit of the story. Megillat Esther is about a happily acculturated diaspora Jewish population suddenly facing a threat to their lives, not a martyrdom story about religious persecution like the tale of the mother and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees.[2]

Haman the Amalekite

Another interpretation is that Mordechai, a Benjaminite Jew from the family of Saul, objects to Haman’s family. As a descendent of Agag, the Amalekite king in the time of Saul, Haman is a blood enemy of Mordechai’s family.[3] Moreover, he is part of the nation of Amalek whose memory Israel is commanded to wipe out (Deut 25:17–19).

Indeed, the rabbinic choices for the special readings for Purim suggest that the rabbis saw a deep connection between Purim and the problem of Amalek: The rabbis established Exodus 17:8-16, the battle with Amalek, as the Torah reading for Purim, and Deuteronomy 25:17–19, the command to remember Amalek, as the reading for the Shabbat before Purim, followed by 1 Samuel 15, Saul’s war with Amalek and King Agag, as the haftara (prophetic reading).

While this interpretation—that Mordechai and Haman were natural enemies (Saul vs. Agag, Amalek vs. Jew)—does pick up on a motif in the Megillah, it is unclear that the Megillah is trying to make a genealogical claim about Haman actually being a descendant of Agag. Dubbing Haman as “the Agagite” may simply be a derogatory slur, as in “Haman the wicked” or “Haman the enemy.”[4] In this sense, the description of Haman as an Agagite can be understood as a general warning to be careful about the antisemitism that lurks behind outsiders.[5]

A Political Statement

In its narrative context, Mordechai’s refusal to kneel and bow to Haman is a political statement; he is refusing to accept Haman’s authority. The verses immediately following the refusal may help us understand why.

In the story immediately preceding Haman’s rise, we are told how Mordechai saves the king from an assassination plot (Esth 2:21–23). But rather than rewarding Mordechai, Ahasuerus promotes Haman. Mordechai’s defiance shines a spotlight on this problem of all palace officials bowing to Haman. It gives him too much power, placing Ahasuerus in danger of being usurped by his new vizier.[6] Perhaps for that very reason, Haman does not divulge to Ahasuerus the real reason for his animosity to Mordechai.

Haman’s Anger Redirected

When Haman sees Mordechai’s behavior, he becomes furious:

אסתר ג:ה וַיַּרְא הָמָן כִּי אֵין מָרְדֳּכַי כֹּרֵעַ וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לוֹ וַיִּמָּלֵא הָמָן חֵמָה.
Esth 3:5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage.

And yet, instead of going to Ahasuerus and highlighting that Mordechai disobeyed the king’s command, Haman takes a different, unexpected route:

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 Mordecai 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.

If Haman had reacted to Mordechai’s refusal by complaining about it to Ahasuerus, Mordechai could have responded that kneeling and bowing should be reserved only for the king himself. Such a point, especially coming from an official who had previously saved Ahasuerus from a treacherous assassination, may have appealed to the king and caused him to diminish Haman’s power.

Thus, when Haman presents his complaint to the king, he takes pains to avoid describing the exact nature of his problem with Mordechai. Instead, he conjures up a grand Jewish conspiracy for which he suggests a “final solution.”

אסתר ג:ח וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם וְאֶת דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין שֹׁוֶה לְהַנִּיחָם. ג:ט אִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם...
Esth 3:8 Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws; and it is not in Your Majesty's interest to tolerate them. 3:9 If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction…

In other words, Haman flips Mordechai’s point on its head—it isn’t Haman that is endangering the king by turning himself into a monarch-like figure, but Mordechai and his people who are endangering the king by their non-conforming laws and practices.

Poetic Justice for Haman—In Three Steps

Unbeknownst to Haman, his plan to destroy the Jews puts him in a collision course against the queen, which becomes his undoing.

Step 1—Confession over Dinner

Esther asks her husband the king and Haman to join her at two dinner parties, which Haman wrongly takes as a sign that he is in the queen’s good graces (Esth 5:12). During the second dinner, when Ahasuerus asks Esther what is bothering her, she replies:

אסתר ז:ג ...אִם מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב תִּנָּתֶן לִי נַפְשִׁי בִּשְׁאֵלָתִי וְעַמִּי בְּבַקָּשָׁתִי. ז:ד כִּי נִמְכַּרְנוּ אֲנִי וְעַמִּי לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוֹג וּלְאַבֵּד וְאִלּוּ לַעֲבָדִים וְלִשְׁפָחוֹת נִמְכַּרְנוּ הֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי כִּי אֵין הַצָּר שֹׁוֶה בְּנֵזֶק הַמֶּלֶךְ.
Esth 7:3 … If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. 7:4 For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy that the king be damaged.[7]

Esther’s comment implies that Haman’s plan will cause damage not only to her people but to the king himself. The story continues:

אסתר ז:ה וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ וַיֹּאמֶר לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה מִי הוּא זֶה וְאֵי זֶה הוּא אֲשֶׁר מְלָאוֹ לִבּוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן. ז:ו וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר אִישׁ צַר וְאוֹיֵב הָמָן הָרָע הַזֶּה וְהָמָן נִבְעַת מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַמַּלְכָּה.
Esth 7:5 Thereupon King Ahasuerus demanded of Queen Esther, "Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?" 7:6 Esther replied: “The adversary and enemy is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen.

In his fury and surprise at this revelation, Ahasuerus storms out to the royal garden. This brief time-lapse creates suspense for the reader and gives the king a moment to consider his response to Esther’s accusations. Perhaps he is not sure who to believe – his queen or his vizier.

Step 2—Haman at Esther’s Feet

Haman takes the opportunity of the king’s absence to plead with Esther for his own life, but this too ends up turning Ahasuerus against him:

אסתר ז:ח וְהַמֶּלֶךְ שָׁב מִגִּנַּת הַבִּיתָן אֶל בֵּית מִשְׁתֵּה הַיַּיִן וְהָמָן נֹפֵל עַל הַמִּטָּה אֲשֶׁר אֶסְתֵּר עָלֶיהָ וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ הֲגַם לִכְבּוֹשׁ אֶת הַמַּלְכָּה עִמִּי בַּבָּיִת...
Esth 7:8 When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. The king said: “Does he mean to ravish the queen in my own palace?”

Whatever doubts the king may have entertained as to Haman’s disloyalty are erased by the scene before him. This is not merely a case of an overly jealous husband. In the ancient Near East, sleeping with a monarch’s wife is tantamount to usurping his throne, as is evident from several biblical stories:

  • Ish-Boshet, the son of Saul, is alarmed when Saul’s general, Abner, lay with his father’s concubine precisely because he suspects the general of treason against the house of Saul (2 Sam 3:6–8).
  • In his censure of king David for sleeping with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, Nathan the prophet describes God’s transfer of the monarchy from Saul to David as the giving of Saul’s wives to David (2 Samuel 12:8).
  • David’s son Absalom sleeps with David’s ten concubines in public, to show that he is taking his father’s place (2 Samuel 16:20–22)
  • When Adonijah the son of David asks to marry Avishag the Shunamite, who had served to keep David warm in his old age, Solomon interprets this as proof of his brother’s intent to usurp the throne (1 Kgs 1:19–25).[8]

Ahasuerus sees Haman, in light of Esther’s revelation, attempting to take the step he had been planning all along—a play for the throne.

Step 3—Trying to Kill Mordechai

At this moment, it is almost certain that Haman is lost, but perhaps he can explain: The Jews are disloyal and he was merely begging Esther for his life. The final blow comes when Ahasuerus finally hears the very thing Haman tried to hide from him at the very beginning: his personal gripe with Mordechai.

At this point, Haman is brought down by one of the other courtiers, someone who had kneeled and bowed to Haman, and may have resented it, and was waiting for an opportunity to take him down:

אסתר ז:ט וַיֹּאמֶר חַרְבוֹנָה אֶחָד מִן הַסָּרִיסִים לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ גַּם הִנֵּה הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה הָמָן לְמָרְדֳּכַי אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר טוֹב עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ עֹמֵד בְּבֵית הָמָן גָּבֹהַּ חֲמִשִּׁים אַמָּה וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ תְּלֻהוּ עָלָיו.
Esth 7:9 Then Harbonah, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “What is more, a stake is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordechai—the man whose words saved the king.” The king said, “Impale him on it!”

Although Haman’s plotting went in a direction Mordechai could not have guessed—to kill all the Jews to cover up the personal grudge—in the end, Mordechai’s political defiance succeeds.

Kneeling and Bowing – A Wakeup Call to Persian Jewry

Beyond the political meaning of Mordechai’s refusal to kneel and bow, the Megillah conveys a religious message to its readers. The words “kneel and bow” (כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) appear togther elsewhere in the Bible only with reference to the worship of God. [9]

1) Psalm 22 uses the two verbs in parallel (although “bowing” precedes “kneeling”), describing how all nations will worship God:

תהלים כב:כט כִּי לַיהוָה הַמְּלוּכָה וּמֹשֵׁל בַּגּוֹיִם. כב:ל אָכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ כָּל דִּשְׁנֵי אֶרֶץ לְפָנָיו יִכְרְעוּ כָּל יוֹרְדֵי עָפָר וְנַפְשׁוֹ לֹא חִיָּה.
Ps 22:29 For kingship is YHWH’s and He rules the nations. 22:30 All those in full vigor shall eat and bow down; all those at death’s door, whose spirits flag, shall kneel before Him.

Notably, this psalm is associated with Esther in rabbinic tradition and recited on Purim.[10]

2) Psalm 95 similarly begins with a call to Israelites to bow and kneel to God with thanksgiving offerings and song, for he is a powerful God, creator of the world:

תהלים צה:ו בֹּאוּ נִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנִכְרָעָה נִבְרְכָה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה עֹשֵׂנוּ.
Ps 95:6 Come, let us bow down and kneel, bend the knee before YHWH our maker.[11]

3) 2 Chronicles 7 describes how the Israelites knelt and bowed at Solomon’s dedication of the newly constructed Holy Temple in Jerusalem:

דברי הימים ב ז:ג וְכֹל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רֹאִים בְּרֶדֶת הָאֵשׁ וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה עַל הַבָּיִת וַיִּכְרְעוּ אַפַּיִם אַרְצָה עַל הָרִצְפָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ וְהוֹדוֹת לַי־הוָה כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ.
2 Chron 7:3 All the Israelites witnessed the descent of the fire and the glory of YHWH on the House; they knelt with their faces to the ground and bowed, praising YHWH, “For He is good, for His steadfast love is eternal.”

4) 2 Chronicles 29 describes a ceremony of rededication of the Temple in the time of Hezekiah. In this case, even the king himself kneels and bows:

דברי הימים ב כט:כט וּכְכַלּוֹת לְהַעֲלוֹת כָּרְעוּ הַמֶּלֶךְ וְכָל הַנִּמְצְאִים אִתּוֹ וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ.
2 Chron 29:29 When the offering was finished, the king and all who were there with him knelt and bowed.[12]

The author of Esther deliberately uses the combined expression to kneel and to bow as a literary cue to its readers.[13] Jews would instinctively feel that such obeisance should be reserved only for the worship of God in the Temple.[14]

Mordechai’s refusal to kneel and bow to Haman would thus serve as a wakeup call to Persian Jewry. Though they may be comfortably acculturated in a diaspora land far away from the Holy Temple, they must be careful not to drift too far from their Jewish heritage, lest they find themselves kneeling and bowing not to God, or even to a king, but to an antisemitic palace official.[15]

Published

February 22, 2021

|

Last Updated

April 20, 2021

Footnotes

View Footnotes

Rachel Friedman is the founder and Dean of Lamdeinu, the center for Jewish learning in Teaneck, New Jersey. She served for many years as Associate Dean and Chair of Tanakh Studies at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City. She holds an M.A. in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School at Yeshiva University and a J.D. from Columbia University School of Law. Friedman has been a scholar-in-residence at synagogues and educational institutions throughout the United States and abroad.