Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why Did Esther Not Have Mercy on Haman?

One of the most heroic figures in the Old Testament is the Hebrew maiden Hadassah who becomes the Persian queen Esther. Esther demonstrates great courage and intercedes to save her people from a high-ranking official named Haman who was determined to kill all of the Jews. Near the end of the story, the tables are turned and Haman is sentenced to death by hanging (likely impaled) on a pole he had prepared for Esther’s cousin Mordecai. While we celebrate her courage in stopping a potential genocide, many commentators are bothered that Esther did not intercede to save Haman. They argue she would have been a more admirable figure had she demonstrated mercy to her enemy. Why does Esther not try to save Haman’s life?

Like all of the Old Testament characters, Esther is imperfect, just like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and every other character other than Jesus Christ. In the case of Haman, however, it is possible that that author actually intends her lack of mercy to highlight her covenant faithfulness. There is a dynamic in the narrative that many people do not pay much attention to that might explain her actions and the way the author intends us to think about her.

Early in the story we learn that Haman is an Agagite (Esther 3:1). This is a fact that the author mentions 5 times at key points throughout the book. This means that Haman is a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag. The Amalekites were a historical enemy of the Jews having opposed them as they came out of Egypt. From that time forward, the two nations were in constant opposition to one another. This is probably why Esther’s cousin Mordecai refuses to bow down to him. It may also be why Mordecai’s refusal leads Haman to plan to kill all the Jews rather than just Mordecai. The history between the two people was one of constant strife and Haman’s desire to have people essentially worship him would have been particularly repulsive to Mordecai and all other faithful Jews.

Haman, however, is not just an Amalekite; he is an Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag. This is a very significant detail and helps explain how we should understand Esther not interceding to save him. Back in 1 Samuel chapter 15, the Jews were preparing to battle the Amalekites and God commanded that they not spare any of the Amalekites or their animals (1 Sam. 15:3). The armies of Israel were victorious but Saul failed to obey God and spared the life of king Agag and some of the animals. When the prophet Samuel confronted Saul, he tried to justify his actions rather than repenting of his sinful disobedience. Samuel killed Agag himself and informed Saul that because of his unfaithfulness, God would strip the kingdom from him and give it to another.

The name Agag is therefore associated with failure to keep the covenant and disobedience. Saul was a monarch from the tribe of Benjamin who ignored the command of God by showing mercy to Agag. As a result, he failed to keep the covenant, failed to protect his people the way God intended, and lost the monarchy from the tribe of Benjamin. What is interesting in the book of Esther is that we have a second encounter between a monarch from the tribe of Benjamin and an Amalekite from the family of Agag (Esther 2:5, 2:7).

The Bible does not include random details and it seems almost certain that the pairing of royalty from Benjamin with the name Agag is intended to recall the story from 1 Samuel. Saul relied on his own strength rather than obeying God. By contrast, Esther throws herself upon the providence of God regardless of the outcome for her (Esther 4:16).

Although Esther only becomes queen because she married a pagan king she ends up fulfilling the monarchial covenant requirement that King Saul failed to keep. Esther displays sacrificial leadership, protects her people, and destroys their enemies. Although in exile, Esther is doing what we would expect from any faithful Jewish monarch. Some may assume that Esther should have tried to save Haman but it is likely that the author intends us to recognize the parallels to Saul in a way that is favorable to Esther. Ultimately, God is the hero of the story and Esther is an instrument of God’s providence.