The Bridget

Number 3 Published by Chris Tover May 12, 2005

The Bridget is an e-journal of opinion. Mine!
And I am not afraid of controversy.

About Bridget

This e-journal is dedicated to the memory of my mother. To her family and friends she left a legacy of moral, social, and political activism.


Featured Essay:

In Defense of Haman

The biblical Book of Esther tells the story of Haman's attempted to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian Empire. The book tells how this plot was foiled by two Jews, Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai. The deliverance of the Jews from Haman's holocaust is celebrated in the festival of Purim.

To Jews, the Haman is perhaps the most reviled and hated person in the Old Testament. During Purim

But today I want to tell the other side of the story.

It is tempting equate Haman with Adolph Hitler. After they both committed evil deeds. But there is a crucial difference. Hitler justified the Holocaust with fantasies of racial purity and with the Big Lie. On the other hand, Haman's reasons were real, and based upon the historical experience of his people.

The trouble in Persia begins when the king of Persia makes Haman his vizier. One of the perks of this office is everyone must bow down to the vizier. And everyone does, except a Jew named Mordecai. Haman becomes enraged by this defiance. But instead of just punishing Mordecai, Haman plots to kill all of the Jews in the Persian Empire.

At this point, a question needs to be asked. Why does Haman go 'over the top'? Wouldn't it be enough to punish Mordecai and be done with it? Why kill all of the Jews? It is this apparent lack of motive that makes Haman's actions seem so chilling and so evil.

The Book of Esther does not answer this question directly. But it gives a clue, that Haman was a descendent of King Agag, who was king of the Amalekites. That means that both Mordecai and Haman were victims of a bitter ethnic war that began some eight hundred years earlier during the time of Moses.

Soon after the Israelites left Egypt, they clashed with the Amalekites. This battle began a bitter and bloody feud between the two peoples. God tells Moses:

"I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven". [Ex. 17:14 NRSV]
What incensed the Biblical writers seems not to be the actual loss of life, but that a defeat would destroy the people's faith in God and Moses.

Some two or three hundred years later when Saul is king, the priest Samuel orders Saul to go to war against the Amalekites.

"Go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. " [1 Sam 15:3 NRSV]
Saul destroys the main city of the enemy massacres Amalekites down to the Egyptian border. But he disobeys the order to destroy everything. Saul spares the life of the King Agag, the ancestor of Haman. He takes booty and he saves some of the cattle for sacrifice. This disobedience infuriates Samuel. He slays Agag, then he rejects Saul and anoints David as king. What accounts for Samuel's fanatical hatred? I have not found and explanation.

This attack on the Amalekites seems to have been unprovoked and a complete surprise. But despite his success, Saul could only kill a fraction of the Amalekites. Enough were left to fight a war with David.

Now let us return to Haman He was probably weaned on stories of these wars and massacres, and on the killing of his ancestor, King Agag. With this bitter history behind him, how would Haman feel about Jews? He might say that the only good Jew was a dead Jew.

Consider the moment when Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. Up to this point nobody knew that Mordecai was a Jew. Both Mordecai and Esther had been careful to conceal their Jewish identity. They do not even use their Jewish names. Esther is named for Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, and Mordecai for the god Marduk.

Imagine what Haman must now have thought. First, Mordecai was his hereditary enemy, who pretended to be non-Jewish. Second, by insulting him, Mordecai insulted the King and people of Persia. Such disrespect could not be tolerated, for that would encourage others to rebel. Under these circumstances Haman could easily believe the worst, that this was the start of a Jewish plot to destroy both him and his people. Haman surely knew of the Biblical curse, where God says, "I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven".

In modern times some people do believe in fantasies about Jewish plots and conspiracies. Fantasies have been used to justify the murder of Jews from the Middle Ages to the present. But Haman had every reason to believe in a Jewish plot to destroy his people. Whether such a plot actually existed is beside the point. This explains why Haman would want to kill ALL the Jews. Do unto others BEFORE they do unto you.

You may still believe that Haman was evil, that is your right. But then I ask you, what about Saul and Samuel? Shouldn't we judge all of them by the same moral standard?

In defending Haman I do not absolve him from all guilt. He did have a moral choice. He could have just punished Mordecai and be done with it. But he chose the path of destruction.

But I do defend Haman by identifying the extenuating circumstances for his behavior. He was a man of his time and a man of his people. He was trapped by the ancient code of revenge and retribution. He tried to protect himself and his people, but instead destroyed them. He is therefore more tragic than evil.

The Book of Esther says that the Jews killed 75,000 of their enemies. By contrast the great battle of Cannae, when Hannibal destroyed a Roman army, cost the Roman side only 60,000 lives. For the Amalekites and their allies, the loss of 75,000 lives must have destroyed them. Thus the ancient curse was fulfilled, "I shall utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven".

The book of Esther has much to teach us about the dangers of ethnic hatreds. The war between Saul and Agag erupted hundreds of years later between their descendants, Haman and Mordecai. In today's world there are many Hamans and many Samuels who keep ethnic hatreds alive. As long as we listen to them and stay fixated on past evils, we will only compound these tragedies. But let us believe in a future where all sides can live and prosper. If we can believe in such a future then we give ourselves the chance of overcoming the sad history of ethnic conflict on this planet.



Notes:

Copyright Information:

NRSV designates Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 © by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

This issue of The Bridget is copyright © 2005 by Chris Tover. All rights reserved. Readers may make nonsalable copies for personal use, for use in discussion groups, to circulate among friends, forward this e-journal to friends, provided that the entire issue is reproduced. Short quotations may be published in salable media and in school reports and papers provided the quotation is appropriately cited. However, the articles in this e-journal must not be republished in a salable medium without the written permission of the copyright holder. Any person who reproduces The Bridget is responsible for ensuring that any copyrights of included quotations are not violated.

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posted by Chris Tover at Thursday, May 12, 2005 9:37 AM     Comments:

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