Purim is the Jewish holiday which is most carnival-like. Children drown out Haman's name with greggers. Young Jewish girls participate in Queen Esther beauty pageants. Plays are enacted called Purimspiels. And everyone noshes on poppyseed and prune hamantaschen. Yet, behind the feasting and drinking and partying lies a somber message: the near destruction of the Jewish people. It reminds us that Jewish survival hangs by a thread of circumstance—but the weight on the matter is in God's hand. The account in the book of Esther takes place in fifth century Persia. And the events and characters of Purim (court intrigue, dramatic confrontations, heroes, and villains) are no joking matter. They could be elements in a melodrama plot: Esther, a beautiful Jewish teenager, becomes queen of Persia. Haman, an ambitious and arrogant bureaucrat, turns his envy of the Jew, Mordecai, into a vendetta against the entire Jewish population of Persia.
Mordecai, who is Esther's cousin, appeals to her for help and she cautiously agrees to approach the king. However, she has kept her religious and ethnic identity a secret. After hosting two banquets for the king and Haman, Esther reveals her Jewish identity, and in the presence of the king she tells of Haman's treachery. His plot to destroy the Jewish people is exposed and Haman and his sons are taken away and executed. Mordecai then becomes prime minister and is honored. Esther remains queen. And the Jewish people are spared from extermination.
The holiday is called Purim because Haman had thrown lots (purim") to determine when he should commence the execution of his plot of genocide against the Jewish people.
A Minor Holiday?
Purim is classified as one of the "minor" holidays. Yet that is not the assessment of the ancient rabbis. Many believed the book of Esther was intended to illustrate that God is at work behind the scenes. That interpretation makes sense in light of a biblical text that neglects to mention the name of God, the concept of religion, even the ritual of prayer.1
More than one sage compared Purim to the "major" holiday of Yom Kippur.2 The Hasidim interpreted Purim as a classic case of Kiddush Ha-Shem (the Sanctification of the Name) where individual Jews were willing to die rather than forsake their faith.3
The preservation of the Jewish people under severe hardship and genocidal threats is a theme woven throughout our history. At Purim, Haman is a metaphor of evil like Pharaoh, or Antiochus Epiphanes, or Chmielnicki (who conducted the pogroms), or even Adolf Hitler. In a speech in 1944, Hitler said, that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jewish people could celebrate "a second triumphant Purim."4
Yet the rabbinical interpretation of Purim that lies at the heart of the book of Esther is the Amalekite curse.5
The Curse of Amalek
In the Book of Esther, Haman is referred to as an Agagite, a descendant of Agag, King of Amalek. The first encounter with the Amalekites is recorded in Exodus 17.6 The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness prior to settling in the promised land and the Amalekite people made the grievous mistake of becoming the first of the Canaanite nations to attack them after the Exodus. For this act of arrogance, the Amalekites were punished with the ultimate ignominy in the ancient Near East: the blotting out of their name.
God told Moses,
Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven…I will be at war with the Amalekites from generation to generation. (v. 14, 16)
In Numbers 24:20, the disgraced prophet Balaam states, "Amalek was first among the nations, but he will come to ruin at last."
The shame of the Amalekites is memorialized when Moses makes his farewell speech to the people of Israel:
Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt.…When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25: 17, 19)
The idea of blotting out the memory of the name of the Amalekite descendant Haman took many forms. In ancient Persia and Babylon an effigy of Haman was burned. In the 1800s in Eastern Europe, Jews would write the name of Haman on the soles of their shoes and when his name was spoken, they would stamp their feet, erasing the writing into the ground. Modern customs included the use of noisemakers, cap pistols and the like to drown out the name of Haman.
The theme of cursing or blotting out the names of evil men is found throughout the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Hebrew verb that is most often used in this context is machah, which means "to blot out" or "to obliterate." It occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures 35 times in various forms, often describing the actions of God to "blot out" the name or the memory of particular individuals or nations. Sometimes it refers to the "blotting out" of sin. It is the word used in the Torah for God's promise to blot out the name of Amalek, but it is also used several times in reference to God's anger toward the people of Israel.
What's in a Name?
Names were much more meaningful in ancient times. They symbolized who a person was and not just what he was called by others. A striking example of this is found in Exodus 33, when Moses asks God to reveal himself in a more personal way.
Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory." And the Lord said, I will cause all my goodness to pass in front you , and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence." (v. 18,19)
In other words, to have an illuminated knowledge of God, Moses is told he will hear God's name proclaimed in his presence.
People are given names to illuminate or illustrate their character. A name could invoke honor, respect, fear, pity, scorn or ridicule. For example, when Jacob's name was changed to Israel, he went from being known as the supplanter (the one who took his brother's birthright) to being the one who strives with God, because he had wrestled with God and prevailed. (Genesis 32)
One of the most important aspects of life was to pass one's good name on to one's descendants. A good name would endure through many generations. It meant honor even after death, but, shame if a name was forgotten or blotted out.
When it comes to honor for God's name, Jewish tradition requires us to avoid the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton. The reason given is that we might disgrace God's name by mispronouncing it or speaking it in vain. We bury Torah scrolls when they are no longer usable because they contain the written name of God, which must be revered and never obliterated. Many observant Jews avoid writing even the Hebrew letters which make up God's name, since words on a chalkboard will eventually be erased and words on scraps of paper might accidentally be thrown away or burned.
Against such a background, one can see the severity of God's curse on the Amalekites, consigning their name and memory to oblivion so that the only mention of them is one of ignominy in the Bible. Yet, despite the attempts by Israel to forget about this arrogant nation, the name of Amalek came back to haunt them several hundred years after the Exodus 17 encounter.
Agag, King of Amalek
The problem with the Amalekites was aggravated when Saul was the first king of Israel. He was accepted by God when the people demanded that they have a "king to rule over them." Saul had severe character flaws which eventually destroyed the monarchy he established. One such flaw was his tendency to disregard complete obedience of God.
Saul ignored God's word to destroy the entire city of Amalek. Those who lived there were the biological and spiritual descendants of the nation God had cursed in the wilderness.
Saul and his army won the battle, "…but Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs —everything that was good." (I Samuel 15:8) Saul's refusal to carry out the judgment of God on Agag not only cost him his throne, but also brought grief to a future generation of Israel.
Haman the Agagite
Not only was Haman an Agagite, but we are also told in the Book of Esther that Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin and a descendant of Kish. King Saul was also a Benjaminite, and his father's name was Kish. Can you see that the enmity between Mordecai and Haman was the dramatic climax of a battle that had lasted almost one thousand years?
Moses and Amalek, Saul and Agag, and now Mordecai and Haman. The curse of Amalek and the obliteration of his name repeat again in the Scroll of Esther. It is at Purim that we are able, along with all of Israel, to join Mordecai in blotting out the name of Haman, and by transference, the names of Agag and Amalek. It is no coincidence that we make noise and try to drown out the reader each time Haman's name is mentioned during the reading of the Megillah.
Like those who follow the ancient tradition of wrriting the name of Haman on the soles of their shoes, we are obliterating the name that God has cursed and judged each time we stamp our feet, boo and hiss, and make loud noises with our greggers. The name of Haman is shameful, and should be blotted out, if only symbolically, for it stands for evil, hatred, and rebellion against the God of Israel. In contrast, the names of Esther and Mordecai bring joyful remembrance, and are to be honored.
In the book of Esther, Haman ended on the very gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. Hanging on gallows conjures up the image of a man's limp body suspended by a rope with a noose around his neck. However, according to the Greek historian Herodotus,7 hanging was a much more painful form of execution. In ancient Persia, Haman did not hang from a noose, but instead was impaled on a stake and lifted up in the air, an early form of crucifixion.
Haman's crime and punishment reminds us of the Deuteronomy passage, "Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse." (Deuteronomy 21:23)
Good and Evil
The rejoicing at Purim reminds us of the faithfulness of God and the quintessential triumph of righteous victim over evil oppressor.
Yet there are those today who see the meaning of Purim in terms of our good deeds overpowering the Hamans of this world. But reality tells us that despite our many good and noble efforts to work within social and political frameworks, there are too many Hamans for the Esthers and the Mordecais to handle. As simplistic as it may sound, could it be that the only way to rebuild the world is for it to be turned upside down once again…and that if it were to be turned upside down, it would finally be…right side up?
What if the innocent willingly took the place of the guilty. Would the weight of such a sacrifice be enough to swing the world back to an upright position—a position where people could face God and ask forgiveness? Instead of an evil Haman hanging from the gallows, what if an innocent one, made this sacrifice?
Would that one's name be blotted out, forever cursed? Or would such a name become the name that brings life and salvation, a name that is above all other names, a name before which someday all will (in the words of the Aleinu) "bend the knee and bow down."8
This Purim, as we follow tradition and blot out the name of Amalek, Haman and their ilk, we might also consider the claims of the Y'shua whose very name actually means "salvation." He offers life and peace to all, both Jews and gentiles, who trust in his name. And all who follow Y'shua, according to the New Covenant, will have their own names written in the book of life, where they can never be blotted out.9
Cursed be Haman and his kind! Blessed be Mordecai and Esther, and all those who are faithful to the God of Israel!
- Fox, Michael V., "The Religion of the Book of Esther," Judaism 39:2 (Spring 1990), p. 137.
- "Purim," in Encyclopedia Judaica, edited by Cecil Roth. New York: Macmillan, 1972, p. 1392.
- Loewenthal, Tali, "Early Hasidic Teachings: Esoteric Mysticism, or a Medium of Communal Leadership?" Journal of Jewish Studies 37:1 (1986), pp. 58-75.
- New York Times, 1/31/44, p.4.
- Berg, Sandra Beth. The Book of Esther. Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1977, pp. 67-68.
Also see Birnbaum, Philip, translator. Daily Prayer Book: Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 727-730.
The traditional Hebrew liturgy for Purim includes an alphabetic acrostic poem which describes Haman as a "hateful branch (netzer) of the seed of Amalek." Cf. Isaiah 11:1, which speaks of the righteous "branch (netzer) of the seed of Jesse," a prophetic reference to Messiah.
- Exodus 17:8-16, is the Torah portion read on Purim morning.
- Herodotus, 3.125, 129; 4.43.
- Birnbaum, pp. 413-414. Cf. a similar passage in the New Testament, Philippians 2:9-11, and in the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 45:23.
- Revelation 3:5.