(Adapted from an article by Mark Stover)
The Jewish holiday of Purim entails an atmosphere of merriment. Plays called Purimspiels enact the story of the book of Esther. Young Jewish girls participate in Queen Esther beauty pageants. During the plays and at the synagogue readings of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther), children drown out every mention of Haman’s name with greggers (noisemakers) while adults stamp their feet, boo and hiss. Some people send gifts to the poor, and everyone enjoys the traditional three-cornered poppyseed or prune pastries called hamantaschen.
Yet behind all the feasting and merriment lies a somber message: the near destruction of the Jewish people. Purim reminds us that Jewish survival often hangs by a thread of circumstance—but the matter is in God’s hand.
The events recorded in the book of Esther took place in fifth-century Persia. Though they are real, the court intrigue, dramatic confrontations, heroes and villains could be a plot for a melodrama: Esther, the beautiful Jewish teenager, becomes queen of Persia. Haman, the ambitious, arrogant bureaucrat, turns his envy of godly Mordecai into a vendetta against the entire Jewish population of Persia. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, appeals to her for help. She cautiously agrees to approach the king, but she has kept her religious and ethnic identity a secret. After hosting two banquets for Haman and the king, Esther reveals her Jewish identity. In the presence of Haman she tells the king of Haman’s treacherous plot to destroy the Jewish people. Haman and his sons are taken away and executed. Mordecai becomes prime minister and receives great honor. Esther remains queen, and the Jewish people are spared from extermination.
A Minor Holiday?
Purim is classified as one of the minor” holidays in the Jewish calendar, but that is not the assessment of the ancient rabbis. Many believed that the book of Esther was intended to illustrate God at work behind the scenes. That interpretation makes sense in light of the biblical text that neglects to mention the name of God or the concept of religion, and merely hints at the ritual of prayer.1
More than one sage compared Purim to the “major” holiday of Yom Kippur.2 The Hasidim (an Orthodox sect of Judaism) 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 theme of preservation under severe hardship and genocidal threats runs throughout Jewish history. Thus at Purim Haman is seen as a metaphor of evil like Pharaoh, Antiochus Epiphanes, Chmielnicki (who conducted the pogroms), or even Adolf Hitler. (In a speech in 1944, Hitler actually said that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jewish people could celebrate “a second triumphant Purim.”4)
The Curse of Amalek
The rabbinical interpretation of Purim that lies at the heart of the book of Esther, however, is the Amalekite curse.5 In Esther 3:1 Haman is referred to as an Agagite, a descendant of Agag, King of Amalek.
Israel’s first encounter with the Amalekites is recorded in Exodus 17.6 After the Exodus, as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness prior to settling in the promised land, the Amalekites were the first of the Canaanite nations to attack them. For this arrogance, God punished the Amalekites with the ultimate ignominy of the ancient Near East: the blotting out of their name.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” “…the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:14,16).
In Numbers 24:20, the disgraced prophet Balaam states, “Amalek was first among the nations, but shall be last until he perishes.”
The shame of the Amalekites was memorialized in Moses’ farewell speech to Israel:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt.…Therefore it shall be, when the LORD your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land which the LORD your God is giving you…that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget (Deuteronomy 25:17,19).
At Purim the idea of blotting out the memory of the Amalekite descendant Haman has taken many forms. The Jews of ancient Persia and Babylon burned an effigy of Haman. In the 1800s Jews in Eastern Europe wrote the name of Haman on the soles of their shoes, and at the mention of his name stamped their feet, erasing the writing into the ground. Modern Purim customs include the use of noisemakers, cap pistols and the like to drown out Haman’s name.
Cursing or blotting out the names of evil men is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The verb most often used in this context is machah, which means “to blot out” or “to obliterate.” It occurs 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 Pentateuch 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, not merely what he or she was called by others. We find a striking illustration of this in Exodus, chapter 33, where Moses asked God to reveal Himself in a more personal way.
And he said, “Please show me Your glory.” Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you” (verses 18,19).
In other words, to receive an illuminated knowledge of God, Moses would hear God’s name proclaimed in his presence.
In ancient times people were 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 (one who took his brother’s birthright) to being the one who wrestled with God and prevailed (Genesis 32).
One of life’s most important objectives was to pass on a good name to one’s descendants. The good name would endure through many generations. It meant honor even after death. On the other hand, if a name was forgotten or blotted out, it brought shame.
Against such a background, we can see the severity of God’s curse on the Amalekites in consigning their name and memory to oblivion, so that the only mention of them is one of ignominy. Yet despite Israel’s attempts to forget this arrogant nation, the name of Amalek came back to haunt them several hundred years later.
Agag, King of Amalek
Israel’s problem with the Amalekites was aggravated during Saul’s reign as the first king of Israel. Saul had severe character flaws that eventually destroyed the monarchy he established. One such flaw was his tendency to disregard complete obedience to God’s decrees.
I Samuel 15:9 records that Saul ignored God’s command to destroy the entire city of Amalek. Its inhabitants were the biological and spiritual descendants of the nation God had cursed in the wilderness. Yet after Saul and his army won the battle, they spared King Agag and the best of the livestock and all that was good. This refusal of Saul to carry out God’s judgment on Agag not only cost Saul his throne, but brought grief to a future generation of Israel.
Haman the Agagite
It would seem that the enmity between Mordecai and Haman in the book of Esther was the dramatic climax of a feud that had lasted almost a thousand years. Not only was Haman an Agagite, but Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin and a descendant of Kish, who was the father of Saul.
First there were Moses and Amalek, then Saul and Agag, and finally Mordecai and Haman. In the book of Esther the curse on Amalek and the obliteration of his name recurred. In the celebration of Purim we Jews, along with all of Israel, join Mordecai in blotting out the name of Haman and, by transference, the names of Agag and Amalek.
It is no coincidence, then, that at Purim we make noise and try to drown out the reader’s voice every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the reading of the Megillah. Like those Jews who follow the ancient tradition of writing Haman’s name on the soles of their shoes, every time we stamp our feet, boo and hiss and make noise at the mention of Haman, we obliterate the name that God has cursed and judged.
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.
Haman ended up on the very gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. For us moderns, hanging conjures up the image of a limp body suspended by a rope with a noose around the victim’s neck. However, according to the Greek historian Herodotus,7 in ancient Persia hanging was a much more painful form of execution. The condemned person did not hang from a noose, but was impaled on a stake and lifted high in the air, an early form of crucifixion. Thus Haman’s crime and punishment remind us of the passage in Deuteronomy 21:23b: “…he who is hanged is accursed of God.”
The Triumph of Good over Evil
Purim reminds us of God’s faithfulness and the quintessential triumph of the righteous victim over the evil oppressor. There are those today who see the meaning of Purim only in terms of good deeds overpowering the Hamans of this world. Yet reality tells us that despite our many good and noble efforts to work within social and political frameworks, there are too many evil Hamans for the Esthers and Mordecais of this world to handle.
The only way to rebuild the world is for it to be turned upside down once again—then finally it will be right side up. Yeshua, the innocent Messiah, willingly took the place of the guilty, and the weight of such a sacrifice was enough to swing the world back to an upright position where people could face God and ask forgiveness. Instead of an evil Haman hanging from the gallows, Yeshua, the innocent one, made that sacrifice. And though He was hung on a tree, His name is not blotted out or cursed. It has become the name that brings life and salvation—a name that is above all other names, before which some day all will (in the words of the Hebrew Aleinu prayer) “bend the knee and bow down.”8
This Purim, as Jewish people follow tradition and blot out the name of Amalek, Haman and their kind, may they also consider the claims of Yeshua, whose very name means “salvation.” He offers life and peace to all, both Jews and Gentiles, who trust in His name. And all who follow Him according to the New Covenant will have their own names inscribed 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.
- Lowenthal, 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 HaShalem. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 727-730. The traditional Hebrew liturgy for Purim includes an alphabetic acrostic poem that 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 the Messiah.
- Exodus 17:8-16 is the Torah portion read on Purim morning.
- Herodotus 3.125, 1229;4.43.
- Birnbaum, pp. 413-414. Cf. similar passages in Philippians 2:9-11, and Isaiah 45:23.
- Revelation 3:5.