The book of Esther is a significant piece of historical fiction for Jewish people all around the world. Besides being the possible etiology for Purim, Esther, as a narrative, has been used for centuries to inspire Jews to rise against tyranny and survive in a world that might not accept their traditions or cultures. Alongside the beautiful and brave Queen Esther is her uncle Mordecai whom both raised her from childhood and inspired her to join the harem of King Ahasuerus.
Were it not for the brave acts of Mordecai, the Jew, Esther would not have restored the captured and exiled Jewish people to a place of prominence within the kingdom of Ahasuerus. Among the many actions of Mordecai, the most significant and dangerous of these was refusing to bow down to Haman, the king’s top official.
As a result of this defiant act, the king decrees that he will execute the Jews. Mordecai’s refusal to bow caused Haman to want to kill the Jews in the first place, but it also serves as a brave act of defiance for his faith that eventually leads to Haman’s death and Mordecai’s position of power which has inspired Jews for generations.
One of the things that makes Mordecai’s disobedience towards Haman so significant is that it caused the death decree against the Jewish people in Ahasuerus’s kingdom. During Esther’s time in the king’s harem, Mordecai would stay close by to see how Esther was faring among the other candidates (Esther 2:11).
While waiting for news from Esther at the palace gates one day, Haman emerges, and everyone at the gate bows except for Mordecai, who refuses because he is Jewish. Haman finds it below his station to lay hands upon Mordecai. However, since the others at the gate already mentioned that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman decides to execute all of the Jews within the kingdom (Esther 3:2-6).
It is evident that Mordecai is the reason for Haman’s ire and the eventual decree for death from the king, especially because verse 6 states “the people of Mordecai” specifically along with “Jews” (Esther 3:6). This phrasing is not accidental, and Haman would not have even noticed Mordecai if he had simply bowed like the others gathered at the gate.
Despite Mordecai knowing about Haman’s plot when the two meet again, Mordecai refuses to acknowledge Haman’s presence causing Haman to design a gallows built for the specific task of hanging Mordecai (Esther 6:9-14). Although Haman already got his way by getting Ahasuerus to execute Mordecai’s people, he still was not satisfied and decided to design large gallows to take care of Mordecai himself.
To say that these disobedient acts were daring would be an understatement, but why did Mordecai refuse to revere Haman as his superior two times and risk execution? Mordecai is not a stupid man since he knows to convince Esther to hide the fact that she is Jewish from the king and to also warn Esther about the murder plot against the king (Esther 2:10, 2:21-23). Mordecai and all Jewish people whom are persecuted know that loyalty to a foreign leader is necessary for survival, especially when they have no power or autonomy.
Mordecai is loyal to a point, but when Haman insists on reverence and fear, he denies. Despite this particular book not mentioning God at all, it is safe to say that Mordecai refuses to bow to anyone except Him due to his religion. Mordecai gives evidence of this through his other actions within the book of Esther. For example, when Mordecai hears of Haman’s plot, he tears his clothes, wears sackcloth and ashes, and fasts in mourning along with the other Jews (Esther 4:1-3).
Mordecai and the Jews also fast after Esther requests it for her safety while facing the dangerous endeavor of going before Ahasuerus (Esther 4:15-17). Fasting is not uncommon in the Bible, especially when a biblical character is hoping to remain safe during challenging endeavors or is trying to communicate with God. Notable examples of this were when the prophet Elijah fasted while trying to escape Jezebel (1 Kings 19:4-8) or when King David fasted and prayed to God to try and save his dying son (2 Samuel 12:15-20).
Furthermore, modern Jews fast on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, to ask God to forgive their sins. With this evidence, it is pretty clear that Mordecai refused to bow to Haman due to his belief in God.
Since we can now postulate that Mordecai’s defiance was because of his loyalties to God, we can go back to the question of why Mordecai decided that the risk would be worth it. Obedience to God throughout the Bible can almost always guarantee biblical characters prosperity and success in their endeavors.
Within the book of Esther alone, we know that Mordecai and Esther were successful in surviving and thriving in the foreign kingdom. While there is no direct evidence within Esther that God was the one who saved His people, the fact that Mordecai remained loyal to God did not hurt his chances of survival and has proven to help other major Hebrew characters in other books of the Bible. Also, since modern Jews read Esther as a guide to surviving stressful times in a religious context rather than a historical retelling of actual events, Mordecai does the right thing by continuing to have faith in God.
Even as a purely fictional character, Mordecai’s defiance of these foreign laws is extraordinarily inspirational and brave. Mordecai risked everything, including the life of his people, to follow God’s commandments and had faith that he would come through because of his loyalty, and that is ] what happened in the end. Even though Mordecai put everyone in danger, his act simultaneously inspired generations of Jewish people to have faith in God even when everything seems lost and hopeless.
Due to the significance of Mordecai’s obedience to God and disobedience to Haman, he is eventually able to defeat his enemy in perhaps one of the most significant examples of dramatic irony of all time. Mordecai goes from being condemned to death by Haman to watching Haman die and taking over his position as head advisor to Ahasuerus.
Before this, however, there is a foreshadowing of Haman’s downfall. One night, the king is unable to sleep and asks for his annals to be read aloud. His servants read of the time that Mordecai saved the king from being poisoned, and the king never rewarded Mordecai for his kind actions (Esther 6:1-4). Haman, who was waiting to request hanging Mordecai from the large gallows, was called in by the king to decide what to do to honor Mordecai.
Haman, thinking that the honor was for him, told Ahasuerus that this man should be dressed in the king’s robes and paraded about on horseback. Haman is forced to carry out this honor for Mordecai (Esther 6:5-11). After Haman returns home, his wife says that if Mordecai continues to be honored in this way it is likely that Haman “will fall before him” (Esther 6:13). The minor subversion of expectations and the switch in power dynamic serves as excellent foreshadowing that is cemented by Haman’s wife right before he is executed in chapter 7.
We can see how significant the act of disobedience was through the lens of dramatic irony. Haman, and perhaps the reader, expected Mordecai, Esther, and the Jews to perish due to Mordecai’s disobedience, however the opposite happens.
After Esther reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman was plotting to kill her people, Haman is hanged on the gallows that were built for Mordecai (Esther 7:3-10). After this, Mordecai was given all of Haman’s old possessions and was revered as one of Ahasuerus’s top advisors.
Then, just as Haman had done before with Ahasuerus’s signet ring, Mordecai reversed the decree to have the Jews executed. The decree also allowed the Jewish people to destroy anyone who might oppose them. (Esther 8:3-12) Due to this decree, Haman’s ten sons were also murdered and hanged on the gallows built for Mordecai (Esther 9:12-14). Mordecai not only triumphs despite his disobedience to Haman, but he also thrives in a kingdom where he was going to be murdered and all of his enemies are defeated.
The dramatic irony within these chapters of Esther exemplifies the significance of this initial disobedience that eventually lead to the downfall of Haman by highlighting the total change that occurred because of it. If Mordecai hadn’t disrespected Haman by not bowing down to him, Haman would have never tried to execute the Jewish people and would not have been overthrown by Mordecai. The disobedience was the catalyst for Mordecai’s rise to power and the Jews’ reclamation of their safety and power within the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
Because of Mordecai’s significant refusal to bow down to Haman, he simultaneously condemned and saved his people. Even though Mordecai’s disobedience caused Haman’s murder plot, his faith and willingness to stick by God saw him rewarded greatly in the end. Mordecai’s disobedience also continues to inspire Jewish people to this day.
Because Esther is a novella that is meant to help Jewish people survive diaspora, Mordecai’s actions serve as a stellar example to convicted Jews to hold onto their faith in God and fight for their beliefs. Although Haman is fictional, it is imperative that the Jewish people continue to uphold the spirit of Esther and Mordecai and keep fighting against very real oppressors even when winning seems impossible.
Coogan, Michael David, et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: an Ecumenical Study Bible. Oxford University Press, 2018.