The Jewish holiday of Purim is based upon the biblical Book of Esther. It tells of the story of Esther, a Jewish-Persian queen who prevents a massacre of the Jewish people. Below are brief bios for the main male characters in the story: King Ahasuerus, Mordecai and Haman.
According to the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) ruled over 127 provinces that stretched from India to Ethiopia. He was a Persian king whose capital was located in the city of Shushan (Esther 1:1-3).
The Purim story begins in the third year of King Ahasuerus’ reign. The king has decided to celebrate his rule with an extravagant party and while in a drunken stupor he commands his wife, Queen Vashti, to appear before him and his male guests “wearing her royal crown” (Esther 1:10). Over the centuries readers have interpreted this to mean that Vashti was told to appear wearing only her crown, which would explain why she refused her husband’s command.
Ahasuerus is furious and after consulting with other men at the party decides to replace Vashti with a new queen. Not long afterwards he hosts a kingdom-wide beauty pageant so that he might select his new wife from among the fairest women in his domain. Eventually Ahasuerus picks Esther, a Jewish girl, to become his new queen. You can learn more about Esther in Women of the Purim Story. Also, check out The Story of Purim for more details about the Purim narrative.
Although Mordecai is often referred to as Esther’s uncle, according to the Book of Esther he was actually her cousin. The Bible tells us that he was a descendant of the Jews who were exiled from Israel by the Babylonians and that he raised Esther because she was an orphan. When Esther is summoned to the palace to participate in the king’s search for a new queen, Mordecai advises her to keep her Jewish identity secret.
Mordecai’s part in the Purim story continues after Esther has joined the king’s court. One day he hears two of the king’s aides discussing a plot to overthrow the king. He tells Esther, who passes the message on to Ahasuerus. The king’s life is saved as a result.
Later in the story Mordecai finds himself in conflict with Haman, the prime minister and one of the king’s most trusted advisors. He refuses to bow before Haman, perhaps because of Haman’s Amalekite origins, and Haman is so insulted that he decides to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman knows that Mordecai is Jewish and the Ahasuerus agrees to the plan after Haman tells him these “people” do not respect the ways of the kingdom.
Eventually Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot and asks Esther to intercede on her people’s behalf with the king, who is now her husband. She agrees and not long afterwards Haman is executed, the Jews are saved from annihilation and Mordecai is given Haman’s position as prime minister. When Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim in modern times, they are remembering how Esther saved the Jews from tragedy.
Haman is prime minister to King Ahasuerus and one of the most powerful people in the kingdom. The Bible tells us he is descended from Agag, who was an Amalekite king executed for his crimes by the prophet Samuel centuries beforehan.
Because of Haman’s high status, the king has declared that all must bow before him. Mordecai, a Jew and Esther’s cousin, refuses to do this and makes an enemy of Haman as a result. He tells Haman that he cannot bow before him because it would be a form of idolatry. However, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out in “Biblical Literacy,” there is no indication that Mordecai has a problem bowing before the king. Rabbi Telushkin suggests that Mordecai’s true reason lies with Haman’s Amalekite origins. According to the Bible, the Amalekites were a tribe of people that attacked the Israelites while they were wandering in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. They aim their attack at the rear of the Israelite party, where the women, children, elderly and ill would have been located. God responds to this attack by saying “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven,” while Moses declares that “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages” (Exodus 17:14, 16). Not only is Mordecai aware of Haman’s Amalekite ancestry, but Haman proudly flaunts it. Rabbi Telushkin suggests this might be the reason Mordecai refuses to bow before him (Telushkin, 369).
The prime minister knows that Mordecai is Jewish and hatches a plot to execute all Jews in the kingdom as revenge for Mordecai’s perceived insolence. He bribes King Ahasuerus to support his plan, saying:
“There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.” (Esther 3:8-10).Mordecai soon learns of Haman’s plot and conveys a message to his cousin, Queen Esther. She reveals her Jewish identity to her husband and pleads for both her life and the life of her people. Not long afterwards Haman is executed and Mordecai is made prime minister.
References: Telushkin, Joseph. “Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible.” William Morrow: New York, 1997.