"King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite" [Esther 3:1]
In our Wednesday night Lenten Study, we're steadily building a picture of who King Xerxes was - not who he was historically, but who he was internally; what sort of character this man had (according to the Book of Esther). In chapter 1, we saw young King Xerxes, probably only 20 or so, newly elevated to the throne, a little insecure perhaps, and overly reliant on the guidance of his advisors. He was full of brash, bullying confidence, and showed his power by humiliating his wife; or rather, by trying to humiliate her.
In chapter 2, we met King Xerxes four years later, after he'd been catastrophically defeated by the Greeks. Humbled by failure, he'd developed some gentleness, and perhaps a new resolution to conduct his married life in a new way. He was taken by a woman of character, kindness and honour, and made Esther his new Queen. When she and Mordecai gave the king advice that his officials were plotting to kill him, he acted with wisdom and delicacy, exploring the truth of the matter, and responding appropriately.
Now we meet King Xerxes 5 years later, in the 12th year of his reign, and we see that he's sinking back into some of his worse patterns of behaviour. A new advisor has sprung up, seemingly out of nowhere: Haman, son of Hammedatha, the Agagite. This Haman guy has a powerful hold over the young king: Xerxes honours him ahead of all the princes and courtiers of his empire, and commands everyone to bow down before him. When Haman brings a "plot" to the attention of the king, Xerxes doesn't act with wisdom and delicacy, exploring the truth of the matter - rather, he believes every word Haman says, without question. Then they sit down to drink together.
But the "plot" Haman has brought to the king's attention isn't the same kind of plot that Esther and Mordecai exposed in chapter 2. Haman's "plot" is completely and utterly made up; a figment of Haman's scheming mind, designed to increase his own power and wealth, and settle a centuries' old racial hatred. Back in the time of King Saul, some 500 years before the events of Esther, the Prophet Samuel "received a command from God" that the Israelites should slaughter the people of King Agag, king of the Amalekites. According to the Prophet, God commands them to kill every last man, woman and child, and slaughter all their animals, and destroy all their worldly goods (1 Samuel 15). It is one of the most horrifying and gruesome passages in the Old Testament, one which raises the question of whether God really would have commanded a genocide. (This is a massive theological question, on which much has been written, if you're interested.) Now, some 500 years later, we're introduced to Haman, the Agag-ite - presumably a descendent of King Agag the Amalekite. And Haman conceives a hatred, not only for Mordecai, the Jew who refuses to bow down before him, but for all the Jews of the Persian Empire. Just like they destroyed his people; now he will annihilate their people.
Haman has skills, we've got to give him that. He constructs a brilliant plot to whisper in the ear of the king: that there is a people, hidden all over his kingdom, who aren't "like us", who don't follow the king's laws, and who pose a danger to the rule of the king. And Haman advises the king to have them slaughtered. King Xerxes follows the advice of his new favourite advisor. He hands Haman the royal signet ring to undertake this decisive action. The edict for the destruction of the Jews is written out in every language and sent to every province, readying all the local officials to act on the appointed day.
Last night at our Lenten Study, we wondered what would have persuaded Xerxes to follow the advice of Haman so blindly. We thought perhaps Haman was a strong military leader; or perhaps, after the defeat against Greece, there had been uprisings against the king which Haman had helped to suppress. Perhaps he is a father-type figure for Xerxes, or someone Xerxes is a little in awe of? Clearly they're drinking buddies - maybe Xerxes is lonely? Maybe Haman has deliberately separated Xerxes from other friendly advisors? Maybe Xerxes is terrified of a new uprising against him? All of these possibilities paint a picture of the kind of character possessed by both Xerxes and Haman, and yet none of our theories excuses Xerxes for agreeing to such a bloodthirsty plot without investigating the truth of Haman's claims.
Just like Xerxes, we receive advice from various sources: from friends and family members; from professionals like doctors, lawyers and bankers; from books, magazines and the internet. And just like Xerxes, we can receive advice which is good, or bad. But just like Xerxes, we too are responsible for examining the advice we receive before we act upon it; and we are responsible for our choices.
Just like Haman, we also give advice, and we're asked for our advice: by our children and grandchildren; by friends and relatives; by clients or people we're mentoring. And just like Haman, we can use our skills to give good advice, or we can use our skills to give bad advice, advice which serves our own ends rather than the best good of the one we're advising.
And so we're left with questions about how we measure the advice we're given; and about how we can and should exercise self-discipline when we're giving advice. This week our prayer is for God to give us the grace to offer godly, wise advice when we're asked; and we're invited to do some self-reflection about a time when we've used lies or half-truths to convince someone.
Next week we see the consequences of Haman's evil advice and Xerxes' blind acceptance. We see the costs of their choices landing on the shoulders of others, and we see God working through the courage and determination of those who will use their power for good. Join us Wednesday nights through Lent: 6pm soup supper; 7pm study.