Esther: A queen in deed (III)

HAMAN AGOG!

Ebere Nwankpa

Enter Haman. As life’s seasons turn and evolve, the purple patch of achievement and joy usually does not remain unchallenged for long. However long and intensely pleasurable the joy of summer, winter always comes. And so the elevation of Esther was followed by the elevation of another, not so sanguine. King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, and gave him authority over all his other officials. There is more than a whiff of the unusual here. The elevation here seems to lack precedent. The narrative sets it up without preamble or context, except for the king’s action and a brief introduction. The ad-hocism of this royal move is laid bare by previous significant events in the narrative. Even at the height of the king’s anger at Vashti’s refusal to obey the royal summons, he consorted with the Council of Seven Wise Men, who ranked highest in the kingdom and were by custom his royal advisers. It would seem that the appointment of Haman bypassed and usurped this established structure. Haman was by this measure an upstart. Even so, the exercise of kingly prerogative was in those times sovereign and not open to question. It is quite possible that by this time in his reign, the structure and custom in contemplation had become disused and perhaps irrelevant. It is possible too that, given time accrued on the throne, King Ahasuerus had acquired a taste for unilateral decision making and those early years of the Council’s preeminence was long past. The speed and mode of Haman’s rise apart, the central conflict of the narrative has its roots in a blood feud, generations and literally hundreds of years before. Saul, Israel’s first king had been commanded by Yahweh to exterminate the Amalekites and everything they owned, sparing nothing. In issuing this command, Yahweh referenced the conduct of the Amalekites a further remove in time, when the Israelites as a nascent nation had just left the slavery of Egypt. The Amalekites had inflicted the first significant battlefield loss on the Israelites, together with the attendant slaughter in that instance. Saul in his wisdom spared Agag, the Amalekite king and some choice livestock, though he put everything else to the sword. The two protagonists about to enter center stage in this story were descended from these two kings – Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin, like Saul, King Agag was Haman’s forebear. A historic enmity it was and the latest bloody installment of it was about to play out. It is arguable that many of the world’s most persistent and intractable conflicts observe this inflexible pattern. It started innocuously enough. Even so, the intransigence, belligerence and grand escalation that was soon to ensue would belie that. As befitting his preeminent status, the elevation of Haman by King Ahasuerus, included an order of obeisance, to be observed by all in the king’s service. This took the form of ‘bowing down’ to Haman. So, whenever Haman was in the palace, everyone ostensibly bowed down to him. Everyone, including Mordecai’s colleagues at the king’s gate. Everyone, except Mordecai, who objected on religious and cultural grounds. It was Mordecai’s colleagues who took up the matter at first. They did not find Mordecai’s exceptionalism endearing nor did they want any part of it. They lost little time in reporting the matter to Haman. Now, it bears noting that Mordecai did not help matters one bit. He was a consistent conscientious objector to the core. He made a point of it. His stand and disposition was without compromise and he resisted any attempt to persuade him to relent or soften his stance. It was not something that could be ignored, explained away or excused. Mordecai stuck out his head publicly. He gave his colleagues no option but to escalate the matter. At first they tried to reason with him, asking him why he deigned to disobey the king’s command. A potent mix of self-preservation and anti-Semitism on the part of Mordecai’s colleagues is discernible here. Having confirmed intransigence on Mordecai’s part, his colleagues reported the matter to Haman and spiced it up with word of Mordecai’s religious and cultural motivation. Having received this report and ascertained Mordecai’s belligerence first hand, Haman’s anger was predictable. His response though, was galactic in proportion, a grand escalation that could only have proceeded out of the bowels of a depraved mind with a direct connection to the pit of hell. Haman purposed that dealing with Mordecai alone was too small a salve for his ego. Every Jew in the empire was to pay a price for one man’s provocation, with their lives. This was not just a fleeting sentiment to be indulged temporarily nor a mere threat uttered in a fit of fury, as Haman’s subsequent sadistic, deliberate and categorical actions would alarmingly reveal. In a move that at once underlined the source of his power and revealed the impetus behind his rapid rise to prominence, Haman arranged for lots to be cast before him, an act of divination to engage the dark powers to which he was beholden, to choose the day when the genocidal extermination he purported was to be carried out. The dark arts were performed every day for twelve months until a day was chosen. Haman is a lesson in the sheer ambition, determination and strategic forbearance of evil. Rather than lash out at one person, Haman prepared painstakingly and deliberately for his grand scheme. Those who mistake the patience of this sort of evil for ambivalence should take note. There is no appeasement or accommodation in contemplation here. Haman’s preparations did not begin or end in divination alone. He raised money for his wicked scheme and set up a coalition of like-minded people in every province of the empire. Lastly, he sought to make his scheme legal. It is in the character of evil not only to be ambitious, strategic and well financed, but also to coopt existing legal regimes for its own ends. Thusly prepared, Haman sought audience with the king. He hid his animus and cloaked his agenda in the policy-speak of law and order. In Haman’s deceitful narrative, the Jews were a people who posed an urgent and dire threat to the king’s peace. They were a mere stereotype of obstruction, disloyalty and rebellion. So bad and so inflexible were they, that the peace and safety of the empire was contingent upon their wholesale removal – The nuclear option. Of course, such reasoning is risible to the enlightened, many of whom are instructed and socialized in the concept of inalienable personal human rights. However, such notions were unknown in Haman’s day. Then again, historical events of modern and contemporary vintage, among them, slavery, the holocaust, genocides, wars, sectarian violence and terrorism, demonstrate that the nature of evil is constant and unyielding. In any case, King Ahasuerus was no match for Haman’s preparation, persuasion and divination. He endorsed Haman’s scheme and gave it the force of law. An elaborate legal drafting session was convened. As if to underline the king’s ambivalence as a result of Haman’s deceit, at the conclusion of the business, both principals sat down to drink, even as news of the decree filtered through an anxious and uneasy capital city. Mission accomplished?