Old Testament

Who was Haman the Agagite?

The story of Esther takes place during the reign of King Xerxes. In Esther 3:1 we are introduced to Haman the Agagite, who is promoted within King Xerxes’ retinue to second in command. Immediately following the introduction of Haman into the narrative, we find out that since Mordecai does not bow before him, Haman wants to destroy not only Mordecai, but Mordecai’s entire race—the Jews! This desire to destroy the Jews is not a passing fancy for Haman. He follows through with his desire and pays off the king to make a decree that all the Jews be destroyed (Esther 3:8-11).

Photo of Haman the Agagite leading Mordechai
The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.

The Family Lineage of Haman the Agagite

Haman is clearly portrayed as a violent individual, and yet, it seems there may be more to the story. Some scholars have noted that the term “Agagite” is rare, and it is likely related to the king of the Amalekites. This connection is drawn from Numbers 24:7 where Balaam prophesies that Israel’s king would be “greater than Agag” (which in context seems to be the Amalekite royal title). Additional evidence for this is found in 1 Samuel 15, where the king of the Amalekites is called Agag. All in all, it seems quite reasonable that the title “Agagite” seems to be a reference to Haman’s royal lineage to the ruling family of the Amalekites.

The Sinister History between Israel and the Amalekites

Israel and the Amalekites had long been in an adversarial relationship. Beginning in Exodus 17:8, Amalek opposed Israel’s journey out of Egypt and was defeated by Israel. The Amalekite opposition to Israel was not noble at all. Deuteronomy 25:17-18 says that the Amalekites attacked the “tail” of Israel’s convoy, those who were “lagging behind.” The rear of a caravan was typically where the old, weak, and sick would follow the main part of the group. In other words, the Amalekites were cowardly attacking those unable to defend themselves! Because of Amalek’s wickedness, God promised that he would “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exod 17:14).

This conflict continued during the time of Saul, when Saul slaughtered most of the Amalekites (cf. 1 Sam 15). However, he spared Agag, and presumably some others as well. Sparing the Amalekites ended up hastening Saul’s destruction since the Amalekites kidnapped David’s wives and family, prohibiting him from aiding Israel and Saul in their time of need (cf. 1 Sam 30).

Because Saul was the one who “half-heartedly” destroyed the Amalekites, it is no wonder that those from the Amalekites would hate Saul. Even more so, if the Amalekite was an Agagite, one who was related to the royal line, and possibly the Agag of 1 Samuel 15. Importantly, we need to remember that Saul was a man of Benjamin, a son of Kish (1 Sam 9:1-2). It is beyond coincidence that when we get to Esther, the narrator describes Mordecai as being a man of Benjamin, a son of Kish (Esther 2:5).

It is no wonder that Haman hated Mordecai intensely. The Jews and the Amalekites had been at odds for centuries. And to top it all off, Mordecai’s relative (Saul) had slaughtered the relatives of Haman. This understanding of the circumstances helps explain the title the narrator gives Haman, “the enemy of the Jews” (3:10). This also explains why Haman’s intense desire was for the eradication of the Jewish people.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

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