Secret of the Statue
"What did the Jews do to deserve the threat of annihilation at the hand of Haman?" In response to this question posed by his disciples, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai pointed out that it was retribution for bowing to the statue which the Babylonian King Nevuchadnetzar had set up in the Valley of Dura many years before (Daniel 7:1-6). But since they did not do this bowing as a willful act of idol worship, only superficially pretending in order to avoid being cast into the fiery furnace, Hashem reciprocated by only staging a threat of genocide.
Bowing to an idol is one of the cardinal sins which a Jew must avoid even at the cost of his life. How then could an entire nation — except for Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah, who were miraculously untouched by the flames of the furnace into which they were cast for refusing to bow — have been guilty of a forbidden show of idol worship? Why didn’t more of them choose martyrdom as required by the Torah?
This question is one of the proofs cited by the great Tosefist, Rabbeinu Tam, for his thesis that the statue of Nevuchadnetzar was not an idol, but merely a means of paying homage to the king. Many people at that time, however, assumed that it was an idol; thus it would have been a sanctification of Hashem’s Name for all the Jews to refuse to bow, and their failure to do so brought upon them the trouble with Haman.
An interesting support for this approach is found in the defiant statement of those three Jewish exiles who had achieved important positions in the Babylonian kingdom: "The king should know," said these proud Jews whom the king had renamed Shadrach, Meishach and Avad Nego, "that we shall not worship your gods nor bow to your golden statue." (Daniel 3:18) This expresses a clear delineation between idol worship and the bowing to the statue.
The gemara elsewhere (Pesachim 53b) states that these heroes took their cue from the frogs in Egypt who entered the ovens at Hashem’s command in the second plague, even though they were not bound by law to do so.