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Samuel said: "Does G-d desire burnt offerings and peace offerings as much as the obeying of His voice? …Because you rejected the word of G-d, He has rejected you from being a king."
Saul replied: …"I have sinned… I did transgress G-d's command - for I feared the people, and I listened to their voice."
Samuel said to Saul: "I will not return with you. For you have rejected G-d's Word, and G-d has rejected you from being king over Israel." (Samuel I 15:22-6)
The Books of Samuel, set in the Holy Land during the mid-eleventh and the early tenth century BCE, record the transition in Israel from the period of the Judges to the era of the united monarchy. The change in Israel's national life revolved around three central figures.
Firstly, Samuel - the last of the Judges. He was the first personality since Joshua to be a national, rather than a local figure. Unlike his predecessors - Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jehpthah, and Samson - his influence did not just cover a district or region, but the entire Holy Land (3:20). Indeed, he made a point of regularly traveling around the country to dispense justice in person (7:15-17). In addition, the period of Samuel saw positive religious stability, to which he richly contributed. From Joshua to Samuel, the Israelites repeatedly followed the local idolatrous cults, but the days of Samuel himself heralded a period where 'all the House of Israel followed G-d' (7:2). From that time, the Israelites kept on the Torah path until the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon.
Secondly, Saul - the first King of Israel. His initially reluctant rise to power took place because of the popular demand for a monarchy. Despite his openly being declared king in Mitzpa, his initial support appears to have been of a more local nature, and opposed to by some 'evil people' (10:27-7). Soon afterwards, he defeated the common enemy - the people of Ammon - with the full participation of soldiers from all twelve tribes (11:7-8). Having achieved a stunning victory over a common enemy, Saul was accepted as king by all of Israel.
The fact that Saul as king never challenged Samuel as prophet and as a judge stood to his credit. However he erred on two occasions in not giving sufficient weight to Samuel's words. For Samuel - the prophet - had the most direct link with G-d. In not carrying out Samuel's words to the letter he - on his spiritual level - was setting himself above the Word of G-d.
Both incidents, paradoxically, involved Saul's zeal to perform offerings to G-d. On the first occasion, he went ahead before Samuel's late arrival, despite his instructions to the contrary. On that occasion he was told: "You have been foolish! You did not keep the command of G-d… Now your kingdom will not last, for G-d wanted a man after his heart!" (13:11-14) On the second occasion - the subject of this Haftara - he was told by G-d through Samuel to wage war against the Amalekites: to exterminate the people and to destroy all their property. Saul assembled a huge army and routed the enemy, but he did not wipe them out completely. He spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, and the best of their animals: the latter, for an offering to G-d. Once more he was too zealous in making offerings - once more Samuel was told by G-d to say to Saul that He was more interested in his loyalty than in his property: "Does G-d desire burnt offerings and peace offerings as much as the obeying of His voice? …Because you rejected the word of G-d, He has rejected you from being a king." Previously, he was told that his kingdom would eventually fall. Now, following this incident, that fall would be swift and immediate: "G-d has torn His kingdom from you and given it to someone better than you," - who turned out to be David. Indeed, the text records this second act of defiance as the reason for the fall of Saul's kingdom. On the night that turned out to be the one before his death, Saul wanted to consult with Samuel who was by then dead. With the aid of the sorceress from Ein-Dor, he raised Samuel's spirit. Samuel replied that Saul and sons would be killed in battle against the Philistines the very following day: "because you did not listen to the word of G-d and did not execute His wrath against Amalek." (28:18).
David is the third key personality of the Books of Samuel - whose early stages in rising to power are interwoven with the accounts of Samuel and Saul. His initial reign was over what was later the southern kingdom of Judah - based in Hebron. Although some seven years later, he became king over all Israel, it may be argued that the monarchy was not fully united under King David - but rather that the Holy Land had a northern and a southern kingdom, each of whom would make their own arrangements with him. The united monarchy lasted for a brief period only, namely though the reign of King Solomon.
The theme of the Books of Samuel - exemplified by the narrative forming the Haftara - is that faithfulness to G-d brings both national and individual success, and disobedience brings disaster. That is openly stated in the opening chapters - in G-d's message to Eli the Priest: "Those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me, will be shown contempt." (2:30)
G-d's judgment against Saul appears to be harsh. True, he spared Agag, King of the Amalekites, and he reserved the best cattle for an offering to G-d. That meant that he did not totally destroy Amalek, as he was commanded to through Samuel the Prophet. Nevertheless, his reaction to Samuel's 'Does G-d desire burnt offerings and peace offerings as much as the obeying of His voice? …Because you rejected the word of G-d, He has rejected you from being a king,' was true regret. His reply was: 'I have sinned… I did transgress G-d's command.' And, realizing his mistake he did not protest, when Samuel put Agag to death.
Why was Saul's obviously sincere penitence not accepted? The Torah attitude to such penitence is represented by the following words, spoken some six centuries later by the Prophet Ezekiel:
When a wicked person turns from all his previous sins, observes My statutes, and performs justice and charity, then he shall live, and not die. None of his previous transgressions shall be held against him… 'Do I want the death of the wicked?' exclaims G-d. 'If only he would turn away from his ways, then he will live.' (Ez. 18:21-23)
Furthermore, unlike the circumstances of King David's marriage of Bathsheba, which are described in the text as 'evil in the eyes of G-d' (Sam. II 11:27), Saul did nothing could not be put right. David was not able to correct his sin by bringing Uriah back to life. But Saul could - and did - take the option of correcting his sin of letting Samuel kill Agag, and he no doubt disposed of the offending cattle as well.
Why did G-d reject his penitence? Why, instead, did he - the king himself - have to suffer the further humiliation of having his coat torn with the words: 'G-d has torn His kingdom from you and given it to someone better than you?' And if his penitence was real, why did G-d 'regret that He had made Saul king over Israel?' (15:38)
As an approach to these issues, the text includes details that show basic flaws in Saul's attitude. Saul admitted that he did sin, but he gave a reason: namely that he 'feared the people, and… listened to their voices' (15:24). In other words, he knew that he was doing wrong, but in having to resolve his conflict between public demand on one side, and following G-d's instructions on the other, he chose public demand. Thus Samuel rejoined Saul with: "I will not return with you. For you have rejected G-d's Word, and G-d has rejected you from being king over Israel." (15:26) So his 'putting matters right' to restore his favor with G-d did not improve matters in his favor. He demonstrated that although he could win battles over his enemies, he did not have sufficient faith in his position to risk losing popular support. Thus his lack of faith in G-d's assistance would have put him amongst 'those who despise Me, will be shown contempt.' (2:30)
That was coupled with the fact that his sparing of Agag and his selecting the best cattle for an offering were done publicly. The events recorded in the Haftara took place at a time when 'all the House of Israel followed G-d' (7:2). A king - especially G-d's anointed (24:6) - who would have been remembered as having followed the popular mood of the moment rather than the Word of G-d, would have severely compromised the status of the very theocratic (G-d orientated) monarchy. He would have sullied the spiritual status of the monarchy, and especially its harmonious working together with the prophets as communicators of the Word of G-d. For the deed - not the apologies afterwards - remain engraved in the memories.
Thus the public impact of Saul's offence put the sin in the 'irreversible' category. Unlike David's sin, it did not happen behind closed doors, but in the open, where it was seen and remembered from first hand experience.
This is a sharp lesson to be borne in mind by people who serve the community as Torah personalities. One gifted young man coming from a family of rabbis said he would have liked to follow that calling, but he could not. On being pressed, he said: "I know my weaknesses. I try hard to keep the Mitzvot, but I do slip up sometimes. If I were, for example, to suddenly lose my temper over a difference of opinion with a member of the community. I would not only be compromising myself. I would also be doing an act that would bring the whole of what I am seen to stand for - the Torah - into disrepute."
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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