History Crash Course #16: King Saul
King Saul was a great man who committed one terrible mistake, dooming his reign from the start.
In his farewell address to his people, Moses prophesied:
"When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you and inherit it and live in it, and you say, 'Let us appoint over me a king like all the nation around me,' [then] you will appoint over yourself a king whom the Lord your God shall choose. From among your brothers are you to appoint over yourself a king, you may not appoint over yourself a foreigner who is not your brother." (Deut. 17:14-15)
This time has come to pass now.
The Jewish people have been living for close to four centuries without strong central leadership and they miss it. So they ask the prophet Samuel to appoint a king.
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Samuel is not happy over this request but God tells him to go ahead. Still it is clear that God is not happy with it either:
"Listen to the voice of the people according to all that they say to you for they have not rejected you but they have rejected Me from reigning over them." (1 Samuel 8:7)
Why are Samuel and God displeased, especially since Moses had predicted this turn of events and there is even a Torah commandment to do so?
The answer lies in the way the people asked for a king:
And they the people said [to Samuel] "... Now set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations ..." (1 Samuel, 8:6)
A Jewish king was not supposed to be a king "like all the nations" had. A Jewish king was supposed to be a model of what an ideal Jew is all about ― a model for the rest of the nation to emulate.
To ask for a king "like all the nations" suggests that the Jews wanted a big strong guy, like the rest of the nations-an all-powerful leader who would make all the decisions so that they could sit back and throw off that heavy burden of responsibility that they've had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It's much easier in many respects to have someone decide for you, which is why the Talmud says that "a slave is happier being a slave" ― a slave who is well treated will give up his freedom to know that he is being taken care of and decisions are being made for him.
The Jewish monarchy, as described in the Bible, is a institution. A Jewish king has real power and tremendous responsibility, but he is not a tyrant or dictator. He is the model for the rest of the nation to emulate: a leader, a scholar, pious, righteous and God-fearing. He is a catalyst that enables the Jewish people to fulfill their national historic mission as a light to the nations.1
"Only he [the king] shall not have too many horses for himself...And he shall not have too many wives... and he shall not greatly increase silver and gold for himself...It shall be that when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah...It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear the lord, his God, to keep all the words of the Torah...so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren..." (Deut. 17: 16-20)
In the year 884 BCE, 393 years after the Jewish people first entered the Land of Israel, Saul is anointed as the first king by the prophet Samuel in accordance with the wishes of the people.
How was Saul chosen king?
The story of Saul's anointing tells us much about the functioning of Jewish society in this time period.
For one thing, there are many prophets around. So many in fact ― the Talmud says that from the time of Moses to the destruction of the First Temple there were over a million prophets 2 ― that the people turn to them for everything. You have a profound question? Ask a prophet. You need advice on marriage? Ask a prophet. You've lost your donkey? Ask a prophet. The Bible itself mentions that prophets were originally called seers (roeh in Hebrew) precisely because their higher spiritual level enabled them to see things that others couldn't, including lost objects. (see 1 Samuel, 9:9)
Indeed this is how Saul and the Prophet Samuel meet. The first seer that Saul encounters while searching for his donkeys happens to be the Judge of Israel and the greatest prophet of his generation.
It's an odd story. A man goes to the greatest prophet alive and asks, "Where are my donkeys?" The prophet answers, "Don't worry, your donkeys have been found, and by the way, you're king of Israel."
Samuel takes out a flask of oil and pours some on Saul's head. The oil he uses is comprised of special mixture of afarsimon oil and spices (see Exodus 30:22-28) called "Shemen HaMeshicha" ― anointing oil. (The Hebrew word Meshiach-Messiah, comes from this word moshach-anointed.) This special oil was used by Moses to anoint and consecrate the Tabernacle and its vessels as well as Aaron and his sons as the Priests. From the reign of King Saul until the destruction of the First Temple, it was used by prophets to anoint the Kings of Israel. Just as the Kiddush on Friday night with wine designates the Sabbath as different and special, so too did a prophet's use of this anointing oil designate an object or individual as chosen by God for a special purpose.
Saul does not tell his family what Samuel told him and when Samuel gathers the nation to announce that Saul has been chosen has king, Saul goes to hide. When a few people mock Saul as unsuitable to be king he remains silent. When we could say that his actions are a sign of his humility and modesty, in reality this is where we first see the weakness of his character.
A Fatal Weakness
The Talmud is very clear that Saul is not only head and shoulders above everyone physically, he's head and shoulders above everyone morally and ethically. He's an exemplary human being, but he has one weakness ― his sense of humility interferes with his duty as king. If a prophet of tells you that you're king-you don't argue and you can't reject the offer. Saul has no desire for honor or power, but true leadership requires the leader to take the initiative and distinguish between honor due him and the honor due his position. 3
As great as Saul is, his innate modesty and humility inhibit his ability to properly lead the Jewish people. To lead the Jewish people requires a combination of iron will and diplomacy ― as we saw in the difficulties Moses faced leading the Israelites in the wilderness. If the leader is not strong enough the Jewish people will walk all over him, but if he's too aggressive or tries to bully the Jewish people they'll rebel. The problem of flawed leadership ― which begins with Saul ― is something that will plague the Jewish people throughout history as will become glaringly apparent.
When the Ammonites invade, Saul finally rises to the occasion and accepts kingship. He goes on to lead the Jewish people in series of victories against her enemies and thus establishes his authority as king and solidifies his leadership.
According to most sources, Saul's reign lasts from 884 to 882 BCE. He's king for only two years and he dies a tragic death. Indeed, his brief reign is largely tragic. While his great weakness, his misplaced modesty, causes him to make a fatal mistake at the beginning of his kingship. He disobeys the commandment of God to wipe out the nation of Amalek.
One of the key commandments that the Jewish people are given upon entering the Land of Israel is "to wipe out Amalek."
Amalek is the ultimate enemy of the Jewish people in history. This is the people that symbolize evil, and there is a commandment in the Bible to wipe them off the face of the earth, because their pathological hatred for Jews is so great, if they have a chance they will wipe the Jews off the face of the earth.
Amalek's major ambition is to rid the world of the Jews and their moral influence and return the planet to idolatry, paganism, and barbarism.
Since this is a cosmic war between good and evil which cannot be settled with treaties, God commands the Jews to destroy Amalek ― the entire nation, down to the last cow. 4
Saul has the opportunity to do so. He wages war against Amalek as commanded and wins, but when it comes to fulfilling the decree he falters-some of the Amalekites are left alive. At the behest of the people the cows are spared, and worse ― through Saul's misplaced mercy Agag, the king of the Amalekites, is spared also.
Ideology Of Amalek
To this day, history continues to struggle with the consequences of Saul's mistake.
The Amalekite nation survives and Agag lives long enough to father a child before he is killed by the Prophet Samuel.
Today, we have no way of identifying the descendants of Amalek ― his descendents a mixed in amongst the nations, but we do know that the Amalekite ideology lives on. There has been more than one occasion when people have arisen bent on exterminating the Jews. The Bible itself mentions that the battle with Amalek represents the ultimate struggle in history between good evil with total victory achieved only at the End of Days.
...I [God] shall surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens...God maintains a war against Amalek from generation to generation." (Exodus 17:14-16)
One such example was Haman, the Persian minister who tried to annihilate the Jews in the time of Queen Esther (355 BCE). And Hitler certainly espoused Amalekite ideology:
Yes, we are barbarians! We want to be barbarians. It is an honorable title to us ... Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I free man from ... the degrading self-mortification of a false vision called conscience and morality ... Conscience is a Jewish invention. (Hitler Speaks, pp. 87, 220-222.)
And looking at Hitler and the Holocaust we can understand that such intense hatred as the Bible ascribes to Amalek can exist in the world. The Nazis wanted to kill every Jew. A Jew could have been assimilated, intermarried with Christians for three generations but that didn't matter; the Nazis were bent on killing anyone with the slightest bit of Jewish heritage ― they were bent on wiping out any trace of the Jewish people and Jewish influence.
The End Of Saul
Meanwhile, the Prophet Samuel tells Saul:
"Though you may be small in your own eyes, you are the head of the tribes of Israel; and God anointed you to be king over Israel... Why did you not obey the voice of God?...
I shall not return to you for you have rejected the word of the Lord and the Lord has rejected you from being King over Israel."
And Samuel turned to go and he [Saul] seized the hem of his robe and it tore. And Samuel said to him, "The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it your fellow who is better than you.'" (1 Samuel 15:17-28)
With this critical mistake, Saul is finished. He doesn't get a second chance. God doesn't mess around when it comes to the King of Israel.
If this seems harsh, we must keep in mind the guiding principles of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.
1. According to your level of knowledge is your level of responsibility. The mistakes of people in positions of power have huge consequences.
2. According to your level of responsibility is your level of accountability. The greater you are, the bigger the impact of your decisions, therefore you must be held to an extremely high standard.
As we saw previously with Moses hitting the rock ― even the smallest mistakes of great Jewish leaders are severely punished.
Although Saul is finished, this doesn't mean he gets deposed on the spot, but it means that his line will not carry on the monarchy.
Indeed, following this declaration to Saul, Samuel goes looking for another king to anoint and he finds him in the most unlikely place.
1. For a more detailed description of the rights and responsibilities of a Jewish king and his relationship with the Judiciary (Sanhedrin) see: Miamonides, Yad, Sefer Shoftim: Laws of the Sanhedrin and Laws of King
2. Talmud, Megillah 14a
3. For more on Saul greatness and the reason for his downfall see Yoma 22b
4. So evil is this nation that even name should be erased from the history books to the point where even the livestock is destroyed so no one will see on of their animals and say "that was Amalek's cow." Despite the seeming extreme harshness of this commandment ― even an Amalekite is not doomed by birth. Judaism teaches that every human being has free will. While the innate tendency of the Amalekite nation was toward total war with the Jewish people, every human being, including Amalek has free will. Even an Amalekite can say "the ideology of my nation is evil and I choose to do otherwise." An Amalekite can not only opt out of his national ideology ― he could even convert to Judaism.