Avraham ben Yaakov
I SAMUEL CHAPTER 14
There are many mysterious twists and turns in this chapter's narrative about Israel 's war of rebellion against Philistine domination in the reign of Saul, which was largely initiated by his bold and courageous son Jonathan. Despite the presence of Achiyah the High Priest and the URIM VE-THUMIM with Saul, Jonathan did not wait for an answer through this channel (which in any case was not forthcoming) before setting of on what would have been a suicide mission were it not for his total trust in God.
Jonathan was going to expose himself and his sole attendant to the entire Philistine garrison and decide if he would remain stationary or advance based on their reaction on seeing him. Jonathan's making a sign for himself in this way was compared by the rabbis to Abraham's servant Eliezer's making a sign at the well as to which maiden would be suitable as Isaac's wife (24:13-14). The question of whether such signs are legitimate or proscribed as divination is discussed at great length by RaDaK (on v 9). If the Philistines advanced towards Jonathan, he would know that they were not afraid, but if they told him to come up to them he would know that "the fear of God was in their hearts and they were afraid to move from their place" (Rashi on v. 10).
Jonathan was not afraid to go into the very midst of the Philistines for hand-to-hand combat despite the odds being so heavily weighed against him, for "there is nothing to prevent HaShem from saving whether through a multitude or through a little" (v 6). Jonathan's foray and his rapid massacre of the enemy garrison led to the mass flight of the Philistine army in total disarray.
When Saul's watchers reported this, he sought divine guidance through the URIM VE-THUMIM as to whether to chase after them (v 18), but there was no time even to wait for an answer (having disobeyed Samuel at Gilgal, Saul was unable to elicit answers through holy spirit any more) and the war against the Philistines started in earnest. From v 21 we learn that Philistine domination had been so powerful that many Hebrews were actually present helping their forces, but when the Hebrews saw the success of the Israelite rebellion they went over to Saul. [Similarly in the war of Gog and Magog it is prophesied that even Jews will come with the hordes of Gog against Jerusalem but their hearts will go out to their Jewish brothers under the siege, Zechariah 12:2, see Targum and Rashi ad loc.]
"AND SAUL PUT THE PEOPLE UNDER OATH (v 24)
The key to understanding some of the mysterious twists of this chapter is to recognize that Saul wanted to bring the people to exceptional levels of spiritual discipline, even under the exigencies of a war against an enemy they perceived as being overwhelmingly powerful.
Thus Saul put the people under an oath not to eat until the evening - despite the fact that they were engaged in a life and death battle! Jonathan, who was absent when Saul declared the ban, tasted some "honey" (= cane sugar), and, when told of the oath his father had imposed, was not afraid to express his true opinion that Saul had gone too far (vv 29-30): "he has upset their minds and their salvation like turbid waters" (Rashi on v 29).
At the end of the day the ravenous people flew upon the booty and took sheep and cattle "and slaughtered them on the ground and the people ate upon the blood" (v 32). The rabbis offer various opinions about the nature of the "sin", with some saying they did not allow the blood to drain properly from the meat before eating it as required by the laws of Kashrus, and others saying that they offered SHELAMIM (peace) offerings but ate the meat before the blood was sprinkled on the Altar. Rashi's opinion is that they slaughtered mother animals and their young on the same day, which the Torah forbids.
Saul's emergency measure of setting up a BAMAH Altar and sacrificing even at night (which is not permitted in the Temple but was permissible on such a BAMAH) was intended to rein the people's animalistic lusts as part of his campaign for heightened self-discipline.
Failing (again) to get an answer from the URIM VE-THUMIM about taking the war into the Philistine areas (v 37) Saul realized there was a flaw that had to be exposed, and he resorted to casting lots in order to discover where it lay. The perfection of Saul's governmental ideals is expressed in his declaration that even if the fault lay with his very son he would kill him (v 39). Why Saul received no answer from the URIM VE-THUMIM despite the fact that Jonathan at worst violated the oath UNWITTINGLY since he had not heard it (as v 27 testifies) is explained by Rav Saadia Gaon (brought in RaDaK on v 45). He suggests that if Saul had received an answer despite the fact that his son was somehow at fault, this would have made people feel Jonathan was getting preferential treatment as son of the king whereas someone else would have been punished for violating the king's ban. The public would then not have become aware that Jonathan had not even been present when the ban was declared. Since Saul was not answered by the URIM VE-THUMIM, he was forced to cast lots to establish where the problem lay, and when Jonathan was "caught" the people were forced to investigate what really happened and thus they all found out that Jonathan had indeed not been present and was quite innocent.
"AND WHEREVER HE TURNED HE CAUSED TERROR" (v 47)
The closing section of Ch 14 summarizes the many-fronted wars waged by Saul in his brief two year reign, and introduces the names of his family members and Chief of Staff, several of whom play leading roles part in the narrative in the chapters to come.
Saul is a very paradoxical figure, but without doubt he was a man of outstanding GEVURAH. He fought on so many fronts, and "wherever he turned he caused terror" (v 47). An illuminating comment based on this verse is found in Talmud Eiruvin 53, where Ravina states that "David revealed his MASECHTA (the tractate of Torah that he learned), and his kingship endured, for 'those who fear You see me and rejoice' Ps 119:74, while Saul did not reveal his MASECHTA and his kingship did not endure, 'and wherever he turned he caused terror'." This seems to suggest that David (like his descendant, Hillel) reached out to the people and spoke on their level, while Saul, who was "head and shoulders above everyone else" (see ch 10 v 23), wanted to bring the people up to his own high levels of stringency (like Beis Shamai) - and this was why his kingship did not survive.
The account of Saul's war against Amalek and its tragic consequences is familiar as the Haftara of Shabbat Zachor immediately before Purim, when we remember Amalek's evil, murderous and entirely unprovoked attack on the Israelites as they came out from slavery in Egypt .
The mitzvah to extirpate of Amalek is one of the three that Israel were commanded to carry out on entry into the Land, together with the appointment of a king and the building of the Temple . Amalek's continuing war against Israel was a war against the very name of God Himself, which this KELIPAH (husk) seeks to hide from the consciousness of the world, and thus it must be removed in order for the glory of God to shine to perfection from His Temple in Jerusalem .
"AND NOW LISTEN TO THE VOICE." (v 1)
Saul had already deviated once from Samuel's instructions when the prophet told him not to sacrifice at Gilgal but to await his arrival (ch 10 v 8). Now Saul was given one last opportunity to redeem himself and his kingship - but he failed, and the decree against him was sealed. God finally rejected him completely and gave the kingship "to your companion who is better than you" (=David; ch 15 v 28). It was only many generations later that Saul's descendant Esther came to the throne in Shushan when Vashti was displaced and the king gave her royal position "to her companion who is better than her" (Esther 1:19), and Esther rectified Saul's fault by working with Mordechai to destroy Haman the Aggagite-Amalekite.
Samuel gave Saul exact instructions to destroy not only the Amalekite men, women and children but even their animals. (Rashi on v 3 states that the Amalekites were masters of witchcraft and changed themselves in such a way that they resembled animals - which is somewhat reminiscent of the kind of media wizardry of our day that causes humans to seem and behave like animals.) However, after Saul's victory over the Amalekites, "and Saul and the people had pity on Agag and on the choice of the flocks and cattle etc." (v 9). Rashi (on vv 5 and 24) explains that it wasn't just that they said what a pity it would be to kill all these fat cattle. "And he struggled in the VALLEY (NACHAL)" (v 5) Rashi explains to mean that Saul went through a deep inner debate about the justice of killing innocent men when the Torah itself commands us to atone for spilt blood and avoid further bloodshed through the mitzvah of the EGLAH ARUFAH, breaking the neck of a heifer, which is performed in a VALLEY (Deut. 21:4). It was not just the mass of the people who questioned the justice of the Prophet's command - it was no less than DO'EG HA-EDOMI, the outstanding Torah scholar of the time, who was so great that he was equivalent to the whole people (see Rashi on v 24). Do'eg is portrayed by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov as the archetype of the brilliant, constipated Torah scholar who is all intellect without heart (Likutey Moharan I, 61) - Do'eg was later responsible for Saul's persecution of David, and here we find that Do'eg's advice brought about the collapse of Saul's kingship.
When Samuel questioned why Saul spared the flocks, the latter was quick to provide extensive rationalizations - he talked too much - and Samuel put a stop to this, telling him that his rebellion against the words of God's prophet was quite as bad as the very sorcery that Saul tried to stamp out in Israel, and that his excessive talk was as bad as the divination he prohibited (v 23). "Does God receive pleasure from burnt offerings and sacrifices as from listening to the voice of God?" (v 22).
"The eternal of Israel (NETZACH YISRAEL) will not lie and will not repent" (v 29). As explained by ARI (see commentary on Samuel 9) this verse was said precisely because Saul's flaw was in the Sefirah of NETZACH, from which the prophets "suckle", and since NETZACH WILL NOT LIE OR REPENT, the decree against Saul was now sealed and unchangeable. As soon as he heard the decree, Saul acknowledged his sin - but it was too late. From this time on, despite his great GEVURAH Saul was almost like a ghost of a king, and we are left with feelings of deep mourning - like those of Samuel - about how a character so noble and exalted could fall. Saul had erred with an excess of kindness - but when kindness is bestowed upon those who are evil, such as Amalek, it turns into the worst cruelty.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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