Avraham ben Yaakov


"And it was in those days that the Philistines gathered their camps to go to war against Israel ." (I Samuel 28:1).

The Philistines were mobilizing for what they intended as a full-scale invasion of the very heartland of Israel . It is noteworthy that David's imminent ascent to the kingship of Israel came at a moment of direst peril for his own nation in their very homeland - the Philistines certainly intended to enslave them -- and that precisely at this time of supreme crisis God's anointed king was actually present with one of the enemy Philistine rulers, ostensibly "helping" him! This mysterious twist may indicate that in our times too the arrival of Mashiach will be signaled by a situation of dire threat to the connection of the people of Israel with their land, and that Mashiach himself may turn out to be somewhere that no-one would ever have expected him to be.

The Philistine assault was focused in the area between the Jezreel valley (between Haifa and the central mountain chain) and the valley of Beit She'an (south of Lake Tiberias west of the R. Jordan). Canaanite settlements still survived in these valleys, and the Philistines, entering from the Mediterranean coastal regions of the Land, evidently intended to foment a Canaanite revolt against the Israelites and then march southwards into the central mountain chain in order to overwhelm and subjugate the Israelite settlements of Mount Ephraim (present day Shomron) and the mountains of Judea, which were the heartland of the country.

While Saul's pursuit of David had been concentrated in the territories of Benjamin and Judah, he now marshaled his army, which comprised forces from all the Tribes of Israel as well as the king's standing army. This was a national war. Saul camped on the slopes of Mt Gilboa near the town of Jezreel , which was the key to the control of the Jezreel valley and the road to the valley of Beit Shean and Israelite settlements on the east bank of the Jordan .

Prior to this critical battle Saul fully understood the seriousness of the situation. After only two years as king he could see that the entire future of Israel as a free nation in their land was threatened. After having killed the High Priest and a whole city of Cohanim, Saul could not expect any answers about his fate through the Urim Ve-Thumim, or from prophets or experts in asking "dream questions" (a skill that is known to certain kabbalists until today).

There is deep pathos in the picture of Saul on the night before his death in battle turning to the very kind of forbidden sorcery that he had spent the two years of his reign trying to eradicate from Israel . (Although the narrative about Saul's reign concentrates primarily on his persecution of David, we can infer from various hints in our text that he succeeded in organizing Israel 's first standing army and also sought to continue Samuel's work of weaning the people from idolatry and occult practices. Although Saul was afflicted by an evil spirit in relation to David, this should not be taken to imply that he was not sane or fit to govern in other respects.)

The Torah states clearly that "any man or woman that has in them an OV. shall surely die." (Leviticus 20:27, see also Deut. 18:11). The BAAL OV - "master of the Ov" - is a sorcerer who uses special rituals and incantations accompanied by certain bodily movements to divine the future by eliciting a low, almost inaudible voice allegedly coming from some dead soul to whom questions may be addressed (see RaDaK on v 24 for a detailed analysis of the different opinions among the sages about the Baal Ov).

Members of the Sanhedrin were expected to be familiar with the various different forms of witchcraft, sorcery and divination and to understand exactly what is prohibited by the Torah. It is not that the Torah views such practices as inefficacious: the Torah recognizes that God has placed the power of witchcraft in the world, just has He has placed many other kinds of impurity in creation for His own inscrutable purposes. It is just that despite their possible efficacy, the Torah has forbidden Israel to resort to such methods.

Somewhat paradoxically, RaDaK (on v 7) states that the surviving female BAALAS OV that Saul's men found for him in EYN DOR (="the eye of the generation") was none other than the wife of Tzefaniah, mother of AVNER - who was Saul's own chief of staff, and who was according to rabbinic tradition one of the two men who accompanied Saul on this eerie mission. After all Saul's cleansing efforts, impurity remained so close to the throne!

She did what she did, "And the woman saw Samuel and she screamed with a great cry and the woman said to Saul why did you deceive me?" (v 12). How did she know that the man who had come to consult here was Saul? The rabbis explain that the woman knew her disguised questioner must be the king because normally dead souls would rise up from beneath the earth feet first, while Samuel arose head first in honor of the king (Tanchumah). "And the woman said, "I saw ELOHIM ascending from the earth". While ELOKIM is one of the names of God, ELOHIM can also mean mighty angels or human judges (cf. Genesis 6:4 and Exodus 22:8). Here, since the verb OLIM is plural, it cannot refer to God . The rabbis stated that it refers to Samuel and a companion - no less than Moses - whom Samuel brought with him because when he was suddenly disturbed from his eternal rest he thought he was being raised for the final judgment and wanted Moses to testify that there was not a commandment in the Torah that he had not fulfilled (Chagigah 4b).

The news was very grim for Saul, yet Samuel still told him that "tomorrow you and your sons will be WITH ME" (v 19) - i.e. within Samuel's own MECHITZAH (boundary of holiness) in Heaven (Rashi ad loc.), which at least meant that although Saul and his sons were being taken from OLAM HA-ZEH ("this world") they would have a glorious OLAM HA-BA ("world to come") in virtue of their great saintliness. Saul had sinned but he was still an outstanding tzaddik whose tragic end should make us weep.

Despite having been told that he was to die the next day, Saul - to his credit - did not flinch from the call of duty. "When Avner and Amasa, his two companions, asked him what Samuel had said to him, Saul replied that he had told him he would be victorious and that his three sons would ascend to greatness. Said Reish Lakish: At that moment the Holy One blessed be He called to the ministering angels and said, See what a creature I have in my world. Normally a man won't even take all his sons to a party for fear of the evil eye, but this one knows he is going to be killed in battle yet he still takes his sons out to war and rejoices in the Attribute of Justice!" (Midrash Rabbah Vaykra 26).


Meanwhile David was ready to go out with king Achish and the Philistines to war. We are not told how David intended to act as a "fifth column" in the war in order to subvert the Philistine plans. However, in the event he did not have to do so because Achish's Philistine co-patriots were much more suspicious than he was of David and told him to send David away. Thus the latter was saved from having to take part in a battle against his Israelite brothers and he returned to the land of the Philistines while the Philistines went up to Jezreel to fight Saul.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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