The Jews are defeated in their conflict with the Pelishtim. The three sons of Shaul are slain on the battlefield and Shaul is critically wounded by enemy archers. He asks his armor-bearer to put him out of his misery by killing him quickly, but the armor-bearer refuses to oblige. Therefore, Shaul falls upon his own sword to end his life, and his reluctant assistant does the same. When the Jews living in the Transjordan observed that Israel had lost the war, they abandoned their cities out of fear of the Pelishtim, who promptly captured those locations for themselves and settled in them.
When the Pelishtim return to scavenge the bodies of the fallen, they discover the corpse of Shaul, decapitate it, and remove his armor. They send the lifeless body of Shaul around to their various cities and houses of idol worship to celebrate their victory, eventually placing the armor of Shaul in one of their idolatrous shrines and hanging his corpse up for display on a wall in Bet Shan.
When the citizens of Yavesh Gilead heard that Shaul’s body had been found by the Pelishtim and was being desecrated, they carried out a recovery mission to retrieve it and laid his bones and the bones of his sons to rest in a proper burial ground. As a sign of mourning they fasted for seven days after this.
There are a couple of points to highlight in this brief concluding chapter. First, we see that the tragic loss of the Jews in this battle essentially places them in the same position – or a worse one – than they found themselves in when Shaul first became king. Even more territory has been ceded to the Pelishtim and whatever traces remained of the religious renaissance orchestrated by Shemuel seem to have been erased. The king and his subjects have, for all intents and purposes, reverted to the superstitious and unreflective mentality that dominated them in the era of Eli and his sons, with only David and his followers holding fast to the true principles of Torah (as far as we can tell).
Shemuel’s prediction that the benefit of the king to the nation would be dependent on his faithfulness to Hashem has been demonstrated clearly. The distance between Shaul and the Almighty, which is manifest most clearly and obviously in his consultation with the medium at Ein Dor, explains the disastrous end of his political and military career.
At the same time, however, the chapter informs us that Shaul’s legacy was by no means a homogeneous one. The citizens of Yavesh Gilead were the first beneficiaries of Shaul’s leadership when he rallied the Jewish people to war for the purpose of liberating them from Nahash the Amonite. This battle, which provided the evidence of Shaul’s talent that secured his claim to the kingdom, had never been forgotten by the inhabitants of Yavesh Gilead who repay his kindness and concern for them by ensuring that he receives the dignity of a proper burial and mourning period.
The Sages comment that the Jewish people at the time Shaul died were at fault for their failure to eulogize Shaul properly. Memories of his later years, tarnished by his paranoia, emotional turmoil, poor management, ineffective leadership, and military losses overshadowed any recollection of the heroic and admirable deeds that marked the beginning of his career. The unfortunate but perhaps inevitable tendency to allow more recent events to dominate our view of a person affected Shaul’s standing in the eyes of the people.
Aside from the citizens of Yavesh Gilead, the nation of Israel neglected to memorialize their first monarch in a balanced and nuanced way that would have honored the significant positive contributions he made to the country during his tenure, notwithstanding his flaws and errors. Human beings are not easily labeled as “good” or “bad” unless we limit ourselves to very superficial and simplistic black-and-white thinking. The Torah expects us to be able to respect and cherish the positive qualities of another person even when we are compelled to acknowledge the less than stellar aspects of his or her behavior and character.
As was mentioned in the beginning of our study of Shemuel Alef, this is not really the conclusion of a book…We have merely completed the first half of the Book of Shemuel, which was subdivided for convenience’s sake due to its large size. Nevertheless, the division is not an illogical one; we certainly are witness to a significant turning point here, as we read of the tragic end of Shaul’s Kingdom and we are prepared to study the story of the rise of David to his rightful place as King of Israel.
David and his men return to Tziqlag to discover that it has been burned to the ground by Amaleqites and that all of the people and possessions that were in their camp were gone. Assuming that their families had been massacred, the troops are devastated, and cry to the point of exhaustion. They are angry with David, blaming him for leading them to the battlefield and convincing them to leave their wives and children exposed to attack. David himself is deeply troubled; his own wives have disappeared and are presumed dead, and his men are threatening his life. Nonetheless, David remains steadfast in his trust in Hashem. He summons Evyatar the Kohen and requests the Ephod so that he can inquire of Hashem. Hashem tells David that he should pursue those responsible for the attack and that he will vanquish them.
David departs with six hundred men and they reach the brook of Besor. Two hundred men are too tired to continue and remain at the stream; David crosses it with the remaining four hundred troops. The group encounters an Egyptian lad who appears to be near death – he had not eaten or drunk anything for three days. David and his entourage provide the sickly Egyptian with bread, water and fruit to restore his energy. David then asks the youth for his background; he explains that he is an Egyptian who was a slave to an Amaleqi. They had attacked and plundered numerous cities and burned Tziklag to the ground. However, this lad had been sick for the past three days, so his master abandoned him and left him for dead.
The Egyptian agrees to lead David and his men to the Amaleqite camp if they swear not to kill him or allow him to fall back into the hands of his cruel master. When they arrive, they see the Amaleqites eating, drinking and celebrating as they feast on all the bounty they have stolen from the towns and villages they have assailed. David’s company launches an immediate surprise attack and, fighting valiantly for twenty-four consecutive hours, defeats the Amaleqites soundly; only four hundred survivors manage to escape on camels. David and his entourage are pleased to find that none of their family members have been harmed nor has their property or livestock been consumed or damaged. They lead all of the people and animals back with them, declaring all that they have recovered “the spoils of David”.
When they reunite with the troops who remained behind at the brook of Besor, the men who fought on the front lines do not want to return any of the material goods to those who did not risk their lives in battle. David refuses to accept this argument, insisting that those who guard the camp deserve a share in the spoils of war that is equal to that of the fighters. This becomes the official policy of Israel for all time. When David and his men finally return to Tziqlag, he sends portions of the spoils of the “enemies of Hashem” to the elders of Yehuda in several key Jewish cities.
There is much to comment upon in this chapter. Some have suggested that suffering this attack was a subtle form of “punishment” for David for having betrayed his people and allied himself with Akhish, even if only on the surface. They bolster their interpretation by drawing attention to the fact that it is only because David returns home early from the battlefield that he arrives in time to stage a successful counterattack against the Amaleqites. Had David tarried with Akhish, he would have missed the opportunity to respond to the assault and may not have been back in time to salvage all of the people and property that were taken.
However, I would argue that the very fact that David sustained little or no harm as a result of this incident may also be taken to indicate that it was not really a punishment. In fact, it can even be seen as a fortuitous circumstance utilized by Divine Providence to propel David to further levels of greatness. There is no doubt that David’s waging a war against Amaleq is meant to highlight his kingly status; it is the King of Israel who is commanded to battle Amaleq, and it was precisely Shaul’s failure in this effort that cost him the kingdom.
We can also see that David’s magnanimous act of “sharing” the spoils of war with his fellow Jews is a symbolic gesture designed to emphasize that he continues to serve the God of Israel and to attack His enemies; in other words, it is a deed, like the battle against Amaleq, through which David asserts his claim to leadership of the Jewish people. It is as if David is conveying a message to his nation (and specifically to his tribe, Yehuda) – you may not have seen me for a while, but I am still on the job, albeit from a distance, and I am poised to make a comeback when the time is right.
The encounter with the Egyptian is noteworthy for several reasons. It reminds us of the Torah’s command – fulfilled here by David – that one should not despise the Egyptian. Moreover, the abject cruelty and heartlessness of the Amaleqites (manifest in the abandonment of the slave who becomes an informer) is what ultimately seals their fate, and the compassion and righteousness of the Jews who care for him (sincerely, without any knowledge of his link to the Amaleqite marauders) is what ultimately leads them to the recovery of their families and property. This is poetic justice at its Biblical best.
Lastly, we again see a stark contrast being drawn between David and Shaul. The text’s constant shifting back and forth between the stories of these two figures encourages us to compare them and accentuates the contrast even further. In Chapter 28, King Shaul finds himself in the throes of distress and despair and seeks information from Hashem. When he receives no response, he places his religious commitments aside and succumbs to the temptation to consult with practitioners of the occult who he hopes can provide him with the reassurance he needs.
David, on the other hand, even when his men are angry with him and the situation seems hopeless, remains steadfast in his relationship with God even before he receives any communication via the Urim VeTummim. His connection with the Almighty is independent of his getting what he wants from the relationship; it is unshakeable regardless of circumstances. As the verse describes it, “David strengthened himself in Hashem, his God.”
This kind of unassailable trust in Hashem is one of the many outstanding qualities that recommend David for the throne of Israel. On the most basic level, the difference is clear – Shaul is spurned by the Almighty and loses in battle; David is embraced by Hashem and emerges from conflict victorious and unscathed.
David and his men find themselves in a bit of a conundrum. King Akhish is readying himself to go out to battle against the Jewish people, and he naturally expects that David and his entourage will accompany him. This is the first time David is put in a position where his loyalties to Akhish and to Israel are in direct and open conflict with one another. Although David has convinced Akhish that he has defected from his homeland and joined the cause of the Pelishtim, we know that this conversion was not entirely sincere. In a war between the Philistines and the Jews, David would have no choice but to either side with his brethren and reveal that he has systematically misled his Pelishti hosts or sacrifice any hope of ever returning to Israel by fighting alongside the Philistines.
When the other Pelishti leaders and officers see that David and his men have arrived at the garrison, they complain to King Akhish. Although Akhish protests that David has been nothing but a faithful servant ever since he relocated to Philistine territory, the other Pelishtim harbor serious suspicions about him and refuse to accept his presence in their midst. They fear that he is still secretly allied with his Jewish brethren.
Akhish approaches David and explains that he trusts David completely but his associates have their doubts and will not consent to welcome David into their camp. David questions Akhish’s willingness to go along with the other Philistines, pointing to his record of trustworthy and devoted service, and taking offense at being rejected. Akhish reiterates that he sees no fault in David whatsoever but that he cannot persuade his colleagues to accept his view. He instructs David to leave the next morning and head home to Tziqlag.
One interesting observation we can make about this brief chapter is the fact that, when he wishes to emphasize how much he trusts David, Akhish takes an oath in the name of Hashem, using the Tetragrammaton or four-letter Divine appellation that is uniquely Jewish. We would normally have expected him to refer to “God” or to use some other generic term. The implication is that David likely taught Akhish some of his ideas about Hashem and religion.
Politically, David had joined the Philistines, but religiously he remained a Jew. It should come as no surprise that a man who wrote in Tehillim/Psalms that “I will speak of Your testimonies before kings and I will not be embarrassed” spoke freely, openly and passionately about Torah and the true concept of the Creator of the Universe, and that Akhish benefited from some very enlightening conversations with him. Truthfully, part of our mandate as Jews is to share the wisdom of Torah with all of humanity to the extent possible.
We see this in Parashat Lekh Lekha in the way Avraham interacted with and attempted to educate “Malkitzedeq, King of Shalem” after the war against the four kings. There, Malkitzedeq praises “El Elyon”, the highest deity in the hierarchy of mythological gods, but stops short of recognizing Hashem Who is absolutely unique and transcends all other forces. Avraham responds by taking an oath in the name of “Hashem, El Elyon”, emphasizing that Hashem is not just “first among equals”, but is qualitatively different from everything else.Similarly, we learn in Parashat Miqetz about the way Yosef guided Pharoah toward a more sophisticated understanding of the Creator and how He communicates to human beings through dreams and prophecy.
We can assume that David followed the same path in his interactions with King Akhish, sharing much of his Torah knowledge with him. Therefore, it stands to reason that Akhish is not merely flattering David by using the name of David’s tribal deity; Akhish is invoking a name that he understands and recognizes as meaningful in its own right.
Another practical lesson we can derive from this story is the way that David accepts the “bad news” from Akhish. It must have been an enormous relief for him to learn that he would not be expected to “take sides” in some kind of ultimate showdown between the Pelishtim and Israel. Nonetheless, rather than immediately acquiesce to Akhish’s suggestion that he return to Tziklag, David protests at first, demonstrating his sincerity and eagerness to join his new master on the battlefield.
A person shows his true colors in his response to being let off the hook; David realized this and made an even deeper and more abiding impression on Akhish by expressing some resistance to being excluded from the military operation. Simply stated, when the boss tells you that you are relieved of some responsibility, don’t show too much exuberance in response to the news. He may interpret it as a sign that you are not too thrilled to be working for him and therefore you are especially happy to have been given a break.
This chapter is probably one of the most infamous and unusual in the entire Hebrew Bible. The Pelishtim are poised to attack Israel and the odds seem to be strongly in their favor. Shaul is panicked and seeks out Hashem’s word to advise and guide him in his conduct of the battle. He receives no response; Shemuel, his trusted prophet, has died, and none of the other means of divine communication are providing any response. Although Shaul himself had fulfilled the Torah’s command to eliminate necromancers, witches and other practitioners of the occult from the land of Israel, he now felt that he had no other recourse but to consult with one.
Apparently, despite the official position of his government against these practices, there was a thriving black market of diviners and necromancers and Shaul’s men recommend a particular woman in Ein Dor who can provide the necessary services. Shaul disguises himself and visits the woman at night, requesting that she raise someone from the dead on his behalf. She resists, citing the campaign of Shaul against such activity and accusing her anonymous customer of trying to entrap her. He swears that no harm will come to her and she agrees to summon Shemuel from the netherworld. When she perceives the apparition, she describes him to Shaul and Shaul confirms that she is seeing Shemuel; the woman then realizes that she has been duped and that her client is none other than the king himself.
Shemuel speaks to Shaul, first admonishing the king for disturbing his rest and then explaining that Hashem’s providence has withdrawn from Shaul ever since he failed to observe the commandment of destroying Amaleq. The Pelishtim will defeat Israel and battle and by tomorrow Shaul and his sons will be with Shemuel.
When the spirit of Shemuel departs, Shaul is visibly shaken and lying on the ground; in addition to the emotional upset he is experiencing, he also hasn’t eaten all day. The necromancer pressures him to eat; at first he resists, but after some additional cajoling from the woman and the men who had accompanied him, he relents and the woman prepares and serves him an impressive meal. Shaul and his men leave that night and return to their camp.
On the surface, this story seems to lend credence to the idea that occult practices are actually efficacious; in other words, it appears as if the effort to raise Shemuel from the dead really worked. Some Rabbis subscribe to this view and take the story as a literal account of black magic. How can we reconcile this with the more mainstream position of the Geonim and Maimonides that such activities are foolish and nonsensical and most definitely do not work?
Before we address this issue, let us examine the narrative more carefully and attempt to understand the lesson being taught. As I have mentioned before, the preferred approach in studying Tanakh is to focus on the principles and ideas and to consider the historical details and questions to be secondary to the prophetic message. What is the prophetic author trying to convey through this story?
King Shaul left behind the idea of seeking and living by the word of Hashem a long time ago. Ever since Shemuel informed him that he had been rejected as the leader of the Jewish people, he never made another attempt to communicate with Hashem. Not only does he neglect the pursuit of closeness to the Almighty (in contrast to David, who is continually basing his conduct on the direction of God), Shaul goes so far as to massacre the Kohanim who represent Torah and Divine Service. Even when he invokes the name of the Almighty in an oath, Shaul rarely, if ever, honors his word.
Shaul has withdrawn from Hashem’s truth and sunk more and more deeply into his own paranoia and depression, allowing his emotions of jealousy and aggression to hijack his intellect. When he faces a desperate situation of conflict with the Pelishtim that looks like it will end disastrously, he is finally moved to seek help. When his petitions for help from God were denied, he should have looked into himself and sought the cause of the trouble; he should have engaged in sincere repentance. Instead, in a manner reminiscent of the Jews at the beginning of the Book of Shemuel who believe that the Holy Ark will magically save them in spite of their corruption and distance from Hashem, Shaul believes that the answer to his problem will arrive magically through occult means.
Not only does Shaul fail to engage in any semblance of self-reflection or teshuva, he ceases his efforts to connect with the Creator and reaches out to a human being, Shemuel; this is similar to the response of the Jews in the wilderness who, when faced with the uncertainties and insecurities that developed in Moshe’s absence, decided to fill the void of his charismatic presence not with a deeper connection to Hashem but with idolatry, leading them to build the Golden Calf. Shaul can no longer resist the fears and anxieties that are gripping him, but rather than reject the primitive tendency to seek an illusory, magical solution, rather than attempt to develop a deeper and more genuine relationship with Hashem, he grasps at nonsense in an attempt to provide himself with some certainty about the future.
When we look at the story from this perspective, we see the final stage of the tragic descent of Shaul from a wise and trusting servant of Hashem to a person so emotionally distraught and needy that he was willing to chase after the empty reassurances offered by occult practices that he knew, at least intellectually, were meaningless and silly. Shaul has lost his way; he has taken leave of whatever remained of his grip on reality and allowed illusion and fantasy to completely dominate him.
When we read between the lines we can see that his interaction with the necromancer in Ein Dor is a farce. The appointment with her had to have been arranged in advance and we have every reason to believe she knew who her customer was from the beginning. When she protested that Shaul had forbidden these practices and that she was risking her life by providing her services, she was purposely feigning ignorance of his identity as a part of her ruse. Otherwise, it is impossible to explain why she would first mention the illegality and riskiness of her business, yet be so willingly to disregard all of that concern moments later, merely on the basis of an oath from an anonymous client who promised to protect her from the consequences of her actions.
Why should the medium trust this person whom she doesn’t even recognize? How can he guarantee her safety? We can only assume that she knew who Shaul was from the outset; her false protests were meant to flatter and honor the king who she realized was hearing them and to confirm that he was granting her an exemption from any penalties associated with her criminal activities.
Support for this interpretation of the text can be drawn from the fact that we are never told how exactly the necromancer “became aware” of Shaul’s true identity when Shemuel rose from the dead. After all, she herself acknowledges that she cannot hear the verbal message that was perceived by Shaul and might have contained that information. The simplest understanding of the situation is that her sudden “realization” that her client is Shaul was faked; her surprise is itself a part of her act.
Nowadays, when a psychic or clairvoyant secretly acquires background information on his or her client and pretends to “discover” things in the course of his/her work, it is referred to as a “hot reading” (this is as opposed to a “cold reading”, where the psychic tries to pick up clues and hints about the customer through the use of carefully worded and vague questions). A “hot reading” is precisely what is being described in the story of Shaul and the medium in Ein Dor.
Let us examine the details of the account a bit further. Only the woman allegedly “sees” the apparition of Shemuel rising up from the ground and only Shaul hears its voice; the medium’s vague claim that she is observing an impressive-looking old man in a cloak is enough for Shaul to buy into the “séance” experience he is being sold and to begin hearing the voice of Shemuel speak to him.
Of course, we can see that “Shemuel” doesn’t tell Shaul anything more than what he already knows or believes to be the case – namely, that he has been rejected by Hashem and will be defeated by the Pelishtim. It is a confirmation of the paranoia, pessimism, fear and fatalism that has already gripped the psyche of Shaul – nothing more, nothing less. Shaul has simply projected and externalized his own thoughts, feelings and inner turmoil, “hearing” them as if they are being spoken by another.
When we read that Shaul was physically exhausted and famished and can barely lift himself off the ground it confirms our suspicion that he is merely hallucinating, facilitated by the antics of the necromancer who knows her trade all too well. Reports of modern-day “mediums” and preachers who allegedly facilitate communication with dead relatives or other trance-like spiritual experiences demonstrate that these fraudulent rituals have not changed much in the past 4,000 years.
Shaul was duped by the “hot reading” of the medium at Ein Dor, and he was only fooled because he allowed himself to be fooled and he wanted to be – he had fallen into the trap of seeking reassurance, validation and security not only from the opinions of others (as was often the case throughout his career) but from the realms of fantasy, imagination and illusion that the wise commandments of the Torah have taught us to reject.
David continues to feel insecure and to fear the persecutions of Shaul and decides to leave Jewish territory and begin living with Akhish, Philistine King of Gath. When Shaul hears that David and his entourage have relocated with their families to Gath, he permanently discontinues the manhunt for his alleged adversary. David recognizes that settling with such a substantial number of people in Gath is a burden for Akhish, and he would also prefer to retain some measure of autonomy and independence, so he requests and his granted his own city, Tziqlag, which will remain a possession of the dynasty of David forever.
Although Akhish is absolutely convinced that David has renounced his citizenship in Israel and has defected to the side of the Pelishtim, this is not entirely true. David and his men support themselves by raiding the cities and camps of the enemies of Israel – the Geshurites, the Gizrites and the Amaleqites – and leaving no surviving witnesses who might reveal the true nature of their activities. When speaking with Akhish, David claims that he has been plundering Jewish communities and the camps of the allies of Israel, which finds favor in the eyes of his host and reinforces his impression that David has joined the Pelishtim wholeheartedly and permanently.
Clearly, David’s conduct in this chapter raises numerous moral questions. In addition to raiding and plundering random communities, David misrepresents himself to Akhish and “earns” his trust through dishonesty. We can sympathize with David’s difficult situation, his need to support himself and his troops, and his conflict of loyalties. We can even view his assailing and weakening the enemies of Israel as a positive contribution to the security and welfare of his brethren and therefore as ethically justified or even noble. Nevertheless, his choices appear to us less than ideal even under these challenging circumstances; they just don’t seem “Davidic!” Some elements of this moral ambiguity and of the problematic character of David’s behavior here will come to the fore and be addressed later on in the development of this story.
The inhabitants of Zif again approach King Shaul and inform him of David’s whereabouts; this time, David and his men are hiding out in Hakhila. Shaul mobilizes three thousand troops to capture David and they position themselves in the area. David intends to approach the camp of Shaul personally and requests a volunteer to accompany him; Avishai, son of Tzeruya, offers to do so.
Shaul and his men are sleeping in a circle; the troops surround the king who is located in the center. In a typical sign of Shaul’s paranoia, his spear is stuck in the ground by his head. Seeing that Shaul is defenseless and vulnerable with his guards slumbering around him, Avishai suggests that he assassinate Shaul on David’s behalf. David responds that Hashem will see to it that Shaul perishes, either in battle or of natural causes, but that one who lays his hand upon the anointed of God will never be forgiven; simply stated, killing Shaul is not an option.
David sneaks into the center of the camp, quickly grabs the spear and container of water that were next to Shaul, and retreats back to the hill above and far away from the camp. The text tells us that Hashem had caused a deep sleep to fall upon the men of Shaul so they would not be awakened in the meantime. David calls out to Avner Ben-Ner, the general of Shaul, and admonishes him for failing in his sacred duty to protect the king. Shaul’s life had been in danger and he could easily have been killed; David proves this by showing that he has been able to enter their garrison undetected and to leave with the spear and water jug. The troops of Shaul should pay with their lives for this neglect of their responsibility.
Shaul recognizes David’s voice and addresses him once again as “my son, David.” David questions Shaul’s motive for chasing him when he has committed no crime. He declares that if the rift between them has a divine source, Hashem should accept an offering in lieu of the ongoing dispute, and if human beings have stirred up the resentment, they should be cursed by Hashem for alienating David from the people of Israel and excluding him from Jewish life. David concludes his speech by asking that his blood not be shed; the king has come in pursuit of a mere flea who is not worth the trouble.
Shaul confesses that he has erred in condemning David and invites him to rejoin the royal court. David, already accustomed to the fickleness and unpredictability of Shaul, prudently declines this offer, but asks that a lad be sent across to him from Shaul’s camp to retrieve the king’s spear and water jug. David prays that just as he has seen fit to treat Shaul’s life with respect so should Hashem protect his life from all of his adversaries. Shaul responds that David is blessed to Hashem and will surely succeed in his endeavors; the two part ways, never to meet one another again.
Some students of Tanakh are troubled by the apparent redundancy of this chapter; in many of its features it seems like a repeat of Chapter 24. In both cases, David confronts Shaul with evidence that he has no intention of harming the king and in both cases there is some sort of dialogue and reconciliation between the parties. A few modern scholars have even argued that Chapter 26 is simply another version of the narrative in Chapter 24; in other words, they are variant accounts of the same event that, for some reason, were both included in the Book of Shemuel.
I believe that this reading of the story is flawed and actually misses a fundamental difference between the two accounts. Whereas in Chapter 24 David’s interaction with Shaul occurs by chance – Shaul just happens to select the cave in which David is hiding to use it as a restroom – in our chapter, David initiates contact with Shaul on purpose. In Chapter 24, when David’s men urge him to assassinate Shaul, he seems conflicted about the prospect and struggles to resist the temptation to lash out at his former employer; indeed, he even cuts Shaul’s robe, which was indicative of the anger and resentment he could barely contain.
By contrast, in our chapter, Avishai, who offers to kill Shaul, is quickly silenced by David; his proposal evokes no response from David other than swift rejection.During this encounter, David does not even entertain the possibility of striking Shaul, nor does he take any action that would manifest aggression toward or disdain for the king; he merely absconds with Shaul’s spear and water jug to demonstrate his innocence and blamelessness.
If anything, then, the similarities between this chapter and chapter 26 serve to highlight the contrasts between them. What is the reason why David handled this situation so much differently than he handled his first interaction with Shaul? When we examine the order of the chapters before us, we notice that the episode with Naval and Avigayil interrupts between the two narratives that present David’s encounters with the king. It seems reasonable to suggest that David underwent a substantial transformation after the story of Naval. Perhaps the words of Avigayil and her involvement in his life as his wife have had a significant positive influence on his thought and behavior. He has internalized the wise and judicious principles that Avigayil taught him and with which she persuaded him to abandon his mission of vengeance against her former household.
Now that David, supported by his exemplary spouse, has a clear sense of the damage that would be done to him and to the Jewish people were he to inflict any harm upon Shaul, he desists from it as a matter of course, choosing instead the path of diplomacy and peace. The Rabbis teach us that we can only credit a person with genuine repentance when he has faced the same situation in which he previously sinned and yet he resists temptation and responds properly the second time around. Here, David is given the opportunity to rectify the errors he made in his dealing with Shaul in Chapter 24 and he rises to the occasion beautifully, demonstrating to us that he has truly learned his lesson.
The audio recording was accidentally deleted and will B”H be redone soon…My apologies!
Shemuel Alef Chapter 25
Naval is a very wealthy but nasty fellow who is married to a lovely and wise woman named Avigayil. David and his men had provided protection and support to Naval’s shepherds while they led their flock to graze in Karmel, and Ancient Near Eastern common law held that this gave them the rights to a portion of the proceeds gained from those sheep. Spring arrives and Naval prepares to celebrate the annual “shearing of the sheep”, a festival that has traditionally been quite popular in rural societies across the globe.
David dispatches messengers to Naval who wish him well and request that, as payment for the services they rendered to him in the wilderness, Naval send food and provisions back with them to David’s camp. Naval flatly refuses and denigrates David as a disobedient slave (of Shaul) who is rebelling against his master.
When David hears the report of Naval’s response, he is incensed and prepares to take vengeance on the house of Naval. He arms and mobilizes his troops and they begin marching in the direction of Naval’s residence. In the meantime, one of the shepherds of Naval approaches Avigayil and recounts the exchange he witnessed between Naval and the emissaries of David.
The shepherd emphasizes that the claim of the messengers is valid; they did, indeed, provide exemplary security for the flocks of Naval in the wilderness and are deserving of ample reward. Without telling Naval, Avigayil instructs her servants to arrange an elaborate care package of foodstuffs that she will personally transport to David.
When David meets Avigayil, she prostrates before him and attempts to persuade him not to attack her household. She argues that many innocents will be killed; she herself did not even know about the request presented by David’s men and wouldn’t have deserved to die because it was rejected. Furthermore, she says that her husband is a disgusting and pathetic man who is not worth David’s trouble. Finally, she says that it is better that David not sully himself and his reputation with bloodshed like this; he should instead trust in the judgment of the Almighty who will visit punishment upon the wicked. Avigayil then gives David the provisions she brought for him.
David is convinced by the reasoning of Avigayil and decides to cancel the operation against Naval. He is deeply thankful to Avigayil for her intervention and promises to remember her in the future when he ascends to the throne. Avigayil returns home to find her drunk husband partying wildly. She says nothing to him that night; however, the next morning, she informs him of all that transpired and how she saved their household from an onslaught at the hands of David.
Naval enters a state of shock for ten days and then expires. David recognizes this as Hashem’s providential involvement on his behalf, preventing him from having to deal with Naval directly. He sends for Avigayil, proposing that she now become his wife; at first, she humbly declines, but eventually they marry. David has another wife by the name of Ahinoam. Mikhal, his first spouse, had been taken from him and “reassigned” by Shaul to another husband, Palti ben Layish.
It is interesting to note how roles are reversed in this chapter. David, until now “the pursued”, is now the pursuer. Avigayil, on the other hand, attempts to placate David with reasoning that essentially mirrors the objections made by David to Shaul in the previous chapter – innocent lives should be spared, Hashem is the ultimate judge, and it is not appropriate for a noble individual to lower himself by punishing someone who is insignificant. Here, as in the previous chapter, the pursuer abandons the chase (in the case of Shaul, only temporarily) after listening to persuasive arguments against it.
The irony of this sudden shift in David cannot be lost on the reader; David, too, has the potential to respond in the same way as his much-vilified opponent Shaul when he is crossed. Even the greatest leader can lose perspective sometimes, and even David benefits from having another “Davidic” personality around to keep him focused.
This helps us to understand why the text describes Avigayil as a wise woman and why David seeks to marry her after the death of Naval – she is, as it were, the female version of David himself, with the qualities of intelligence, prudence and humility that have defined him from the outset. She is uniquely matched to David as a spouse and will be capable of providing him with the support he needs to remain principled when the temptation to do otherwise is overwhelming.
Another literary motif in this chapter and some others is the evocation of scenes and phrases that remind us of Esav, brother of Yaaqov, in connection with David. On the most basic level, David is described as “ruddy” or of reddish complexion, the color being reminiscent of Esav’s designation as “Admoni”. Both David and Esav are accompanied by entourages of four hundred men. Yaaqov went out to meet Esav with elaborate gifts, prostrated himself and spoke in humble and endearing terms to Esav to assuage his wrath; Avigayil did the same to forestall a massacre at the hands of David. The language of this chapter even contains “paraphrases” or quotations from the story of the meeting between Yaaqov and Esav, such as Avigayil’s instructions to her messengers “I will be behind you” among other examples that a careful reader of both stories can identify. The question for us is – what is the conceptual link between Esav and David?
I would like to suggest that the answer lies in the Book of Beresheet (Genesis) There we are told that Esav’s descendants established a monarchy in Edom several generations before any king reigned in Israel. Esav, then, is the Biblical prototype of the personality who founds and leads successful kingdoms. By portraying David in terms that remind us of Esav, the text draws our attention to the fact that David possesses the same qualities of strength, courage, assertiveness and ambition that enabled Esav to establish his dynasty. These characteristics can serve as powerful instruments for good; however, when not harnessed for the proper ends, they can be destructive. In this narrative in particular, David’s Esav-like passion and ambition may have caused him tremendous harm had Avigayil not intervened to save him from himself.
David and his men are hiding out in the mountains of Ein Gedi. Shaul is informed of this and arrives at Ein Gedi in another attempt to apprehend David. Shaul enters a random cave alone in order to relieve himself; it turns out that David and his troops are hiding inside that very cave! They urge David to take advantage of this opportunity to kill the enemy that is relentlessly seeking his life. David sneaks up close to Shaul undetected and cuts off the corner of his cloak (an action that the text tells us he immediately regrets).
David then upbraids his men harshly, castigating them for even suggesting that he harm the “anointed one of Hashem”. When Shaul exits the cave, David follows him and calls out to him, addressing him as “my master, the king” and “my father”, and bowing to the ground before him.
David gives an impassioned speech to Shaul, chiding him for listening to those who claim that David is his enemy and showing him that he had the chance to kill Shaul in the cave but refused to lay a hand on Hashem’s anointed. David emphasizes that ultimately Hashem will judge between them and avenge the suffering he has endured at Shaul’s hand, but that he himself will never attack Shaul. He also takes Shaul to task for chasing after such an insignificant target when he surely has more important concerns to attend to.
Shaul is moved by David’s words, and answers “is that your voice, my son, David?” He acknowledges David’s righteousness and praises his kindness and consideration even for a man who has been seeking his life. Shaul blesses David, promising that Hashem will reward him for his noble conduct. He admits that David will one day be king and asks for David’s assurance that the house of Shaul will not be exterminated when he takes power. David takes an oath to this effect and he and his men recede back into the strongholds of Ein Gedi.
One question that may be asked on this story is why David feels so bad about cutting the corner of Shaul’s cloak. In view of the fact that he had the opportunity to kill Shaul and abstained from doing so, one would think that he could be excused for slicing off a piece of fabric. I believe we can understand why David was unhappy with his own conduct on this score if we take a closer look at the verses that describe his action. Immediately after his men encourage him to assassinate Shaul, the text informs us that he secretly approached the king and cut off the corner of his robe. In the next verse, we are told that David instantly regretted this behavior and harshly criticized his troops for their proposal that Shaul be killed.
I would suggest that we can infer from this that David saw the cutting of the cloak of Shaul as a subdued form of aggression against him. David could have conveyed the message of his benign intentions to Shaul without the additional “prop” of the piece of cloth. David realized that in allowing himself to commit a trespass, however small, against the King, he was giving expression to his feelings of anger and resentment toward the Shaul, emotions that he needed to keep in check. David’s action was “giving in” to the pressure from his troops to harm Shaul, albeit in a very minimal way. This explains why it is presented in the same verse as their goading him on, and why it is followed by his castigating them for their suggestion.
This chapter provides us with yet another example of the principled leadership of David. Even when he momentarily falters, he is self-aware and self-critical enough to recognize and correct his mistakes. He enshrines the inviolable principle of demonstrating respect for the divinely established office of the anointed king and he lives by that principle even when it runs counter to his own personal interests.
Moreover, realizing that Shaul is ruled by his emotions and specifically by his need for approval and love from others, David attempts to present himself as one who cares for and honors the king and to suggest that the advisers of Shaul are misleading him because they don’t truly respect him. This tactic shows us the deep insight of David into his adversaries and his willingness to utilize wisdom, humility and strategy in dealing with others. We observed this talent of David for the first time in his confrontation with Goliath and it is another outstanding quality he will bring with him to the throne of Israel.
David is informed that the community of Qeilah is being attacked and plundered by the Philistines. David asks Hashem whether he should intervene; Hashem commands him to do so. When he discusses the matter with his men, they resist, citing the fact that their safety is already threatened, and that engaging with the Pelishtim will be even more dangerous for them. David consults with Hashem once again and the command to come to the defense of Qeilah is reiterated. He leads his men in battle against the Pelishtim and saves Qeilah from their siege.
Shaul becomes aware of the fact that David is in Qeilah and prepares to attack the city in order to capture David. When David hears of the impending conflict, he again consults with Hashem and is informed that Shaul will come to Qeilah and that the citizens of Qeilah, notwithstanding the fact that David and his men had saved them from the Pelishtim, would hand David over to Shaul in order to prevent a massacre of their people.
David and his men take refuge in the wooded area of the wilderness of Zif, and despite his continual efforts to locate him, Shaul is never able to find his sworn enemy. Yonatan, however, comes to visit David and pledges allegiance to him, declaring that David will succeed King Shaul and that he himself will serve as David’s second-in-command. Although this pronouncement is heartfelt and sincere, Yonatan will never in fact see David again for the rest of his life.
The inhabitants of Zif send messengers to King Shaul and inform him of David’s whereabouts. Shaul expresses his gratitude to them for their support, requests more detailed intelligence regarding David’s hideouts and movements, and mobilizes his forces to apprehend David. In the meantime, David and his men have encamped in the wilderness of Maon. When Shaul and his troops arrive, they find themselves on one side of an enormous mountain while David and his camp are on the other.
The army of Shaul manages to pursue and surround David and his men; at that very moment, however, an emissary arrives to inform Shaul that the Pelishtim have begun raiding Israelite cities and must be stopped immediately. The chase of David is temporarily halted as Shaul refocuses on protecting his subjects from enemy assaults.
There are two points I would like to highlight here. One is David’s repeated consultation with Hashem. The emphasis on this constant pursuit of guidance from the Almighty distinguishes David quite starkly from Shaul, who we have not seen requesting instruction from Hashem since he almost did so back in chapter fourteen (but, even there, he interrupted the process and never did!)
Not only is David serious about ensuring that his decisions conform to the will of Hashem, he insists on this course of action even when it conflicts with the opinions, attitudes, fears and desires of his entourage who have their own concerns. This once again differentiates David from Shaul who, as we have seen, is always capitulating to the will of his supporters, even when Hashem makes His expectations clear and explicit.
David’s behavior is reminiscent of the passage in the Torah wherein Hashem selects Yehoshua to succeed Moshe Rabbenu. Hashem tells Moshe that, throughout his career, Yehoshua will stand before the Kohen Gadol and request guidance from the Urim VeTummim, based upon which he will lead them in battle and govern them. David, then, is a leader who is cast in the same mold as Yehoshua, the illustrious disciple of Moshe Rabbenu.
This chapter also provides us some insight into Shaul, deepening our sense of his weakness of character and frailty of emotion. Shaul neglects the people of Qeilah when they are besieged by the Philistines, suggesting that he is either not concerned with their welfare, not motivated to help, or too preoccupied with his pursuit of David to intervene. By contrast, when he hears that David is in Qeilah, he immediately mobilizes his troops for the mission. This indicates that he is failing as a leader of the nation because of a personal vendetta that has hijacked his life.
Moreover, when Shaul thanks the people of Qeilah, rather than cite national security or the stability of the country as the reason why assisting in the capture of David is so praiseworthy, he says “blessed are you to Hashem because you had pity on me.” While David risks his life to come to the aid of fellow Jews who almost instantly betray him, the focus of Shaul is set squarely on himself.
David descends to the cave of Adullam and remains in hiding there. A group of men disenchanted with the establishment coalesces around David and adopts him as their leader. About four hundred men who suffer from debt and other forms of social disenfranchisement and who were therefore dissatisfied with the current regime become David’s entourage.
In light of the souring of relations between King Shaul and David, the family of Yishai is understandably concerned about its safety. David petitions the King of Moav to grant asylum to his parents and brothers while he is on the run. There are two reasons he may have decided to approach Moav specifically. First, as a descendant of Ruth, he had Moabite roots himself. Second, since Moav was continually at war with Israel, it was reasonable to assume that anyone at odds with Shaul would be perceived as an ally by the Moabite government. We never hear anything further about David’s family; some Midrashim suggest that the King of Moav did not honor his commitment and, in fact, killed them.
The prophet Gad approaches David and advises him to relocate to the land of Yehuda – the territory of his own tribe – rather than remaining in strongholds in the wilderness. Apparently this will help David build a political constituency and base of support for his future kingdom.
The second half of the chapter focuses on Shaul, who is sitting rather unceremoniously underneath a tree, holding a spear in his hand while surrounded by his own officers. Melancholy and paranoia have gripped him again; he begins accusing his supporters of betraying him and siding with “the son of Yishai”, the derogatory term he uses for David. The proof he marshals for his claim is the fact that none of his men have provided him with any information as to the whereabouts of his arch enemy and that no one informed him of the disloyalty of his own son, Yonatan, until he discovered it himself. He imagines that David has promised his officers all sorts of honor and material gifts in exchange for their forsaking Shaul and following him. Shaul sees himself as being abandoned and even threatened by his own court; one gets the impression that he feels very sorry for himself.
Out of a sense of sympathy or perhaps out of an opportunistic desire to ingratiate himself to the king, Doeg Ha-Adomi speaks up and shares what he witnessed at Nov – the chief Kohen, Ahimaatz, provided David with provisions and arms and even inquired of Hashem through the Urim Vetummim on his behalf (this last allegation does not seem to be true, as far as we know). Shaul accepts this report and summons the Kohanim of Nov, who quickly appear before him, having no idea why they have been called.
Shaul accuses Ahimaatz (he calls him “Ben Ahituv”, much like he calls David “ben Yishai”) of colluding and conspiring with David against him. Ahimaatz sincerely replies that he thought he was assisting and supporting the king by lending a hand to his trusted servant, and (according to the simple meaning of the text) he denies having consulted the Urim Vetummim on his behalf, which is something that would normally be done only for the King of Israel. Shaul perceives all of this as part of the ruse and an attempt to cover up for rebellious activity, and orders his men to massacre the inhabitants of Nov, including the Kohanim and their wives and children. They refuse, so Shaul enlists Doeg for the job; he does not hesitate to carry out the heinous deed.
One Kohen by the name of Evyatar escapes and joins the camp of David. When David learns what has transpired, he is deeply distraught and takes full responsibility for what occurred. He promises to protect Evyatar and take him under his wing as a penance for his role in causing the massacre to take place.
This chapter is a profoundly sad one for obvious reasons; the senseless loss of life is tragic. Looking beyond the tragic elements, we see a contrast being highlighted between Shaul and David. Despite living on the run and constantly being on the move, David is gathering a strong band of supporters and officers around him. Granted, they may not be well-trained or experienced, but they follow his lead and he is now shaping them into his future “court”. The people who are drawn to David are embittered souls who are yearning for change and to whom David can provide guidance and direction.
Shaul, on the other hand, has very little to show for himself. His position is stable and steady, yet he has not created much of an infrastructure around himself. Rather than sitting on a throne in a palace and commanding his men, he sits outside under a tree, nervously toying with a spear. He is the weak, angry and emotionally frail person and it is those who wish to win his favor for personal gain (like Doeg) who manipulate and take advantage of him to gain power and influence.
There is another aspect of the story worthy of note. One of Shaul’s limitations is his tendency to shift blame and make excuses. Even situations where he eventually admitted his own wrongdoing, he never did so without becoming defensive and putting up a fight first. The contrast with David’s reaction is significant. Upon hearing of the horrific developments, he immediately accepts responsibility for his failure to act more judiciously and for having placed the people of Nov in harm’s way. This unwavering sense of accountability is what distinguishes David as a truly outstanding Jewish leader.
Yonatan returns home and David is now officially “on the run”. With no entourage, provisions or weapons, he enters Nov, the priestly city, and meets with the chief Kohen, Ahimaatz. Ahimaatz is described as “trembling” to meet David, suggesting that he perceived that something urgent was afoot.
David tells Ahimaatz that he is on a secret mission for the king and is in need of emergency provisions and any weapons they have available in the town. Ahimaatz replies that the only bread they possess is the showbread that was placed on the golden altar in the Tabernacle every Shabbat. David reassures him that he and the fictitious group of men he claimed were waiting for him were all ritually pure and therefore permitted to consume the bread; the fact that it was an emergency overrode the prohibition on non-priests eating the consecrated food.
There are no weapons in the city other than the sword of Goliath, apparently kept there as a reminder of the salvation wrought by Hashem in David’s confrontation with the giant; David asks to take it to arm himself for his “mission”. The text notes that Doeg Ha-Adomi, one of the top officers of Shaul, was present at the time, and observed this exchange; this piece of information becomes important later.
David escapes to Gat where he is recognized by the servants of the king, Akhish. They wish to apprehend and execute him, recalling the praises sung of his slaying of tens of thousands of Phillistines. Cognizant of their intentions, David feigns insanity to save himself – he begins drooling, writing on walls, and engaging in other unspecified erratic behaviors. King Akhish, criticizes his men for arresting David, commenting sarcastically that he has enough crazy people in his kingdom already and has no need for another one. There is no glory for the Pelishtim in such a conquest.
One gets the sense from this chapter that David is out of sorts; he behaves in a frantic manner, first taking consecrated bread from the Tabernacle and the sword of Goliath (and doing this under the watchful eye of an officer of Shaul, hence putting the Kohanim at risk), then running into enemy territory to find refuge. It seems that David is having a momentary crisis of trust in God; he does not know what Hashem’s plan is for him, and engages in desperate action as a result.
Ironically, the showbread in the Temple is intended to demonstrate that Hashem provides for all creatures; David commandeers the bread at a time when he fears that provisions from heaven may not be forthcoming. Similarly, the sword of Goliath was on display to remind everyone of the futility of human power in the face of Hashem’s providence; David, feeling alone and weak, temporarily places his trust in the sword of Goliath, perhaps briefly identifying with his opponent and wishing he could possess that strength.
Tragically, these decisions, made during a spell of desperation, will have tragic consequences that the text indicates David WOULD have foreseen and avoided if he had been thinking straight at the time. We will learn more about this in the next chapter.
Almost as a corrective measure for David, he soon discovers that the possession of food and weaponry are not able to save him from the might of the king of Gat. Acting insane would normally be beneath the dignity of a great warrior – it is humiliating to be thought of as mentally ill, and one might imagine that a soldier or officer would give up his life before pretending to be crazy.
However, David returned to his senses and dropped his warrior persona; knowing that it was not his public image but his standing in God’s eyes that mattered, it was not difficult for him to feign insanity, regardless of the impact of this choice on his reputation. In the Psalm in which David recounted this incident, he wrote, “may those who are humble hear this and rejoice” – this strategy was an example of the modesty and wisdom of David reasserting themselves after a brief lapse of judgment.
David complains to Yonatan about the unjust treatment he is receiving at the hands of Shaul. He cannot understand what is motivating Shaul to seek his life. This time, Yonatan, rather than David, is the one in disbelief. He cannot accept David’s report that Shaul wishes to kill David and has kept this hidden from his own son. David assures him that his life has been in serious danger and explains that Shaul is aware of Yonatan’s sympathy for David and wants to spare him the pain of knowing the truth.
David and Yonatan reiterate and reaffirm their eternal bond of friendship with one another, and Yonatan devises a plan to determine what exactly Shaul is thinking and whether David can feel safe and secure returning to his service. Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon) is the following day; this is the perfect opportunity for Yonatan to evaluate his father’s feelings toward David. How will he react when David does not show up for the royal Rosh Hodesh luncheon at the palace?
If Shaul accepts David’s excuse (conveyed by Yonatan) that he has traveled to Betlehem for a family gathering, this will indicate that his paranoia and suspicion of David have subsided. On the other hand, if he interprets the rather innocuous absence as a sign of something sinister or rebellious, this will be a proverbial red flag. Yonatan tells David to hide in the field on the third day (the second day of Rosh Hodesh) and that Yonatan will come there with one of his servants. He will shoot an arrow; if he instructs the servant boy to go out further to retrieve it (i.e., the arrow lands beyond the spot in which the boy is standing), this is a signal that David must run away. If, on the other hand, Yonatan directs the servant to come in closer to gather up the arrow, this is a signal that David is free to return home because Shaul no longer harbors any malice towards him.
The first day of Rosh Hodesh passes uneventfully; Shaul does not inquire as to David’s whereabouts, assuming that he is ritually impure for some reason and therefore not able to attend. On the second day, however, he becomes curious about David’s absence and asks Yonatan why “the son of Yishai” is not present at the banquet. Yonatan explains that David asked for permission to visit his family in Betlehem.
Shaul flies into a mad rage, declaring that David is a rebel worthy of death and that, as long as David lives, he will ruin any prospect Yonatan has of inheriting the kingdom. Shaul derides Yonatan, labeling him an embarrassment to the family for his “self-defeating” support of David. When Yonatan protests that David is innocent and not deserving of such treatment, Shaul lifts up his spear and threatens his son’s life.
Yonatan is greatly aggrieved by all of this and heads out to the field to report the news to David. As promised, he shoots the arrow beyond his servant and orders the boy to retrieve it. After the servant brings the arrow back to his master, Yonatan instructs him to rush back to the palace immediately. Once the lad is gone, David emerges from his hiding place and he and Yonatan share a private and very moving farewell, once again affirming the eternal covenant of friendship and mutual support they have pledged to one another.
One aspect of this narrative that is difficult to understand is the role of the “signal” of shooting an arrow. If Yonatan and David plan to see each other face to face anyway, why can’t they simply meet in person so that Yonatan can share what he has learned about Shaul? Why is it necessary for them to devise a sign for this purpose, when they are going to speak to one another immediately afterwards?
I believe that the essential concern of Yonatan and David was one of secrecy and security. It would have been quite unusual and suspicious for Yonatan, a prince, to head out into the field without an escort and with no clear purpose. This might have attracted unnecessary attention at court, and were Shaul to take notice of and investigate the reason for Yonatan’s trip, the consequences could have been disastrous.
With this in mind, Yonatan used the pretext of an archery outing to explain his departure and brought a lad along with him so that his trip appeared normal and legitimate. If the outcome of his luncheon with Shaul had been a promising one, he would have used the “signal” to indicate to David that it was alright for him to drop his anonymity, emerge from his hiding place and join the two archers at their sport, eventually returning with them to the palace.
On the other hand, if things turned out poorly (as they did), it would have been unwise to allow the young boy to become aware of David’s presence in the field, lest he share this information with others. The signal of the distant arrow meant “wait in the brush until the lad returns home and then we can say goodbye in private.” This is why, after describing the location of the arrow, Yonatan quickly changes course and sends the boy home, as if he has just remembered that there is something urgent at the palace that must be taken care of. The coast clear, David can now bid farewell to his best friend without anyone watching.
Aside from the heartbreaking developments in the relationship between David and Shaul and the strain this places on the friendship of David and Yonatan, there is an additional layer of tragedy to the story. Yonatan, like Mikhal, has a choice: to follow David or to remain loyal to his father’s regime. He may have rationalized that remaining an “insider” provided a greater advantage to David than defecting to his side would have; however, the fact remains that Yonatan parts from David and returns to the camp of his father. As students of the Navi we know that this means that Yonatan will die with his father in battle against the Pelishtim and will never have the privilege of seeing his beloved companion David ascend to his rightful place upon the throne of Israel.
This chapter contains two episodes in which the children of Shaul must balance their sense of loyalty to David with their commitment to the honor of their father. Yonatan, concerned about the increasingly hostile attitude of Shaul toward David, warns David that the king is intent on killing him. David has difficulty believing this. Yonatan instructs David to hide out in a field where Yonatan will go for a stroll with Shaul and discuss the situation.
In the course of their conversation it becomes clear that Shaul does, indeed, harbor profound animosity toward David and wishes to have him executed; Yonatan reasons with his father, questioning the rashness of his plans and emphasizing that the service of David to the kingdom has been trustworthy and beneficial. Shaul swears by the name of Hashem that he will not kill David. As we have learned in the past, however, Shaul’s oaths are of little value in the long run.
Yet another clash with the Phillistines erupts, and David emerges victorious in battle, once again plunging Shaul into despair and anger. While David plays music for him, Shaul attempts to cast a spear at him and murder him; David dodges the attack and escapes from the palace. Shaul stations guards outside of David’s house who wait to ambush him; aware of their plans, his wife Mikhal secretly lowers him out of the window of their home and he leaves undetected.
Mikhal tells the messengers of Shaul that David is sick and arranges a decoy of “teraphim” (statues) and goat hair to make it appear as if David is in bed under the covers. Shaul commands his officers to simply bring David in his bed to be killed; they then realize that they have been fooled and that David is nowhere to be found. Shaul confronts his daughter, criticizing her for choosing David over her own family; rather than argue with her father’s judgment, Mikhal claims that David threatened her life if she did not aid him in his escape.
David flees to Ramah where he encounters Shemuel and shares with him all that has transpired. Shaul sends guards to arrest David; the first three contingents fail to complete their mission because they are seized by the spirit of prophecy. Finally, Shaul himself arrives to apprehend David, but he too is overcome with prophetic rapture and falls to the ground naked, where he remains for a full day and night. This event gave a new meaning to the previously coined phrase “Is Shaul also among the prophets?”
There are undoubtedly echoes of the story of Rachel, Yaaqov and Lavan in the tale of Mikhal, David and Shaul. In both cases, there is a conflict between a son-in-law and a father-in-law, an escape is involved, and the daughter chooses to side with her husband. In both cases, when confronted, the daughter invents a lie to protect herself (Rachel claimed she could not stand up for her father because she was in the midst of her monthly cycle; Mikhal claimed her life was in jeopardy and therefore could not protect her father’s interests). Mikhal and Rachel both experience difficulties regarding childbirth, as we will see in future chapters. Most fascinatingly, both stories involve “teraphim” – Rachel stole her father’s teraphim before running off with Yaaqov, and Mikhal utilizes teraphim in her ruse to delay the discovery of David’s escape.
Mikhal also has similarities to Rahav, who saved Yehoshua’s spies from being apprehended by the King of Yeriho by lowering them down from her window to facilitate their getaway as well as misrepresenting the facts when challenged by the authorities.
What is the reason for these textual and thematic parallels? I believe that one of the key prophetic messages here is that David is a Yaaqov-like figure. David is destined to establish the monarchy of Israel just as Yaaqov established the nation of Israel. Like Yaaqov, he has humble beginnings – he is a mere shepherd who does not seem especially illustrious or impressive at first, but who rises to great prominence and enjoys incredible success in the employ of his own father-in-law. This inadvertently causes him to become the object of his father-in-law’s jealousy, animosity and resentment, and places his wife in a very difficult position.
Rachel and Mikhal, torn between the roles of wife and daughter, choose to heed the calling of the Divine will – whether it be the Divinely mandated creation of the nation of Israel in Rachel’s case or the Divinely mandated establishment of the Davidic dynasty in Mikhal’s – and both women seem to experience some difficulty with the process of leaving their familial commitments and loyalties behind.
We can understand the connection to Rahav along similar lines. With Yehoshua’s conquest of the land imminent, Rahav is forced to choose between her patriotic or familial loyalty to Yeriho and her recognition of Hashem’s providential plan. She opts to do the right thing and to become an instrument of the Divine purpose. It is noteworthy that, according to the Midrash, Rahav, who abdicated her commitment to Yeriho in order to support the Jews, became Yehoshua’s wife. This would be yet another linkage between the stories of Rahav and Mikhal; in both cases, the wife of the rebel is willing to abandon her natural loyalties for the sake of the holy mission being led by her husband.
It is noteworthy that David finds refuge with the prophet Shemuel while the spirit of prophecy is what repels Shaul and his men. This is in stark contrast to the beginning of Shaul’s reign at which time he was inspired with an experience of prophecy because he was devoted to fulfilling the word of Hashem and aligning himself and his kingdom with the Divine plan. At this stage of his career, however, he has been overpowered by the momentum of his own agenda that runs contrary to Hashem’s design. Therefore, he is no longer able to remain upright and prophesy in the presence of the prophets – the word of Hashem, rather than uplifting and strengthening him, casts him to the ground, naked and humiliated. Only David, the chosen successor of Shaul and the true servant of God, can stand with dignity by their side.
Shemuel Alef Chapter 18
The primary focus of this chapter is on the meteoric rise of David to prominence in Israel and the variety of reactions to his newfound fame. The members of King Shaul’s court, including Yonatan, Shaul’s son, are deeply impressed with David and are pleased with his appearance on the scene. Shaul retains David as a leader of his troops and no longer permits him to return home. Yonatan forms a bond of deep and enduring friendship with David. He removes his regal apparel and weapons and gives them to David as a sign of genuine deference to him.
David is consistently successful and becomes enormously popular. The women who greet the Jewish soldiers returning from war sing a song that Shaul interprets as praising David more highly than himself, although really it is composed in a typical biblical poetic structure that carries no such implication. While everyone else in the kingdom is celebrating the military victories and accomplishments of David, Shaul’s jealousy over David’s growing popularity consumes him. On one occasion, while David is performing for him at the palace, Shaul hurls a spear at him with intent to kill; miraculously, David steps out of its path and survives.
Shaul now views David as a threat and wishes to orchestrate his downfall. At the same time, he realizes that God is with David and is enabling him to succeed and thrive to a remarkable extent. Shaul decides to attempt to bring about David’s demise at the hands of the Pelishtim rather than murdering him personally. His strategy is to wed David to his daughter, Merav, hoping that this distraction will undermine his focus and lead to his failure on the battlefield. David refuses to accept the proposal, insisting that he is unworthy of marrying the daughter of the king.
In the meantime, Merav marries someone else and another daughter of Shaul, Mikhal, falls in love with David. Again, David is adamant that he is not deserving of the honor of marrying royalty; Shaul, hoping to entice David to accept a dangerous mission that would eventuate in his death, asks his men to convince David to agree to the offer, provided he can deliver one hundred Philistine foreskins to the King as a dowry in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. David embraces the challenge and delivers not one hundred but two hundred Philistine foreskins, having handily defeated two hundred Pelishti soldiers in combat without coming to any harm.
Shaul – like the members of his cabinet, his own son, and the entire Jewish people – perceives the hand of God in the achievements of David and holds him in tremendous esteem; however, his own thirst for approval, love and power cause him to completely separate himself from the divine plan. Ironically, he realizes the message Hashem is sending through the blessings David is receiving; clearly, David is Hashem’s choice to succeed Shaul. Nevertheless, Shaul is unwilling to accept the decree of the Almighty and instead declares David his arch enemy. As the love that everyone else has for David waxes stronger, the animosity of Shaul toward his rival intensifies.
The assessment we formed from the earlier episodes in Shaul’s career has proven to be correct: his tendency to place his own need for the approval of others ahead of Hashem’s will has reached new heights. No longer merely compromising or rationalizing his capitulation to popular opinion when it runs contrary to the expectations of Hashem, Shaul is now prepared to unabashedly set aside the will of the Almighty in order to protect and promote his own personal agenda.
This kind of development is precisely what Hashem and the prophets feared would occur with the advent of the monarchy – pursuit of power for its own sake rather than in the service of Torah. Shaul’s movement in this direction began long ago; his continual spiritual decline is the very reason why he is being removed from his position and replaced with David.
This lengthy chapter describes the famous confrontation between David and Goliath. The armies of Israel and the Pelishtim are positioned facing one another on the battlefield but no actual combat is underway. Each day, a very tall, strong, and heavily armored Philistine stands between the two camps and hurls belittling and degrading insults at the Jews. He challenges the Jewish army to send a warrior out who can defeat him and declares that the winner of this match will be entitled to claim the entire army (and nation) of the loser as his slaves. The Israelites are petrified by the menacing spectacle of Goliath and for forty days they remain silent and do not offer any response to his taunts.
David is dispatched by his father to bring provisions to his three eldest brothers who are members of the army of King Shaul, present a gift of food to their supervising officer, and inquire after their welfare. David leaves the sheep he usually shepherds with a substitute and heads off to the battlefield to fulfill his father’s request. While visiting the camp, he has the opportunity to hear the vile pronouncements of the intimidating Goliath. He becomes aware of the fact that the King has offered ample reward – his daughter’s hand in marriage and a tax-free household, among other material benefits – to anyone who can rise up to the challenge of the Philistine.
David asks several individuals for the details of what King Shaul has offered, and expresses his outrage at the desecration of God’s name being perpetrated by the uncircumcised Philistine brute. He seems to be especially vocal so that the “stir” he creates will be noticed by the powers-that-be. His eldest brother rebukes him for his troublemaking but David ignores his sharp words.
Eventually, King Shaul hears of David’s statements and summons him to a private royal audience. David informs the King that the Jews have nothing to fear; Hashem will battle for them, and he is personally willing to confront the Philistine, trusting in this fact. King Shaul is hesitant to allow David to get involved, given his youth, weakness and lack of experience. However, David recounts to Shaul some of the mighty deeds he performed as a shepherd – fighting off a bear and a lion who attempted to abscond with his sheep – and observes that this animalistic Pelishti is no better than them. When David once again reiterates his faith in Hashem’s support on the battlefield, Shaul agrees to allow him to face Goliath.
David unsuccessfully attempts to suit up in proper armor provided for him by Shaul; it is uncomfortable and cumbersome so he eschews the protective armor and weaponry of Shaul for his slingshot and five smooth rocks. When Goliath sees the wimpy looking fellow the Jews have sent to fight him, he is understandably amused and offended all at once. He insults David and the people of Israel again, promising to pulverize his opponent. David, not prepared to back down, informs the Goliath that although he has better armor and weaponry on his side, David has Hashem who will empower him to prevail over the Pelishtim despite their considerable military advantage.
Goliath is incensed and charges toward David; David, rather than running in the opposite direction, charges fearlessly toward Goliath as well. As he runs, David reaches into his pouch and slings a stone toward Goliath; the stone impacts and sinks into Goliath’s forehead and he collapses. David approaches Goliath and draws the sword of the giant out of his sheath to decapitate him. The Jews, their sense of morale restored by this event, chase after and deliver a powerful blow to the Pelishtim. Shaul inquires after the identity of David from Avner, who does not know; David himself explains that he is the son of Yishai from Betlehem.
This chapter is particularly rich in detail and ideas and deserves many pages of discussion; for the sake of brevity, I will restrain myself and offer just one thematic highlight. The fact that Goliath is capable of single-handedly terrorizing the Israelite camp is a sad commentary on the bravery of the army; however, there is a symbolic element in the description of his activities that shouldn’t be overlooked. He approached them “morning and evening” for a period of forty days. The “forty days” is most certainly reminiscent of the forty days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Our Sages comment in the Midrash (quoted by Rashi) that by hurling insults at the Jews morning and evening, he caused them to forget to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting Shema morning and evening. What do these “hints” in the text mean to teach us?
I believe that they point to another interesting element of the story that is critical for understanding it properly. When the soldiers tell David about their Philistine tormentor and the reward promised to by Shaul to anyone who defeats him, the conflict is framed in purely military terms. David, by contrast, consistently focuses attention on the desecration of Hashem’s name that is taking place; Goliath is denigrating the army of the living God, his actions are not against Israel but against the Almighty, and Hashem will ensure that he meets his downfall swiftly. The period of forty days and the failure to recite the Shema symbolically reflect the shift in attention AWAY from Torah and Hashem and their subsequent captivation by the antics of the Philistine. The text is emphasizing, directly and indirectly, that Goliath looms so large and his power so intimidating precisely because the Jewish people have forgotten the True King.
As is always the case in Jewish history as presented in Tanakh, the enemy achieves the proverbial upper hand when the Jewish people neglect their covenant with Hashem and begin to pursue political power and security for its own sake. Unlike the beginning of his career when King Shaul recognized this principle, we can see that he has ultimately failed in his mission to keep the Jews focused on what is truly important. He makes no move to cry out to Hashem, encourage repentance or even offer a sacrifice; he is utterly paralyzed by the spectacle of Goliath.
David, who is devoted to Hashem, easily sees past the veneer of the Philistine and perceives an animal like a lion or bear who can be outsmarted and vanquished. He capitalizes on this knowledge, taunting Goliath so that the giant “loses it” and charges at him at full speed. This allows David, who trusts in Hashem’s providence and in the power of wisdom to conquer unbridled physical force, to calmly and confidently put an end to an intractable conflict. The only solution to the problem was to extricate oneself from the limiting effect of the psychological tactics employed by the Pelishtim and take refuge in God-given knowledge as the source of victory; David did this, and demonstrated thereby that he was more than qualified to be a leader in Israel.
As mentioned in our comments to the previous chapter, one of the biggest interpretive challenges of these chapters is the chronology. In this chapter, it seems as if Shaul has never met David before; yet, in the previous chapter, he had been hired as court musician and become a regular attendant of the king! Rashi and most traditional commentaries assume that the chapters are written in chronological order; therefore, they assume that Shaul already knew David when the episode with Goliath took place. Shaul’s questions about David are motivated by a desire to know more about his background and where he inherited or developed such military prowess and courage. Before David killed Goliath, Shaul had only known him as a talented harp player, not as a fighter.
An alternative approach is brought in the name of Shemuel ben Hofni Gaon and has been adopted by several contemporary scholars. According to this view, the chapter sequence is out of order. In reality, at the time David volunteered to confront Goliath, he was completely unknown to Shaul; this was their first encounter with one another. Chapter sixteen, which describes David’s employment as court musician, occurred after the incident with Goliath, which might explain why he is described as a “mighty warrior” who is close to Hashem and successful in all his endeavors – after all, before defeating the Philistine, he does not seem to have had any reputation for military skill (or anything else for that matter)!
Shaul’s depression and melancholy were likely caused by his repeated frustration on the battlefield against the Philistines and that feeling of inadequacy might have been exacerbated by David’s unlikely slaying of the “invincible” Goliath. This also might explain why, when Shemuel visits Yishai’s home, there is an assumption that we are familiar with his sons and their positions in the family, facts that are only introduced to us explicitly in chapter seventeen. There are a number of hints in the text and in Midrashic works that seem to support the theory that the fight with Goliath preceded the selection of David as king and his appointment as harp-player for Shaul.
Of course, this approach is not without its difficulties; if David had indeed already defeated Goliath, why was he not even considered by his family as a possible candidate for kingship when Shemuel arrives? And why is he sent home after the incident, only to be returned to the palace for his musical services later on?
We may never know the precise chronology here. However, I would like to emphasize that (regardless of their chronological sequence) the chapters are organized THEMATICALLY. As students of Navi, we should be most concerned with the prophetic MESSAGE being conveyed, not so much with the historical details such as what happened first or last, whether there was some overlap in periods or incidents, etc.
The point of chapter sixteen is to chart the slow downfall and marginalization of Shaul, which involves both his emergent passivity, his descent into melancholy and the identification of David as his eventual successor. In the course of the description of Shaul’s downfall, we read of David’s being hired as musician to assuage his pain, which – regardless of when it occurred – is important to understand since it will play a role in future instances of Shaul’s continuous struggle with depression and loss of control. It is not about David so much but about the slow and agonizing conclusion of Shaul’s reign.
Chapter Seventeen, by contrast, is primarily concerned with the surprising and meteoric rise of David as the next monarch. He is therefore introduced to us all over again and the beginning of his career as military general, political leader and spiritual mentor is now presented in dramatic detail.
This chapter introduces us to David, son of Yishai, the future king of Israel. Hashem tells Shemuel to quit mourning over the failure of Shaul and to anoint a new monarch in Bethlehem. Shemuel, fearing reprisals from King Shaul, is hesitant to do so; Hashem instructs him to travel to Bethlehem under the pretext that he will be performing a sacrifice and religious service there, and to conduct the anointment in secret.
At the house of Yishai, Shemuel immediately perceives Eliav, the eldest son of his host, as the best candidate for the monarchy. He must have had a decidedly regal appearance and must have projected an air of confidence and strength. Hashem informs Shemuel that he cannot judge this matter on superficial appearances; only Hashem is capable of identifying the person who has the character necessary to lead His people.
Yishai presents all of his sons to Shemuel but none of them are endorsed by Hashem. Shemuel asks if Yishai has any other children; it turns out that David, not considered by his family to be a viable choice for the monarchy, had been left out in the field with the sheep. Despite his ruddy appearance and lack of the external traits normally associated with royalty, David is indeed chosen and anointed as the next king of Israel.
The chapter proceeds to recount that Shaul had been suffering from melancholy and depression and that his advisers had suggested he hire a musician to cheer him up and assuage his emotional turmoil. David, the son of Yishai, was known to be a very capable musician, warrior, and scholar and to be amply blessed by Hashem in all of his endeavors. He is sent for and hired to stand before Shaul and play music for him whenever necessary.
As we will discuss in the next chapter, there is some ambiguity in the text as to whether Shaul was already acquainted with David at this point or whether this is the first time they are being introduced to one another.
There are two interesting points to be highlighted about Shemuel in this chapter. The first is his fear of Shaul’s revenge and the command Hashem gives him to misrepresent his plans in order to protect himself. The commentaries observe that this is a prime example of the principle that we do not rely on miracles. Even Shemuel, a distinguished prophet of Hashem who was implementing a commandment of Hashem, had to disguise his agenda to remain safe from Shaul. Although Shemuel was certainly worthy of having a miracle performed on his behalf, Hashem does not intervene in ways that would overturn the laws of nature unless it is absolutely necessary for Him to do so; here, it was far easier for Shemuel to keep his intentions hidden from Shaul and thereby avoid becoming the object of his wrath.
The second noteworthy point about Shemuel is his mistaken inclination to anoint Eliav as king. Why does the text have to inform us that Shemuel made an error in judgment here? Why not simply tell us that he considered each of the sons before finally identifying David as the chosen monarch? The Rabbis tell us that this experience was designed to humble Shemuel and teach him a lesson about overestimating the reliability of human reason and analysis.
When he first encountered Shaul, Shemuel described himself as “the seer”, suggesting that he possessed special, almost infallible powers of perception inaccessible to ordinary human beings. By emphasizing that Shemuel’s capacity to “see” the truth about others is indeed limited, He provides an implicit rebuke to the prophet for having a slightly exaggerated sense of his own abilities.
Shemuel’s confidence in his own judgment was probably what prevented him from abandoning the “lost cause” of Shaul when he should have moved on more quickly. Shemuel simply couldn’t see past his own conclusion that Shaul MUST be the one for the job, and the discovery that Hashem had rejected Shaul was devastating for Shemuel, a spiritual mentor who had such lofty hopes and expectations for his student. He shed many tears and lost much sleep over this inevitable disillusionment.
As human beings, whether prophets or otherwise, we can never lose sight of the limits of our own sense perception and reasoning; only the Almighty knows the true character of a person, can weigh the needs of His people and can therefore determine who is best suited to lead the nation of Israel.
The prophet Shemuel approaches King Shaul and directs him to fulfill the commandment of the Torah to exterminate the people of Amaleq. The Torah indicates that when the Jewish people have achieved stability and security in their land, they must proceed to eliminate the evil (Amaleq) from their midst; the Rabbis explain that his means that once a monarchy is established, it is the responsibility of the king to carry out this task. All of the Amaleqites must be killed and their animals and possessions destroyed.
It is beyond the scope of a brief summary to enter into a deeper discussion of the commandment to annihilate Amaleq and to explore its moral and ethical dimensions. It should suffice to say that Amaleq was a culture of “piracy”; the Amaleqites traveled throughout the land preying on the weak and defenseless, killing and plundering them indiscriminately. Their unjust and corrupt lifestyle was anathema to Torah and stood in absolute contradiction to the principles of truth, justice and compassion that Judaism promotes. Therefore, the King of Israel was obligated to remove them from the land of Israel in order to demonstrate the commitment of the Jewish people to the establishment of a just and holy society.
Shaul follows the instructions of Shemuel and musters the necessary troops for the military effort. He sends word to the Kenites, allies of the Israel, and asks them to distance themselves from the battlefield so they do not suffer any harm during the conflict. The war is successful; the king of Amaleq is captured alive, and the troops help themselves to the spoils. They comply with the commandment to destroy the inferior items but decide to keep the high quality animals and goods for sacrifice and for personal use.
As Shaul prepares to celebrate the national victory, Shemuel arrives. Shaul greets the prophet enthusiastically and informs him that the commandment of Hashem has been fulfilled; Amaleq has been defeated. Shemuel counters that this is not the case – he himself can hear the bleating of the goats that were illegally kept alive. Shaul explains that the best of the animals were preserved in order to be offered as sacrifices to the Almighty.
Shemuel then delivers the message that Hashem had sent him to convey (and which the prophet himself had spent all night crying and praying about): Shaul may be insignificant in his own eyes and therefore accommodating of the desires and wishes of others, but he is now the king of Israel and must act as leader, not follower. Because he failed to implement the law of Hashem and once again capitulated to the people, he would now lose the privilege of being their monarch. Shaul again insists that what he allowed the people to do was to serve and honor Hashem through sacrifice; Shemuel responds that “service of God” means abiding by His instructions, not innovating one’s own modes of religious expression.
Shaul finally acknowledges that he erred because he was intimidated by the will of the people, but asks Shemuel to forgive his trespass and accompany him in prayer before departing. Shemuel refuses to do so, reiterating that Hashem has rejected Shaul as the anointed king of Israel because of his sin. Shemuel tears the garment of Shaul and emphasizes that this decision of the Almighty is irrevocable; Shaul again asks that Shemuel accept his apology and worship with him. Shemuel follows Shaul for the service but does not participate with him.
The prophet then requests that the King of Amaleq be brought to him, and Shemuel kills him on the spot. Shemuel and Shaul part ways and never see one another again for the rest of their lives. Shemuel once had high hopes for Shaul and will spend the rest of his life mourning over the tragic loss the nation sustained as a result of the fact that Shaul squandered his tremendous leadership potential.
Shaul’s pro forma apologies to Shemuel appear artificial and empty. Each time he acknowledges his mistake only to ask, in the same sentence, that Shemuel honor him or accompany him. The implication is that his repentance was neither sincere nor heartfelt. It is actually reminiscent of the “repentance” of the Pharaoh of Egypt, who would “apologize” to Moshe and immediately follow up with a request that the plague afflicting his kingdom be stopped.
Shaul does not seem to fully grasp the significance of his error and therefore perceive Shemuel’s reaction as exaggerated and hyperbolic. His asking for forgiveness is merely intended to placate Shemuel and prevent further escalation of the drama so that he can continue comfortably with his victory celebration.
Because Shaul does not understand how deeply rooted and dangerous his character flaw is, he does not even entertain the possibility that Hashem has removed him from his throne as a result of it. He does not believe that he has been relieved of his monarchy by Divine command and this explains why he fights mightily to hold onto that power for the rest of his life.
The situation facing Israel is a dire one, yet King Shaul refrains from taking any action to resolve it. Yonatan is accompanied by his young armor-bearer as he secretly crosses over to the garrison of the Pelishtim. He devises an unorthodox strategy to predict the way in which the conflict will unfold. If, when the Phillistines see him, they tell him to “come up” to them, this indicates that the Jews will “rise up” and triumph over their enemies. If, however, they tell Yonatan and his escort to remain in place while they “come down” to apprehend them, this is a sign that the Jews are destined to lose the war.
A logical way to understand Yonatan’s strategy is as a helpful barometer of the morale of the Pelishtim. If they are confident and secure, they will feel comfortable leaving the protective borders of their camp and coming down to confront Yonatan. If they prefer to invite Yonatan up to the place where they are standing, the implication is that they are fearful of him and perceive him as a threat; they feel a need to remain in a physically superior position because their psychological morale is shaky.
The Pelishtim tell Yonatan to come up to them; emboldened by what he interprets as a sign from Hashem, Yonatan proceeds to attack the Pelishtim in the camp, and chaos ensues – there is a panic of such magnitude that the Phillistines begin killing one another, incapable of distinguishing between friend and foe.
The Israelite camp notices the havoc that has erupted in the garrison of the Pelishtim; a brief investigation reveals that Yonatan is absent and most likely responsible for it. At first, Shaul approaches the Kohen to seek Hashem’s word through the Urim VeTummim; however, he interrupts the process when it becomes evident that the tumult on the Phillistine side is out of control and delaying any further might mean losing the opportunity to take advantage of their state of confusion and attack them. As Shaul leads his men forward to vanquish the Pelishtim, he imposes an oath upon all of them – no one is to eat or drink anything until the battle reaches its conclusion.
Yonatan rejoins the troops and travels with them through a forest in which there is a stream of honey. Unaware of the oath his father imposed, he samples some of it. When he is warned that this was forbidden by his father, he criticizes the short-sightedness of the oath, arguing that it would have been wiser and more efficient to encourage the men to eat than to prevent them from doing so.
At the conclusion of the successful battle, the famished Jews descend upon the spoils and begin slaughtering animals and consuming their meat. It is brought to the attention of King Shaul that the people are eating “on the blood”, in violation of the Torah (the commentaries discuss what precisely the transgression was, since the Oral tradition interprets “do not eat upon the blood” in various metaphoric ways.)
Shaul instructs his officers to roll a large rock to a place that would be designated as the official location for slaughter. He then has them direct the people to bring their animals to the rock to be killed before taking the meat and consuming it in other areas far away from any blood. Shaul builds an altar in honor of Hashem to express his gratitude to God for the salvation the Jews experienced on the battlefield.
Shaul proposes that the troops of Israel continue attacking the Pelishtim through the night to consolidate their military gains. Before pursuing this course of action he seeks the word of Hashem to confirm that it is proper and will be successful. However, Shaul receives no response from the Urim Vetummim. This signals that the divine presence has departed from the camp and suggests that some sin has been committed by the troops. Shaul swears that whoever is responsible for this loss of divine assistance will pay with his life, even if it turns out to be his own son Yonatan.
A lottery is conducted and Yonatan is indeed identified as the perpetrator; he confesses the sin he committed in partaking of the honey and accepts the judgment that he is condemned to die. Shaul once again swears that he will mete out the punishment he promised and that Yonatan will be killed. However, the people intervene and defend Yonatan; after all, it was Yonatan’s heroic infiltration of the garrison of the Pelishtim that led to the miraculous victory of Israel against their persecutors.
Shaul relents and Yonatan’s life is spared. The chapter concludes with a description of Shaul’s distinguished career of successful military operations against many of the oppressors and enemies of the Jewish people. In addition to marrying and starting a family, Shaul develops a strong and formidable army to protect and defend his nation.
This story contains at least two allusions to narratives in the Book of Shofetim. Yonatan’s crossing over to the camp of the Pelishtim to gauge their morale is reminiscent of the story of Gideon who likewise sneaks over to the camp of the Midianites to listen in on the conversations of the enemy troops. There, as here, the enemy camp descends into chaos and Midianites begin killing one another amidst sheer panic.
Shaul’s oath which unwittingly condemns his son to death reminds us of the oath of Yiftah which leads him to condemn his daughter. These literary and thematic parallels highlight the fact that the Book of Shemuel is the culmination and completion of the Book of Shofetim; the career and character of Shaul cannot be fully understood without reference to the Judges who preceded him.
The episode of Shaul’s oath again illustrates his tragic inability to be decisive in the face of social pressure. Shaul invokes the name of God numerous times to back up his conviction that whoever has caused the Divine presence to depart must die; he reiterates his promise even after discovering the identity of the perpetrator. Nonetheless, the response of the people wins the day – he backtracks on a sacred vow, in an egregious violation of the Ten Commandments, in deference to popular opinion.
One might be tempted to argue that Yonatan’s transgression wasn’t serious enough to warrant such a harsh response to begin with, and that Shaul’s promise to execute the sinner was made without due deliberation. However, the fact that the Divine Presence withdrew from Israel as a result of Yonatan’s sin is a testimony to its seriousness. Examined closely, his crime was not the consumption of honey, the prohibition of which he was unaware of when he did violated it. The real sin of Yonatan was in his reaction to those who informed him of the prohibition – rather than apologize for the oversight, he ridiculed his father’s decision publicly, and told the troops that they would have been better off not abiding by it. This disrespectful and rebellious speech was an attack on the authority of the king and cannot be dismissed lightly.
Shaul’s failure to punish his son, even after swearing to do so more than once, was a monumental mistake, illustrating his distorted set of priorities in which honor of the people ranked above the honor of the Almighty. Ironically, he committed this sin immediately after rebuking the nation for disgracing God by eating next to blood and after constructing an altar in the name of Hashem.
King Shaul and his son Yonatan, commanding an army of 3,000 men, have already made inroads in their battle with the Pelishtim. This progress alarms the Pelishtim and begin to ready themselves for what they hope will be a decisive strike against Israel. Many Jews are intimidated and flee the area or hide in caves from protection from what they perceive as an imminent onslaught. Shaul and his men camp at Gilgal and anticipate the arrival of Shemuel who had commanded the king to wait for him for seven days before proceeding to the battlefield.
Noticing that the troops had begun to lose confidence in him and defect from the war effort, Shaul gives up on Shemuel and offers the standard sacrifices himself instead. As soon as he finishes, Shemuel appears and takes Shaul to task for failing to follow the divine instructions. Shaul explains that he was compelled to act quickly because the troops were losing patience and abandoning him, Shemuel was late, and he did not want to head out to battle without having first paid homage to the Almighty.
Shemuel castigates Shaul for his foolishness and informs Shaul that his monarchy is now doomed to fail; he will eventually be replaced by a king who is true to the word of Hashem. In the meantime, only six hundred unarmed men remain in Shaul’s camp (the Jews were forbidden by the Pelishtim from possessing weapons or even having metalworkers in their midst who could sharpen agricultural implements, leaving them at a distinct military disadvantage.) The Pelishtim, by contrast, have divided themselves into three enormous groups that are fast approaching and expecting to leave death and devastation in their wake.
This chapter represents a watershed moment for King Shaul – it is the ultimate test of his ability (or lack of ability) to overcome his need for approval and popularity and remain true to the word of Hashem. There is a stark contrast between the previous two chapters, in which Shaul and Shemuel seemed to be working together toward common goals, and this chapter, in which Shemuel rebukes Shaul and then leaves him stranded on the battlefield to fend for himself.
Shaul’s failure to follow the instructions of the spiritual leader was tantamount to a declaration that the political and military operations of Israel, governed by the king, would function independently of the wisdom and guidance of Torah. Shaul justified his action based upon practical-logistical concerns, as well as blaming Shemuel (he was late) and offering his own religious rationale (that it would be inappropriate to go to war without bringing a sacrifice first.)
The latter two “excuses” not only treat political matters outside of any Torah perspective, they go so far as to imply that Shaul “knows better” on religious issues than a “rabbi” or prophet. This catastrophic move validates the concerns of Shemuel (and Hashem) regarding the establishment of the monarchy to begin with, and demonstrates why Shaul will not ultimately live up to the lofty expectations that the Torah has of a Jewish King.
There is an interesting parallel in the story to the narrative of the Golden Calf. In both cases, the spiritual leader of the nation is absent and his return is delayed; as a result, the people begin to panic or lose hope. In response, the acting leader (there, Aharon; here, Shaul) engages in an unauthorized religious service to reassure them and hold onto their allegiance, rationalizing that it is necessary in order to prevent an even more tragic outcome.
The sin of the Golden Calf occurred because the people’s clamoring for emotional security threatened the stability of communal life and the decision was made to choose the politically expedient route over the religiously correct one – in essence, to give the people what they wanted. This error proved to be a devastating one for the Jewish people, undermining its covenantal relationship with the Almighty, forcing fundamental changes in infrastructure (the firstborn were replaced by the Levites) and placing its whole existence in jeopardy.
Similarly, Shaul’s lack of trust in the word of Hashem and his capitulation to the people in the name of political necessity sets a terrible precedent for his regime which will eventually cause it to disintegrate, as we will see in the chapters ahead.
In this chapter, Shemuel once again (perhaps more officially) presents the newly selected King Shaul to his subjects. In so doing, Shemuel is essentially retiring from his career as undisputed leader of the Jewish people. Shemuel remarks on his own advanced age and challenges the citizens of Israel to speak up if he has ever mistreated or taken advantage of them in any way. They unanimously declare that he has never oppressed them nor utilized his position of authority for personal gain.
Shemuel then recounts the history of Hashem’s salvation of the people of Israel, beginning with their sojourn in Egypt until the era of the Judges, which is now reaching its conclusion. He emphasizes that Hashem’s protection and support of the nation has always been dependent upon one fundamental factor – whether or not the Jews remained committed to the observance of Torah and the rejection of idolatry. When they deviated from the covenant, Hashem abandoned them to the persecutions of their enemies; when they returned to the proper path, He ensured that the appropriate leaders would arise and liberate them.
Despite this clear historical pattern, Shemuel observes, the recent conflict with Ammon has finally pushed the Jews to their breaking point and moved them to demand a king. While Hashem has honored the request of His nation and chosen a fitting monarch for them, they must remain cognizant of the fact that their success and failure will continue to depend not on the strength of the human king who leads them but on the quality of their relationship with the Almighty.
Shemuel warns the people that Hashem will now indicate His disapproval of the movement to establish a monarchy by bringing heavy rain in the midst of the typically dry harvest season. Such rain could potentially destroy the crops in the fields. The clouds quickly appear and the nation acknowledges its wrongdoing in the eyes of Hashem. Frightened of the consequences of rainfall for their food supply and livelihood, they appeal to Shemuel to pray to Hashem to stop the storm. Shemuel does so, but once again reminds them of the lesson they have learned – that Hashem, and not Shaul, will determine their destiny in the long run.
One question we can raise about this chapter is what Shemuel’s motive was in asking the people to acknowledge that he had treated them fairly and never mistreated or taken advantage of them. How was this relevant to the message about kingship he wished to convey here? It seems that he is contrasting the style of prophetic leadership with that of a monarch which he had described at length just a couple of chapters ago.
The king possesses substantial authority and not only CAN but WILL make use of his power to enrich himself and his family. The benefits the king reaps from his position may be legal but they nonetheless impose unnecessary financial and physical hardships on his subjects. Shemuel wants the community to declare that he did not conduct himself in the manner of a king during his tenure so that they will perceive the difference between what they are seeking and what they are dismissing in this shift from prophet/judge to king.
The challenge of Shemuel to the people is reminiscent of the statement of Moshe Rabbenu to Hashem during the rebellion of Qorah, “not one donkey did I take from them, nor did I commit any trespass against any of them.” Here, Shemuel, the descendant of Qorah, is paraphrasing the words that Moshe used when confronted with the uprising against his authority. There, Moshe Rabbenu was perceived by the rebels as a self-styled King rather than a religious leader, and he was being accused of political overreach in making himself king. He responds to the accusations by drawing attention to the honesty and integrity that characterized all of his dealings with members of the nation. Here, Shemuel the religious leader is being rejected in favor of a political figurehead who will, in fact, seize and confiscate the property of Jewish citizens. The irony can’t be missed.
The appearance of rainfall during the harvest season is the perfect sign to prove Hashem’s point as conveyed by Shemuel. Ultimately, the environment and the weather are in the hands of the Almighty; He will therefore determine the prosperity of any given year. This, in turn, means that essential factors impacting the economic welfare of the Jewish people are beyond the control of any human being, including the king. The Book of Ecclesiastes observes that “the king is enslaved to the land.”
In the story of the Exodus, we see that even the mighty Pharaoh was brought to his knees after the decimation of crops in the plague of Hail. Our story is certainly reminiscent of that iconic narrative; the people, fearing the total destruction of their food supply in a “plague”, express remorse for their sins, and Shemuel (like Moshe before him) accedes to the request that he pray for the removal of the ominous existential threat. This experience reminds the people of the fundamental principle they were taught through the Exodus – all human power, no matter how impressive, is an illusion. True salvation is found in the presence of Hashem alone, and our point of connection to Him will always be through the Torah and the teachers, Levites and prophets who represent His will and wisdom.