Haftarat Parshat Zachor -
I Shmuel Chapter 15 -
Shaul and Amalek

What was so terrible about Shaul's sin with Amalek? Does he lose his kingdom simply because: For any one or even a mixture of these above reasons, it just doesn't seem fair that Shaul must lose his kingdom; especially in comparison to David HaMelech - whose sin appears to have been much more severe!

In the following shiur, we take a closer look at the details of Shmuel chapter 15 in an attempt to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of Shaul's sin.

The Haftara for Shabbat Zachor describes the tragic story of how Shaul, the first King of Israel, fails God's command to totally destroy Amalek. To better understand the reason for this failure, we must first discuss why this commandment falls specifically upon the shoulders of the king.

Rambam in Hilchot Melachim (see I.1) links the mitzvah to destroy Amalek to the mitzvah to appoint a king. Once a king is appointed, it becomes his responsibility to destroy Amalek. The juxtaposition of these laws already alludes to their thematic connection. One could suggest that the nation of Amalek stands antithetical to the nation of Israel. While the purpose of Israel is to bring the Name of God to all mankind by establishing a 'model nation' characterized "tzedek u'mishpat," Amalek denies any connection at all between mankind and God. Just as the king is responsible to establish and guide God's model nation, he must also make sure not to allow Amalek to stop Am Yisrael from achieving that goal.

[For example, Amalek first attacks Bnei Yisrael just as they are about to arrive at Har Sinai; see Part II of the TSC shiur on Parshat B'shalach in regard to Amalek and "yirat Elokim."]

From Shoftim to Melech and Navi
As we know from our study of Neviim Rishonim, several hundred years passed before Bnei Yisrael established a monarchy. Up until that time, various shoftim provided 'ad-hoc' leadership. However, on the whole, Am Yisrael suffered terribly due to the lack of a powerful central government and worthy political leadership. Finally, under the guidance of the prophet Shmuel, a monarchy was established and Shaul was appointed king.

However, the very institution of a king presented Am Yisrael with a dilemma. On the one hand, a king was necessary to guarantee the achievement of secure borders and economic prosperity. However, there remained the constant fear that a successful king may cause the people to fear their king more than they fear God Himself. Even though Shmuel hoped that the king would help lead Am Yisrael towards fulfilling God's goal, realistically speaking the danger remained that in the eyes of the nation a successful king would replace God rather than represent Him. (See Board #1.)

To 'solve' this problem, the King of Israel is expected to work under the guidance of a "navi" [prophet]. As the king's advisor, the navi is responsible to assure that the ideal relationship develops between God, the king and the people. [This is precisely the relationship between Shmuel and Shaul, and later between Natan and David, Yeshayahu and Chizkiyahu, etc.]

Shmuel, the Navi, made a special effort to guide Shaul in order to make sure that his kingdom would develop according to this ideal scenario. Therefore we find, at several instances when Shaul leads Bnei Yisrael in battle, that Shmuel makes certain demands in order to assure that the military victory is attributed to God, and not to the king alone. [See for example I Shmuel 13:1-14; see also 10:6-9.] (See Board #2.)

With this background we begin our study of the Haftara, for Shaul's battle against Amalek constitutes the most critical test of this delicate relationship.

Shaul vs. Amalek
Shaul's battle against Amalek can be viewed as a highlight in his military career. Recall that when Shaul first became king, his standing army numbered a mere 3000 soldiers (see 13:1-3; see also 14:46-48 to note how successful a military leader Shaul truly was. In contrast, note 8:19-20 and 12:12-13.) By the time we reach Shaul's battle against Amalek, His army already boasts over 200,000 soldiers (see 15:4).

Because of the special mitzvah to destroy Amalek, God commands Shaul to eradicate ["l'hachrim"] everything belonging to Amalek, including the spoils of war that usually belong to the victor (see 15:2-3). This mitzvah - "l'hachrim" - is usually understood as 'total destruction.' In fact, in regard to the law of "ir ha'nidachat" [an entire city that follows idol worship - see Devarim 13:16-18], the Torah details specifically that we are required "l'hachrim" - to gather all of its booty together and burn it!

However, in the battle of Yericho, we find a slightly different definition. There, when Yehoshua is commanded to make the city "cherem" (see Yehoshua 6:16-18), looting for personal use is forbidden; however dedicating the gold and silver for God's House is permitted (see Yehoshua 6:24)!

Good Intentions
This background can help us understand Shaul's behavior in a much more positive light. Our claim is that Shaul himself is quite sure that he has acted in a very honorable manner. Let's explain how (and why), step by step:

A. Taking the Best Sheep
In the aftermath of their victory over Amalek, Shaul (and the people) decide to take some of the best sheep and cattle from the "cherem" in order to offer Korbanot to God (see 15:9 and 15:15).

If we compare this to the battle of Yericho, this decision to take from the "cherem" for God is quite similar. In both cases, the "cherem" is taken for God's sake.

B. A National Assembly
Later we find that Shaul had invited the entire nation to the city of Gilgal for a public celebration of the conquest of Amalek. To verify this, read 15:12 carefully, noting: "hiney matziv lo yad" - "behold he is making a memorial." It appears that Shaul's plan is to offer these korbanot (from the "cherem") during this celebration at Gilgal. [This site is most probably chosen due to its historic connection to Yehoshua's original conquest of Yericho (near Gilgal - see Board #3), and the fact that the official coronation ceremony of Shaul himself that took place at Gilgal (see 11:14).]

Therefore, when Shaul first encounters Shmuel at Gilgal he proudly announces: "I have fulfilled God's commandment" (15:13). Even after Shmuel inquires regarding the sheep and cattle (15:14), Shaul promptly responds:

"From the Amalekites they were taken... in order to offer korbanot to Hashem, your God, and the rest was totally destroyed ['he'cheramnu']." (15:15)
In fact, Shaul most probably considered this the most proper form of celebration. Had not Moshe Rabbeinu himself built a mizbayach (to offer korbanot) and made a memorial in the aftermath of Bnei Yisrael's very first victory over Amalek? [See Shmot 17:15-16; note "ki yad kes Kah...!"]

Therefore, when Shmuel counters, charging Shaul that he had not been meticulous in following God's command (see 15:16-19), Shaul insists once again that:

"I have listened to God's command, and I have followed the path upon which God sent me, and the people took from the sheep and cattle solely to offer korbanot to Hashem in Gilgal." (see 15:20-21)
C. Admitting His Guilt
Despite Shaul's resolve that his behavior has been nothing less than commendable, Shmuel is not convinced. Once again he censures Shaul, claiming that he had not listened to God (see 15:22-23). In response to this censure, Shaul finally 'breaks' and admits his sin:
"And Shaul said to Shmuel, 'I have sinned, for I have transgressed God's command, for I feared the people and listened to them...'" (see 15:24)
This admission of guilt by Shaul is usually understood as sincere, but simply too late. However, if Shaul was indeed sincere, why is he punished so severely? After all, he had good intentions, and he now admits his guilt and hopefully has learned his lesson. Could it be that his sin is simply that he 'listened to the people?' Is this trait so critical to the ideal character of "melech Yisrael?"

Furthermore, if Shaul had truly accepted his guilt, why doesn't he transfer his rule immediately to someone more worthy, as Shmuel seems to suggest that he do (see 15:28-29)?

Based on the above background, one could suggest an alternate interpretation that explains not only why Shaul is punished, but also why he doesn't 'give up' his kingdom, and why he continues to fight David until the day (before) he dies.

Lip Service
One could suggest that Shaul's admission of guilt in 15:24 is not sincere at all; rather it is an attempt to appease Shmuel. Let's explain.

As we explained above, Shaul himself truly believes that he has done nothing wrong at all. He is sure that he has followed God's command properly. In his opinion, his planned celebration at Gilgal will make God's Name even greater. Even though Shmuel has challenged the "kashrut" of this gathering, Shaul himself remains convinced that his own actions have been flawless (see 15:13 and 15:20).

However, after these two confrontations with Shmuel, Shaul reaches the conclusion that Shmuel cannot be convinced. Therefore, instead of continuing this argument, Shaul decides that it is much easier just to admit his guilt (even though he himself remains convinced that he is not guilty).

Considering that the entire nation has gathered for the celebration, Shaul's primary concern is that 'the show must go on.' Recall that everyone is waiting for Shaul and Shmuel to offer the korbanot and bow down in thanksgiving to God. But now, because of Shmuel's censure, Shaul becomes worried that the celebration may be canceled. Therefore, he is willing to 'swallow his pride' in front of Shmuel; he'll do anything that is necessary to ensure that Shmuel will allow him to continue the 'ceremony.'

To prove that this is Shaul's intention, let's take a careful look at how Shaul admits his guilt:

"And Shaul said to Shmuel, 'I have sinned... but now atone my sin and return with me [to the celebration] so I can bow down to Hashem.'" (see 15:24-25)
Despite this admission, Shmuel remains adamant. He refuses to 'return' with Shaul to the celebration, and instead, he turns to leave. In a desperate attempt to keep Shmuel present, Shaul reaches for Shmuel's cloak, begging him to stay (see 15:26-27). Tragically, the cloak rips. Recognizing the symbolism of this action, Shmuel informs Shaul that God has 'ripped away' his kingdom and will give it to someone else more worthy (see 15:28-29).

Nonetheless, Shaul refuses to give up. Once again, instead of arguing with Shmuel, he [insincerely] reiterates his guilt in a desperate attempt that it may convince Shmuel to stay. Listen carefully to Shaul's primary request:

"And Shaul said, 'I have sinned, but now please honor me, in the eyes of the elders and all of the people [who have gathered for the ceremony at Gilgal!], and return with me so that I can bow down to Hashem, your God." (15:30)
Again, Shmuel doesn't agree, but note that Shaul remains firm in his own beliefs and continues with the ceremony alone:
"And Shmuel turned away from Shaul, but Shaul [remained] and bowed down to God." (15:31)
Note that despite Shmuel's censure, Shaul 'goes on with the show.' He bows down to God, continuing the ceremony. After all, he can not let his people down.

[In case how you are wondering how Shaul could reject Shmuel's opinion in such a blatant manner, recall that Shmuel (Shaul's old 'rebbe') is already quite aged (see 8:1 and 12:2!). Even though Shmuel had guided Shaul throughout his entire career, Shaul may have concluded that in his 'old age' Shmuel had 'lost it.' Shaul may have concluded that Shmuel has become too demanding. As happens so often (to this very day), the successful 'talmid' (student) concludes that he now understands the world much better than his old 'rebbe' does. He still respects him, and is thankful for his guidance, but if an entire career is at stake, it is not so easy to listen, especially when the 'talmid' is 100% sure that he is right and that his 'rebbe' is wrong.]

[Note also that this argument between Shmuel and Shaul takes place 'back stage,' i.e. not in the public eye. The people may note that there had been some tension between them, but they do not overhear Shmuel's prophecy that Shaul will lose his kingdom.]

Who Will Kill Agag?
Even though Shmuel does not join Shaul in 'bowing down,' he doesn't exactly leave either. Instead, he insists that Agag be killed immediately. Even though Shaul (most probably) had planned to kill Agag in public (as part of this public ceremony), Shmuel wants to make sure that the glory of Agag's death will be God's and not Shaul's. Therefore, Shmuel performs the mitzvah of killing Agag by himself. [See 15:32-33.]

Afterward, Shmuel goes home. We are told that they never see each other again. Tragically, Shmuel mourns his 'talmid' who has gone astray. Shaul, upset that his 'rebbe' no longer understands him, continues to lead Am Yisrael in the manner that he feels is correct. Shaul continues to believe that his actions were correct and that Shmuel had exaggerated in his condemnation. Therefore, Shaul doesn't accept Shmuel's prophecy that he shall lose his kingdom to someone more worthy. Many years later, as David rises to power, this prophecy my 'haunt' him (see chapters 24 and 26), but Shaul remains staunch in his belief that he is the King of Israel, just as Shmuel (in his younger days) had promised (see 10:1,7 and 12:1-2). It is only on the day before his death that Shaul finally realizes his mistake (see chapter 28, "v'akmal!").

[Note how this interpretation explains Shaul's behavior in the remainder of Sefer Shmuel I.]

Crime and Punishment
Now that we have explained the positive nature of Shaul's actions, we must explain why he is punished so severely. To do so, we must return to our earlier discussion of the inherent danger in the institution of a king (see our introduction, above).

Even though Shaul's intention for making a public ceremony may have been noble, its result was exactly the opposite of what God had intended. God desired the total destruction of Amalek in a manner that was totally different than in a regular war. Therefore, specifically by not taking any booty, the people would have better realized its religious significance. Now, by turning this victory into a national celebration with korbanot in Gilgal, the people will identify this victory over Amalek as Shaul's. Too much glory goes to the king, and not enough to God. (See Board #1.)

Due to the severity of this problem, the most important trait of the royal family must be that they forfeit their own honor in favor of the honor of God.

Shaul's obsession with "kab'deini na" - "honor me" (15:30) becomes his critical flaw. His view that the kingdom of Israel in itself is equivalent to the honor of God is unacceptable. God must choose a different royal family, the House of David, who will find the proper balance between the Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of Heaven.

As reflected in David's rebuttal of Michal bat Shaul's criticism of his dancing in front of the Aron:

"And Michal said: What honor is there today in the King of Israel... and David answered: [I have danced] in front of God who has chosen me over your father... and I have made myself humble, and in with the mothers [whom you think I stood embarrassed] I have shown honor." (II Shmuel 6:20-22)
Shaul believed that the honor of the King of Israel in itself was the highest goal. David's approach to the Kingdom of Israel was very different. David makes every effort possible to show that God is the true King, while the King of Israel is His loyal servant. [See I Divrei Ha'yamim 13:3! Note how David makes every effort to build the Mikdash, while Shaul makes none at all.]

For this reason, and due to this important trait, the Kingdom of the House of David remains eternal.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

TSC Home