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Reprinted from Conservative Judaism, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp.7-21 with the
permission of The Rabbinical Assembly.
KING SAULS FORTUNE AT THE HAND OF THE HOMILISTS

Norbert Weinberg
of historical figures by later generations can be vastly
T h e im a g e c o n c e i v e d
different from the image held by that personage s contemporaries. This can
be said easily of modern political figures, who can be successively praised or
damned; it can be shown to be so of biblical figures in the perspective of later
generations of Jewish commentators as well.
A biblical figure can be turned upside down, as it were. If Enoch
walked with God in the book of Genesis (4:24), in the book of Enoch he is a
divine being, but according to Genesis Rabbah (25:1), He is not recorded in
the lists of the righteous, but of the wicked! On the other hand, a villain the
likes of King Menassah can be sympathized with and called Our Rabbi in
Sanhedrin (102b).
If such is the treatment of blatant saints and sinners, how much more so
in the case of King Saul, a figure at once praiseworthy and pitiable as
described in the Bible. What happens in the writings from the close of the
Bible up until the talmudic period, in the Apocrypha, in Tannaitic and
Amoraic texts, in halakhic and aggadic discussions?
The biblical picture of Saul is favorable. Young and goodly, and there
was none among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he; from his
shoulder and upwards, he was taller than any of the people (I Samuel 9:2).
He is considerate of his father (9:5) and modestly tells no one of his anoint
ment by Samuel (10:16). The spirit of prophecy enters him (10:10) and his
outstanding trait, modesty (9:21), is reflected in his hiding from the populace
on the day of his election (10:22). He is, as well, the successful unifier and
leader of his people at the start of the wars against the Ammonites and the
Philistines (chapters 11-14).
His decline is well delineated. He offers sacrifice without waiting for
Samuel (13:11) and he loses Samuels support, as well as Gods, for sparing
Agag, king of Amalek. He deteriorates rapidly, consumed by jealousy of his
rival, David; he regresses from depression to plotting to attempted murder to
massacre. Nevertheless, there is sympathy for the man throughout the por
trayal: Samuel laments for him; David eulogizes him; and Saul dies nobly by
his own hand rather than falling into Philistine hands to be disgraced.
There are indirect references to Saul, as in Psalms 7 (Cush the Benja-
minite) and Esther 2:3 (the son of Kish, a Benjaminite), which are expounded
upon in later Rabbinic texts. Some Psalms are dedicated to incidents in

Norbert Weinberg is Rabbi o f R odef Sholom Temple in Hampton, Virginid.

Conservative Judaism, Vol. 33 No. 3 Copyright 1980 by the Rabbinical Assembly


David s experiences with Saul (Psalms 52, 54, 57, 59). Only in Chronicles is
there an extensive block of references to Saul: chapter 10 depicts Saul s last
battle with the Philistines and his death. At no point is it mentioned that he
had been appointed legitimately by Samuel, nor are his successes in battle
recorded, and he is referred to as king only in retrospect by the populace
when urging David to become king (I Chronicles 11:2). We are given, instead
of the balanced view found in Samuel, a blanket condemnation.
So Saul died fo r his transgressions, which he committed against the Lord, because o f the
word o f God which he kept not; and also fo r that he asked counsel o f a ghost, to inquire
thereby, and inquired not o f the Lord; therefore He slew him and turned the kingdom
unto David, the son o f Jesse. (I Chronicles 10:13-14)x

Whereas the book of Samuel is a product of monarchic times, written


while popular memories may yet have been fresh and while extensive records
may have been available, Chronicles is considered to be a work of the Second
Commonwealth period, when the Davidic dynasty had ceased to be a reality
and had become an ideal. King David, forerunner of the awaited descendant
who would fulfill all the expectations of the prophets, could do no great
wrong; thus the story of Bat Sheva is missing from this collection. On the
other hand, Saul, forerunner and threat to this ideal David, could do no right.
Herein is the first revisionist edition of the life of Saul; not even the central
act, the sparing of Agag, is given as the reason for Saul s falling. For Samuel to
turn away from Saul would be to cast legitimacy on Saul up to that point.
Saul s crime is one which in post-exilic eyes is far greater: He asked counsel
of a ghost. Saul does not betray Samuel s orders; he betrays the essence of
Judaism.

saul in the apocrypha

follow in the school of thought of the author(s)


T h e w r ite r s o f t h e a p o cry p h a
of Chronicles in regards to King Saul.
The Wisdom of Ben Sira, written at the beginning of the second century
b . c . e . , includes a list of heroes of Israel. In chapter 46, it is written of Samuel:
He established the monarchy and anointed rulers over his people (46:13).
Even after he had gone to his rest, he prophesied and foretold to the king his
death, lifting up his voice in prophecy from the ground to wipe out the
people s guilt (46:20).2 Saul is never mentioned by name, even though he is
mentioned as king, while David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah are di
rectly included as positive figures. No reference is made to his acts of heroism
or greatness. Ben Sira s interests are pedagogical, not political; he presents to
the reader the ideal type; he mentions Jeroboam as an example of iniquity,

1 Biblical quotations are taken from the 1917 JPS translation.


2 Taken from the New English Bible.
King Sauls Fortune I Norbert Weinberg 9
and Solomon is included, despite his faults, since He will not wipe out the
children of his chosen servant (47:22). For Ben Sira, Saul is at best of
doubtful caliber and has no place in a portrayal of model figures.
The Ethiopian book of Enoch follows in this tradition of denigrating Saul.
Using the vehicle of animal metaphors for Jewish history, the author writes:
The dogs, jackals, and wild boars began to devour the flock until the lord o f the flock
appointed another sheep, a ram, from their midst, to lead them. The ram began to butt
on all sides at the dogs and jackals and boars, until he destroyed them completely. Then
that sheep opened his eyes and saw that the ram, in the midst o f his flock, abandoned his
glory and began to butt his own flock, trample them and go wild. The lord o f the flock
sent the first sheep to another one to be ram in place o f the ram that had desecrated its
glory. (9:42-46)3

The story of the ram, Saul, had been turned completely around; first,
Saul goes mad and kills his own, and only then does Samuel remove him. The
accusation of Saul oppressing his own people is unknown in the Bible.
If Ben Sira writes as a pedagogue, the author of Enoch is an es-
chatologist. The pedagogue seeks an ideal model and therefore exludes Saul.
Enoch is a product of apocalyptic circles, wherein the world is black or white,
saint or sinner; presumably this outlook developed during Antiochene perse
cutions, not much after the time of Ben Sira, and continued to be significant
into the years following the fall of the Second Temple. 4 The book of Enoch is
assumed to have been written at the time of John Hyrcanus; if so, the author
envisions Saul as a prototype of the Hasmonean rulers who turned from
defending against the oppressors to being the oppressors. As they await a
Davidic deliverer, they can have no patience for any contender to the throne
of Israel, before or after David.

second temple period

T h e r e is a w o r k , Liber Antiquitatem Biblius, whose author is referred to as


Pseudo-Philo. 5 The dating is in dispute, posited as early as Hasmonean times
or as late as the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c .E . Biblical history is intentionally
rewritten; Saul in particular suffers from this revisionism. According to this
text, Saul spares Agag and his wife for purposes of greed, as they promise to
reveal to him the wherabouts of Amalekite wealth. Therefore Saul is pun
ished in the following manner: that night of captivity, Agag is allowed to be
with his wife, who then conceives; she is spared while Agag is slain. The fruit
of that union becomes the armor bearer to Saul; Saul does not commit
3 Abraham Kahana, Hasefarim Hahitzonim, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: 5720).
4 Op. C it. , introduction to text of Enoch.
5 Pseudo-Philo, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 13. A. Spero (Samaritans, Tobiads, & Judahites, PAA/R,
20, 1951, p. 300) su g g e sts th at th e work is old, intended as a polemic against the Samaritans and the Tobiad
family. He presumes that the rewriting of the Bible could be so extensive because it was, at that time, not
yet widely read.
10

suicide, but is killed by the son of Agag. From this young man is Haman
descended. Lest one think that Saul s motive in killing all diviners was noble,
Pseudo-Philo charges him with doing this only to attain glory (Pseudo-Philo
55:58, 59:64).6
During this period, is there no voice favorable to Saul?
In the scroll of Esther, Mordecai is described as the son of Kish, the
(Ben)jaminite,, and Haman as the Agagite. What the first Benjaminite,
Saul, failed, his descendant Mordecai achieves, an early example of a mid-
rashic tit for tat (midah keneged midah). Saul of Tarsus, later to be known as
Paul, addresses his audience (Romans 11:7; Phillipians 3:5) and emphasizes
his descent from the tribe of Benjamin. Presumably, by this time Saul was an
acceptable name, and his intentional choice of the tribe of Benjamin was,
according to Klausner, in order to associate himself with the lineage of King
Saul, just as Jesus was of the lineage of King David. 7
Josephus is the first to attempt an analysis of Saul s personality; he is
perhaps the first Jewish historian to attempt psychohistory. In Antiquities
of the Jews (Book 6 , chapters 4-14) he follows the general outline of the
biblical account, embellishing it with his insights for the Roman readership.
Saul's comprehension and wisdom are described as greater than his beauty,
and his hiding during his election as king was sign of his outstanding modesty
(chapter 4). Even his initial intention in the war with Amalek was good; in
order to show his zeal for God, he speedily made all arrangements for warfare
and set out to totally destroy Amalek (chapter 7).
It is, up to this point, the most favorable description of Saul. It must be
remembered that Josephus, unlike the authors of previously cited works, is
writing for a non-Jewish audience; he wishes to portray his people in as noble
a light as possible to the Romans, who had been in a violent conflict with the
Jews. 8 In describing Sauls downfall, he suggests the following: He also took
Agag, the enemys king, captive; the beauty and tallness of whose body he
admired so much, that he thought him worthy of preservation (Book 6 ,
chapter 7, section 2 ).
Saul s ultimate degeneration, Josephus writes, is common to many lead
ers:
While they are private persons, and in a low condition . . . they are equitable, moder
ate, and pursue nothing but what is just and bend their whole minds and labors that way
. . . but when once they are into power and authority, then they cut o ff all such notions;
and as i f they were actors upon a theater, they lay aside their disguised parts and
manners, and take up boldness, insolence, and a contempt o f both human and divine
laws. (Chapter 12, section 7)9
6 Louis Ginzberg, Legends o f the Jews, vol. VI (Philadelphia), pp. 233-34, n. 62, 66.
7 Joseph Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (Boston: 1961), p. 305.
8 J. Heinemann, Darkei Haggadah (Jerusalem: 5714), p. 144. Josephus adopts a style of analysis from the
literary school of Theophrastus.
9 William Whiston, trans., The Genuine Works o f Flavius Josephus, rev. Sam Burder (Boston: 1849).
King Sauls Fortune / Norbert Weinberg 11

It is common for Josephus, writing for a Roman audience, to find erotic


motives for human behavior. It is very likely that Josephus is also interjecting
his own experiences as a leader in the war against Rome, on the one hand,
and as insider to the Roman court, on the other; perhaps it is Josephus own
confession of his behavior during the war.
A comparable attempt at using psychology to understand Saul can also be
found in the period between the times of Ben Sira and Josephus. Abot
dRabbi Nathan preserves material attributed to the Zugot, the sages from
Alexanders conquest till the time of Hillel and Shammai. In a statement
attributed to Judah ben Tabbai:
Whoever would have told me that I would arise to a position o f authority would have
been physically attacked by me. Now that 1 have attained office, I would pour a kettle o f
boiling water upon whosoever would tell me Get d o w n Just as it is difficult to rise to
greatness, so is it difficult to descend therefrom. Just so was it with Saul, that when he
was told he would become king, he hid, as it is written, He hid behind the vessels but
when he was told to get down, he pursued David with intent to kill. (version A 10:1 j10

A similar statement is made in the name of Joshua ben Perachya, the


predecessor of the above-quoted sage; it is recorded in Menahot 109b. The
two are often interchanged in various texts, but, whoever the speaker, the
time frame is the turn of the second century b . c .e .

midrashic literature critical o f saul

U n l i k e a p o c r y p h a l t e x t s o r J o s p e h u s , which are extended discourses, the


writings of the Midrash are a verse by verse and sometimes word for word
exposition of the text. In this process, the author is freed from the context of
the Bible to derive his desired conclusion about the text. It is this style of
literature which is associated with the major Jewish works in the last years of
the Second Temple and in the generations following: Mekhilta, Sifra, Tal
mud, Midrash Rabbah, for example. Some of this material continues in the
antagonistic vein of the apocalytpic and apocryphal writers.
There is an attempt to restructure the text of Chronicles on Sauls
downfall to correspond with details in the book of Samuel:
For five sins Saul died, as it is written, So Saul died fo r his transgressions which he
committed against the Lord (I Chronicles 10:13). As Samuel said to him, Seven days
shall you tarry, till I come unto thee (I Samuel 10:8), which he failed to do; I forced
myself therefore and offered the burnt offering (13:12) (1). Because o f the word o f the
Lord, which he kept not (I Chronicles 10:13) - that he spared Agag (2). That he
destroyed Nob, city o f priests (3). That he asked o f a ghost (Ibid.) (4). And did not

10 Translations of Rabbinic texts are by the author. This excerpt is based on the Finklestein edition of
Aboth dR abbi Nathan.
12

inquire o f the Lord (Ibid.) - that refers to Saul telling the priest, Withdraw your
hand (I Samuel 14:19) (5). (Midrash Shmuel 24:7)X1

The author is committed to the number five; he therefore adds to the


items in Chronicles the slaying of the priests of Nob, even though no textual
ground is given. The author of the midrash is also pressed to explain when it
was that Saul did not inquire of the Lord, so he has interpreted the reference
to Saul s order to the priest to withdraw his hand from the ephod as failing to
ask Gods advice before entering into combat, whereas the original text
demonstrates, instead, the urgency of the situation, not a failure on Saul s
part. (Indeed, Targum translates this phrase as bring the ephod," which has
the opposite connotation.)
Another version is recorded in Vayikra Rabbah 26:7, and Shlomo Buber,
in his comments to Midrash Shmuel, suggests that the original version
associated which he committed in Chronicles with the death of the priests
at Nob.
The opening note to Psalms 7 refers it to the matter of Cush Ben-
yamini, and Midrash Tehilim 7:18 presumes this to be Saul, the son of Kish,
the Benjaminite:
Was Saul indeed an Ethiopian (Kushi)? He did not wait (for Samuel's return at Gilgal)
and God gave him another heart (when Saul joined the band o f prophets). Thus
Samuel said to him, What have you done? He answered, Because I saw that the
people were scattered from me and thou came not within the days appointed . . . and 1
offered burnt offering (13:12).

To prove the spiritual blackness of Saul, as implied by Ethiopian, a


verse is taken out of context. Whereas Saul s change of heart is implied to be
for the better, it is here interpreted to mean for the worse, for failing to wait
for Samuel.
Saul is depicted as arrogant and quarrelsome before God in the text of
Kohelet Rabbah 7:33 (and, similarly, in Yoma 22b and Midrash Shmuel
18:3-4):
Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise (Ecclesiastes 7:16). Dont be
more righteous than your Creator; this refers to Saul, as it is written, And Saul came to
the city o f Amalek (I Samuel 15:5). The continuation o f the text is and laid in wait in
the valley. Rav Huna and Rav Banayah12 say, He began to question the judgment o f
his creator, and said, The Holy One said to attack Amalek. I f the men sinned, what did
the women do, or the children, or the cattle? A heavenly voice announced, Be not more
righteous than your Creator The Rabbis said, He began to dispute about the calf o f
the broken neck. He said, The text tells us, They break the neck o f the calf in the valley
(in case o f an unsolved homicide) (Deuteronomy 21:4). This one is killed and the other

11 Edited by Shlomoh Buber. Other Rabbinic texts are from the standard edition of the Talmud.
Midrash Rabbah texts taken from the edition printed by Levin-Epstein, Jerusalem, 5727.
12 According to the text of Midrash Shmuel, it should read, Rav Banai in the name of Rav Huna.
King Sauls Fortune I Norbert Weinberg 13

one has its neck broken. This one sinned, what did the other do? A heavenly voice
announced, Be not righteous overmuch! Rav Shimon ben Lakish said, Whoever is
merciful instead o f cruel will in the end be cruel when it is time to be merciful; from
whence do we know that he will be cruel instead o f merciful? It is stated, He struck Nob,
city o f the priests, with the sword from man to woman, child to babe, ox, donkey, and
sheep, by sword (I Samuel 22:18). Let not the fate o f Nob be as that o f the seed o f
Amalek! The Rabbis said, Whoever is merciful instead o f cruel (at the necessary
moment) is struck by the attribute o f law (middat hading as is stated, Saul and his three
sons died (I Samuel 31:6).

The text revolves around several key words. The following verse in
Ecclesiastes chimes in, Why die before your time (verse 17) and Saul is an
appropriate example of someone who died in his prime. The Hebrew for laid
in wait is vayarev, which is lacking the necessary letter aleph for va-
yaarev.13 It is read as meaning riv for quarrel, and hence the question of
the nature of the quarrel. One interpretation reflects the malaise with the
severity of the punishment inflicted upon Amalek but is placed in the mouth
of Saul and thereby discredited. The use of a negative character to phrase
problems of conscience is similarly done in the account of Korach and the
widow s plight as a consequence of Moses taxations in Midrash Tehilim
1:15.14 The other version responds to the reference to valley; if the text in
the Bible is understood as He quarreled about the valley, then the associa
tion of murder, a trait of Amalek, with valley, finds its complement in the law
of the calf whose neck is to be broken in a valley in the case of an unsolved
homicide.
Sauls meeting with the Witch of Ein-dor incorporates a touch of irony:
A man or a woman that has a familiar spirit (Leviticus 20:27). Rav Joshua o f Sichnin
said in the name o f Rav Levi: A man - that is Saul . . . To what can Saul be compared?
To a king who has ordered all the roosters to be slaughtered. He then asks, Bring me a
rooster to crow! They answer, Did you not proclaim, Execute all roosters! Thus Saul
removed diviners and those familiar with spirits from the earth. (Vayikra Rabbah 26:7)

The accusation in Chronicles that Saul did not inquire of the Lord is
dealt with in depth in two other references. The first is a continuation of the
above material from Vayikra Rabbah:
7 am sore distressed . . . and God is departed from me, and answers me no more,
neither by prophets nor by dreams (I Samuel 28:15). Why did he not add Urim and
Thummim? Said Rabbi Isaac b. Hiya: You brought it on yourself. You destroyed Nob,
city o f the priests. Because he sinned against the priests (in charge o f the oracles) so he
was punished with this sin as well. Just as he killed the priests, so he incurred death fo r
this sin o f the oracle and diviner.

13 See Kittel, Biblia Hebraica.


14 Other examples of biblical figures expressing Rabbinic doubts can be found in Heinemann, op. cit. , p.
91.
14

The second sheds light on the passage quoted above, from Midrash
Shmuel, in which this sin is associated with I Samuel 14:16-23:
Thy word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light to my path (Psalms 119:105). When did
David recite this verse? When he went to the Valley o f Refaim; even then he did not
proceed to fight until he inquired o f the Urim and Thummim. When Samuel proceeded
to anoint David, the angels contested it before God, saying, Lord o f the World, why
have you taken the kingdom from Saul and given it to David? He answered, 1 will tell
you the difference between Saul and David. Saul began to inquire o f the oracle, but
when he saw the Philistines approach, he ordered the priest hold your hand. But
David, when he saw the Philistines approach at Refaim, immediately inquired o f the
Urim and Thummim, as it says, The Philistines made another attack . . . David inquired
o f the Lord (II Samuel 5:23). (Midrash Tehilim 27:2)

One last example of critical midrash utilizes Saul s physical traits in


contrast with his spiritual faults:
The Rabbis taught (in baraita): Five were created in the heavenly pattern, and all were
injured on that account: Samson - with his strength; Saul - with his height; Absalom -
with his hair; Zedekiah -w ith his eyes; Asa - with his f e e t. . . Saul, with his neck, as it is
written, And Saul took his own sword and fell on it (I Samuel 31:4). (Sotah 10a).

In Sotah 1:8 there is a comparable thought:


He had a son whose name was Saul, and there was no one o f Israel who was better than
he (1 Samuel 9:2). Could this mean in all respects better? We are taught, from his
shoulders and above, taller than his fellow (Ibid.). (Also see Midrash Shmuel 13:7.)

For these critics, Saul s virtue started and stopped at his neck.

drashot offering benefit o f the doubt

attributed to Judah ben Tabbai some three centuries or more


J ust as the text
before the editing of the Mishnah attempted to understand Saul from the
standpoint of human emotion, so do later statements, in accord with the
concept: A man does not sin, unless the spirit of foolishness has entered
him.
Blame is placed on Doeg, the advisor, as the cause of Saul s harsh
downfall. Doeg, along with Balaam, Ahitophel, and Gehazi, has no place in
the world to come (Sanhedrin 10:2). Why is he called Doeg the Edomite,
the reddish one?:
Bar Kapara said, That he withheld the blood o f Agagfrom Saul, by quoting, You shall
not slaughter it and its calf on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). You would kill child and
elder, babe and woman on the same day! Hence he was called the red one, since he
caused Saul to be held liable on his account. (Midrash Tehilim 32:4)

Bar Kapara takes the doubt which was attributed to Saul in Kohelet
Rabbah by Rav Huna and moves it to Doeg. He is also attributed with the
King Sauls Fortune / Norbert Weinberg 15

following statement: And Saul and the people had pity on Agag (I Samuel
15:9) that is Doeg, who was equal to all Israel (Midrash Shmuel 18:4).15
The blame is placed upon Doeg for the massacre at Nob as well:
He told Saul (Psalm 52:2, about Ahimelech). What is He told? Thus he said, David
has made himself king in your lifetime, since one does not inquire o f the Urim and
Thummim unless one is king or court or where the public weal depends upon it.
However, David has inquired o f them. . . . (Saul) said to Doeg, You struck them with
your speech, now strike them with the sword. (Midrash Tehilim 52:5)

The biblical text makes it clear that inquiring of the oracle was Doegs
fabrication; the midrash clarifies its impact:
You love evil over good, a lie above a word o f righteousness (Psalm 52:5). David said to
Doeg, You prefer the harm to Saul over his well-being, fo r had he not heard slander
from you, he would not have been punished! (Midrash Tehilim 52:7)

Responsibility is likewise placed upon Abner for not protesting to Saul


and thereby stopping him (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1 and Babli Sanhedrin 20a). It
is even thrust upon the shoulders of David and Jonathan by Rav, quoted by
Rav Yehudah:
Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, to David, How long will this sin be buried in your
hands (referring to the massacre) - by your hands Saul and his three sons were
killed! (Sanhedrin 95a). Had David not sought refuge, the massacre would not have
taken place.
Said Rav Yehuda in the name o f Rav, Had Jonathan only given David two loaves o f
bread, the priests o f the city would not have been killed, Doeg would not have been
condemned, and Saul and his three sons would not have been killed. (Sanhedrin 104a)

The Rabbis are always eager to teach the power of confession and
repentance. Thus again, in the name of Rav, quoted by Rabbah bar Haninah
Saba:
Whoever transgresses and is then ashamed o f it has his sins forgiven. . . . Samuel said to
Saul, Why have you disturbed me and brought me up? Saul said, I am in great
trouble. The Philistines are pressing upon me and God has turned away from me. He no
longer answers me through dreams or prophets, and I have summoned you to tell me
what I should do (I Samuel 28:15). Why did he not mention the Urim and Thummim?
Because he had killed the people o f the priestly city o f Nob (an act o f which he was
ashamed). Whence do we know he was forgiven in the eyes o f Heaven? Tomorrow you
and your sons are with me (verse 19). Said Rav Yochanan, With me -o n my side. The
Rabbis said it is learned from this verse, We shall put them to death at Gibeah o f Saul,
chosen o f the Lord (II Samuel 21:6). It was a heavenly voice that announced the words,
chosen o f the Lord. (Berakhot 12b)

15 Doeg is head of the court (Midrash Tehilim 3:4) and a great scholar (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 15:2). In
this period, in Rabbinic retrospect, every child studied halakhah (Vayikra Rabbah 26:7).
Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish adopts a similar theme in regard to Sauls
atonement, which can be contrasted with the criticism recorded in his name
on the theme of merciful instead of cruel mentioned above:
A t that moment, the Holy One, Blessed be He, called to his angels and said: See my
creation. In the normal way o f the world, a man goes to the house o f drink and does not
take his sons with him fo r fear that it would be unseemly. But this one knows that he is to
be killed, takes his three sons with him, and rejoices in accepting the decree that strikes
him. (Midrash Shmuel 24:6 and Vayikra Rabbah 26:7)

A common theme of Rabbinic doctrine is the assumption that all the


figures of the Bible were engaged in halakhic discussion in the same manner
carried out in the academies of Yavneh or Sura. Since all Oral Law was
interpreted as dating back to Moses, there was the assumption that what was
being taught as new had been said before. Someone as prominent as Saul
could only be seen in the pattern of a talmudic sage.
Saul gave the hand of his daughter Michal to another man, when by
rights she was the wife of David; Saul, as scholar, could not possibly create an
adulterous situation. There is an attempt to find a legal rationale, as in the
following text, which transfers the blame, again, to Doegs malicious advice:
This one permitted adultery. Said Rav Nachman, son o f Shmuel bar Nachman: He
permitted his wife because he is a rebel against the government; hence, he is like a dead
man, his blood is free (to be shed) and his wife is free (to be married). (Bereshit Rabbah
32:1)

The Tosefta deals in strictly halakhic terms:


How can it be that Michal was given to Adriel? Wasnt she given to Palti ben Laish, as it
says, And Saul gave Michal, his daughter, the wife o f David, to Paltiel ben Laish o f
Gallim (I Samuel 25:42)! Rather they compared the marriage o f Michal to the marriage
o f Merav. Just as the marriage o f Michal to Adriel was a sin, so was the marriage o f
Merav a sin. The students o f Rabbi Yose asked, How can it be that David married his
wifes sister? He married her after the death o f Merav. And Rabbi Joshua b. Karha
said, The marriage was not correctly carried out, hence they were not considered
married. (Sota 11, p. 316, Zuckermandel ed.)

The error involved in the original marriage is developed in full in


Sanhedrin19b:
What marriage took place in error? It is written, Whoever slays (Goliath) will the king
make rich and give his daughter (I Samuel 17:25). David killed him and came to Saul,
You have a promisory loan from me. But a woman engaged by a loan is not engaged.
Therefore, he gave her to Adriel, as it is written, A t the time that Merav, Sauls
daughter, should have been given to David, she was given to Adriel the Mecholite as
wife (I Samuel 18:19). He then said, I f you wish that I give you Michal fo r a wife, bring
me a hundred Philistine foreskins. David did so, and said, You have both a loan and a
prutahs worth (minimum sum) from me! Saul was o f the thought, Loan and prutah,
the intent is on the loan, and David was o f the thought, Loan and prutah, the intention
King Sauls Fortune / Norbert Weinberg 17

is on the prutah. But what if all the world agrees that intent is on the prutah? We can
explain that Saul believed that it had no value, and David believed that it was o f value at
least to dogs and cats.

What would seem, in the biblical text, a case of double-dealing, has been
reduced, in Rabbinic discourse, to a halakhic dispute between two scholars of
great rank.
drashot that idealize said

of exegesis, fully removed from either the


T h e r e is y e t a t h i r d c a t e g o r y
severe denunciation of a Pseudo-Philo or the psychologizing of a Josephus.
These texts try to portray Saul, even with his faults, as one of the great saints
of the Bible.
A text in Midrash Shmuel, cited earlier, speaks of Saul s five sins. In
front of the text of an alternate version, found in Vayikra Rabbah, also quoted
earlier, is the caption: The Rabbis taught: For five sins did this righteous
man die / 16 Similarly, the text of Berakhot 12a, mentioned above, empha
sizes that a heavenly voice declared Saul the chosen of the Lord.
When David is contrasted to Saul, it is David who is found wanting by
comparison:
Zutra bar Tubia taught in the presence o f Rav Judah. He asked, W ^ .t is the end o f the
verse, These are the last words o f David*? (II Samuel 23:1). Last. What are the
first? . . . And David spoke the words o f this song on the day God saved him from the
hand o f his enemies, from the hand o f Saul (II Samuel 22:1). God told David, David,
you sing a song on the fall o f Saul! I f you were Saul, and he David, how many times
would I have destroyed Davids fo r him! Therefore in Psalms 7, he wrote shigayon17 o f
David, which he sang unto the Lord on the matter o f Kush ben Yamini. Was Kush his
name? Rather Saul was his name; but, ju st as an Ethiopian is exceptional fo r his skin, so
was Saul exceptional fo r his deeds. (Moed Katan 16b)

The same word, Kush, used in Midrash Tehilim to discredit Saul, is used
herein to his glory. Yet the following text, from Midrash Tehilim, also carries
the theme of the contrast between Saul and David, to Sauls credit:
Said the Holy One to David, W hy do you curse my anointed one? You say, All my
enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror(P salm s 6:11). Do you call Saul an
enemy! As it says, *On the day God saved him from the hand o f his enemies, from the
hand o f Saul (II Samuel 22:1). He said to him, Lord o f the world, intentional sins are
before you as mere errors, as you said, Errors, who can understand? (Psalms 19:13).
(Midrash Tehilim 7:1)

David is forced to ask forgiveness for his arrogance. The theme is then
continued in the text:
16 According to Zunz, much older material is recorded in Vayikra Rabbah under the caption, The
Rabbis taught (tno rabbanan).
17 Rashi comments that shigayon be read shegagah, meaning an error rather than a musical instruction,
thus clarifying the intention of the midrash.
18

Rav Shmuel bar Nachman: You compare yourself to Saul! Saul freed his possessions to
the use o f the wars o f Israel, as it says, He took a pair o f oxen and cut them (1 Samuel
11:3) and you would compare yourself to Saul! Lighter than eagles, stronger than
lions (II Samuel 1:23). Rabbi Levi said: Saul could walk sixty miles in a day.

The text continues with a discussion of Saul s physical speed, discusses


the statement, Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy, and concludes, in
the words of Rav Aha, If your luck were the luck of Saul, how many Davids
would I have destroyed for him! This concept of man s fortune dependent
upon Gods grace and providence is echoed in the following text, the theme of
which is strikingly different from the assumed Rabbinic stance, Everything
is foreseen, but the choice is fully within human hands:
Said Rav Huna: How little does a person suffer if the Lord helps him. Saul committed
one sin, and was held accountable; David committed two sins, but was not held liable!
Saul with one sin - the incident o f Agag. But what o f the incident o f Nob? It is after the
incident o f Agag that the text says, 7 repent that 1 have anointed Saul to be King (I
Samuel 15:11). What were David s two? The killing o f Uriah and the incitement (to
census, according to Rashi). Is there not also the incident o f Bat Sheva? He paid fo r it.
(Yoma 22b)

The text of Yoma deals exclusively with Saul, including in it the


aforementioned debate on Be not righteous. After listing more of the sins of
David, and realizing that not for Davids greater saintliness was he promoted
but by virtue of Divine fiat, the text continues to examine the reason for
Sauls removal:
Said Rav Judah in the name o f Samuel, Why did the house o f Saul not continue to
reign? Because he had no faults, just as Rav Yochanan in the name o f Rav Shimon bar
Yehozedek said, One does not appoint an individual to the position o f leader o f the
public unless a box o f lizards hangs behind him (a history o f sin in the family), so that if
his mind errs, they can say, Look behind you. Said Rav Judah in the name o f Rav:
Why was Saul punished? Because he forewent the honor due to him, as it is written,
Certain base fellows said: How shall this man save us? And they despised him, and
brought him no present. But he held his peace (I Samuel 10:27) and immediately
following, it says, Then Nahash the Ammonite came up and encamped against Jabesh-
Gilead (a sign o f reproval) (I Samuel 11:1). (Yoma 22b)

What are the characteristics that made Saul a leader in the first place.
Many texts emphasize the obvious picture, in the Bible, of his modesty:
Saul did not merit kingship fo r any reason other than his modesty, as we are told, Let
us turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the asses and begin to worry about
us (I Samuel 9:5). But Samuel responded, Your father has stopped being worried
about the asses and is worrying about you, saying, What shall I do about my son?
(Tosefta Berakhot 4:18)
It is implied herein that Saul, in modesty, included in his fathers
concerns his servants as much as himself, an assumption which Samuel
King Sauls Fortune I Norbert Weinberg 19

repudiates. His modesty is itself part of a family trait:


He withdraweth not his eyes from the righteous; but with kings upon the throne, He
sets them forever, and they are excited (Proverbs 36:7). Said Rav Elazar: For the merit
o f modesty, Rachel deserved that Saul be descended from her. For the merit o f modesty
in him, Saul deserved that Esther be descended from him . . . What was SauYs modesty?
Concerning the matter o f the kingship, whereof Samuel spoke, he told him not (I
Samuel 10:16). Consequently, he was meritorious, and Esther was his descendant.
(Megillah 13a)

Saul s modesty is exemplified in a text dealing with famous models of


modesty, including Moses, which states:
Thus says the text, A m ans pride shall bring him low, but he that is o f humble spirit
shall attain honor (Proverbs 29:23). Whoever pursues high office, high office flees from
him, but whoever flees high office, the high office pursues him. Saul fled from his office
at the moment they wished to anoint him king. Said the Holy One to Samuel, He has hid
himself among the baggage . . . Baggage refers to Urim and Thummim (Midrash
Aggadah, ed. Buber, Vayikra 1:1 )(The implication is that Saul let the pronouncement o f
fitness come through divine oracle, not through his own choosing.)

Saul s modesty extended to physical discretion, to the detriment of


David s own lack of shame:
Michal said to David, Today the honor o f my father s house was exposed (at the time o f
David s wild dance at the return o f the ark). They said o f the house o f Saul that one
never saw his heel or toe. Thus it is written, And he came to the sheepcotes by the way,
where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself a little at a time, and cover it
repeatedly. Said David, Cursed be whoever touches that righteous one. (Yerushalmi
Sanhedrin 2:4)

As mentioned above, the biblical figures were all seen as great talmudic
lights as well. Not only did some Rabbis try to mitigate Sauls failings on the
basis of mistakes in halakhah, but they portrayed him as a devotee of sages as
well. Thus, when the Mishnah (Nedarim 9:10) compares the lamentation
prescribed by David for the women over Saul, Ye daughters of Israel, weep
over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet delicately (II Samuel 1:24), the
discussion in the Yerushalmi to that text is:
Hama said: Banot Yisrael (daughters o f Israel) - Benaot yisrael (the beautiful o f Israel)
- that is the Sanhedrin, fo r when he would see a group o f scholars, he would wine and
dine them. What does the text mean, Who put ornaments o f gold upon your apparel?
That means he would listen to the lessons o f the sage and praise him. The text, in the
names o f Rav Judah and Rav Nehemiah, also compares Saul to Rav Ishmael fo r his
generosity, by feeding the wives o f his soldiers.

The text of Yoma 22b, which contains the extended discussion on Saul
mentioned earlier, provides an exam ple of the Rabbis giving Saul the attri
bute of near perfection:
20

Said Rav Huna, Saul was a year when he became King (I Samuel 13:1). That means
that he never tasted the taste o f sin (like a one year old child). Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak
disagreed: He was like your child, muddied and soiled with excrement. That night he
saw a frightening apparition in his dream, and he declared, 7 have disturbed the bones
o f Saul the son o f Kish/ The apparition returned, until he declared, 7 have disturbed the
bones o f Saul, the son o f Kish, king o f IsraelI18

Saul is ultimately redeemed, in Rabbinic lore, by being elevated to the


greatest honor possible, to eschatological function and a place in the presence
of God. Saul is seated in the company of the Messiah and made a heavenly
defender of Israel. Thus, Rav Sheshet and Hannah bar Bisna in the name of
Rav Shimon Hasida said:
We will set up over it seven shepherds, eight princes o f men (Micah 5:4). Who are the
seven shepherds? David in the middle, Adam, Seth, Methuselah on the right, Abraham,
Jacob, Moses on the left. Who are the eight princes? Jesse, Saul, Samuel, Amos,
Zephaniah, Zedekiah, Messiah, Elijah. ( Sukkot 52b)19

The ultimate reconciliation is effected; Saul is not only in the same row
with the Messiah, but is seated next to Davids father, Jesse, on one side, and
with Samuel, who had bemoaned Sauls failings, on the other.

concluding thoughts

I t i s p a r t a n d p a r c e l of Rabbinic homiletics to use the figures of the Bible for


didactic ends, even though the plain meaning of the text may suffer. They
projected contemporary issues into the past, as recorded in the Bible. In
addition, there is a strong tendency in Rabbinic teaching to elevate the status
of all figures in the Bible, in line with the concept, If our ancestors were like
angels, then we are mere mortals; if our ancestors were mere mortals, then
we are monkeys. The methods and motivations are underscored in Darkei
Aggadah by Heinemann.20
It is from this perspective that it is possible to understand the radical
differences in approach of the Midrash to that of earlier works. The literature
of the Second Temple period varies from being highly critical and negative, as
in Enoch, to an attempt to understand why Saul failed, as in the works of
Josephus. These works appear as extended discourse on a theme, written as
narrative, apocalypse, or wisdom literature. Though reflecting the methods
developed centuries earlier, we find in the works recorded following the fall
of the Second Temple not only the sharp criticism but a benefit of the doubt
and even an acquittal of soul, something that is possible when, in midrashic

18 This can be compared to a similar dream attributed to Rav Ashi concerning King Menasseh, recorded
in Sanhdrin 102b.
19 See also Yalkut Shimoni to Micah 5:4 and Bamidbar Rabbah 14:2, under the theme Debates about
the Messiah.
20 Leopold Zunz, Hadrashot Beyisrael, ed. Chanoch Albeck (Jerusalem: 1954), p. 54.
King Saul's Fortune / Norbert Weinberg 21

approach, the text becomes merely the starting point and no longer the
definite authority.
There is only one text that stands out in contrast to the favorable
pronouncements which seem to predominate in later years, and that is in the
Tanna dbei Eliahu. The work is radically different from the literature com
monly found during this period; it reflects, in its style, a return to the
extended discourse upon themes, characteristic of a Ben Sira, for example,
rather than verse by verse explication. It is only here that Saul is villified in
the manner of Enoch or Pseudo-Philo. Saul is included in a discussion of
those to be punished in this world and the next, after Ahitophel, the genera
tions of the flood, the people of Sodom, Sanherib and Pharaoh:
And Saul displayed crass behavior. Therefore, he was killed and the royalty taken from
him. . . . He kept jealousy in his heart and poured out vengeance upon Israel on account
o f David . . . what he was not commanded to do, he did, and what he was commanded to
do, he did it not . . . he spared Agag and slaughtered the priests o f Nob . . . he was
careless in causing adultery, to give Michal, Davids wife, to Paltiel ben Laish, and
inquired o f the spirit, and repeatedly caused abominations in Israel. Therefore, he was
killed and the throne o f Israel taken from him (Tanna dbei Eliahu Rabbah, chapter 31,
Warsaw ed., chapter 21, ish Shalom ed.)21

Only Saul s sins are recorded, and he is ranked in the same list, not with
the eight princes in heaven of the Talmud, but with those who are recorded
in Midrash Sanhdrin 11 as having no place in the world to come and with the
great enemies of Israel, Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, who also have no
share in the world to come (Shabbat 146b); Saul, too, by implication, is in the
nether world.
Which image of Saul became the acceptable one in later generations? I
remember, as* a child, being taught in yeshivah that the only person who
came close to being perfect was Saul. He had committed only one sin. Today,
it would be well to reopen the case of Saul and review the rise and fall of a
national leader. Knowing his strengths and shortcomings, we should reinter
pret the character to fit the intricacies of modern parliamentary politics.

21 T h ere is also th e te n d e n c y to ex a g g era te th e sh ortcom in gs o f b ib lica l characters for p e d a g o g ic


purposes.