Saul Was a Jerk
King Saul Was a Jerk
“Jerk” might seem harsh, speaking of the Lord’s anointed, David’s predecessor and the first king of Israel. But Saul was a booby prize, a ridiculous king who, despite all the good that he’s credited with doing – helping unify the stiff-necked tribes of Jews, creating a central government and a standing army against vicious Philistines, Cana’anites and other enemies - was a Divine joke on Israel. "Jerk" is putting things mildly.
George Washington without the substance, he looked kingly, tall, dark and handsome. Probably the most responsible job he’d ever had was searching for his father’s missing donkeys - and he didn’t exactly distinguish himself even in that. Next thing you know (1 Samuel 9), he’s King!
It’s interesting: he came from what was unquestionably the single most despised of all the twelve tribes, Benjamin. From a family - “the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin” (Samuel 9:21) - that was particularly despised. His origin story – what in Yiddish you’d call his family’s yichus, their distinguishment - is mind-blowing.
The whole world knows about Abraham and his nephew Lot: how Lot’s horrible neighbors, the Sodomites, came out in the night wanting to “know” Lot’s guests (Genesis 19). Since it’s black-letter Torah, we can presume that the citizens of the little Benjaminite hill country town of Gibeah – Saul’s hometown – were familiar with it too. Even if they didn’t, they still shouldn’t have come out in the exact same way against a certain traveling Levite.
This is awful stuff. Male homosexual rape was one of those unspeakably savage crimes of the ancients, perverse, abominable, criminal conduct according to both the Noachide Law and the Torah. The men of Benjamin – precisely speaking, the Benjaminites of Gibeah, Saul’s family’s hometown – wanted to rape the Levite. Instead, they ended up settling on his girlfriend, his concubine (his pilegesh). They raped her to death (Judges 19-20).
The Levite, as it turned out, was a world-class communicator - an influencer. Hearing of the atrocity, the other tribes of Israel turned against Benjamin in a literal civil war.
The numbers of casualties, like most census tallies in Scripture, are terribly confusing, but it’s clear that it was an appallingly bloody war. And it seems that Saul’s own family was one of the most culpable. (Judges 20-21).
It’s odd: the Torah specifically commands the Jews to appoint a national king (Deuteronomy 17:15). But timing and intention are everything.
God had His prophet, Samuel, fully disclose to Israel what the “protocol” of monarchy – naturally inclined to tyranny, heedlessness, and oppression - would mean for them. His shiur, or lesson, memorialized in Scripture, is probably the most powerful argument ever recorded against the institution of monarchy (1 Samuel 8:10-19). The great American revolutionary, Thomas Paine, features it in his immortal viral pamphlet “Common Sense” (Philadelphia, 1776). Samuel’s shiur here helped spark the American Revolution.
One man, one vote seems obviously to be, by far, the most godly system of government: nothing else is fully consonant with “in the image of God made He man” (Genesis 1:27).
Deuteronomy calls for what we’d call a constitutional leader, a new kind of “king,” subject to the Torah and to all the nation’s laws, and strict standards. Nowhere does it speak of anything like hereditary succession.
Who and what a people is comes out in war, and also in selecting a leader. People always tend to get the kind – the quality – of leader they deserve. A Torah king isn’t supposed to be a tyrannous hereditary autocrat, like the pagans’ kings or dictators. Israel is supposed to be worthy of Davids, not Sauls.
Saul's mentor, Samuel, was a great leader – and one of the all-time greatest prophets – but he was too aged to continue leading. His own sons, dishonest and self-seeking, were completely unfit for leadership. Still, the people begged him to pick someone to serve them as king – “to be like all the other nations.” (Samuel 8:21).
Before Samuel's time, the immensely popular and accomplished Gideon had famously told the people: “I shall not be king over you. HaShem shall be king over you!” (Judges 8:23). But the people preferred a mortal king - even a tyrant. At the close of Samuel’s career, after hearing from him how extremely awful the monarchy that they were begging for would be, “all the people shouted, ‘Long live the king!’” (1 Samuel 11:24)
As God Himself explained to His prophet, Saul was a king for “you,” the people at that moment. Even his name, Shaul, conveys the idea that he was “prayed for,” or “begged for.” In this case, the King of the Universe may be paraphrased as saying, “You want a king? I’ll give you a king! I’ll give you the kind of leader you deserve!” By contrast, David on the other hand was a king “for Me,” HaShem (1 Samuel 16:1)
Credit where credit is due. God literally anointed Saul, at the hand of Samuel. He spectacularly gave him some of His Divine “spirit,” His ru’ach: Divine inspiration, including some prophetic gifts (1 Samuel 10:10). And the people genuinely benefited by having a leader, to enforce the Law – Saul’s particularly praised for clearing the country of witches and sorcerers (1 Samuel 28:2) – and, especially, to fight.
This was the beginning of the iron age. Even before Saul, the Jews had begun to acquire iron and iron know-how. And Israel, long before Saul, turned out to have much more inherent strength than expected. But Saul – credit where it’s due - sincerely devoted himself to building up the power of the Jewish army. And Israel, rallying around the king, soon became unbeatable – almost.
Alas, Saul kept reverting to the jerk that he was. He lost the kingship soon enough: he cared more about his men’s opinion of him than he did about doing what was right. Then, instead of gracefully retiring, he stubbornly hung onto power, defying God’s will - he vividly suffered from mental illness - and even going to war against his successor, David, literally trying to murder him.
Scripture describes egregious abuses…. When Saul learned that some of the holy priests - the cohanim - of Israel had given the fugitive David food, Saul sent his special contractor – a vile specimen, an Edomite named Doeg (meaning “fearful” or “anxious,” as in anxious to serve the Edomite deity, Qos) – to annihilate them. In fact, Doeg, the Iago of Scripture (think of Shakespeare’s “Othello” and his evil provacateur, didn’t just slaughter them - he murdered 85 cohanim - but also their wives and their children, including suckling infants, and even their animals (1 Samuel 22). There’s no record that Saul, Israel's chief law officer, ever prosecuted him.
Saul spent his last years persecuting everyone who favored David. He finally died because of his own bad generalship, when the Philistines took advantage of what had become practically another civil war among the Jews.
Saul was, at least, no coward. Credit where credit’s due, he showed up for warfare when called up. But…
Israel has a hallowed tradition of highly creative military leadership - of night-fighting, and appearing unexpectedly, and using unconventional weapons – going back to Abraham, and later Joshua and Gideon. Remarking on Saul’s catastrophic last battle – the battle of Gilboa, 1 Samuel 28 - the British officer Orde Wingate, one of the spiritual founders of today’s Jewish Army, who knew the Gilboa battlefield, called Saul an idiot. “He was a bloody fool! Why did he make a direct frontal assault? He should have sent a small detachment by night to take the Philistines from the rear.” (“Fire in the Night; Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion,” by John Bierman and Colin Smith, 1999, Random House, NY, p. 91). Instead, Saul ended up committing suicide and the Philistines massacred his men – including his son Jonathan.
David’s words of mourning for them afterwards will never be forgotten: “How are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1). His words are so beautiful, in fact, that they tend to take away from the larger story. Which is, we would say:
* Israel’s political immaturity.
* The Divine insult that was Saul.
* The leader appointed by God whom God subsequently fired, but who still wouldn’t let go.
* His followers refusing to take cognizance of his unfitness for office, despite its egregiousness; who stuck with him even against God’s next-chosen king, David.
“The hankering which the Jews had for the idolatrous customs of the heathens is something exceedingly unaccountable,” Tom Paine wrote in “Common Sense,” (towards the end, in the chapter “Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession”). The eternal holy Torah of Israel was designed for a people far more enlightened than they. “The Jews of that generation sought a king not to set Israel apart from the world’s pagans but mainly to be more like them!”
By Michael Dallen
Rabbi Michael Katz writes (December 22, 2020, 4:33pm EDT):
> I am most unhappy with this essay. Who are you to call Gd's chosen one "a jerk?" You should tremble in your shoes before you allow such a thought to escape you. There was no man among the Children of Israel better than he. (1 Samuel 9:2)
Saul was a complicated individual who succumbed to depression that robbed him of his righteousness. We speak sympathetically of his shortcomings not with condemnation. It is not for us to speak disparagingly of G'd's anointed.>
We respectfully disagree with Rabbi Katz. Fully quoting 1 Samuel 9:2: "There was no man among the children of Israel better than he: from his shoulders and upward he was taller than any of the people." (Italics added.)
After more than 31 centuries, the debate continues. Rabbi Katz says, > "You can disagree but you don't have to speak of Saul in an insulting manner. > [MD: Maybe we should have just let Tom Paine and Orde Wingate do the speaking?] RMK: >But I know why you are doing it: because you can't resist making comparisons to Trump. >
Rabbi Katz gets the last word, except for these below.
Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help... HaShem will reign forever.
Truly, You are First and You are Last, and besides You we have no king, redeemer or deliverer.
Siddur, the Hebrew Prayer book, daily morning Prayer