Of Sheep and Kings
Shemuel I 15 describes Shaul's battle against Amalek and his subsequent loss of the kingship. After the battle, Hashem tells Shemuel:
נִחַמְתִּי כִּי הִמְלַכְתִּי אֶת שָׁאוּל לְמֶלֶךְ כִּי שָׁב מֵאַחֲרַי וְאֶת דְּבָרַי לֹא הֵקִים...
'It repenteth Me that I have set up Saul to be king; for he is turned back from following Me, and hath not performed My commandments.'
However, Hashem does not specify which of Shaul's actions caused Him to regret the appointment. The decision follows a description of Shaul's having mercy on Agag and the choice cattle, suggesting that this was the problem.1 Yet, neither of these actions seems so terrible that they should merit such a severe punishment. Shaul's motive in saving the sheep was positive (he planned to sacrifice them to Hashem),2 and taking only one prisoner captive would appear to be a minor transgression. In addition, if necessary, it would be fairly easy to rectify both of these mistakes!3 Finally, Shaul himself seems unaware that these actions were problematic, and even cites them when declaring that he has fulfilled Hashem's directive:
(כ) וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל שְׁמוּאֵל אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתִּי בְּקוֹל י"י וָאֵלֵךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחַנִי י"י וָאָבִיא אֶת אֲגַג מֶלֶךְ עֲמָלֵק וְאֶת עֲמָלֵק הֶחֱרַמְתִּי. (כא) וַיִּקַּח הָעָם מֵהַשָּׁלָל צֹאן וּבָקָר רֵאשִׁית הַחֵרֶם לִזְבֹּחַ לַי"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּגִּלְגָּל.
(20) And Saul said unto Samuel: 'Yea, I have hearkened to the voice of the Lord, and have gone the way which the Lord sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. (21) But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in Gilgal.'
Where, then, did Shaul err so badly that he lost the kingship?
Comparison to David
As David moves into kingship right after this chapter, the reader naturally compares the two leaders, wondering what made Shaul fail where David succeeded.
- Dealings with Amalek – Did David rectify any of Shaul's mistakes from the battle? In David's war against Amalek (Shemuel I 30:1-20), he takes sheep and cattle as booty, and allows four hundred Amalekites to escape. Is this any better than Shaul? Why, then, is Shaul chastised for his actions, but not David?
- Sin and punishment –When David sins with Batsheva, he does not lose his kingship. Were Shaul's deeds here really more blameworthy than those of David that he received the more severe punishment?
- Character – How do David and Shaul's character compare? Does Shaul portray any character flaws in our chapter that David does not share?
- "וְהִנֵּה מַצִּיב לוֹ יָד" – After the battle, we are told that Shaul has set up a monument. Was this memorial meant to honor himself on his great victory, or was it meant for Hashem's glory? How does its establishment relate to Shaul's problematic fulfillment of Hashem's command?
- "כִּי חַטַּאת קֶסֶם מֶרִי וְאָוֶן וּתְרָפִים הַפְצַר" – In rebuking Shaul, Shemuel compares his actions to idolatry and magical offerings. What does he mean by the analogy? What light might it shed on the nature of Shaul's sin?
- "וְאֶת עֲמָלֵק הֶחֱרַמְתִּי" – Shemuel I 30 tells how, not long after the events of our chapter, the Amalekites attacked David's camp in Ziklag. However, if Shaul had killed all of the Amalekites, how did hundreds remain to fight against David?
- Double loss – In Chapter 13, after Shaul fails to wait for Shemuel in Gilgal, the prophet rebukes him, telling him that his disobedience has cost him his kingship, "וְעַתָּה מַמְלַכְתְּךָ לֹא תָקוּם". If Shaul had already lost the monarchy, what new punishment was given here? How do the two crimes relate to each other? Did Shaul commit the same error a second time, or was each sin distinct?