Shaul's Sin in the Battle with Amalek


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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.

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