top of page

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 1

The Power of Prayer

Sefer Shmuel (the Book of Samuel) begins with a moving story about a barren woman, desperately praying for a child. This section is read as the haftorah on Rosh Hashannah, which places it in a prominent role in our annual liturgy.

 

Elkana is one of the leaders of his generation and has two wives: Chana and Pnina. Chana does not have children, although Pnina does. Year after year they travel to the Mishkan to offer sacrifices and every time Chana despairs of her childless state. Her struggles are exacerbated by Pnina, who has her own growing brood of children and ridicules Chana’s barreness. One year, Chana goes to the Mishkan and pours her heart out in prayer.

 

Chana is not unique as a barren woman: they feature throughout the Tanach. However, what is unique is the approach she takes in her prayer. Chana makes an unprecedented vow to God: if He provides her with a son, she will dedicate the child to God (1 Shmuel 1:11). In some ways, this could be construed as a dangerous form of deal making. It appears that both parties are on equal terms, which is not viewed positively in Judaism. However, on closer inspection, we see that this is not what Chana is doing. In one verse alone, she calls herself God’s “maidservant” three times. The repetition of this word shows Chana’s inherent humility and understanding that she is subservient to God (ibid).

 

As she prays, she weeps bitterly. The text tells us that her lips move, but no words are heard – the first example of silent prayer. She wants to have a child so much that she puts her entire being into her request. Indeed, the Gemara tells us that we learn how to pray from this story. It is even possible that Chana’s name comes from the Hebrew word “supplication”, showing that prayer is central to her character.

Eli, the High Priest, sees her and believes her to be drunk. When he questions her harshly, she responds that “I am pouring out my soul to God” (1 Shmuel 1:15). Eli apologises and blesses her that her request should be granted.

 

God grants Chana her request. Her child, Shmuel (which means “God heard”), grows up to become one of the greatest prophets of the Jewish people. In fact, he writes the book that we are now beginning to study – Sefer Shmuel. Once Chana has finished nursing the child, it is time for her to fulfil her promise to give the child into the service of God. She takes him to Eli in the Mishkan.

One of the reasons we read this story on Rosh Hashana is because it emphasises the power of prayer. We particularly need this reminder on the High Holy Days. We stand before God while the books of life and death for the coming year are open before Him. No matter what has happened in the past year, we have a powerful gift: the ability to pour out our soul and ask for the things that really matter.

 

This doesn’t mean God will always grant our request. Or that He’ll grant it in the way we expect, or the manner in which we intend. But we can never know which prayer will tip the balance. We may have asked for something 100 times, but that 101st time could be the key. This was not the first time Chana had prayed for a child! The power of prayer means that, like Chana, we should never give up.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 2
Eli's Sinful Sons

Chapter 2 begins with ten verses of praise and thanksgiving from Chana to God. We see here the greatness of Chana: not only does her heartfelt prayer for a child in the previous chapter get answered by God, but she composes a beautiful song of gratitude for what she receives. In her humility, she understands that her good fortune is down to the chesed of God, rather than her own worth. This teaches us the importance of the three different elements that make up our prayer: praise, request and thanksgiving.

The middle section of Chapter 2 describes Shmuel as he grows up alongside the story of Eli the Kohen Gadol and his wayward sons. Shmuel is described positively. For example, the final verse of the section states: “And the child Shmuel grew on and was in favour both with the Lord and also with men” (1 Shmuel 2:26). Eli is so impressed that he prays on Chana’s behalf and she continues to have more children: another three sons and two daughters. The structure of this passage places great emphasis on Shmuel’s character. The passage begins and ends with Shmuel, in addition to describing him in the middle. Certainly, this is not surprising when we consider the entire book is named after him and many of the events in the book relate back to him.

 

What is fascinating is the way the text contrasts the righteous character of Shmuel, even as a child, to the wicked actions of Eli’s sons, Pinchas and Chofni. They commit two categories of sins. Firstly, they use the Mishkan service to further their own interests, by coercing the Jewish people who come to offer sacrifices to God into giving larger portions than required to the priests. Secondly, they act immorally with women who work in the vicinity of the Mishkan.

 

Eli does rebuke his sons, although it seems too little and too late. Three times he repeats the word “hear” implying that he is responding to rumours that he has heard, rather than something that he has taken the time to investigate properly. In response, the sons “did not hearken” to his weak reprimand (1 Shmuel 2:24-25).

 

In the final section of Chapter 2, God sends word to Eli that his house will be cut off from the priesthood and his sons will both die on the same day. The family will not die out as there will be a remanent, but they will always suffer from early deaths. The messenger of God emphasises their failure to administer the Mishkan service properly as the main sin they are to be punished for. This severe punishment represents the severity of their sins.

 

In addition, it highlights the weak spiritual leadership that exists at the start of the period of Sefer Shmuel. If we remember the chaos and anarchy that defined the period of the Shoftim, we can see that the lack of strong leadership is still a problem. When the text contrasts Shmuel with the family of Eli, it is showing us that the prophet Shmuel will fill this void. Whilst this story is tragic, we can have hope that the situation will improve under the future guidance and leadership of the righteous Shmuel, son of a righteous woman, Chana.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 3
Shmuel's Inaugural Prophecy

In Chapter 3 Shmuel experiences his inaugural prophecy. The scene is set with a description that “the world of God was seldom in those days, there was no frequent vision” (1 Shmuel 3:1). This helps to explain why Shmuel and Eli, the High Priest, were delayed in understanding that it was God calling out to Shmuel.

 

Shmuel is asleep, in the early hours of the morning, when he hears his name being called. His immediate assumption is that Eli, who has bad eyesight, is calling out for help. However, each time Shmuel goes to Eli, it turns out that Eli did not call for Shmuel. After the third occurrence, Eli finally understands that it is God calling out for Shmuel. He advises Shmuel to answer to God and listen to the prophecy.

Shmuel’s lack of comprehension here highlights his humility – he does not consider himself worthy of prophecy from God, so assumes it is Eli calling him. This reminds us of the humility of Moshe, who at the burning bush (his inaugural prophecy) also does not understand what he is seeing (Shemot 3:1-4). Additionally, the text is emphasising Eli’s failure in his role as a spiritual leader. Not only was prophecy lacking in Israel at the time, but Eli does not even contemplate that Shmuel is worthy enough for Divine revelation.

The prophecy Shmuel receives consists of two sections. Firstly, God will perform “a thing in Israel, at which the ears of everyone that hears it shall tingle” (1 Shmuel 3:11). This phrase “at which the ears of everyone that hears it shall tingle” is used several times in Tanach, always in reference to destruction (see 2 Melachim 21:12-13 and Yirmiyahu 19:3-8). Secondly, God discusses the punishment that He will bring to Eli’s family. This punishment will be retribution for the sins of the Eli’s sons and his failure to reign them in.

 

In the morning, Eli asks Shmuel to retell the prophecy he has received. Shmuel fears telling him, however Eli insists. Eli knows that sharing the word of God will turn Shmuel into a true prophet. Eli responds: “let Him do what seems good in His eyes” (1 Shmuel 3:18). At first glance, this response seems impressive. However, this also demonstrates another failure. As Chana taught us in the previous two chapters, it is never too late to pray for a change. Why does Eli accept the decree without praying or seeking forgiveness? This attitude marks Eli’s tragedy, and explains his general failure to provide proper spiritual leadership to the Jewish people.

 

The chapter ends by stating that “all Israel… knew that Shmuel was trusted as a prophet of God and God appears again in Shilo” (1 Shmuel 3:20-21). This directly contrasts the opening verses which described the lack of Divine revelation, highlighting that Shmuel will allow for greater communication with God. Despite the tragedy of the house of Eli, we are reassured that Shmuel will be a positive replacement as spiritual leader of the Jewish people.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 4
A National Disaster

In chapter 3 Shmuel received a tragic prophecy. In chapter 4 we see its realisation. The Philistines wage war on Israel and 4000 men are lost in the battle. Returning dismayed to their bases, the Jewish soldiers decide to take the Ark of the Covenant with them to the next battle. They believe this will ensure that “God will be among us and save us from their enemy” (1 Shmuel 4:3).

The Philistine enemy fear the presence of the Ark and fight even harder as a result. In the ensuing battle Israel suffer a devastating blow: 30,000 men are killed, including Eli’s sons Chofni and Pinchas. In addition, the Ark of the Covenant is captured by the Philistines. This is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Chapter 2, namely that Eli’s sons would die on the same day (2 Shmuel 2:34).

A soldier from the battlefront comes to give Eli the terrible news. Fearful of his task, he hesitates and repeats himself. Despite his attempts to avoid it, he has no choice but to tell Eli of the death of his sons and the capture of the Ark. On hearing about the capture of the Ark, Eli falls backwards off his chair, breaks his neck and dies.

The chapter ends with Pinchas’s wife giving birth to a son. She calls him “Ei chavod” which means “no honour” because the honour of God has been taken away from Israel. Interestingly, both Eli and his daughter in law are more distressed by the capture of the Ark than the death of Chofni and Pinchas or the loss of 34,000 soldiers.

Why did the Jewish people suffer such a tragic defeat?

This is one of the worst defeats in biblical warfare. The losses in battle that we saw in Sefer Shoftim were accompanied by great sins from the Jewish people. What is the sin here? The biblical commentator Malbim (1809-1879) explains that they were mistaken in their outlook. They believed that the presence of the Ark alone would save them. However, the value of the Ark is that it would inspire them to keep the Torah laws. Only in the merit of this would they be saved. However, the people believed the Ark itself would protect them, rather than realising that God is the only One with the power to save them in battle.

 

Previously, the Ark had been taken into battle with victorious results, for example with the battle of Jericho (see Yehoshua Chapter 6). However, there Yehoshua was a great leader who reminded the people of the difference between the Ark and God. He states “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city” (Yehoshua 6:16). In contrast, in our chapter the spiritual leadership of Eli and his sons is lacking; there is no one to remind the Jewish people that God is the true saviour.

 

The Jewish people make a similar mistake towards the end of the First Temple period. The people believe that the Temple will save them from the prophecies of destruction. Yirmiyahu reminds them that the Temple is after all only a building, it is God Himself with the power to save or destroy. More important is the sinful state of the people; without repentance there will be devastation. Yirmiyahu even recalls this story as a reminder to the people not to make the same mistake again (Yirmiyahu 7:12-14). Unfortunately, the people do not heed the message and Jerusalem is destroyed just as Shilo was all those generations before.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 5
The Ark Causes Chaos

In Chapter 4, the Philistines inflicted a devastating military defeat on the Jews and captured the Ark of the Covenant. The Philistine enemy rejoice, believing their victory proves that the God of Israel is weak. The events of this chapter come to teach the opposite: the defeat was caused by the Jewish people’s sins, not by the powerless nature of their God.

The Philistines take the Ark to Ashdod and place it before their idol, Dagon. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explains that "they said, 'This one is victorious, and this one is defeated; let the defeated one come and serve the victorious one.'" (Midrash Shmuel Chapter 11). They this did this to humiliate God, believing that their victory showed that their pagan gods were stronger.

However, the next morning, they find that their idol has fallen “upon its face” before the Ark. They replace it, but again the next morning it has fallen over. This time, its head and hands have broken off also. This is a sign of submission. Falling upon one’s face is a biblical symbol of deference to a higher power. Severing one’s head and hands is an act of humiliation, seen elsewhere in Tanach, often in the context of warfare.

The second half of Chapter 5 describes the physical affliction suffered by the Philistine inhabitants of Ashdod. They attribute this to the Ark and decide to send it to another Philistine city: Gat. In Gat, the affliction was even greater and so they send it on to Ekron where many people die. The text states that “the hand of God was heavy there” (1 Shmuel 5:11). This entire incident is to show the Philistines that their victory in warfare did not mean that the God of Israel is weak. On the contrary, God is displaying His immense power to cause untold sufferings to them. By the end of the chapter, the Philistines repeatedly refer to the Ark as “the Ark of the God of Israel”, showing that they have finally heeded the message.

There are many linguistic similarities between this chapter and the passages in Sefer Shemot that recount the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. For example, the word “maggefa” (plague) is used in both accounts (see Shemot 9:14 and 1 Shmuel 6:4). Additionally, in both cases the plagues come from the “hand of God” (see Shemot 9:3 and 1 Shmuel 5:6). During the plagues, God portrayed His power to Egypt and the whole world through the miraculous events. Similarly, here God is using the Ark to display His great power to the non-Jewish nations of the world. They can no longer speak of a Philistine victory over the Jewish people: both nations are struck by the sovereignty of God.

 

The Jewish people also need to heed this message, due to their low spiritual state. We shall continue this story in the next chapter, and see whether or not the Jewish people have taken this on board.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 6
The Return of the Lost Ark

In Chapter 5, the Philistines suffered afflictions, as a punishment for stealing the Ark of the Covenant from the Jewish people. After seven months they decide to return the Ark to the Jewish people. They seek advice from their sorcerers who tell them not to return it empty handed, rather they should send with it golden guilt offerings in order to appease the Jewish God. Finally, the Philistines seem to be heeding the message of how powerful the God of Israel is.

The Philistine sorcerers provide additional advice: a new wagon should be made to transport the Ark, to be pulled by two nursing cows who have never worked before. If the cows turn their backs on their calves to take the Ark towards Bet Shemesh, it will prove that it is the will of God to have the Ark returned to the Jewish people and that He was responsible for all their affliction.

The people of Bet Shemesh are working in the fields when they see the Ark returned to them. They immediately use the wood from the wagon and the cows to offer up thanksgiving offerings to God. The Philistine men witness this and return home, with the knowledge that the Jewish God was indeed the source of everything that had happened.

Sadly, the chapter ends with a tragic event: the people “peer into the Ark” and are struck down. Yehuda Kil in his modern Da’at Mikra commentary explains that the Shechinah of God rests upon the Ark. Therefore, to gaze upon the Ark is to gaze upon the Godly presence. Elsewhere in Tanach we are told that “no human can see My face and live” (Shemot 33:20), explaining the cause of their death. The Radak (1160-1235) takes this even further and explains that the people actively uncovered the Ark to look in which is certainly a far more serious crime that simply gazing at it when it is already uncovered. The Talmud tells us that they acted disrespectfully to the Ark (Sotah 35a). It appears that they had lost their awe and reverence for this holy item, treating it with light-heartedness instead.

 

It is unclear exactly how many people died: the text first mentions “seventy” and then “fifty thousand” (1 Shmuel 6:19). Rashi (France, 1040-1105) cites the Targum Yonatan, according to whom seventy elders die, along with fifty thousand ordinary people. However, Yehuda Kil discusses how it is hard to believe that there were 50,000 people living in Bet Shemesh at this time. Another approach is that of the Portuguese biblical commentator, Abarbanel (1437-1508) who explains that 70 people died in Bet Shemesh and 50,000 people died in total, as a result of the Ark (both Jews and Philistines).

 

The response of the Jewish people here is significant. They state: "Who will be able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Shmuel 6:20). This shows their comprehension of the sin committed and subsequently the power of God. The fall of Shilo in the previous chapters should have taught the people that the power of the Ark is intrinsically linked to their adherence to the will of God. Instead, it leads to disrespectful behaviour towards the Ark. Hopefully, now they have reached the correct conclusion: God holds the ultimate power, but they must have adequate respect for the means used to represent His power on earth.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 7
Shmuel's Success as Leader

In Chapter 6 we learned how God punished the Philistines for capturing the Ark and that they ultimately returned it to Israel.

The Ark of God is transferred to Kiriyat Yearim, a city on the border between the territory of Binyamin and Yehuda. According to Yehuda Kil, this city is in the vicinity of today’s village of Abu Gosh, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Following the tragic impact of the Ark’s presence in Beit Shemesh, many towns feared housing the Ark. The people of Kiriyat Yearim stepped up to the task: the Ark remained there peacefully for 20 years. 

Following this, the text describes Shmuel’s leadership for the first time. We see that he has been a resounding success in his spiritual guidance. Firstly, we are told that “the entire House of Israel was drawn

after God” (1 Shmuel 7:2). This positive description contrasts greatly with the repeated accounts of the Jewish people straying in Sefer Shoftim. 

 

However, all is not perfect. Shmuel criticises the people for continuing to serve pagan gods, even while serving God. “Remove the foreign idols”, exhorts Shmuel, “and God will save you from the hands of the Philistines”. The response is astounding: immediately the text tells us that the people listen, removing their idols and serving God alone. 

 

The prophet then calls upon the nation to assemble at Mitzpeh for a repentance gathering of fasting and prayer. The Philistine enemy interprets this as military preparation for battle, and in turn musters their army to attack. According to many commentators, this was all part of the plan. The way they would respond to another Philistine attack was the ultimate test to check whether the Jewish people had truly repented. 

The Jewish people responded in exemplary fashion. Whereas in Chapter 4 they rely on the Ark to save them in battle (“that it may save us” 1 Shmuel 4:3), here they call upon Shmuel to pray to God to save them (“He may save us” 1 Shmuel 7:8). The use of the same verb in both accounts highlights their total change in attitude. 

 

Shmuel sacrifices and prays to God – and the Jewish people are victorious in battle against the Philistines. In fact, the text states that “the Philistines were humbled and no longer continued to enter the borders of Israel… all the days of Shmuel” (1 Shmuel 7:13). The Jewish people recapture their cities that had been seized by the enemy and enjoy a period of peace. 

 

The French biblical commentator, Radak (1160-1235) explains that “all the days of Shmuel” actually means until Shmuel became too old to lead the people properly. Without him touring the cities and reminding the people to serve God fully, the people began to sin again which allowed the Philistines to attack once more. This is one of the causes of the people’s request for a king, which we will see in the next chapter. 

 

The importance of this chapter is that it shows us Shmuel’s success, not just as a prophet but as a leader. In the first section he is a spiritual teacher, guiding the people in repentance. In the second section he is a national leader, directing them victoriously in war as a judge. His widespread success makes the story that follows even more baffling: why do the people ask for a king, when Shmuel’s leadership is so successful? We will try to understand this in our next article.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 8
Monarchy of the People

The chapter begins by describing the sins of Shmuel’s sons. In his old age, Shmuel is unable to continue travelling around the country to judge the Jewish people. Instead, he passes the role to his two sons. However, they stay in Be’er Sheva (1 Shmuel 8:2) and do not follow in their father’s footsteps. They have a far less appropriate attitude to leadership and wait for the people to come to them. In addition, we are told that they “took bribes” (1 Shmuel 8:3).

The rest of the chapter concerns the people’s request for a king to be appointed to rule over them. There are several possible reasons that they make this request. The proximity of the request to the account of Shmuel’s sons suggests that this is one cause. The people can see history repeating itself. The failure of Shmuel’s offspring reminds them of the earlier story of Eli’s wayward sons (see Chapters 2-4) and they desire a more stabilised and reliable form of central leadership. However, it is ironic that they request a monarchy that forces power to pass from father to son, regardless of the son’s ability to rule. Why do they not ask for a new worthy judge to be appointed instead? This indicates an alternative motivation behind the request for a monarchy.

 

Shmuel reacts sharply to this request as it was “wrong in his eyes”. God responds that the request for monarchy is not an insult to Shmuel but in fact is a rejection of God Himself. God tells Shmuel to remind the people of the laws of a Jewish king and, when doing so, Shmuel adds on the many dangers that a king may inflict on his subjects. However, the people still request a king and God tells Shmuel to listen to them and to anoint a king.

 

Why does the request for a king anger Shmuel so much?

It is strange that the request for a king is seen so negatively. The concept of a king ruling the Land of Israel is actually mentioned in the Torah (Devarim 17:14-15).[1] The Abarbanel (1437-1508) argues that the issue is that the people request an absolute monarch. One who would be answerable to no one, not even God. They forget that God is the ultimate King of Kings and that a human king is subservient to God.

It is noteworthy that the Abarbanel knew the dangers inherent in absolute monarchy better than most, having held positions in the royal courts of Portugal and Castille and witnessed the Spanish Expulsion first-hand.

 

Therefore, God states: “it is not you whom they have rejected, but it is Me whom they have rejected from reigning over them” (1 Shmuel 8:7). This also explains why Shmuel tells the people the dangers of human kingship.

The people’s request for a king also shows they have not truly internalised the message of God’s ultimate reign over them. Earlier on, they rely on the power of the Ark to save them. Then they rely on Shmuel’s ability to save them. When facing Shmuel’s old age, instead of turning to God as the ultimate King, they now request a human king to save them.

 

A king can be positive (as seen in God’s granting of the request). However, the failure here is in the mistaken motivation behind the request. 

 

[1] There is an extended debate among the commentators whether this is a command (according to the Ramban) or merely an allowance (according to the Abarbanel).

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 9
Introducing the King

In Chapter 9 we are introduced to Shaul, the soon-to-be anointed first king of Israel. The narrative is strange: Shaul goes with a young servant to look for his father’s donkeys. When they cannot find them they decide to ask Shmuel, the prophet, for assistance. At the end of the chapter, Shaul and Shmuel sit down to eat together and Shmuel reassures him not to worry about the donkeys, hinting that something great is around the corner for him.

What is the significance of this introduction to Shaul? Whenever a new character is introduced in Tanach, the opening story about them provides us with lots of valuable information.

 

The first appearance of Shaul is accompanied by glowing praise, that he was a “good man, with no man from the Children of Israel better than him” (1 Shmuel 9:2). This clearly indicates a man fitting to be king. Yet, in just a few chapters, the attitude towards him turns around completely, with God having “rejected” him as king (1 Shmuel 15:26). The downfall of Shaul leads many to state that he was never suitable to be king in the first place.

 

However, Ruth Paz[1] argues against this view. She states that this opening story highlights key character traits necessary for an ideal king, as laid out in Devarim Chapter 17. Paz proves that Shaul had no interest in women, horses or money. He was also very humble in character and therefore was in no danger of being too haughty.

 

For instance, the law states that a king should not have too many horses (they are seen as a sign of human power and arrogance). Biblical imagery of horses generally denotes the enemies of Israel, in a physical and theological manner, while in contrast donkeys are mentioned in a positive light. Thus the story of Shaul searching for donkeys is the opposite of the negative desire for many horses: a symbol of humility rather than arrogance. We also see Shaul’s modesty when he responds quizzically to Shmuel’s talk of greatness with shock, explaining that he comes from the smallest family of the smallest tribe (1 Shmuel 9:21).

 

Thus, it can be seen from this initial story about Shaul that his character is aligned with being a successful king. Yet, as we will see in the coming chapters, it all goes so wrong. Why? While this question will be discussed at length throughout our articles, there are hints to Shaul’s future failure in this chapter.

At one point, he wants to give up on the search for the donkeys and states “come, let us return” (1 Shmuel 9:5). It is only due to the influence of the servant accompanying him that he continues the search, finally coming before Shmuel. This shows that Shaul’s humility was also mixed with hesitancy and weakness in the face of external pressure. These negative traits will form the roots of Shaul’s eventual sins as a king.

 

Whilst humility is essential in a king, it also needs to be balanced alongside strength and self-belief to be a successful leader. This duality in Shaul’s character is hinted to in the open-ended introductory verses, as discussed earlier in this article (1 Shmuel 9:1-2).

[1] Ruth Paz, “The Choice of King Saul and His Suitability for Kingship”, Megadim 8 (5749) p.35-43.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 10
A Declaration of Kingship

In Chapter 10 Shaul is privately anointed as the first king of Israel by Shmuel and given instructions about what he needs to do next. Shmuel tells him to travel towards home, informing him of the various people he will meet along the way. Firstly, Shaul will meet two men who will inform him that the donkeys have been found. Secondly, he will encounter three men who will offer him bread, which he must take. Thirdly, he will meet a group of prophets and he will prophecy with them. Lastly, Shmuel instructs Shaul to go to Gilgal and wait for him for seven days.

The text goes on to state that “God transformed Shaul with a new heart” (1 Shmuel 10:9). The French biblical commentator, Rashi (1040-1105) explains that this means he was given the spirit of kingship. Additionally, Shmuel states that Shaul “would become another man” (1 Shmuel 10:6). Together these phrases imply a deficiency in Shaul’s personality, preventing him from being the ideal king. It is clear from the prophet’s words that Divine assistance was on hand to enable Shaul to succeed. The question will be whether he utilises this Divine aid appropriately.

 

Shmuel then gathers the nation together and explains that he will anoint a king for them according to their request. Using either a lottery (according to Rashi) or the breastplate of the High Priest (according to Radak) Shmuel singles out the tribe of Binyamin, then the family of Matri and eventually Shaul himself to be the king. Why doesn’t Shmuel simply announce that Shaul will be the king? The French biblical commentator, Radak (1160-1235) explains that this could have led to discord among the tribes. This way, it is clear that Shaul was singled out by God for this Divine role. It is another reminder that while the people requested a king, it is God who allows this to happen.

However, once Shmuel had revealed the identity of the king, Shaul could not be found! In his humility, Shaul hides away which does not give him a good first impression among the people.

In fact, the chapter ends with people ridiculing Shaul. They say: “how can this man save us!” (1 Shmuel 10:27). The text reports that Shaul’s response is silence. Shaul was from the family of Rachel (Yaakov’s favourite wife) for whom silence was a positive trait. However, Kohelet teaches us “there is a time for silence and a time to speak” (Kohelet 3:7). According to Chazal, Shaul should have spoken up against those scorning him (Yoma 22b). Whilst humility is positive, in a king it detracts from his leadership, allowing for disobedience and treason among one’s subjects. Being mocked on the day of his coronation hints at the many struggles he will have in the future.

 

Furthermore, Shaul shies away from prestige and is shocked when he hears that he has been chosen as king. This behaviour indicates a lack of self-confidence and that he has no desire to be a leader. We have already discussed that Shaul was a humble character. While humility is a meritorious trait, it is not a virtue if it interferes with duty.

 

Sadly, Shaul’s reign as the first king of Israel does not have the best beginning, foreshadowing what is yet to come.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 11
Battle with Ammon

In the last chapter we read about the anti-climactic coronation of Shaul. However, in this chapter Shaul will prove himself worthy of being king. Nachash King of Ammon besieges the city of Javesh-Gilad. The people offer to make peace with him, which is effectively an act of surrender. In a strange turn of events, the Ammonite King grants the people of Javesh-Gilad one week to send out messengers to seek help. It is odd that the enemy would allow time for the city to defend itself. The Ralbag (France, 1288-1344) explains that Nachash actually wanted war with the whole of Israel, in order to take the land therefore wanted the rest of the nation involved.

Word comes to the tribe of Binyamin, who report this to Shaul.[1] Shaul becomes angry. He cuts a pair of oxen into pieces, sending the pieces all around the land, as a call to arms. The message is clear: whoever does not come to wage battle against Ammon with me will have this done to his cattle. The text states: “the spirit of God passed over Shaul” (1 Shmuel 11:6), possibly hinting that Shaul would not have responded this way on his own.

 

Indeed, we are told that “a dread of God fell upon the people and they went forth as one man” (1 Shmuel 11:7). The people heed Shaul’s call to arms in unity. This is very positive when we consider the disharmony and strife that characterised the events in the previous book of Shoftim (Judges). Clearly, the entire nation acting as one is something to applaud. However, it appears that this was not due to their eagerness to serve their new king, neither was it to protect their fellow Jew. Rather, it was out of fear. This adds a negative side to this occasion.[2]

 

Under Shaul’s leadership the Jewish people are victorious in the ensuing battle. This cements Shaul’s position as king of Israel. In fact, the people call for an execution of all those who doubted and ridiculed Shaul. However, Shaul responds: “Let no man be put to death this day, for today God has wrought salvation” (1 Shmuel 11:13). Shaul simultaneously establishes his authority, appears merciful and correctly attributes victory in battle to God.

 

The chapter ends with Shaul being crowned before the entire nation in Gilgal. This is Shaul’s third coronation. He was previously coronated privately one at the start of Chapter 10 and publicly at the end of Chapter 10. At the end of this third coronation, the text states: “Shaul and all the people of Israel were greatly happy” (1 Shmuel 11:15) showing that everyone finally accepts him as king.

 

Overall, this is a very positive opening to Shaul’s reign as king. The people’s request for a king was driven by their desire to have someone lead them in war. Whilst their main enemy in this period is the Philistines, this battle with Ammon can be seen as a dress rehearsal. Shaul’s victory indicates that he has what it takes to succeed against the Philistines.

[1] Interestingly, Shaul hears of this as he “came in from his field behind his oxen” (1 Shmuel 11:4). This indicates that, despite being crowned king in the previous chapter, Shaul has continued as normal.

[2] Look back at Shoftim Chapter 21 to understand the reasons behind the reluctance of the Children of Israel to protect the people of Javesh-Gilad, due to their flouting of the summons to gather against Binyamin in the tragic incident of the concubine of Giva and the subsequent civil war.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 12
Shmuel the Orator

At the end of Shaul’s third coronation in Gilgal, discussed in Chapter 11, Shmuel delivers a stirring speech to all the nation. His speech consists of three main parts. Firstly, Shmuel establishes that he has never personally exploited his role as leader over the people. He questions: “whose ox have I taken? Whom have I robbed?” and so on (1 Shmuel 12:3). The people respond positively, agreeing that he has never done any such thing. In this way, he reminds the people that he has only ever acted in their best interests. This opens the door for them to accept the rebuke he is about to deliver.

Secondly, Shmuel rebukes the people for their request for a king. He reminds them of all the miracles God has done for them over the years, including rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. However, when they forgot God and sinned, God sent enemies to attack and persecute them. He refers to several leaders from the period of the Shoftim (Judges) to emphasise this point. Shmuel is telling the people that even though they have a king to reign over them, it does not mean they are safe from their enemies. Even with a human king, they still need to remember to serve the ultimate King of Kings, otherwise they will be punished.

 

Finally, Shmuel proves his message with a sign. Despite it being the harvest season (in the summertime), Shmuel calls to God to send thunder and rain. When the storm comes, the fear of God is struck into the hearts of the people and they beg Shmuel to pray on their behalf. He reassures them that they do not need forgiveness, they simply need to serve God properly from now on. The Abarbanel (1437-1508) adds that they will even be forgiven for requesting a king in a sinful manner.

 

What is the significance of the rain as a sign? Rashi (France, 1040-1105) explains that the rain here is a curse: rain in the summer can destroy the crops. Rabbi Amnon Bazak adds that rain itself is not a curse, but that it all depends on timing. In the right season rain is a blessing; in the wrong season it is destructive. Likewise, the request for a king could be seen as something neutral. The issue is the timing. The people request a king due to their fear of foreign enemies and thus the request is viewed negatively. As Shmuel reminds them in his speech: “but when you saw that Nachash, king of Ammon, came upon you, you said to me: ‘No but a king shall reign over us!’” (1 Shmuel 12:12).

 

Despite this sounding like his resignation, Shmuel continues to act as a prophet and public figure for the people, trying to guide Shaul through his reign as king. Whilst he delivers strong rebuke to the people in this speech, he ends positively with hope for the future. If the people will listen to God and keep His commandments, then they and their king will prosper. The next few chapters will reveal whether or not this will come to pass. 

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 13
Shaul's Fatal Flaw

This chapter begins with a problematic verse, often translated as: “Shaul was one year old when he began to reign and he reigned for two years over Israel” (1 Shmuel 13:1). This is a very difficult verse to understand. How can Shaul have been one year old when he was crowned king? Rashi (France, 1040-1105) provides two possible explanations. Either the phrase means that he was like a one-year-old as he had never sinned, or it means “in the first year of his reign”. However, the second part of this opening verse is also unclear. Did he only reign for two years?

There are several different answers to this question. This article will focus on the opinion of R. Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi (thirteenth century biblical commentator) who translates the opening verse differently. The general formula used throughout Tanach to describe the reign of kings is: "[name of king] was [number of] years old when he began to reign; and [number of] years he reigned over Israel/Yehuda".[1]  R. Tanchum explains that this verse is simply missing out the number of years Shaul reigned and should be read as follows: “Shaul was – years old when he began to reign”. The text is not revealing Shaul’s age as it does with all the other kings in Tanach. Thus, the text is hinting from the outset that Shaul is different to the other kings and not cut out to reign.[2]  

 

Similarly, the second part of the verse could be portraying a negative message. Shaul actually ruled for much longer than two years. However, because of his many failures his reign is considered insignificant and is described by the text as being short.

 

The rest of the chapter describes Shaul’s rebellion against the Philistines who had been ruling over parts of

Israel since the beginning of Sefer Shmuel. Shaul gathers a small army (3000 men) and his son Yonatan kills the Philistine leader. This causes the Philistines to prepare for war: with “thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen” (1 Shmuel 13:5). The Jewish people are certainly the underdog in this battle. In addition, the Philistines have complete control over the infrastructure to forge weapons. The Jewish army did not even have swords (1 Shmuel 13:19-22).

This helps us to understand the panic and fear in the people. They are still gathered at Gilgal awaiting the arrival of Shmuel the prophet in order to offer sacrifices to God, as Shmuel had commanded earlier (see 10:8). Many go into hiding to protect themselves from the oncoming Philistine army, leaving Shaul with an increasingly depleted number of followers. Finally, he offers the sacrifices himself, only for Shmuel to arrive immediately after and berate him for not waiting.

Shaul’s response indicates his struggles to be a leader. He states: “because I saw the people disbanding from me and you had not arrived” (1 Shmuel 13:11). Shaul does not apologise, instead justifying his actions by blaming peer pressure. As mentioned in previous articles, a successful leader needs to remain steadfast in the face of external pressures. Shmuel’s response is immediate: Shaul’s reign will not endure, and someone else has already been chosen by God to replace him as king.

Shaul does not respond and the text continues to describe his efforts to prepare for war with the Philistines. Clearly, Shaul takes his responsibility to protect his people from the enemy seriously. Regardless of this positive trait, we have already seen the fatal flaw that will lead to his inevitable downfall. 

 

[1] For example: “Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign and he reigned for sixteen years in Jerusalem” (2 Kings 16:2).

[2] Quoted in the Da’at Mikra commentary.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 14
Yonatan, the Future King?

This lengthy chapters describes the bravery of Yonatan, Shaul’s son who secretly attacks the Philistine camp with only one other soldier. Yonatan is portrayed as the ideal king. This is ultimately seen in his great victory over the Philistine enemy, which is in stark contrast to his father’s attempts at battle. There are several ways in which this is demonstrated. Firstly, almost every time Yonatan speaks, he mentions the name of God, which Shaul does not do. Secondly, Yonatan willingly goes out to wage war with only one other soldier. In contrast, we saw Shaul’s unease and fear when he faced a far greater enemy force in the previous chapter.

This stems from a different ideology: Yonatan understands that the victory lies with God, not with physical strength. He states: “perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf, for with the Lord there is no limitation to save with many or with few” (1 Shmuel 14:6). The word “perhaps” is not casting doubt on God’s ability to bring salvation, the question is whether Yonatan is worthy of it. Ultimately, God can provide victory in battle through any means.

Yonatan’s major success in battle causes great fear across the Philistine camp. In fact, the word “trembling” is repeated three times in just one verse. The verse makes it clear that the Philistines fear the God of the Jews and describes their fear as “trembling inspired by God” (1 Shmuel 14:15). They are not scared of Yonatan, rather of God. They know that this is a Divine victory. In this manner, Yonatan has achieved one of the aims of a Jewish king: to teach the world about the power of God. 

 

The chapter ends with a strange story. Shaul makes an oath that no one should eat, on pain of death. It is possible he did not want people distracted from the battle by food, desiring to finish the battle on that day (Metzudat David, 1687-1769). Alternatively, it could have been a strategy to strengthen his rule by weeding out all those who did not obey him. Unfortunately, his son does not know of the oath and eats, leading to a crisis between father and son. Whilst the people successfully argue in favour of Yonatan’s life, this episode highlights the disconnect between them. Indeed, Yonatan even publicly criticises his father for his actions (verses 29-30). The chapter began with Yonatan not telling his father of his plans, already showing that they do not have a close relationship. By the end of the chapter, this has deteriorated even further.

 

Additionally, Shaul’s strange oath causes the people to sin. They are so hungry by the end of the battle that they eat their meat “with the blood” (1 Shmuel 14:32). It is unclear exactly what this sin was. The Radak (1160-1235) explains that they were so hungry that they did not wait to drain the blood properly from the meat, as is required by laws of kashrut. Regardless of the nature of the sin, Shaul berates the people harshly for it, without taking any responsibility for his own part.

 

Despite the military victory shown in this chapter, Shaul has once again illustrated that he is not the ideal king. Shmuel has already announced that Shaul will not remain the king (at the end of Chapter 13). Given the positive portrayal of Yonatan here, it appears that he has been chosen to replace his father as king. However, we know that David, from a different tribe, will be anointed as the next king instead. In our upcoming articles we will try to understand why this happens. 

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 15
Shaul Misses the Mark

In this chapter Shaul is commanded to wipe out the people of Amalek.[1] Amalek, a nomadic tribe living on the plunder of others, were the first nation to attack the Jewish people after they had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Worse still, they acted immorally, attacking the rear of the camp, which was made up of the weak and vulnerable (Devarim 25:17-19). Amalek also harassed the Jewish people during the time of the Shoftim (see Shoftim 6:3-5).

Shaul successfully attacks Amalek – however he leaves King Agag alive. The text states that “Shaul and the people took pity on Agag” (1 Shmuel 15: 9). Shaul also disregards the command to destroy all of Amalek’s possessions, taking their cattle and sheep as plunder.

When questioned by the prophet Shmuel, Shaul explains that he wanted to use them as sacrifices to God. This angers Shmuel, who explains that one cannot honour God by disobeying Him! Instead, he accuses Shaul of lusting after the material booty of war. Even if this was driven by the people, Shaul, as king, should have taken control.

 

One of the key reasons Amalek attacked the Jewish people in the desert was to take their material possessions. This illustrates the ideology of the nomadic Amalekites: everything is spoils for their taking. In contrast, Judaism states that items should only be acquired morally and ethically. When Shaul takes the possessions of Amalek as his own, he is going against this moral worldview. It also implies that this was the purpose of the war. Thus, taking the booty undermines the moral foundation of killing the people of Amalek in the first place.

 

At first glance, one might consider keeping King Agag alive as an act of humanism. However, Shaul did kill the rest of the nation. His failure to follow through with God’s commands in full stems from self-interest (Rav Ammon Bazak). In ancient warfare, it was common practice to keep the enemy king alive in order to humiliate him and celebrate personal victory. Thus, it is argued that Shaul was motivated by this desire to glorify his own name.

 

In light of Shaul’s humble personality (noted previously on several occasions), I would like to suggest that perhaps Shaul was not desiring to boast his own personal victory. Instead, Shaul planned to use the Amalekite King to display God’s victory and ultimate power over the world. However, once again, Shaul has missed the mark. Like with his mistaken plan to use the forbidden booty to sacrifice to God, here too he is trying to honour God in the wrong way. Essentially, the best way to serve God is by following his commandments in full.

 

However, Shaul is unable to accept responsibility and attempts to justify his actions (claiming that he kept the animals to sacrifice to God) and blames others (stating that he was responding to the actions of the people). This inability to own up to his mistakes, as seen before, highlights his inability to be a positive leader.

Shmuel responds with great anger to Shaul’s failures, announcing that God has “rejected” Shaul as king. The Radak explains that this adds to the similar announcement in Chapter 13 in two possible ways. Either Shmuel is telling Shaul that he is now beyond repentance or that before God meant his children will not be king, but now Shaul himself will not reign for much longer.

 

This tragically marks the point of no return for Shaul.

[1] This is a complex commandment which is beyond the scope of this discussion. Here I will address the incident between Shaul and Amalek rather than the underlying principles of the mitzvah.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 16
Introducing David

In the first section of this chapter David is anointed as the new king. This contrasts with Shaul losing his reign in the second part of the chapter.

God chastises Shmuel for mourning over Shaul, showing how upset the prophet was about Shaul losing his position. God instructs Shmuel to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Yishai from the tribe of Yehuda, in order to anoint the new king. This needs to be kept a secret as Shmuel fears it could be seen as treason, a capital offence.

 

When he arrives at Yishai’s house, Shmuel is presented with each son in turn and each time God tells him that this is not the one chosen to be king.  At first, Shmuel thinks the first son must be the right one due to his external appearance, which is similar to Shaul’s. However, God tells Shmuel not to focus on the outward appearances, as only God knows who is worthy of being a king. After meeting seven sons, Shmuel asks if there are any other. He is told that the youngest son, David, is with the sheep in the field. Shmuel asks for David to be brought before him, and God tells him that this is the right one. Shmuel anoints David in front of his family and leaves.

 

This is very different from Shaul’s anointment as king. Shmuel does not even speak to David or give him any instructions. He just makes him king and then leaves! This implies that David does not need direction, he can rule alone. In contrast, Shaul needed guidance from the prophet at every stage. The text states that the “spirit of God” came over David from then onwards. Immediately after, the “spirit of God” departs from Shaul (1 Shmuel 16:13-14). They cannot both have it at the same time.

 

In the second half of the chapter, Shaul suffers from a “ruach ra’ah”, an evil spirit, alternatively translated as severe melancholy. His servants suggest that he finds a musician to play music to cheer him up, and someone recommends David, who is a harp player. Shaul appoints David as his armourer bearer and is comforted by his music. This is the first recorded episode of depression being healed through music. In this way, David who has been secretly anointed as king, becomes an integral part of Shaul’s court.

 

The structure of the chapter highlights the contrast of the two characters. First, David gains the spirit of God, followed by Shaul losing it. Second, Shaul has an evil spirit, which is cured through David’s music. Whilst David could be seen as taking Shaul’s connection to God away, we see that he has also cured him.

Yael Zeigler explains that the fact that the Tanach continues to tell the story of Shaul, shows that there was still hope for him. If he had worked together with David, he could have regained his former position. However, we will see over the coming chapters that just as he failed to work alongside the prophet Shmuel, he will also fail to work alongside David.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 17
David versus Goliath

For the fourth time in Sefer Shmuel, the Jewish people are at war with the Philistines. However, the situation has improved. The Jewish army is now equal in size and strength (in contrast to Chapter 13 when it was far smaller). It is suggested that the battle be decided by combat between a single Philistine soldier and a single Israelite soldier, in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.

Goliath, the Philistine warrior, is described as a giant dressed head to toe in heavy armour. He taunts the Israelite army for forty days, humiliating Shaul for not volunteering to fight him. He calls himself “the Philistine” (1 Shmuel 17:8). Rashi (1040-1105) explains that Goliath uses the definite article to identify himself as the same soldier who killed the sons of Eli and captured the Aron (described in Chapter 4). All of this combines to present him as an intimidating opponent in battle, one that no one has the courage to face.

The text states that “Shaul and all of Israel heard the words of this Philistine and feared greatly” (1 Shmuel 17:11). The king should have stepped forward to fight in single combat and end the war, saving the lives of his soldiers. However, Shaul does not do this, and the people follow the fearful footsteps of their king.

Suddenly, David enters the scene. His older three brothers are part of Shaul’s army, and David has been left behind to tend to the sheep. His father sends him to bring food to his brothers and to discover how they are faring in the battle. It is unclear why David is not already by Shaul’s side, given that he was appointed his armour bearer and personal musician in the previous chapter. Yehuda Kil explains that he did not permanently reside in Shaul’s court and occasionally returned to his father’s house (Da’at Mikra commentary).

 

On his arrival at the battlefield, David hears the taunts and insults of Goliath and is outraged. He asks what is going on and who is this person that “disgraces the battalions of the living God?” (1 Shmuel 17:26). This is the first time we hear David speak, and immediately we see that it is the honour of God that concerns him the most. He does not speak to protect the honour of his king, but of God. Throughout this scene, David speaks repeatedly in the name of God, proving him a more loyal and worthy candidate for kingship.

 

In fact, the word “devarim” (words) is repeated several times in this chapter. Yael Zeigler explains that this is a battle of words, of faith in God, rather than simply a battle of military might. Shaul cannot win this battle alone as he does not have the necessary faith in God. David does.

 

David’s older brother sees him and berates him harshly for causing trouble. The Radak (1160-1235) states that his brother knew David was intending to fight. He did not believe he could succeed and did not want him to try. This illustrates the low opinion the brothers have of David!

 

However, David continues to move among the army, questioning who Goliath is and what the king intends to do about him. Shaul believes that David is volunteering to fight Goliath, and summons David before him.

Shaul objects, questioning how a “young lad” can face this “warrior from his youth” (1 Shmuel 17:33). David’s response is illuminating. He states that he regularly kills wild animals who come to attack his flock of sheep. He exclaims: “the God who has rescued me from the lion and bear, He will save me from this Philistine!” (1 Shmuel 17:37).

 

This is followed by a small gap in the text (called a “stuma”) indicating a pause before Shaul agrees. We can almost imagine the tension as this conversation unfolds: will Shaul let this youth face Goliath? This is a not a minor affair. Not only has this come to represent the success of the entire battle, but victory is crucial to sanctify God’s name, which has been repeatedly insulted by Goliath.

 

By attributing his strength and prowess to God, David reminds us of Yonatan, Shaul’s son, who also fought in the name of God (Chapter 14). Shaul offers David his armour and helmet, but David finds it too heavy and cumbersome. Instead, David chooses to fight in his own clothes, armed with only a simple slingshot and five smooth stones.

 

David scorns Goliath before they begin their combat, stating that while “you come to me with a sword, a spear and a javelin, I come with the name of God” (1 Shmuel 17:45). This shows both David’s immense bravery and faith in God. Before Goliath has time to strike out, David slings one stone towards Goliath, hitting him right in the middle of the forehead and sending him crashing to the ground. Using Goliath’s own sword, David cuts off the Philistine’s head. On seeing that their champion was dead, the Philistine army disperses, with the Israelite army pursuing them. The battle is won by the Jewish people.

 

By defeating Goliath with a sling shot as opposed to a spear or a sword, David publicly displays the power and might of the Jewish God. As noted previously, one of the roles of the King of Israel was to sanctify and honour God. David undoubtedly does this here, showing him once more to be a worthy king of Israel.

 

The chapter ends strangely with Shaul asking his general who David is. Does Shaul not know David? He has been appointed as his musician and armour bearer! There are many different answers to this question. The Abarbanel (1437-1508) explains that Shaul is suffering from one of his bouts of depression, causing him to forget who David is. The Ralbag (1288-1344) suggests that Shaul had many armour bearers and musicians and did not know them each personally.[1] The Malbim (1809-1879) proposes that Shaul is asking for information about his family and background. This is because Shaul offered his daughter in marriage to whoever defeated Goliath and he needs to know more about his future son-in-law. Rashi (1040-1103), quoting Chazal, suggests that he is questioning whether his genealogy makes him fitting to be the next king.

 

The key message from this entire incident is that David certainly is fitting to be king: he is brave, steadfast and full of faith in God, all of which Shaul is no longer.

[1] This opinion is harder to accept when we consider that Shaul is described as loving David in the previous chapter.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 18
A Strained Relationship

In the previous chapter we learn of David’s exceptional victory over Goliath. However, in Chapter 18, Shaul and David’s relationship will sour. The chapter opens with a description of the great friendship cemented between David and Yonatan, Shaul’s son. Interwoven alongside this is the narrative of Shaul’s animosity and harsh behaviour towards David. For example, he does not allow David to travel home to his father’s house (1 Shmuel 18:2).

David has become a popular war hero among the people, which generates Shaul’s envy. The women praise the troops returning from the battle with the Philistines singing: “Shaul has killed thousands and David tens of thousands” (ibid 18:7). Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235) explains the two possible approaches to this verse. Firstly, this is referring to the numbers of the enemy they have killed (albeit with exaggerated figures). Secondly, this is describing Shaul and David as fighting bravely as if they had thousands of soldiers alongside them. Unfortunately, Shaul interprets this line as an insult to him, even though he is praised first (showing him as the primary character).

 

Shaul becomes jealous and hostile towards David, stating that he only lacks the “kingdom” (ibid 18:8). This is surprising as David has not yet shown any interest in taking away Shaul’s power. However, Shaul has become insecure. He dwelt on Shmuel’s prophecy that his kingship will be given over to someone else more deserving (ibid 15:28). From now onwards, Shaul views David with hostility.

 

Next, we see the Shaul’s first attempt to kill David. Initially, this is rather half-hearted, with Shaul hurling a spear towards David as he is playing the harp. Next, Shaul removes David from the palace and makes him a captain in the army. It is unclear why Shaul does this, but possibly because he hopes David will die on the frontline. Thirdly, Shaul agrees that David can marry his daughter Merav (as was promised to the person who would defeat Goliath) but only if he fights the Philistines. In the end, Merav is given in marriage to someone else.

 

Finally, David marries Michal, another of Shaul’s daughters. However, he first needs to kill 100 Philistine men and the text explicitly states Shaul’s intentions here: “Shaul intended to have David fall at the hands of the Philistines” (ibid 18:25). He also expects Michal to act on his side against David, as a “snare” (ibid 18:21). Despite all of this, David becomes more successful and beloved, even by his new wife Michal.

 

Yael Zeigler explains that as David becomes more successful, Shaul begins to fail more and more. This is portrayed in three distinct areas: Divine, military and personal relationships. As God is with David, Shaul feels more distant. The women’s song earlier in the chapter demonstrates the military gulf between the men. Finally, the word “love” appears five times in this chapter, all directed towards David who is loved by Yonatan, Michal and all the nation.

 

The chapter ends off stating that “Shaul continued to fear David” (ibid 18:29) and that David’s reputation “became outstanding” (ibid 18:30). Unfortunately, this will only inflame the situation, with Shaul’s attempts at taking David’s life becoming more apparent and extreme.

Sefer Shmuel Aleph Chapter 19
David Flees from Shaul

King Shaul begins this chapter by explicitly speaking “about killing David” (1 Shmuel 19:1). This contrasts to his previous indirect attempts. Shaul’s son, Yonatan, intervenes and manages to convince his father against killing David.

We see Yonatan’s skills in diplomacy. Firstly, he begins stating “let not the king sin against his servant David” (1 Shmuel 19:4). By speaking to his father in third person, Yonatan is showing honour and respect due to the king. In addition, he emphasises David’s lower status as the king’s servant, indicating he is not a true threat. Secondly, he reminds his father that “David’s deeds [against Goliath] were very good for you” and that “God granted salvation” (ibid 19:5). Not only does Yonatan point out that David’s actions were in the king’s own interests, but he attributes the victory to God which downplays David’s strength and power.

 

Shaul swears an oath to allow David to live, and David returns to the palace. However, it does not take long for Shaul to regret this promise. Following another victorious battle between David and the Philistines, the “evil spirit” befalls Shaul once more. Whilst David is playing the harp for the king, Shaul tries to impale him with his spear. David manages to evade Shaul and runs away back home.

 

If David didn’t recognise the danger before, he certainly does now and he actively avoids the messengers that the king subsequently sends to his home. David’s wife Michal, the daughter of Shaul, encourages him to escape through the window and pretends David is sick in bed. It is ironic – Shaul married his daughter to David, hoping that she would aid him in bringing about David’s downfall, yet here she defies her father to protect her husband.

 

David escapes to the prophet Shmuel, perhaps hoping that as Shmuel anointed him as king he would protect him from Shaul. Then follows a puzzling story. Shaul is told that David is with Shmuel in Ramah. Shaul sends messengers to arrest David, but they end up prophesying with Shmuel and do not carry out their mission. Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235) explains that Shmuel runs a school for training to become a prophet. Thus, these messengers are absorbed into the student body and join in their activities. This happens again with two more groups of messengers sent by Shaul, before he finally decides to go himself.

 

When Shaul himself goes to Ramah, the “spirit of God came upon him” and he also prophesises with Shmuel “unclothed all day and night” (1 Shmuel 19:23-24). The removal of clothes is strange here. Rashi (1040-1105) explains that removed his outer kingly garments in order to wear the clothes of the other students. However, as clothing is a symbol of power, this implies that Shaul has lost the kingship.

 

Shaul sends messengers six times in this chapter. Three times to arrest David at home and three times to arrest him when he is in Ramah with Shmuel. This emphasises Shaul’s lack of control and power to get things done. Moreover, in the second story when his messengers become prophets, we see Shaul’s stubbornness and inability to understand the spiritual lesson being imparted. The king’s men coming to arrest David are turned into prophets of God with Shmuel. Clearly God is protecting David from Shaul.

bottom of page