Haftarah Zachor: How the Mighty Have Fallen
Samuel I 15:2-34: “Since we cannot attain to greatness, “ says the Sieur de Montaigne, “let us have our revenge by railing at it.”
I cannot read the story of the sweet, good, righteous, and great King Saul’s battle with Amalek without weeping for the fallen giant.
The story begins with the promise of unparalleled achievement. The prophet Samuel appointed a king for Israel. Saul had proven himself a strong warrior, whose battle skills almost matched his astounding righteousness. The prophet charged the king to fulfill the commandment to wipe out Amalek as the next stage in the commandments of settling the Land of Israel. Once the king succeeded in completing this charge, the nation would be ready to build a permanent home for God.
He came oh so close! Saul did as all Samuel commanded, almost. He wiped out everyone save their king Agag and some animals the people wanted to save for sacrifices. Saul was the hesitant king, and refused to impose his will on the people. He would not order them to kill the animals as Samuel had carefully instructed him.
This great and pure human being was horrified by what he had done. He, as a human being, could not understand how an entire nation could be wiped out. There was one-person left, only one, the king, and Saul stayed his hand. He could not kill the very last Amalekite. One sword-stroke stood between King Saul and perfection. He could not bring himself to do it.
Saul’s life began a quick decline. The modest king demands public honor from Samuel. He soon loses the “Spirit of God” that animated his successes. He becomes paranoid, depressed and a small human being. Saul will spend the rest of his life attempting to assert his control of a life that so quickly slipped from his mighty grasp.
A sea of ink has been spilled across a forest of paper explaining why Saul failed. We rail against this great man who so spectacularly failed. I often think of Horace’s words; “The gods have done well in making me a humble and small-spirited fellow.” It is quite easy to be angry and frustrated by Saul’s tragic failure, yet I wonder whether anyone of us would have better managed his challenge.
As painful as it is to read this story I review it repeatedly in a futile attempt to understand the challenge experienced, not by someone with my perspective, but rather how a human being as magnificent as King Saul experienced this terrible test of his deepest inner core.
There is something missing from the story:
The prophet Samuel spoke to Saul and Saul went to war. If this was such an important step for the entire nation, would it not have made sense for the king or the prophet to address the people, place the war with Amalek into historical and spiritual perspective, and inspire them to finish this terrible war that had begun during the time of Moses and Joshua and still continued in Saul’s time?
But there is no speech. No one explained the situation to the nation, as they were about to enter this seminal battle. Saul understood but he did not explain. It is almost as if he carried all the historical weight on his broad shoulders and wanted the people to fight a battle against an enemy, not an archenemy that represented such spiritual danger to Israel. Saul went into battle with a massive army but he was alone.
Each time the king wields his battleaxe he is alone. He represents his people. He must lead. He cannot lose. The enemy knows that to defeat the king is to win the battle. The king may have his men battling at his side but each stroke of his blade carries more weight than that of a soldier. The king fights a unique battle. Saul was alone among kings. His battle was against an historical enemy, one that had tripped Moses. This enemy was the sworn enemy of God. Our great one, our king, chose to fight this part of the battle by himself. He lost.
His people could afford to keep a few animals alive, especially to offer as sacrifices. They did not know that this was a battle between the forces of good and evil. The people would not lose everything if they allowed Agag to remain alive for a single night while the king warred between his obligation and conscience. Saul did know this battle for what it was. Saul did understand the spiritual implications of the war. He could not afford the same mercies allowed by his soldiers.
People, no matter how great, cannot stand alone in the battle between good and evil. Even the mighty must share their burden. They must lead and inspire rather than shoulder all responsibility. Esther, Saul’s descendent, was not alone when she approached the throne room of Achashveirosh. The prayers of the Shushan Jews who had fasted three days and three nights for her success accompanied her. Esther shared her battle and her victories, and they last until this day.