From time to time, I’ve been posting here the notes I take each week for the UCLA Faculty Tanakh Study Group, which has renamed itself in honor of the late Jack Hirshleifer. We are now working our way through 1 and 2 Samuel using Robert Alter’s translation (published as The David Story.) This week we read Chapter 15, and the discussion seemed worth sharing.
(The text, in the JPS translation, is below the jump. If you’re interested in the bits I haven’t posted, send me an email and I’ll send you the back file and add you to the mailing list. Comments are especially welcome on these posts, since it’s likely I’ve gone astray in more than the usual number of places.)
Chapter 15 starts with a puzzling verse, and doesn’t get much clearer as it goes along.
Samuel begins the chapter by reminding Saul that Samuel anointed him king, without seeming to recall that he had subsequently told Saul that he was to be deposed for having failed to wait until Samuel came to offer sacrifice before battle (Ch. 13:13-15). He then proceeds to give Saul his marching orders, as from HaShem: “strike down Amalek,” and kill everything that moves.
“Amalek,” like “Israel,” refers to a people simply by the name of its ancestor-figure, rather than in the adjectival form usually applied to foreign peoples, such as the Seven Nations of Canaan, who are, for example, הַכְּנַעֲנִי ha-Canani “the Canaanite” rather than simply “Canaan,” and הַגִּרְגָּשִׁי ha-Girgashi (“the Girgashite”) rather than simply “Girgash.” Why? One speculation: because it’s easier to hate an individual (“Saddam Hussein” or “Hitler”) than a whole country or people (Iraq or the Iraqis, Germany or the Germans). So the personalization of the feud fits the order to show no mercy. In addition, the attack on the Amalekites has no reference, or at least no explicit reference, to anything any living Amalekite has done or not done; it’s all about “that which Amalek did to Israel” many generations back.
(In Deuteronomy 25:17-19, Amalek is described as having attacked Israel treacherously; the same battle was earlier described — in Exodus 17 — without any such suggestion; the point of that account in Exodus is the power Moses wields by holding up his hands, and the help Aaron and Hur give him when his arms grow heavy. Ex. 17:14-16 does indeed proclaim a permanent war on Amalek, but without explaining why.)
The decree against Amalek is even more sweeping than the decrees against the Seven Nations; everything, is to be destroyed, not only the people. Except for the town of Jericho (Josh. 6-7), which suffered the same fate decreed for Amalek (with Rahab alone being spared for helping the Israelite spies, and the Israelite Achor being stoned to death as punishment for trying to hold back some valuable artifacts) the rest of the nations of Canaan are to be exterminated, but the livestock is to be taken as spoil.
HaShem’s order regarding Amalek, as transmitted by Samuel to Saul, is that no person or animal be allowed to survive. One way of understanding this is that the refusal of the spoil marks out the campaign as holy war rather than a mere Viking-raid. Another is that everything associated with Amalek is contaminated.
Saul allows/forces the Kenites, who live among the Amalekites but are hereditary friends to the Israelites, to leave before the slaughter. (A genuine act of mercy, or just a way of reducing the size of the forces Israel has to fight?)
The attack on Amalek is successful, but the people (i.e., the troops) “took pity on” or “had mercy on” Agag the king and the best of the animals. (Alter translates this as “spared,” so as to be consistent with the action taken, since it’s hard to imagine why the best of the animals should be “pitied.” But perhaps “took pity on” is right, and the intention of the text is satirical. On this reading, the greed of the army masquerading as mercy, and the confabulations of Saul pretending to obedience, are meant to be comic, relieving the chapter’s otherwise unbearably grim narrative.)
The key-words of the rest of the chapter are נִחַמ natam (“repent,” or “regret,” but also, confusingly, “be comforted;” perhaps the last should be understood as “require comfort,” or “feel sorry for oneself”) and מָאַס moas, (“reject” or “cast off”). HaShem tells Samuel (according to the narrator, not merely Samuel’s report) “I repent (natamti) that I made Saul king.”
This is said to have “troubled,” or “incensed,” Samuel, though we had no idea why Samuel should be troubled that the deposition he had already proclaimed is now Divinely ordered, or why he should “cry out to HaShem all night,” unless because Saul was popular with the army and Samuel didn’t want to be seen as glorying in his downfall.
Samuel makes no comment when he is told that Saul has “set up a monument for himself” (presumably a battle-stele commemorating the victory), but when they meet Samuel has only contempt for Saul’s triumphant announcement, “I have fulfilled the word of HaShem.” Samuel demands, witheringly, “Then what is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of oxen that I hear?” in reference to the spared animals.
Saul immediately begins to backpedal, saying “From the Amalekite they brought them,” as if he had nothing to do with his army’s actions. He then claims that they were to be sacrificed to “HaShem your God.” (Is Saul, like the Wicked Son in the Haggadah, distancing himself from the tribal religion, or is he merely acknowledging that Samuel has what Saul lacks: access to the Word of HaShem?)
Samuel asks why Saul didn’t obey HaShem’s commandment: despite his modesty about his own importance, displayed when he was chosen (“though you may be small in your own eyes”) Saul as king has a particular duty to obey. Saul once again, more directly this time, puts the blame on the army, and again claims that the beasts were brought back for sacrifice.
Samuel then breaks out (for the only time) into prophetic poetry, sounding like Hosea as he asks rhetorically:
Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices,
as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to hearken than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim.
He then pronounces once again — as if he had not pronounced it two chapters back — the sentence of deposition: “Because you have cast off (or “rejected”) the word of HaShem, He has cast you off (“rejected you”) from being king.”
Saul is instantly repentant, though the word is not used. He acknowledges his sin, and asks Samuel to return with him so he may prostrate himself before HaShem. Samuel says again that Saul’s rejection of HaShem’s command has caused his rejection as king. When Saul grasps the hem of Samuel’s robe as the prophet turns away, it tears, and Samuel makes this a prophetic omen: “HaShem has torn away the kingship of Israel from you this day.”
Samuel then adds: “The Glory of Israel does not lie and does not repent; He is no man that He should repent.” Since we have been told only a few verses back that HaShem told Samuel that precisely “I repent” of having making Saul king, this assertion seems puzzling at best. But its meaning is clear: the sentence is final, and HaShem will not change course a second time.
But when Saul asks again, Samuel consents to accompany him on his journey, so as not to humiliate him before the elders. As Saul prostrates himself, Samuel deals with Agag king of Amalek.
Here the text seems to be subject to opposite interpretations: Agag comes forward “mincingly,” “stumbling,” or “in fetters,” and says either that the bitterness of death is “upon him” or that it is “behind him.” Whatever he believes, Samuel pronounces a what-goes-around-comes-around sentence:
As your sword has made women childless,
so shall your mother be childless among women.
He then proceeds to hack Agag in pieces “before HaShem.”
We found nothing to say in defense either of the genocidal attack on the Amalekites (except that HaShem’s actions are not taken as guides for human actions) or of Samuel’s final bit of brutality (which lacks the excuse of a Divine commandment). We hoped that the text might mean that Agag was beheaded first and then the corpse chopped up — as disgusting as that would have been — but the text doesn’t say so, and the more natural reading would seem to be Samuel sliced Agag limb from limb while he was still alive.
At the end of the chapter, Saul and Samuel part, without any more words, never to meet again. Samuel is said to have “grieved over Saul,” though we aren’t told why; Alter suggests that his grief might be regret over having chosen Saul in the first place, but if so it would have seemingly made more sense for the grief to have come earlier.
15:1 And Samuel said unto Saul: ‘The the Lord sent me to anoint thee to be king over His people, over Israel; now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the Lord.
15:2 Thus saith the Lord of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt.
15:3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’
15:4 And Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand footmen, and ten thousand men of Judah.
15:5 And Saul came to the city of Amalek, and lay in wait in the valley.
15:6 And Saul said unto the Kenites: ‘Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them; for ye showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt.’ So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.
15:7 And Saul smote the Amalekites, from Havilah as thou goest to Shur, that is in front of Egypt.
15:8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.
15:9 But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, even the young of the second birth, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; but every thing that was of no account and feeble, that they destroyed utterly.
15:10 Then came the word of the Lord unto Samuel, saying:
15:11 ‘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.’ And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the Lord all night.
15:12 And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning; and it was told Samuel, saying: ‘Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he is setting him up a monument, and is gone about, and passed on, and gone down to Gilgal.’
15:13 And Samuel came to Saul; and Saul said unto him: ‘Blessed be thou of the Lord; I have performed the commandment of the Lord.’
15:14 And Samuel said: ‘What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?’
15:15 And Saul said: ‘They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.’
15:16 Then Samuel said unto Saul: ‘Stay, and I will tell thee what the Lord hath said to me this night.’ And he said unto him: ‘Say on.’
15:17 And Samuel said: ‘Though thou be little in thine own sight, art thou not head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed thee king over Israel;
15:18 and the Lord sent thee on a journey, and said: Go and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they be consumed.
15:19 Wherefore then didst thou not hearken to the voice of the Lord, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst that which was evil in the sight of the Lord?’
15:20 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.
15:21 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.’
15:22 And Samuel said: ‘Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
15:23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, He hath also rejected thee from being king.’
15:24 And Saul said unto Samuel: ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words; because I feared the people, and hearkened to their voice.
15:25 Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord.’
15:26 And Samuel said unto Saul: ‘I will not return with thee; for thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.’
15:27 And as Samuel turned about to go away, he laid hold upon the skirt of his robe, and it rent.
15:28 And Samuel said unto him: ‘The the Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou.
15:29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie nor repent; for He is not a man, that He should repent.’
15:30 Then he said: ‘I have sinned; yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord thy God.’
15:31 So Samuel returned after Saul; and Saul worshipped the Lord.
15:32 Then said Samuel: ‘Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.’ And Agag came unto him in chains. And Agag said: ‘Surely the bitterness of death is at hand.’
15:33 And Samuel said: As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
15:34 Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house to Gibeath-shaul.
15:35 And Samuel never beheld Saul again until the day of his death; for Samuel mourned for Saul; and the Lord repented that He had made Saul king over Israel.