Wednesday, December 3, 2008

1:6:71-80: An Imperfect King

1 December 2008 (again a bit late)

Monday’s selection of midrashim cover the selection, reign, and death of King Saul. One might ask BZ’s continual question: why are these incidents the ones that Bialik and Ravnitzky choose to focus on? We have less than two pages of midrashim on events that take up, oh, about half of the book of Samuel I. And indeed, this lack of focus on Saul seems to parallel the general rabbinic emphasis: David and Solomon are the kings on which we focus, while Saul is a bit of a detour into the House of Joseph before we settle down into the House of Judah and the Davidic line.

One thread that runs through a couple of these midrashim on Saul is his suitability (or lack therof) for the kingship. As the first midrash writes, “Why did Saul merit kingship? Because of his humility” (1:6:71). It then goes on to explore the compassion Saul felt for his servant, a compassion for all creatures that is also referenced in midrash 75. There, Saul’s unwillingness to kill Agag and the Amalekites—which Samuel clearly sees as selfishness and arrogance—is transmuted into compassion for every living thing. While the midrash then goes on to criticize Saul for defying Samuel and God’s will, its critique does not override the earlier compliment. Saul may be brazen, but the midrash acknowledges that what is being asked of him is possibly immoral.

The surface work of these midrashim is to reclaim Saul’s character as one who is noble and worthy of reigning, to justify God’s choice of him. We can read their compliments, however, as a deeper critical comment on Saul’s character. Saul fell because of his inability to make critical distinctions, to separate the noble from the base, to know when to sacrifice an underling and when to save them. We see this in his willingness to sacrifice Jonathan for transgressing his father’s commandment (I Samuel 14:44), a sacrifice that was only overruled because of popular uproar. While such compassion and steadfastness may be praiseworthy in an average citizen, it is the job of the ruler to make difficult decisions, to prize the royals over the commoners, and to follow God’s law even when it may seem capricious.

I connect this inability to make critical distinctions to the “evil spirit” that often comes upon Saul, a spirit that seems very similar to what we might describe as mental illness or depression. One of the hallmarks of depression is this inability to see things in shades of gray, to wrest oneself from the grips of absolutes. And despite Saul’s attempt to soothe his pain with David’s music, his jealousy at David’s simple wholeness is what finally brings him down. The final two midrashim on Saul’s death (1.6.78-80) are poignant tales of how the people mourned for this imperfect king, who “waived the honor due him” (79) and thus lost the throne.

--Sara Meirowitz


Richard Friedman said...

Sara --

Thanks. I've seen Shaul as the tragic figure of the Tanach. These midrashim, and your perceptive comments, reinforce that.

BZ said...

Saul = Macbeth