Saul’s Assumption of Power
It is hard to read the story of Saul.
The nation meets him first as a shy giant, a massive boy who buries his head to hide among the baggage when he is introduced as king. This is the child who, keeping good company with all the leaders of Israel, tried to turn down his call to lead, protesting that he did not deserve it.
But the spirit of God descends upon him and he takes his place as first king of Israel, changing into a man possessed, angry and willing to fight for his nation.
However, along the way tragedy strikes. Saul loses the favor of God when he fails to completely eliminate the Ameliketes in precisely the right way. Without the spirit of God resting on him, Saul spends the rest of his days haunted. Consumed with the fear of losing power, Saul becomes his own enemy. In the end, he is one of the few biblical characters to commit suicide.
Saul occupies the unfavorable position of first king of Israel.
As we are reminded in this week’s haftarah, it was a mistake for the Israelites to request a king. God is our king—to ask for a human one is to be just like all the other nations and reject the rulership of God.
And yet, Saul did not ask to be king. He tried to run from it. Why was he made our king? And was he set up to fail? Was he made to lose his sanity in order to teach Israel a point? Why must we suffer through reading the long story of his decline into paranoia?
There is another biblical story often referenced when considering whether God sets us up to fail.
A common reading of the prohibitions of the garden of Eden is that God put them there for us to transgress. God intended for us to gain knowledge and be exiled. Eve and Adam also did not ask to be firsts, to take on the role of the beginning of all humanity. When God calls for them, they hide just as Saul hides when the nation calls him.
The similarities continue—both Eve and Saul encounter a wily nahash.
In the garden of Eden story, it is the snake, nahash, in Hebrew, who convinced Eve to eat from the fruit which is forbidden to her. In Saul’s story, it is Nahash, leader of the Ammonites. This Nahash offers a horrible choice to an Israelite city—surrender and I will gouge the right eye of each one of you in order to make you a disgrace, or fight and die. Saul helps the people of this city reject the terms of the deal, coming in and scattering the army of Nahash. But Saul does not totally destroy the army and later it is for Saul’s failure to totally destroy another army that the nation will be ripped from him.
Eve and Saul both are called, both hide from their callings and engage with a nahash.
Both fail in the tasks that God gives to them. But while they do fail in the end, and maybe are even destined to fail, they do also do well for a time.
Eve and Saul represent the first stages of something, Eve the first human and Saul the first king.
Perhaps God never intended for humanity to happen just as God seems to regard human kingship as a mistake. Nonetheless, through the stories of Eve and Saul, we get better. David is a better king than Saul. Rebecca is better at attending to God’s words than Eve is and from Rebecca, Israel is born. While it is hard to read our failures, we do get better. If God sets us up to fail, God also makes growth and change possible.
See more: Parashat Korach
Originally posted as part of the Conservative Yeshiva at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center’s Torah Sparks. Support Torah learning from the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center/Conservative Yeshiva for leaders and seekers around the world here.