Haftarah Parshat Vayikra – Shabbat Zachor (1 Samuel 15:2-34)
March 19, 2016 /9 Adar B, 5776
Ambiguity is a valuable tool in storytelling and the story of Saul and the Amalekites uses this device brilliantly to deal with some of the difficult ethical issues raised by the story. The Amalekites were a people, who by virtue of having massacred Israelite stragglers in the desert, were marked for destruction. (See Deuteronomy 25:18) Saul, as the freshly crowned king of the Israelites, was charged by the prophet Samuel to carry out this mission: “Thus says the Lord of Hosts: ‘I have made a reckoning of what Amalek did to Israel, that he set against him on the way as he was coming up from Egypt. Now, go and strike down Amalek, and put under the ban everything that he has, you shall not spare him, and you shall put to death man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (15:2-3)
This ban (herem) is in itself morally problematic and the author of the story seems to be aware of this fact. He uses his description of Saul’s actions in carrying out this command to indicate its complicated nature. When Saul carries out this ban (herem) he does so only partially: “And Saul, and the troops with him, spared (vayahmol) Agag and the best of his sheep and the cattle, the fat ones and the young ones, everything good, and they did not want to pass them under the ban. But all the vile and worthless possessions, these they put under the ban.” (15:9)
The literary critic, Robert Alter, points out that the verb – “vayahmol” used to describe the action of Saul and his troops is expressed in the singular, perhaps in an attempt to cast responsibility for the action squarely on Saul’s shoulders. Saul’s actions indicate that his intent was not pure. The herem was only applied to that which could not elicit profit while that which was valuable was set aside for other potential uses. In other words, Saul set out the to carry out the herem without really carry it out. His intentions were impure, casting a shadow over the action itself. (See Alter, The David Story, pp. 88-89)
Saul’s inability to loyally carry out this command seem intended to raise a question regarding the very nature of the command. Is Saul distracted by human failings or are there other considerations suggesting issues with the command itself? The indeterminacy here is significant. The prophet Samuel may be sure of the answer but we are left to ponder.