(1 Samuel 11:14-12:22)
In Israel: June 28, 2003
In the Diaspora: July 5, 2003
Nothing seems to have disturbed Samuel more than the possibility that the people’s desire for a king was fueled by the thought that his career had been marred by some imagined impropriety. In his farewell address to the people upon appointing Saul as king, Samuel implored them to affirm their belief in his own integrity. He then calls upon God and the newly appointed king to act as witnesses to the people’s declaration: “And he [Samuel] said unto them: ‘The Lord then is witness and His anointed is witness, to your admission this day that you have found nothing in my possession.’” (1 Samuel 12:5) The response to this call in the Biblical story is difficult. The texts reads literally: “And he said: ‘Witness.’ (Ibid.) – that is to say, that the party being asked to affirm Samuel’s innocence confirms it. Who affirms his innocence? The Hebrew text uses the third person singular pronoun – ‘he’ which does not seem to fit the context, but if you look in any of the English translations, this problem is resolved by correcting the text to read: ‘they’ referring to the people present at Samuel’s address. This is the same approach taken by the Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the text.
This textual problem has provided fuel for a variety of different interpretations since commentators to the Hebrew text cannot resolve difficulties as easily as a translator. Rashi, the famous 11th century French exegete known for weaving midrashic explanations into the Biblical text, is not willing to set aside the Hebrew text. Consequently, he identifies the one who affirms Samuel’s innocence as a ‘bat kol – a divine voice’. (See BT Makot 23b) Rabbi David Kimche, the 12th century Provencal commentator, operates under the same textual constraints as Rashi, but finds an answer closer to what we have seen in the translations. He concludes that the text used the singular pronoun because ‘the whole people of Israel as a single unit confirmed Samuel’s innocence’. Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 12th century French commentator who was also Rashi’s student, offers a third approach to this question. He concludes that the use of the singular in the Hebrew text implies that ‘each and every person in the community affirmed Samuel’s innocence’.
What seems clear from all of these interpretations is that Samuel’s search for proof of his integrity led him to seek out the approbation of both God and his community. Each of us, like Samuel, should have this same concern in both our public and private endeavors.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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