(I Samuel 20:18-42)
February 1, 2003
King Saul is perhaps the most tragic figure in the history of the development of the monarchy. Nowhere is this tragic state more readily apparent than in his relationship with David and his own son, Jonathan. David was once Saul’s favorite, but his status changed because of his jealousy of David’s military prowess and growing popularity amongst the people. Saul became so consumed by David’s new status that it abjectly affected his behavior and practically wrested the monarchy from his hands. Saul’s dark side became so palpable that it led some commentators to see it lurking behind even his most innocuous actions.
The king’s Rosh Hodesh banquet serves as the backdrop to measure the depths of Saul’s animosity for David. The meal opens quite innocently with the king sitting in his usual place at the head of the table with his back against the wall. (verse 25) Most commentators note that this was the normal place for the king to sit. However, Rabbi Yonathan Eybeschutz, an 18th Polish commentator, sees Saul’s position at the table as a metaphor for Saul’s fallen state. He explains that Saul’s “sitting with his back to the wall” indicates Saul’s fear that his life was in danger. This interpretation is obviously shaped by the continuation of the story and an awareness of Saul’s troubled emotional state.
Jonathan, Saul’s son, very quickly realizes the truth of his father’s state when his father reacts violently to David’s absence at the banquet. Jonathan, of course, is concerned for David’s fate lest his father kill his friend but Saul’s volatile behavior also castes doubts on his own future. Saul’s behavior is an indicator of just how greatly his obsession with David has overcome his own ability to control himself. The very thought of David somehow triggers Saul’s “inner demon” and his rage consumes him. Saul becomes the victim of his own despondency rather than the master of his fate.
It is not without irony that we read this tragic story on the eve of Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new month, which Jews mark as an opportunity for evaluation and renewal. Perhaps it is a message for us that we should not let Saul’s inner demons become our own.
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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