(I Samuel 15:2-34)
March 15, 2003
Parshat Zachor is the second of the four special Shabbatot which precede Pesach. The special Torah reading for this occasion (read as the final – maftir – Torah reading) recounts the cowardly Amalakite attack on the weak and defenseless among the children of Israel during the Israelite trek through the desert. In this Torah reading, the children of Israel are enjoined to “blot out the memory of the Amalakites from under heaven”. The haftarah represents a later episode in this story when God commands King Saul, through the prophet Samuel, to make war on the Amalakites in order to avenge this age old offense. This war was to be one of total annihilation, including the king and all Amalakite property. King Saul, however, fails to carry out this command to the letter and leaves Agag, the Amalakite king, alive. He also sets aside the best of the Amalakite flocks to be sacrificed before God instead of being destroyed as he was commanded by God.
Samuel was infuriated by Saul’s infraction. When confronted, Saul casts the blame for his inappropriate decision upon the people: “…the troops took from the spoil some sheep and oxen – the best of what was proscribed – to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.” (verse 20) Samuel\’s response is telling: “‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s commands? Surely obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim. Because you rejected the Lord’s command, He has rejected you as king.’” (verses 22-23)
The consequences of this critique seem overly harsh. Why should Saul lose his position as king because he chose to sacrifice animals rather than annihilate them? If Saul had indeed transgressed, it was only in the details and only with the best of intentions. What possibly could have caused this harsh reaction? A closer look at Samuel’s critique might offer an answer. Samuel draws a distinction between two types of religious responses: the observance of commandments verses a spontaneous individuated religious response. Samuel sides strongly with the former and scorns the later.
The motivation for Saul’s behavior seems to be driven by morality and by inspired religiosity but ultimately the more likely cause is ego. Saul’s attempt to save Agag was driven by his fidelity for a fellow monarch rather than moral considerations, while his intent to sacrifice the best of the Amalikite flock was driven by the will of the people rather than service to God. Service to God was secondary. Ego is not so easily separated from the idolatry of self. Samuel concludes that the only true service to God is through the observance of God’s commands. This appears to be the crux of Samuel’s indictment of Saul. It is also an important statement of Jewish religiosity.