Samuel marks the end of the period of the Judges. Saul marks the beginning of the period of the Kings. Their lives — along with the life of King David — are inextricably intertwined.
Samuel was the one who introduced the idea of monarchy to the people. It was he whom God chose to anoint the first kings (Saul and David). Yet it was he who was most against the idea.
Samuel was such a force that as he long lived he was the real power. The king existed in his shadow. He had a greater influence on Saul than Saul had on him. In fact, Samuel’s hold on Saul was so great that even after Samuel died Saul felt compelled to violate Torah law and visit a sorceress to raise him from the dead to get his advice (I Samuel 28).
Who was Saul?
There are personalities that a person gets one impression from the biblical account but a very different impression from Jewish tradition. Saul was such a person.
In the Book of Samuel, Saul does not come across as a very sympathetic figure. His weaknesses are portrayed in a stark fashion, including his unwarranted jealousy and persecution of David, as well as his melancholy and violence.
However, he had another side. That side only comes into true focus through the writings of the Sages, who preserved the oral traditions. In reality, Saul was a great person, and in some ways even greater than David.
Even before he became king, Saul was a national hero. He led the daring raid to rescue the Tablets of the Ten Commandments from the Philistines, who had captured them along with the Ark. After he became king, in his short two-and-a-half-year reign, he freed the Jewish people of all their enemies except the Philistines. It remained for David to ultimately triumph over the Philistines and destroy them, but the army that Saul built laid the foundation for that military victory.
Saul was charismatic and physically gifted, as well as extremely tall and handsome (I Samuel 9:2). He was charitable and selfless. Tradition records that he gave his fortune away to poor people. He specialized in helping pay for the needs of poor brides-to-be. When he went to war he paid the soldiers out of his personal treasury, not public funds.
Saul also epitomized self-sacrifice. He went to war with the Philistines after he had heard the prophecy that he and his sons would be killed (I Samuel 28:19). A lesser person would have run away. Not Saul. His loyalty and self-sacrifice for the Jewish people knew no bounds.
Saul supported and enhanced the school system that Samuel established. During his time the level of education among the children reach a high point.
All his gifts make him only more of a tragic figure. He was a good person, free of sin, charitable, self-sacrificing, brave, heroic, naturally talented, handsome and most of all modest. He had all the qualifications one could hope to have for a leader, for a king. Yet, he was destroyed by the position.
All his good points only compounded the tragedy.
Too Many Opinion Polls
While the Oral Tradition tells us his strengths and triumphs, the Written Tradition (namely, the Book of Samuel) tells of his weaknesses and failures. His weaknesses were human weaknesses.
Near the top of the list was that he was influenced too much by public opinion. When the prophet Samuel told him that he should destroy the great enemy of the Jews, Amalek, along with all their flocks of cattle and sheep, he left flocks alive (I Samuel 15:9). He admitted to Samuel that the reason he did not fulfill the Divine command was because he was afraid of the people (ibid. 15:21).
Saul caved into them because he wanted people to like him. However, leadership is not a popularity contest. A true leader has to be unafraid at times to do things that are unpopular. The task of a leader is not necessarily to do what the people want, but to do what is best for them and then somehow convince them to follow him.
The Talmud extended that to rabbis. A rabbi that is universally popular, it says, is probably not doing a good job. There is a Yiddish quip that translates roughly: “A rabbi that the people do not want to get rid of is not a real rabbi. But a rabbi who allows the people to get rid of him has something wrong with him.”
That is the tightrope a leader has to walk. He cannot be antagonistic to the point that no one wants to follow him. On the one hand, he cannot always do exactly what they want, because that is not the role of leadership.
Saul’s second weakness was insecurity and jealousy – even to the point of paranoia. He saw traitors everywhere. David was his trusted aid, confidante and loyal son-in-law, yet he listened to slander about him, assumed the worst of motives by him and made him his blood-enemy. No matter how many times David reconciled with him, Saul’s insecurity and paranoia returned and gnawed at him.
Saul became obsessed not by the true enemies of the Jewish people, but by David — to the point that his beloved mentor and advocate, Samuel, feared Saul would kill him when God told him to anoint David king (I Samuel 16:2). Samuel had to concoct a story to hide the event from him, because he knew the extent of Saul’s enmity against David.
Even after he was anointed, David had no intention of overthrowing Saul and taking the throne prematurely. To the contrary, he had opportunities and good reasons to kill Saul (e.g. I Samuel 24). However, he did not do so because he was no threat to Saul.
Saul listened to the slander of his advisers, most of all Doeg, who was an implacable enemy of David. In so doing, he destroyed himself as well as his daughter Michael who was married to David. Indeed, he almost destroyed David and even the Jewish people.
The man who sacrificed everything for the Jewish people, and was so selfless, let his insecurities get in the way to such an extent that it endangered the entire people.
Saul was a person of emotional extremes. One day he was extremely good and kind while the next day he was be extremely bad and cruel.
The Torah commanded the Jewish people to wipe out the memory of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19). The Amalekites were the original terrorists. Even today their spirit lives on in those who prey on “feeble, faint and weary” (ibid.). Saul had the opportunity to wipe them out forever, and God command him explicitly to do so. Nevertheless, he let Agag, the king of Amalek, live.
At that time, an echo rang out from heaven, the Tradition taught, and said to Saul, “Do not be overly righteous.” Do not try to be more righteous than God. If God said to kill, then kill. By letting the king of Amalek live, his line eventually gave birth to likes of Haman and Hitler. Saul had a chance to prevent that from happening. In keeping Agag alive he brought untold suffering to his progeny.
At the same time, Saul also exhibited the opposite reaction. The city of Nob unknowingly supplied David with food and arms when he was a fugitive running from Saul. When Saul found out about it he was so enraged that slew the entire city (I Samuel 22:18-19). At that moment, the echo once more rang out from heaven and declared, “Do be overly evil.”
These two extremities of emotion characterize Saul. He could get carried away with moodiness and melancholy. He had many positive qualities, but his weaknesses undid almost all the good that could have been credited to him.
No Skeletons in the Closet
The Talmud offers one final insight into Saul’s character flaw. Why was he not fit to be king? The answer the Talmud gives is surprising: Never appoint a leader who does not a skeleton in his closet.
This is an important lesson in life. A leader who has some flaw or public failure on his record will tend to be humble. And if not, someone will surely be there to remind him of it.
Saul’s flaw was that he had no flaw. He was perfect. A perfect leader is inherently flawed. His ego is bound to get the better of him.
David was not perfect. His great-grandmother was Ruth, whose Jewish lineage was questioned even until David’s time. It helped humble David. “Oh, yeah, that shepherd boy with the non-Jewish great-grandmother,” people would whisper. David did not have to literally hear the whispers to live constantly with the awareness of what people thought. It helped him not let power get to his head.
Saul saw himself differently. He had no chink in his armor. That is why he fell apart. There was no one to deflate his ego.
In all Tanach – the twenty-four books of the biblical canon — there is no more tragic figure than Saul. He represents what could have been but was not. From that we can extrapolate lessons about the inherent challenges of leadership, both in our personal lives and in the lives of those granted the opportunity of leadership on a national level.