Tuesday, 21 Feb 2012

Written by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

I Samuel 15:29 (from Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor):
Moreover, the Faithful One of Israel does not deceive or repent…

I Samuel 15 tells the story of Saul’s downfall, wrapped up in the package of the war against Amalek. The chapter begins by God telling Samuel to instruct Saul to take revenge against the Amalekites for what they did to the children of Israel after they fled Egypt. The instructions are explicit – kill everyone, destroy everything, spare no one and nothing (not even the livestock). But somehow Saul can’t manage to get this simple instruction right. His army are not keen to destroy valuable animals and Saul, himself, manages to leave Agag, the king of the Amalekites, well and truly alive.

Already in v. 11, God expresses regret: nichamti, ‘I regret that I made Saul king…’ Nichamti is from the root nun-chet-mem, which in the niphal (as we have it here) means to regret, be sorry, repent or relent. God is unhappy at the decision taken to anoint Saul king – it is a significant statement. Even Samuel is distressed by this revelation. Perhaps because it was he, Samuel, who did the actual anointing. Perhaps Samuel fears that he, too, will be tarnished with the same brush as Saul, fearing that Saul’s inability to follow orders will appear to God as a failure of Samuel’s to properly transmit God’s message. Whatever the case, for Saul, God’s regret becomes an immutable sentence.

For in the following verses, Samuel duly chastises Saul for his failure to follow orders. Saul is, in return, repentant, desperate for a way back to God’s love and loyalty. Saul makes a reasonable case that the animals they retained were merely for the people to have something to sacrifice to God to thank God for their victory.
But it seems that thinking for one’s self is not what is required – ‘Does the Eternal One delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Eternal One’s command? Surely obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams.’ [I Samuel 15: 22] Because Saul rejects God’s direct command, God in turn rejects Saul as king. But given Saul’s immediate acknowledgement of wrong doing and repentance, we might have expected God to be forgiving – that is, after all, what we might reasonably presume of a merciful deity.

Yet in v. 29 we are told explicitly that God does not yenacheim (from the same root nun-chet-mem), the Divine mind will not be changed; ‘for God is not human that God should l’hinacheim, repent.’ In other words, God will not be swayed by Saul’s contrition. For Saul there is no forgiveness, no redemption. These verses present a damning condemnation of both the behaviour of Saul and the intractableness of God. They also present Samuel as a prophet in a less than flattering light. Would Abraham have argued on Saul’s behalf? Why doesn’t Samuel stand up for the man he anointed king? It is true that at the end of this story Samuel mourns for Saul to the point that God finds Samuel’s behaviour excessive, but Samuel never stands up to God about the matter.

What is especially peculiar, however, is that in v. 11 God does repent and then in v. 29 the text specifically states that God does not repent – ever; repentance is a human foible. How are we to reconcile this theological conundrum? How can God be guilty of such self-contradiction in the space of a handful of verses? The commentators remain strangely silent.

The Targum is so vexed that its ‘translation’ strays some great distance from the literal meaning of the verse:

‘And if you say: “I will turn from my sins and it will be forgiven to me in order that I and my sons may exercise kingship over Israel forever,” already it is decreed upon you from before the Eternal One of Israel’s glory before whom there is no deception, and God does not turn from whatever God says; for God is not like the sons of men who say and act deceitfully, decree and do not carry out.’

Here the Targum recognises that something deeply disturbing is happening in the theology of these verses and attempts to soften the message. Saul cannot simply take it all back. Saul has acted and must face the consequences of those actions. And besides, in this ‘translation’ the Targum insinuates that Saul is not completely repentant. Saul is just worried about his fate and that of his children to retain the kingship. But God, even according to the Targum, is not fickle, like we are. And if Saul is not fully and completely repentant, perhaps it is not so worrying that God does not relent and forgive him. But the biblical story holds no such hint about Saul’s motivations.

So what is the answer? How are we to face the certain knowledge that we, too, will sometimes err and, that just possibly, God will not relent? What can we take from this story? That the text of I Samuel and beyond is the story of the Davidic line; that Saul was never meant to be part of our national history? That God is not like we are; God’s mind does not change? Where does that leave us? Not even God can help us if we are Saul instead of David?

I only know this: there is no simple answer. God is sometimes merciful and sometimes not in the Hebrew Bible. God is sometimes loving and sometimes violent. God is sometimes friend and sometimes foe. The relationship to our own behaviour is not as simple as the second paragraph of the Shema would make out.

I am, as is too often the case these days, left only with the dawning realisation that God is neither entirely merciful nor wholly consistent. And so, perhaps, in the end, God is far more like we human beings after all than the text of the Hebrew Bible would have us believe. And yet, ‘God is not human that God should repent,’ it is Samuel who utters these words, not God. Perhaps it is only the messenger who is confused, perhaps hearing the true voice of God is hard, even for a prophet?

Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris
March 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.