Drek and Amalek

It’s still Jewish Disability Awareness Month, but I read something related to Purim that I found provocative. Though maybe it wasn’t provocative in a good way.

Over at Mosaic, Atar Hadari has an article in the “Observations” section of the site, “What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance.” It’s about the Haftarah for this Shabbat, Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim. As Hadari says, the Haftarah is from I Samuel 15:1-34, the story where Saul decides to forego fulfilling Yahweh’s instruction to kill the Amalekite king, Agag; Samuel steps in, slaughters Agag, and informs Saul that his monarchy will soon come to an end.

Hadari says the story is a study in character and leadership styles: Saul vs. Samuel, or outer- versus inner-directed leaders.

And so Hadari says:

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with outer-directed leaders. They take their eye off the ball. They get distracted by what the people want or, to take a more charitable view, have bouts of compassion. Unfortunately, neither what the people want, nor compassion, is high on the agenda of the Lord of Hosts.

Hadari then compares Saul with Samuel and later, David:

What Samuel shows Saul at Gilgal when he hacks apart the king of Amalek is what happens to kings who don’t obey their inner voice, the still, small voice that cries in the night—let alone the voice of their prophet.

Hadari goes on to say that, “Obedience is better than any number of offerings,” because those “who let themselves be ruled by the people may find themselves crossing the line from sacrificer to sacrificed.”

I’m trying, here, to hold it together. But it’s not going well.

This story is simply not about inner- versus outer-directed leaders, and that interpretation seems to me to do violence to the plain sense of the text and the meaning of the material as a whole. It’s not about a still, small voice encouraging you to morality–unless your still, small voice says that to behead and dismember a particular person is somehow moral. This is a story about what happens when you don’t do what the vengeful desert god tells you to do. According to this story and its continuation in the rest of Saul’s career, here is what happens: ignore an order of the angry deity who has ordered you to slaughter all of another nation now, and later you can throw yourself on your sword and have your head removed by Philistine mercenaries.

This is, in other words, a story whose focus is on what virtually all of the Deuteronomistic historical books focus on: what happens when you don’t do what Yahweh says.

I understand the interest in attempting to redeem some value for our own times in materials that, like the story of Agag, are repugnant to the values many modern Jews hold. This just doesn’t seem to do it for me. We could talk about tolerance. We could talk about how our expressed values in waging war have changed. We could talk about how to respond to enemies.

But this inner-/outer-directed drash of Hadari’s? For my money, it’s just drek about Amalek.

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