Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) and the haftarah is 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22.
The prophet Samuel feels insulted when the independent tribes of Israel first ask him to appoint a king. God is the true ruler of the twelve tribes, he says. Samuel intereceds with God, and serves as a circuit judge, deciding case law for the people. What more do they need?
All the elders of Israel assembled themselves and came to Samuel at the Ramah. And they said to him: Hey! You have grown old and your sons have not walked in your ways. So now set up for us a king to judge us, like all the nations. (1 Samuel 8:4-5)
Samuel warns them that kings impoverish and enslave their subjects, and do not listen when their people cry out to them.
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said: No! Because with a king over us, we, even we, will be like all the nations. And our king will judge our disputes, and he will go out before us and fight our wars. (1 Samuel 8:19-20)
In other words, what the tribes are really looking for is not a judge, but a permanent war leader. They are tired of being picked on by the neighboring Philistines, Amorites, and Ammonites; they want to do their own conquering and nation-building.
Samuel tells God, and God promises to send a king to Samuel. In this week’s haftarah he tells the assembled Israelites:
And now, here is the king who you have chosen, who she-eltem, and here—God has placed over you a king. (1 Samuel 12:13)
she-eltem (שְׁאֶלְתֶּם) = you asked for. From the root verb sha-al (שָׁאַל) = ask.
The name of the first king of Israel is Saul, or in Hebrew, Shaul (שָׁאוּל) = asked.
How does Saul, a Benjaminite whose only outstanding trait is his height, come to be king? The first book of Samuel gives us three different stories.
In the first story, Saul is looking for his father’s lost donkeys. He and his servant wander far from their home in Giveah.
They were just coming to the land of Tzuf when Saul said to his boy who was with him: Hey, let’s go turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us. (1 Samuel 9:5)
tzuf (צוּף) = (noun) honeycomb dripping with honey; (verb) flooded, flowed over.
The servant talks Saul into entering the nearest town and paying the local seer to tell them where the donkeys are. The town is Ramah, and the seer is Samuel, who drags Saul to the hilltop shrine for a feast.
In the morning Samuel pours oil on Saul’s head and tells him God is anointing him king. On his way home Saul falls in with a band of ecstatic prophets and speaks in ecstasy. But when he returns to his father’s house he tells nobody about his anointment.
In the land of Tzuf everything is overflowing: the food at the feast, the oil of anointment, and the ecstatic spirit of God.
In the second story,
Samuel summoned the people to God at the mitzpah. (1 Samuel 10:17)
mitzpah (מִצְפָּה) = watchtower, lookout post.
When all the important Israelite men have arrived, Samuel casts lots before God three times to find out who the king will be. The lottery chooses first the tribe of Benjamin, then out of that tribe the clan of Matar, then out of that clan Saul. But nobody can find Saul.
Then God said: Hey! He has hidden himself in the baggage! So they ran and took him from there, and he stood himself up among the people, and he was head and shoulders taller than all the people. And Samuel said to all the people: Do you see the one whom God chose? For there is none like him among all the people! (1 Samuel 10:22-24)
Saul’s strategy of hiding does not work; even if the people cannot see him from the mitzpah, God can. Saul is proclaimed king despite himself.
This week’s haftarah gives us a third and more serious installation of Saul as king.
And Samuel said to the people: Come and let us go to the gilgal, and we will renew the kingship there. So they all the people went to the gilgal and they made Saul king there before God, at the gilgal. And they slaughtered their wholeness-offering before God there, and Saul and all the men of Israel with him rejoiced there very much. (1 Samuel 11:14-15)
gilgal (גִּלְגָּל) = (probably) a stone circle. Related to the words gal (גַּל) = heap of stones, goleil (גֹּלֵל) = rolling, galgal (גַּלְגַּל) = wheel, and gulgolet (גֻּלְגֹּלֶת) = skull, head, headcount.
There is more than one gilgal mentioned in the Bible, but the most important one is probably the gilgal at the edge of the city-state of Jericho. It is already standing when Joshua leads the Israelites into Canaan, and its circle of stones was probably used by an earlier religion. Joshua uses it as a sacred site for circumcising all the Israelite men and celebrating the first Passover in Canaan. Then it becomes his headquarters for most of the book of Joshua.
The gilgal near the ruins of Jericho later becomes one of the four stops on Samuel’s circuit as a judge (along with the mitzpah, Beit-El, and Ramah in Tzuph). Then it is the place where Saul is installed as king, and finally the site of King Saul’s main altar.
Why does it take two false starts, in the land of Tzuf and at the mitzpah, before Saul accepts his kingship at the gilgal?
When the redactor of the books of Samuel recorded three extant stories about Saul’s appointment, he put them in the most telling order. First Saul is blessed with kingship as a gift of tzuf, an overflowing bounty of both oil and an ecstatic experience—but these are gifts he does not want, so he pretends he never received them. Next Saul is chosen by lot at a mitzpah, a lookout post—where he does not want to be seen. He manages to hide even from everyone except God, even though he is a head taller than the other men.
Finally Samuel summons the reluctant king to the gilgal, the ancient circle of stones where Joshua made his headquarters. Here Saul succumbs to history and takes his place in the line of rulers of the Israelites, after Moses and Joshua.
Some people seize opportunities to become leaders, pushing forward eagerly in their conviction or ambition. Others are like Saul, shy of fame and happy to lead ordinary lives. But the first book of Samuel shows that when you are called, denial is useless. Eventually you will have to answer God and take your place in the middle of the circle.
In your own life, do you step into a new responsibility even when it may not be your calling? Or do you resist the call to take a necessary job that you don’t really want?