Haftarat Korach—1 Samuel: The Man Who Would Not Be King

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?

prophet 3All 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.

DonkeyIn 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.

Samuel Anointing Saul
Samuel Anointing Saul

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.

map Saul 1

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?



Tetzaveh: Divining

What should I do?

Usually human beings carry on with their habitual behavior, but sometimes we have to make a deliberate decision.  And we do not know whether a particular choice will lead to good or evil, or to happiness or disaster.  If only we knew ahead of time!

The longing for foreknowledge has been with us for millennia.  Most cultures have had their own methods of divination, of gaining knowledge that is normally outside the human realm.

High priest’s vestments, artist unknown

In the Hebrew Bible, leaders and kings ask the high priest to consult the urim and tumim tucked into his breast-pouch. These mysterious items are introduced in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command”), but we do not learn their purpose until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when God tells Moses what Joshua must do after Moses has died. Since Joshua, unlike Moses, cannot hear God directly, he must ask the high priest for divination when he needs to decide whether to go out to battle:

He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, and ask him for the ruling of the urim before God. (Numbers 27:21)

urim (אוּרִים) = firelight? illumination?

But the book of Joshua never refers to the urim. The only time the Torah says someone actually consults them is in the first book of Samuel:

And Saul inquired of God, but God did not answer him, either with dreams or with urim or with prophets.  (1 Samuel 28:6)

Several other times in that book both Saul and David “inquire of God” in the presence of a priest, and when David receive yes/no answers, we can assume the answers are indicated by the urim.  But no description is given.

This week’s Torah portion describes everything else the high priest wears, from his headband to his underpants. Over his sky-blue robe, the priest must wear an eifod, a kind of tabard with shoulder-straps and sewn-in ties at the waist.  A chosen, a square pouch, will hang from the shoulder-straps of the eifod, secured on the high priest’s breast.  This breast-pouch will be folded at the bottom, and twelve gems will be set into the front.  Each gem will be engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel.

And into the breast-pouch of the law you will place the urim and the tumim; and they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God, and Aaron will carry the law of  the children of Israel over his heart before God constantly.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:30)

tumim (תֻּמִּים) = ? (a noun probably based on the adjective tamim, תָּמִים = whole, flawless, blameless.)

Obviously a high priest could not carry firelight and wholeness in a pouch on his chest; the names of the actual items are symbolic.  But what do they mean?  Throughout the book of Isaiah, urim means “fires” or “firelight”, not an object worn by a high priest.  In Ezekiel, ur is a destroying fire.  Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, the word urim refers to the item worn by the high priest.

Traditional commentary says the word urim means light, illumination, clarity, because it has the same root letters as the word or = light. Some modern language scholars speculate that urim is derived from nei-arim (נֵאָרִים) = cursed, inflicted with a curs. In that case, urim and tumim would mean “cursed” and “blameless”. In other words, one object indicates a bad outcome and the other indicates a good one.

Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) suggested that the two words urim and tummim were written on a single piece of parchment, and the high priest would look down through the open top of his breast-pouch to see which word was facing up.

In the Talmud tractate Yoma 73b, the rabbis seem to use the phrase “urim and tumim” interchangeably with the phrase “breast-pouch of the law”.   Some speculated that the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the urim and tumim, and the letters lit up or moved around to create an oracular message.  Others said that the urim and tumim caused the stones on the front of the breast-pouch to light up, and the message could be deciphered from the pattern of flashing lights.  The important thing was that both the person with the question and the high priest had to direct their minds toward God.


Some passages in the Torah appear to forbid using any kind of divination, along with any other kind of magic.  For example:

No one must be found among you who sacrifices his son or his daughter in the fire, or who reads omens, a cloud-conjurer or a diviner, or a sorcerer; or a charm-binder, or a medium who consults ghosts or a medium who possesses a familiar spirit, or who questions the dead.  For anyone who does these is an abomination of God, and on account of these abominations, God, your god, is dispossessing them before you.  You shall be whole with God, your god.   (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:10-13)

Here Moses is banning all the divination practices of the people surrounding the Israelites.  In other places, the Torah approves of a few practices for getting a bit of divine knowledge.

The two most common ways that God shares foreknowledge with humans is through dreams, and through communication with prophets.  In the absence of dreams or prophetic utterances, a person can take the initiative by casting lots, or by consulting the high priest’s urim and tumim.


When this week’s Torah portion introduces the urim and tumim, it says “they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God”—like the gems representing twelve tribes of Israel.  Maybe the primary purpose of the urim and tumim is not to enable divination, but to keep light and wholeness in the high priest’s awareness whenever he approaches God.

Even today, people who want to make the right decision resort to dubious divination methods.  Instead of reading omens in entrails or conjuring clouds, they flip a coin, or buy something from a New Age shop, or consult a medium who channels the spirit of a dead person.  It is hard to accept that we cannot have foreknowledge, only good guesses.

Yet we can answer the question “What should I do?” without knowing the outcome of our choice.  And when our intuitions are not clear, we can use approaches similar to the kind of “divination” the Torah approves of.  Dreams still help by connecting us with hidden parts of ourselves that are connected with the divine.  And we can improve our conscious thought by keeping certain ideas in our awareness, carrying them upon our hearts like high priests.   We can consciously stay in touch with urim, the light shed by the fire of our passions; tumim, the continual effort to complete ourselves and become whole; and on the outside, the gemstones of our own tribes, our own families, friends, and communities.