King Saul’s behavior at his Rosh Hodesh banquet table is painful to behold. His angry eruption at David’s absence and his violent confrontation with his son, Jonathan, are signs that he is suffering from a destructive malaise. When the prophet Samuel chose him to be king, Saul was still a modest and humble character, someone who may never have considered himself to be a leader, let alone king. Still, once he was king over Israel, he was not about to abdicate and his inability to properly assess his situation drove him over the precipice.
David’s appearance on the scene seems to have been a major catalyst in Saul’s downfall. The young David possessed the prowess, will and skills that Saul once had, which had faded over time. Saul’s realization of this fact, coupled ironically with David’s total loyalty, caused him to see David as a threat to his rule. The confrontation with the Philistine giant, Goliath, served as the turning point in Saul’s relationship with David, and the beginning of his downfall.
Careful attention to the language of the story illustrates this point. When Goliath sought to strike fear in the hearts of the Israel, Saul, like his countrymen, was stricken with fear (17:11), while the young David, courageously confronted the giant without armor: “You (Goliath) come to me with a sword and a spear, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted.” (17:45) David’s victory over Goliath turned him into a hero of the people, and made Saul realize that he had to share acclaim with his protégée. At this point, Saul was both jealous and felt that his rule was threatened: “’They have ascribed to David tens of thousands and to me but thousands and all he lacks is the kingdom’ and Saul eyed David from that day forward” (18:8-9) This began Saul’s march toward madness: “And on the next day, an evil spirit of God seized Saul and he went into a frenzy when David was playing [the harp] as he was wont to, and the spear was in Saul’s hand. And Saul cast the spear, thinking, ‘Let me strike through David into the wall…” (18:10) (See Uriel Simon, Bakesh Shalom v’Rodfehu, pp. 154-6)
It was not Israel’s enemies who felled Saul, the king of Israel. Jealousy had become his most bitter foe. And Saul sadly succumbed to it. Tragic stories like that of Saul are a reminder to all of us that we need to avoid this very human tendency, as Rabbi Eleazer HaKappar noted: ‘Jealousy, lust and honor remove a person from the world.’” (Avot 4:21)