“Whoever is made compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be made cruel to the compassionate” is a refrain so often voiced by hardliners, you might think it’s a verse in the Torah. Not quite.
Rabbi Elazar said: Whoever is made compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be made cruel to the compassionate, as it is written, “And Saul and the nation spared Agag and the best sheep and cattle” (I Sam. 15:9), and it is written (Ibid. 22:19) “And Nob, the city of priests, he smote with the edge of a sword.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Metzora 1)
Jews worldwide will read the story this weekend. King Saul is commanded by the Prophet Samuel to eradicate the nation of Amalek, as you may have seen horribly portrayed in Of Kings and Prophets. (They missed this part, 14:48: “And he gathered an army and attacked the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them.“)
Regardless, people seem to forget that this line is a criticism of Saul’s decision not to execute Agag, king of Amalek, whose crimes are many and, of course, cruel — as Samuel declares, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women” (15:33). Indeed, some versions of the Tanhuma make this even clearer by speaking of “the cruel one,” putting it in singular, unlike the plural “compassionate ones,” a reference to the people of the priestly city of Nob, wiped out decades later for aiding David in his flight from the by-then mad king.
So was Saul bothered by the initial command? The Talmud (Yoma 22b) explains that Saul was bothered by the fact that the Torah requires that in the case of an unsolved murder, a heifer must be taken to make atonement for the nearest city:
And he strove in the valley” (I Sam. 15:5)–R. Mani said: Because of what happens ‘in the valley’: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: Now go and smite Amalek, he said: If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more so for all these persons! And if humans sinned, what has the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done? A divine voice came forth and said: Be not righteous overmuch. And when Saul said to Doeg: Turn you and fall upon the priests, a heavenly voice came forth to say: Be not overmuch wicked.
Now, this is a bit perplexing. If Saul is such a bleeding heart, we would expect him to spare the innocents; instead he (and the people) spare the finest of the animals and the cruelest of the men!
Rabbeinu Hananel (ad loc.) offers an explanation:
This means that the decree of heaven bore heavily upon him, as he said, “A corpse found in the camp requires a broken heifer–all of these souls we kill, all the more so we must bring offerings to atone for ourselves!” That is why he left the finest animals.
In other words, Saul was not troubled by the bloodshed, but by the bloodguilt. It may seem strange to us, but tribal societies in the Middle East have for millennia believed in this concept. Even the Torah speaks of the blood-redeemer. Saul is clearly adopting a mechanistic view of sacrifices: it’s fine to spill the blood of Amalek, but atonement must be made, by offering the finest animals. But more than that, there needs to be a party to whom this blood-ransom is paid–and none is more fitting for this role than King Agag himself. This is why Samuel, to whom altars are not exactly foreign, denounces the choice of sacrifice over justice in the strongest terms (Ibid. 22): “Has the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, to heed than the fat of rams.”
Saul is an intriguing figure: powerful enough to unite the tribes of Israel, but constantly beset by depression and doubt. On the one hand, he carefully tells the Kenites to evacuate before waging war against their Amalekite neighbors. On the other hand, his genocide of the Gibeonites — collateral damage of the Nob massacre according to Talmud Yevamot 78b — leads to a devastating three-year famine “because of Saul and the House of Blood, because he killed the Gibeonites.” Indeed, the awkward phrasing “made compassionate” and “made cruel” may indicate that Saul himself was not motivated by these emotions, but by the need to appear empathetic or emphatic in the eyes of the people.
Israel cannot afford to be motivated by insecurity and crises of confidence. The stakes are too high to sacrifice justice on the altar of avarice and tribalism.