Years ago, I was sitting innocently on a bus with Tanach (Bible) in hand when a man began to educate me on what he saw as the Bible’s mistakes. He believed Saul, the first king of Israel, was cheated: he was the better man and should never have lost his throne to David – David who, Talmudic mitigations notwithstanding, seems to have committed quite a number of terrible sins.
He certainly had a point, one which the Talmud alludes to as well (Yoma 22b). In response, I shared an idea I had absorbed from my teachers: the key difference between the two kings was not in their sins but in their teshuva (repentance).
Saul was instructed to wipe out Amalek entirely (the morality of this command is not the subject of this essay), and instead spared the king and the best animals. When confronted by the prophet Samuel, he insisted that he had obeyed God’s command (e.g. I Samuel 15:20) and said it was the people who decided to keep the animals, for the worthy purpose of offering them to God (ibid. 21). While Saul eventually acknowledges that he sinned (ibid. 24), his admission still emphasizes the role of others: “I was afraid of the people and I listened to them.”
David’s apparent adultery and murder seem worse than the sin of not killing enough, but so was his repentance qualitatively better: as soon as Natan the prophet points out his sin, David exclaims, “I sinned to God” (II Samuel 11:13) – no stubborn excuses or shifting of blame. For that reason, the prophet immediately replies, “God has removed your sin; you will not die,” (ibid.) although there were certainly other terrible repercussions.
The rejection of Saul and choice of David then becomes a lesson in the power of teshuva – an inspiring message particularly at this time of year, between Rosh Hashana (a.k.a. the Day of Judgment) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
My seatmate and I enjoyed the discussion and parted as friends, but there is more to explore. Was Saul’s loss the work of a moment – that moment when he opened his mouth to defend rather than to confess? Did David’s salvation rest solely on the one moment it took to say those few crucial words and close his mouth?
However crucial those two moments were, they didn’t exist in a vacuum.
David’s willingness to accept correction, from himself or others, is a recurring theme. Not just after the Batsheva incident, but throughout the books of Samuel, David repeatedly acknowledges and takes responsibility for the consequences of his actions, and strives to correct what he can.
Several of these incidents occur while David is on the run from Saul, who mistakenly believes David wants to kill him to take his throne. When David is hiding in a cave and Saul unsuspectingly wanders in (ibid. 24:3), David’s supporters are convinced that this is his opportunity to kill the king and take his own rightful place on the throne; they believe God has handed Saul to David on a silver platter. David seems to listen, and goes as far as cutting off a corner of the king’s cloak – but immediately after, “David’s heart smote him” (v. 5) and he expresses his horror at having raised a hand against God’s anointed king.
Maimonides famously defines teshuva as consisting of three parts: regret, confession, and the resolve not to repeat the sin (Laws of Teshuva 2:2) – all present in David’s reaction to his own act against Saul. We also see evidence in chapter 26 that David has accomplished what Maimonides calls “complete teshuva” (Laws of Teshuva 2:1): he again finds himself with the upper hand in the presence of an unsuspecting and vulnerable Saul, is again encouraged by his entourage, but this time refuses to lay a hand on the king at all.
In another dramatic instance (I Samuel 25), David receives a terrible insult from Naval the Carmelite and responds by riding towards Naval’s estate with 400 armed men and a vow to massacre the entire household. Avigayil, Naval’s wiser wife, bravely rides to them and delivers a speech stating that if David continues on his path he will be committing murder, and that God has stopped him by sending her – even before David has agreed to stop! What chutzpah, to assume this warrior, God’s anointed king-in-waiting, will listen to her just because she said he’s wrong! And yet, despite his anger, not only does David listen to her but he thanks her and God profusely for stopping him. In fact, as soon as Naval conveniently drops dead ten days later, David asks Avigayil to marry him.
How many of us appreciate being told we’re wrong? How many of us appreciate it so much that we would fall in love with someone who (rightly) rebuked us and want them around always?
David’s repentance after his terrible actions in the Batsheva story is built on a quality we already see in these incidents: a deep-seated ability to accept his own mistakes and do what he can to correct course and improve the situation for the future.
We might find insight into this ability – and into Saul’s challenge, in contrast – in II Samuel 6. King David is dancing through the streets “before God,” celebrating the return of the ark, and his wife Michal, Saul’s daughter, sees him and is disgusted. “How honorable was the king today,” she notes with dripping sarcasm (v. 20). This time, David does not believe he’s done wrong. (His willingness to accept Avigayil’s rebuke was not a matter of blind acquiescence: he saw that she was right, while here he believed Michal was wrong.) In response, David reminds Michal that he was chosen over her father and says he is willing to lower himself even further to honor God. A midrash notes that Saul (and his daughter) was overly concerned with personal honor at the expense of honor of heaven, while David was concerned primarily with God’s honor even at the expense of his own (Bamidbar Rabbah 4:20).
What was Saul’s mistake with Amalek? He listened to the people rather than following God’s instructions to the letter – and that mistake, like David’s teshuva, did not exist in a vacuum. Saul’s stories show a pattern of concern with the views of the people. Even before the Amalek incident, Saul disobeyed a different set of instructions – to wait for the prophet before bringing sacrifices – and there, too, he is convinced he’s done nothing wrong. He explains that it was “because I saw that the people dispersed from me, and you did not come… and the Philistines had gathered…” (13:11) – because of everyone and everything except Saul himself, including bowing to communal pressure.
Ironically, one of Saul’s positive qualities – extreme modesty – may have led to this pattern. Though introduced to the reader as the best man of Israel (I Samuel 9:2), Saul doesn’t seem to see himself that way; beyond the typical hesitation that we see from many of our great leaders when first pushed into the role, Saul literally hides when it’s time to proclaim him as king (I Samuel 10:22). From that moment, Saul is plagued by the gap between his own extreme humility on one hand and his stature on the other. We can understand that his role might have felt like a house of cards that could come crashing down at any moment. As the prophet notes explicitly, after the Amalek incident, “You are small in your eyes” (15:17).
How does a person who is small in their own eyes react to criticism? For some, low self-esteem means constant apologies, taking responsibility for everything even if it’s not their fault. For others, criticism is met with denial and a stubborn doubling down, insisting they did right, because admitting a flaw is too scary for someone who is primed to think badly of themselves.
Saul is often praised for his modesty, but the Talmud (Menachot 109b) notes that his extreme attempts to avoid the throne ricocheted into extreme attempts to keep it. Saul feels deeply vulnerable, seeing threats to his fragile reputation everywhere and becoming fixated on how the people see him. (His positive relationship with David sours irrevocably because he hears his people praising David’s military successes over his own – I Samuel 18:7-9). When he finally admits his sin, he acknowledges it was “because I feared the people and listened to their voice” (15:24).
What was he so afraid of? We get a clue a few verses later, when he begs the prophet to “honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel and go with me…” (ibid. 30). Saul cares what people think; even at the moment of his great fall, he is thinking about saving face. Of course Saul had trouble doing teshuva. It is impossible to repent if we are afraid to admit that we were wrong.
Unlike Saul, David doesn’t begin with a reputation to live up to; instead, he’s the almost forgotten youngest of eight (I Samuel 16:11). From the beginning, David isn’t concerned with how people see him; as he later emphasizes to Michal, his primary concern is with God.
It’s because David puts God at the center that he wants to defeat the Philistine giant who has insulted Him (I Samuel 17: 26, 36) and knows he can (ibid. 37). He points out that by not using a real weapon, he can show his victory is actually God’s doing (ibid. 47). It’s because he puts God at the center that he refuses to raise a hand against Saul, God’s anointed, even though Saul would be only too happy to kill him. It’s because God is his center that he can dance through the streets with abandon.
This perspective is also why David has the confidence to accept when he has made a mistake. His own honor is inconsequential; he won’t accept criticism he believes is wrong, but neither will he argue when it’s right. He doesn’t need to prove his flawlessness to himself or to anyone else. He feels no shame in backing down, even if it means stopping 400 armed men in their tracks because a woman talked some sense into him.
David can accept his own flaws because David measures himself in God’s eyes alone. If he’s done wrong in God’s eyes then his only goal is to make it right, to whatever extent he can, even if all he can do is teshuva.
That, perhaps, is the secret of David’s success.