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I've read many commentaries that argue that despite losing the kingdom, Saul is a righteous guy.

But how, after he mass murdered priests (Samuel 1 21-22)? To be more exact, he ordered priests to be mass murdered for giving aid to David. He didn't do it himself, but he ordered it. Isn't that a major capital crime?

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    major capital crime presupposes that a king is subject to the rules of commoners. but a king can take kingly action. one could argue that he was trying to suppress rebellion. those giving aid to David were "mored bemalchut", which is itself actually a major capital crime. Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 3:23
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    (mored bemalchut == rebelling against the king, an offense punishable by death at the kings discretion)
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 3:55
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    @ba You got to wonder what his mother would say...
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 4:28
  • @joshwaxman, sounds like an answer.
    – msh210
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 6:59
  • You kidding me. Everyone else cannot even work on sabbath or pick up some foreign hotties but a king can just order anyone's death at whim.
    – user4951
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 11:18

5 Answers 5

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To begin with, Saul only ordered the execution of Achimelekh's Beit Av( Samuel I 22:16):

ויאמר המלך, מות תמות אחימלך: אתה, וכל-בית אביך
And the king said: 'Thou shalt surely die, Ahimelech, thou, and all thy father's house.'

The massacre at Nov was Doeg's own initiative( ibid. 22:18-19):

ויאמר המלך, לדויג (לדואג), סב אתה, ופגע בכהנים; ויסב דויג (דואג) האדמי, ויפגע-הוא בכהנים, וימת ביום ההוא שמנים וחמשה איש, נשא אפוד בד
And the king said to Doeg: 'Turn thou, and fall upon the priests.' And Doeg the Edomite turned, and he fell upon the priests, and he slew on that day fourscore and five persons that did wear a linen ephod.
ואת נב עיר-הכהנים, הכה לפי-חרב, מאיש ועד-אשה, מעולל ועד-יונק; ושור וחמור ושה, לפי-חרב
And Nob, the city of the priests, smote he with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen and asses and sheep, with the edge of the sword.

As far as executing Achimelekh's Beit Av( "father's house") itself goes, two others played major roles in bringing it about:

  1. Doeg the Edomite, who fearing Saul's rage after the latter accusing his men - even his fellow tribesmen - of conspiring against him with his son Jonathan( ibid 22:6-8), especially after he'd seen David at Nov( ibid 21:8), and didn't mention it at the time, decided to shift the accusation to Achimelekh, even falsely accusing him of having "inquired of the LORD" for David( ibid 22:9-10). Based on his testimony, Saul judged and executed the priests.
  2. David, when he arrived at Nov, lied to Achimelekh, saying that he is on the king's mission( ibid 21:3), and in asking for food and a sword, made Achimelekh an accessory to his "crime". He latter even admitted his complicency in the affair to Abiathar, who escaped the massacre( ibid 22:22)

So Saul's actual crime here was accepting Doeg's testimony over Achimelekh's.

As such, his evil deeds are usually reconciled with him being under the influence of the Ru'ach Ra'ah, and not fully responsible for his actions( see here and here).


It may be worth mentioning that Chronicles I 10:13-14 mentions only Saul's failure to fulfill God's command in the war against Amaleq, and especially him inquiring in Ov and not in ha-Shem, as the transgressions for which he died, but does not mention the massacre at Nov.

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  • I think the pasuk is saying that he is punished for going to Ov instead of going to God. As I discussed above, going to Ov is not a capital punishment. However, rejecting God is certainly something God might take your kingship away for.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 7:32
  • @DoubleAA Thanks, I missed that part about him not going to God, in verse 14 there. I've edited my answer accordingly. Mind you, it means that there seems to be a contradiction between Chronicles I 10:14, and Samuel I 28:6, which says Saul did ask God, but wasn't answered "neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets".
    – Tamir Evan
    Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 9:08
  • read my answer rashi mentions it.
    – user2709
    Commented May 2, 2013 at 23:49
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In Eiruvin 53b on the top of the page, R' Yochanan says that Hashem forgave Shaul for the crime of killing Nov the city of Kohanim.

All the previous comments saying he was a tsadik and was allowed to kill them are not upheld by this Gemoro. I haven't seen a comment mentioning this. It seems his death in the battle was his atonement. Will give a much longer post about this later, exactly what sin he was being forgiven for. His sins included not killing Amalek, and going to the sorcerer, how does rashi know which one it is? And also we see in the time of David's kingship his sin was not yet forgiven since David had to kill many of Saul's children to appease the Givonim. He was forgiven because he went to war knowing he would be killed. The midrash vayikro 27:6 seems to imply this.

I will go into it in quite some detail. It is very interesting but possibly written too briefly. The rdak says like rashi that it was the sin of NOV but asks that we never find it mentioned in the posuk that it was considered a sin against him. Only that he killed the givonim not the kohanim. And he says that most likely the kohanim deserved death although the posuk doesnt tell us why.

The maharsha says it must have been the sin of NOV because he has already been punished for not killing amalek by having David made king instead of his son. In midrash vayikra 26:7 and the meforshim it says that saul had five or six sins including killing the kohanim and not waiting for shmuel for seven days. The ben yehoyodo says it carries on from the earlier gemoro that saul made 'mistakes' in learning and halocho. That was referring to not killing the animals of amalek saying they hadnt sinned, therefore this is the sin involved not like rashi.

The gaon yaakov in a similar vein also says it carries on from the earlier gemoro that he made mistakes in halacha. Therefore david became king, therefore he had to run away from him therefore NOV gave him to eat and therefore he killed NOV. And the sin being NOV.

The chida in pesach einaim has it much simpler. Again a mistake in halacha but a different one. When david went to NOV he used the urim v'tumim which saul held are only allowed to be used by a king therefore he killed NOV. But this was a mistake in halacha since they can be used by others at certain times. So the sin was NOV and the previous gemoro also NOV. Why the gemoro says he was forgiven when his children has still to suffer and be killed, they say he wasnt totally forgiven only enough to be able to join shmuel in heaven. Or one can say he was only forgiven for the kohanim but not the givonim.

This post is of course quite a shortened version of what ought to be a comprehensive daf yomi shiur. I must add that I dont understand the rdak properly. One of his proofs that the kohanim 'deserved' it and saul was not to blame is since we dont see that their death was avenged like with the givonim. But the reason for that is because he was forgiven, because he went into battle knowing he would be killed. Maybe he means that if it was a real sin that wouldnt be enough.

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  • Actually, if I remember correctly the sugya in brachos is more appropriate since it says there that it was because he was embarrassed of his sin (when he called up Shmuel). Commented May 3, 2013 at 0:28
  • It's clear from the gemara there for which sin he is being forgiven (the one he was embarrassed about - which is why he didn't mention the Urim VeTumim in the list of people he asked) Commented May 3, 2013 at 0:30
  • hebrewbooks.org/… Commented May 3, 2013 at 0:32
  • btw, you didn't mention the gemara right before that which specifically says כתיב ביה (אל כל) אשר יפנה ירשיע - לא היה זוכה להורות כהלכה Commented May 3, 2013 at 0:35
  • Well I have mentioned it now. What you say about him being embarrassed others say therefore it is the sin of amalek being embarrassed alone was his forgiveness.
    – user2709
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 5:27
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Ralbag explains that Saul is not considered to have sinned here, since he was merely fulfilling God’s promised punishment to the house of Eli:

והנה מה׳ ית׳ היתה נסבה להביא העונש אשר יעד לבית עלי ולזה לא מצאנו שנענש שאול על הריגתם ולא נזכר לו זה הענין כשנזכרו עוונותיו

And behold this was arranged by God may He be exalted to bring the punishment that He had promised to the house of Eli. And for this [reason] we don’t find that Saul was punished for their killing, and this event is not mentioned as a sin when his sins are mentioned.

ולזה לא מצאנו שנענש שאול בהריגת נוב עיר הכהנים ואף על פי שלא היתה שם סיבה תביא להורגם בזה האופן כי גם אחימלך לא חטא כלל כנגד שאול כמו שספר לו כל שכן שלא חטאו לו כל בית אביו שהרג עמו ולזה תמצא שלא נזכר זה החטא עם יתר חטאי שאול כי ה׳ הסיתהו בו לקיים יעודו

And for this [reason] we do not find that Saul was punished for killing Nov the city of priests, and even though there was no cause for killing them in this manner — even Achimelech did not sin at all against Saul, as he told him, [and] certainly the entire house of his father that [Saul] killed with him did not sin to [Saul]. And for this [reason] you find that this sin is not mentioned with the other sins of Saul, for God incited him to fulfill His promise.

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  • Is Ralbag suggesting that one may commit a crime (even murder), and get away with it (in the Heavenly Court), as long as it fulfills a given prophecy?
    – Tamir Evan
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 3:33
  • @TamirEvan I don’t think so. I think he’s saying that if God decides to use you then you would get away with it.
    – Alex
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 4:52
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According to the midrash in Yalkut Shimoni on Nach, 140:3, Shaul repented for this sin and was forgiven:

"אמר רבא בר חנינא סבא משמיה דרב כל העושה דבר עבירה ומתבייש בו מוחלין לו על כל עונותיו שנאמר ויאמר שמואל אל שאול וגו' ויאמר שאול צר לי מאד וג' ואלו באורים ותומים לא קאמר ליה משום דהרג נוב עיר הכהנים. ומנא לן דאחילו ליה שנאמר ויאמר שמואל (אל שאול) ולמה תשאלני וה' סר מעליך וגו' ומחר אתה ובניך עמי, מאי עמי, עמי במחיצתי. ורבנן אמרי מהכא והוקענים לה' בגבעת שאול בחיר ה' יצאת בת קול ואמרה שאול בחיר ה'..."

Translation: "Said Rava bar Chanina Sava in the name of Rav: "Whoever commits a sin and is embarrassed by it, he is forgiven for all of his sins, as it says: "Samuel said to Saul etc And Saul answered, “I am in great trouble etc" - but he did not speak with him using the Urim and Tumim because he killed Nov, the city of the kohanim. And from where do we know that he was forgiven? As it says: "Samuel said (to Shaul), “Why do you ask me, seeing that the LORD has turned away from you etc Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me" - what does "with me" mean? With me, in my vicinity." And the sages said from here: "and we will impale them before the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD" - a heavenly voice rang out and said: "Shaul is the chosen of Hashem..."

It seems that for this, Shaul was considered a tzaddik.

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Rebbe Nachman of Breslev zy'a says "The world mistakenly thinks that a tzaddik cannot make a mistake, but this is not true. The mistake remains a mistake, and the tzaddik remains a tzaddik."

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  • So does [insert-evil-person-here] remain a Tzaddik and his mistake remain a mistake?
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 17:40
  • @DoubleAA an evil person is not a tzaddik...
    – yoel
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 18:59
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    He is after you separate all the bad things out as mistakes.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 19:07
  • @DoubleAA that's one way to look at it. "In that little bit, they're not evil." Still, the Gemara says there are incomplete tzadikim (who make mistakes) and incomplete reshaim (who do good things). I guess it depends on your definition of a tzaddik.
    – yoel
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 19:40
  • Ok but if your answer to how Shaul was still a Tzaddik is that everyone no matter how bad they are is still a Tzaddik, that isn't really what I think the asker was looking for. He wants to know why we would still view Shaul as overall positive, and I don't see that from this answer.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 19:43

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