Soon after Bibi Netanyahu was elected to his fifth term as prime minister, journalist Bari Weiss asked him to name his favorite biblical character. Netanyahu replied with a fascinating answer: “King Saul. He was tragic.” Left-wingers who have spent decades trying unsuccessfully to defeat Bibi laughed at his response, predicting he would end up just like King Saul, who tragically died in battle. But the truth is that Bibi’s kinship with King Saul runs far deeper than they realize.
Only a few weeks after the horror of October 7, as the IDF prepared to launch its ground invasion of Gaza, the Prime Minister invoked God’s command in Deuteronomy 25:17 to wipe out Amalek: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you.” Bibi appropriately compared today’s murderous Hamas terrorists, who revel in the torture and murder of Jews, to the ancient tribe that heartlessly attacked the women, children and elderly of Israel in the wilderness.
But as Saul would later learn, fulfilling God’s commandment to wipe out Amalek is easier said than done. Saul’s failure to fulfill God’s will led to his downfall as king and his replacement by King David, his “fellow who was better than him” (I Samuel 15:28). Today, the most pressing question for the Prime Minister is whether he truly understands the tragedy of Saul and the lesson of Saul’s failure – for his own future depends on it.
The Sin of Saul
When God commanded Saul to destroy Amalek, He left no room for doubt; Amalek must be utterly destroyed. “You shall not have pity on him: and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (I Samuel 15:3). Saul dutifully gathered the people of Israel for war, and destroyed the Amalekites. But as he neared the completion of his mission, he stumbled: “And Saul and the people had pity on [King] Agag, and on the best of the sheep and the cattle, and the fatlings, and on the fattened sheep… and they did not want to destroy them” (I Samuel 15:9).
Saul’s failure to kill Agag and all of Amalek’s cattle was his undoing. God regretted anointing Saul as king of Israel and dispatched the prophet Samuel to inform Saul of his fate. “Since you rejected the word of the Lord, He has rejected you from being a king” (I Samuel 15:23).
As Saul himself admitted to Samuel, he had sinned against God. But God’s anger and Saul’s severe punishment do not appear to fit the crime. Saul largely fulfilled God’s will to wipe out the Amalekites; his only sin was misguided mercy upon the Amalekite king and the best of the livestock. Why does this seemingly minor sin make him unfit to remain the king of Israel?
A careful reading of the verses reveals the true nature of Saul’s sin. The Hebrew language possesses several words that mean “having mercy.” Interestingly, when God commanded Saul to “not have mercy” on Amalek, God did not use the common Hebrew word for mercy, rachamim, but rather the less common word, chemlah. When describing Saul’s misplaced mercy, chemlah is used again: “But Saul and the people had mercy (chemlah) on Agag…” What is the difference between chemlah and rachamim?
Rabbi Meir Wisser explains that rachamim is used to describe the difficulty one man has in seeing the death or suffering of another man.” In other words, rachamim refers to the emotional reaction of mercy that we experience when seeing other people who are suffering. By contrast, the word chemlah is used when describing a man’s difficulty in seeing the destruction of someone else’s possessions and “he decides using his own judgment that it would be unfortunate if these items were destroyed and that it would be better for them to be preserved.” In contrast to rachamim, a word that captures emotional pity, chemlah refers to an intellectual reaction in which one protests the destruction of property.
Tellingly, God did not warn Saul that he should avoid rachamim, emotional mercy, for the people and animals of Amalek. Saul was a human being, and it was only natural for him to react emotionally to the slaughter of Amalek, even if destroying them was God’s will. On the contrary – any healthy human being should become deeply emotional and feel rachamim when tasked with such a difficult mission.
When God warned Saul, He warned him not to have chemlah on Amalek. In other words, God explicitly warned Saul of intellectual arrogance. “Be warned, Saul! Do not think that you, with your human reason, know how to handle the Amalekites better than I do!” But this is precisely what Saul did. He intellectually rejected God’s command in favor of his own superior thinking. Under pressure from the people, Saul decided that it was wrong to kill the Amalekite king and wasteful to destroy the best of Amalek’s sheep and the oxen. What a waste of good cattle!
This was a grave sin and an unforgivable offense. If a king acts as a messenger of God, as God’s representative here on earth, then “he will sit on the throne of God as king” (I Chronicles 29:23). But if he takes authority for himself, it is as if he has wrested the throne away from his Creator. And so a leader of Israel who rejects the word of God in favor of his own ideas is destined to suffer the fate of Saul. “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you… and has given it to your fellow who is better than you” (I Samuel 15:28).
The Faith of Abraham
Saul was hardly the first man of the Bible to grapple with a difficult command from God. After decades of infertility, God miraculously blessed Abraham and Sarah with a son in their old age. Isaac was the answer to years of heartfelt prayers and tears. But then, inexplicably, God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2).
Given his earlier promises to Abraham, God’s command could only have been experienced by Abraham as illogical and cruel. What benefit could come from sacrificing his son in the wilderness? Isaac was the only possible heir to continue Abraham’s path; slaughtering him would bring an end to Abraham’s great project of teaching humanity to serve God. By any reasonable consideration it was pointless.
This, of course, was Abraham’s great test. Would he humbly place his own intellect aside and unquestioningly follow God’s will? Would he remember, as Isaiah said, that “My thoughts are not your thoughts” (55:8), that God’s wisdom is far greater than that of man?
Where Saul failed, Abraham rose to the challenge. He proved himself to be God’s greatest servant, “for now I know that you are a God fearing man.” And unlike Saul, destined to die in battle for his sins, God assured Abraham of victory: “and your descendants will inherit the cities of their enemies” (Genesis 22:17).
God understands that we are human, that even the greatest leaders inevitably stumble. David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, was overwhelmed by desire and sinned by taking Bathsheba. Solomon, too, was led astray by his foreign wives. But as Saul discovered, not all sins are created equal.
“So said the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, yea for four, I will not return them; for they rejected the law of the Lord, and they did not keep His statutes, and their lies misled them…” (Amos 2:4). In calling out the sins of Israel, the prophet Amos did not spare any punches. But what were the sins that led him to lash out in this way on God’s behalf?
“They rejected the law of the Lord,” and for that reason “they did not keep His statutes.” The reason they sinned was not because of their evil inclinations and desires but rather because of their intellectual heresy. This heresy, in turn, was caused by the “lies that misled them,” the popular but false ideologies of their time.
Amos’ prophecy was not meant only for the Israelites of his time. With the Jewish people’s prophetic return to Israel after thousands of years in exile, Amos’ message has taken on renewed relevance. Why do Israel’s enemies refuse to make peace? Why have all of Israel’s concessions to the Arabs only led to more terror and pain? Why must the people of Israel suffer so terribly?
The answer is simple if difficult to absorb. Over the last thirty years, Israeli leadership has repeatedly ignored God’s will, making national decisions that directly violate His law as outlined in the Bible. Predictably, God has made His displeasure clear.
Hagi Ben Artzi, the Prime Minister’s brother-in-law and one of Israel’s greatest Bible scholars, outlines three national sins – intellectual sins – that he believes are the cause of Israel’s suffering at the hands of its enemies.
The first sin was the signing of the Oslo Accords of 1993, which gave the murderous Palestinian Authority control over much of Judea and Samaria, Israel’s biblical heartland. This “covenant” with terrorists, granting power and land to people who seek Israel’s destruction, was a repetition of Israel’s sin during the era of the judges. “And you shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land… but you have not obeyed Me” (Judges 2:2-3). Israeli leaders ignored God’s command, believing that they knew better than God – that they could achieve peace by retreating from parts of the holy land. But all they achieved was suffering, as God said would happen: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you in the land in which you settle” (Numbers 33:55).
The second sin was Israel’s abandonment of the Gaza Strip in 2005, which allowed Hamas terrorists to take control of the region. “Following the Oslo Accords, the Second Intifada broke out, which led to thousands of deaths, exploding buses, and more. But instead of dealing a crushing blow to our enemies, throwing out the murderers, and ridding the country of them, we gave them the Gaza Strip as a reward. We destroyed 22 Jewish settlements, a flourishing region, which we gave them as a gift. Here, too, the rabbis were opposed to the government’s abandonment of Gaza. This was the second time that the State of Israel rejected God and said to all the rabbis, ‘You are of no interest to us – we will carry out this plan and we don’t care how angry you are.’”
The third sin was committed in 2011, when Prime Minister Netanyahu, supported by 26 government ministers, freed thousands of murderous Hamas terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas. Israel released 1,207 terrorists in exchange for Shalit, an exorbitant price that only encouraged Hamas to kidnap more Israelis. For this reason, the sages rule that we “must not ransom captives for more than their value, for the good order of the world” (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 45a). Today, we are paying the price for this mistake; Yahya SInwar, the mastermind behind the October 7 slaughter, was one of the prisoners released in that deal.
When the leaders of Israel believe they know better than God, the people of Israel pay the price.
What will Happen in Gaza after the War?
Step by step, the heroic soldiers of Israel are winning the war against Hamas in Gaza. Though the war may drag on for many more months, Israel can and must uproot Hamas from the region. But what will happen next? What will Israel do with Gaza?
Once again, the Bible is clear. Israel must resettle the Gaza Strip, for it is part of God’s promised land as delineated in the Book of Joshua: “…Gaza with her towns and her villages, to the river of Egypt” (Joshua 15:47). In 2005, the Israeli government ignored God’s command, arrogantly uprooting all of the Jewish settlements in Gaza. The result – 18 years of non-stop terrorism and rocket attacks, followed by the horrific slaughter of October 7 – was disastrous. Will Israel make the same mistake again today?
On January 10th, Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “I want to make a few points absolutely clear. Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population…” A few weeks earlier, when asked about the possibility of reestablishing Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, he said “it’s not a realistic goal.”
From his public statements, it seems that Bibi has every intention of repeating the sin of the Gaza Disengagement. In the name of “realism,” he is dismissing the will of God. But is anything too difficult for God? “Who measured the sea with His fistfuls, and drafted the sky with a ruler? Who placed in a measure all the dust of the earth, weighed mountains on a scale and hills on a balance?” (Isaiah 40:12).
God understood how difficult it would be for the leaders of Israel to remain faithful to His commands. For this reason, He commanded every king of Israel to write two Torah scrolls for himself. Wherever he travels, an Israelite king must carry a Torah scroll with him, to remember that his mission is to fulfill God’s will – and not his own. “And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them… so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Only a king willing to submit his own will to that of God will retain the right to rule God’s people.
This is a constant test for modern Israeli leaders. Despite heavy pressure from the United States and the international community, they must stand strong and reject their demands that Israel retreat from parts of the Holy Land. This is no simple task, and so we, the people of Israel and all those who care for God’s people, must pray that God will give the leaders of Israel the wisdom and faith to choose correctly. “Our Father our King, bless the nation of Israel, its leaders and ministers, and guide them in the ways of wisdom, valor and faith.”
We believe, with complete faith, that the people of Israel will return to Gaza. God’s nation will be sovereign over all of Judea and Samaria and every inch of the promised land. The only question is when – and who will merit to lead them.
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