The Political Lessons of Purim

Haman, the villain of Purim, is thought to be descended from Agag, the evil king of the Amalekites, captured by King Saul. The Biblical injunction to "remember what Amalek did to you" is considered particularly timely in proximity to Purim.

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Prof. Steven Plaut,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Just before Purim, it is traditional for Jews to read as the Haftarah portion in synagogues the section of the First Book of Samuel in which King Saul is stripped of his kingdom and office.

The context is that Haman, the villain of Purim, is thought to be descended from Agag, the evil king of the Amalekites, captured by King Saul. The Biblical injunction to "remember what Amalek did to you" is considered particularly timely in proximity to Purim.

This year, it occurred to me that there are important political messages in this segment of the Book of Samuel. Just to remind you of the context, the Bible orders Jews to annihilate the Amalekites, including their animals. But it turns out that the Israelites, with the connivance of King Saul, have disobeyed. They have captured animals from the Amalekite herds and retained them, and King Saul has captured the evil king of the Amalekites, Agag, but has not slain him.

The Bible uses an interesting term for the failure to kill Agag and the animals. The precise words for the failure in the Biblical Hebrew are variations on the word chamal, which means "have mercy upon", usually translated into English in this segment as "spared". King Saul tells the Prophet Samuel that the Israelites defied instructions and illicitly "took mercy" upon the animal booty they had been ordered to destroy, and also "took mercy" upon the Amalekite king.

The Prophet Samuel goes into a rage, declares that Saul is hereby stripped of his kingship, orders the animals killed, and then Samuel slits the throat of King Agag with his own hand.

So, where are the political lessons? First, it is that people tend to misrepresent their own selfishness and grasping materialism as "compassion"; affectations and posturings of compassion are often little more than excuses for illicit selfishness. That is precisely what enraged Samuel and is denounced in such harsh terms by the words of the Bible.

Second, unjustified mercy is not only out of place, but it is among the worst crimes one can commit. Even a king who commits such a crime is considered a villain beyond redemption and beyond the ability to repent. Let us note that realpolitik dominates the Bible, which recognizes that kings may need to kill people to maintain their power and public order. The Bible is willing to make its peace with such killing - but not with unjustified mercy.

Agag is a terrorist. He is not entitled to mercy, and showing him mercy is an unforgivable crime. Saul is stripped of his kingdom, which passes to David. Samuel showed the proper way to deal with captured terrorists when he cut Agag's throat.

This week, the political lessons of Purim were never more timely and relevant.