Remembering Saul’s First Act as King of Israel – Threatening Livestock

I’m reading Shmuel (Samuel) with my kids before bedtime these days. I did the weekly Torah portion with them until we got to Trumah, and then I switched to Shmuel. It is the most explicitly anti government book in the Bible. I didn’t even remember how anti government it was until I started rereading it. The last time I read the book in full I was 22.

Israel didn’t have a government at all until King Saul, and Samuel was quite strongly against establishing a government. Interestingly, most people forget what Saul’s first act as king was. He chopped up cattle and sent the pieces throughout Israel, threatening to kill the animals of anyone who wouldn’t go to fight with him.

Here’s the verse (1 Samuel 11:7):

And he took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout the entire border of Israel in the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whosoever does not go forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall be done to his oxen,” and a fear from the Lord fell upon the people, and they went forth as one man.

You know…he could have asked nicely. He could have said something like, “Look, Israel, your brothers are in trouble. Some guy named Nahash is threatning to cut their eyes out. Please help me fight them and God will reward you.”

But no. He goes straight for the explicit threat of violence. That’s government for you.

It reminded me of the nearly the exact opposite verse about Moshe Rabeinu in Bamidbar (Numbers 16:15):

Moses was exceedingly distressed, and he said to the Lord, “Do not accept their offering. I have not taken a donkey from a single one of them, and I have not harmed a single one of them.”

The context here is that Moshe’s authority was being challenged by Korach and his gang, basically Moshe’s cousins. His leadership under attack, Moshe still did not resort to violence. All he asked was that God not accept their offering. He specifically did not harm their animals, levy any taxes, or take anything from anyone. Moshe’s national budget was zero. Everything given was voluntary.

So yes, the first act of any Jewish government in Jewish history, was the needless killing of oxen and an explicit threat against the property of innocent people.

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