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Seven Days of Sorrow
Samuel I 31:12
“Evening falls on the failure, the battle day ends,
full of the cries and the shuffling feet
And the king, the king falls on his blade
The Gilboa is dressed for defeat.” (Translation: Amichai Lau-Lavie)
הִנֵּה תַּמּוּ יוֹם קְרָב וְעַרְבּוֹ
הַמָּלֵא זַעֲקַת מְנוּסָה,
עֵת הַמֶּלֶךְ, הַמֶּלֶךְ נָפַל עַל חַרְבּוֹ,
וְגִלְבּוֹעַ לָבַשׁ תְּבוּסָה.
The Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote the poem about King Saul’s death in 1945, as more rumors from the horrors of the Holocaust became known facts.
The tragic king’s defeat in the battle of the Gilboa would become immortalized in this famous poem and in the even more famous eulogy of David that will appear in the following chapter. Some horrors defy prose.
But this chapter, blow by blow, describes in prose the final moments of the king’s life, as he, along with Jonathan and two other sons, fall to their deaths.
Just like the Wise Witch predicted the previous night - the battle on the top of the Giloba Mountain is lost. The Philistine archers wound Saul, and with his last breath he asks one of the boys to kill him so that the enemy will not torture him. The boy refuses to kill the anointed one, full of fear, and the king falls on his own sword.
And sure enough the Philistines mutilate his corpse, remove his head, and impale him, headless, on the city walls of Bet Shean, along with the corpses of his sons.
But here a noble gesture of respect shows up. A nod to Saul’s humble start, before depression and paranoia overtake the promise of the royal pride he first took on.
The people of Yavesh Gilad, across the Jordan River, remember the courage and kindness displayed by Saul when he rushed to their help - many years ago. Back in chapter 11 of this book, they were threatened by the Ammonite King and given seven days to respond to the harsh demands - or else risk becoming slaves, as each man would lose his right eye.
Saul’s first leadership trial was to defend them, amassing the tribes to defend their brothers.
They now sneak at night, across the river, to the walls of the city, remove the bodies of the king and princes and bring them on their backs, back to Yavesh:
וַיִּקְחוּ֙ אֶת־עַצְמֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּקְבְּר֥וּ תַחַת־הָאֶ֖שֶׁל בְּיָבֵ֑שָׁה וַיָּצֻ֖מוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
“Then they took the bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Yavesh, and they fasted for seven days.”
The book that started with the hopes for the first king ends with his burial. The seven days of grief and fasting echo the seven days of threat that he removed.
The Midrash teaches that we learn how to honor the dead from this act of kindness of the people of Menashe who risked their lives to bring the king and his sons to burial. And although we don’t fast when we mourn our dead these days, we still hold on to the tradition of seven days of mourning.
With these bloodied bookends we bury the first king of Israel, and with him the mystery of who we were before the House of David took over, claiming the crown and the narrative. Although Saul and three of his sons are now dead, there is one more left alive. And in order for David to begin his own dynasty - that will not be the case for long.
Alterman’s poem will go on to become one of the tropes of Israeli national symbols that valorize the loss for life for land and liberty, a seven-fold reward.
אָז אָמְרָה לוֹ לַנַּעַר: דָּם
אֶת רַגְלֵי אִמָּהוֹת יְכַס,
אֲבָל שֶׁבַע יָקוּם הָעָם,
אִם עֲלֵי אַדְמָתוֹ יוּבַס.
“Blood, said the mother to her dying son,
Will keep staining the mother’s feet,
But a nation will rise seven times and on,
If on its land it will suffer defeat”
The king is dead. It will take some time before all of Israel, or at least some of them, will raise their voices again to problem - long live the king.
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