Who was Saul?
Saul was Israel’s first king.
Name and Meaning
The name Saul is usually regarded as simply the passive participle of the verb "to ask," and so meaning "asked" (compare 1 Samuel 8:4 ff), but the gentilic adjective shā'ūlı̄ (Numbers 26:13 ) would point to its having also an intensive connotation, "the one asked importunately," or perhaps, "the one asking insistently," "the beggar."
Saul was the son of Kish, a Benjamite. His genealogical tree is given in 1 Samuel 9:1 (compare Septuagint 1 Samuel 10:21 ). In 1 Samuel 9:1 his grandfather is Abiel, but in 1 Chronicles 8:33 ; 1 Chronicles 9:39 , Ner, who appears as his paternal uncle in 1 Samuel 14:50 , 1 Samuel 14:51 .
The last verse contains a very curious scribal error, a yodh having slipped out of one word in it into another. It states that both Abner and Ner were sons of Abiel. These apparent inconsistencies are to be explained by the fact that in Hebrew, as in Arabic, "son" is often used in the sense of grandson. Also, with the facility of divorce then prevalent, by "brother" and "sister" we must in most cases understand half-brother and half-sister. Moreover, Saul's mother might have been the wife at different times of Kish and of his brother Ner (compare 1 Samuel 20:30 ). This was quite common, and in some cases compulsory (Deuteronomy 25:5-9 ).
Home and Station
Saul's home was at GIBEAH (which see), which is also called Gibeah of Saul, i.e. Saul's Hill (1 Samuel 11:4 ; compare also 1 Samuel 10:5 , God's Hill, or simply The Hill, 1 Samuel 10:10 ; Hosea 5:8 , etc.), or the Hill of Benjamin or of the Benjamites (1 Samuel 13:15 ; 2 Samuel 23:29 ). It is usually identified with Tell el -Fûl , but perhaps its site is marked rather by some ruins near but beneath that eminence. The tribe of Benjamin was the fighting tribe of Israel, and Kish seems to have been one of its most important members. Saul's remarks in depreciation (1 Samuel 9:21 ) are not to be taken literally.
Sources for Life
The circumstances of Saul's career are too well known to require recapitulation. It will be sufficient to refer to some of the recognized difficulties of the narrative. These difficulties arise from the fact that we appear to have two distinct biographies of Saul in the present Books of Samuel. This may well be the case as it is the practice of the Semitic historian to set down more than one tradition of each event, without attempting to work these up into one consistent account. We shall call the duplicated narratives A and B, without postulating that either is a continuous whole.
Election as King
According to A, Saul was anointed king of Israel at Ramah by the prophet Samuel acting upon an inspiration from Yahweh, not only without consulting anyone, but in the strictest secrecy (1 Samuel 9:1 through 10:16). According to B, the sheiks of the tribes demanded a king. Samuel in vain tried to dissuade them. They would not listen, and a king was chosen by lot at Mizpah. The lot fell upon Saul, and Samuel immediately demitted office ( 1 Samuel 8 ; 1 Samuel 10:17-27 , omitting the last clause; and chapter 12).
Reasons for It
There are three distinct reasons given in the text for the abolition of theocracy and institution of an elective or hereditary monarchy: first, the incapacity of Samuel's sons (1 Samuel 8:1 ff); second, an invasion of the Ammonites ( 1 Samuel 12:12 ); and third, the Philistines (1 Samuel 9:16 ). These three motives are not mutually exclusive. The Philistines formed the standing menace to the national existence, which would have necessitated the creation of a monarchy sooner or later. The other two were temporary circumstances, one of which aggravated the situation, while the other showed the hopelessness of expecting any improvement in it in the near future.
Reign and Fall
His First Action
The election of Saul at Mizpah was conducted in the presence of the chieftains of the clans; it is not to be supposed that the whole nation was present. As soon as it was over, the electors went home, and Saul also returned to his father's farm and, like Cincinnatus, once more followed the plow. "Within about a month," however (1 Samuel 10:27 the Septuagint, for Massoretic Text "But he held his peace"), the summons came.
A message from the citizens of JABESH-GILEAD (which see) was sent round the tribes appealing for help against the Ammonites under Nahash. They, of course, knew nothing about what had taken place at Mizpah, and it was only by chance that their messengers arrived at Gibeah when they did. Saul rose to the occasion, and immediately after he was acclaimed king by the whole body of the people (1 Samuel 11:1-15 ). This double election, first by the chiefs and then by the people, is quite a regular proceeding.
This first success encouraged Saul to enter upon what was to be the mission of his life, namely, the throwing off of the Philistine suzerainty. From the first he had had the boldest spirits upon his side (1 Samuel 10:26 , the Septuagint, the Revised Version margin); he was now able to form a standing army of 3,000 men, under the command of himself and his son JONATHAN (which see).
The Philistines, the last remnant of the Minoan race, had the advantage of the possession of iron weapons. It was, in fact, they who introduced iron into Palestine from Crete - the Israelites knowing only bronze, and having even been deprived of weapons of the softer metals. They seem to have armed themselves - with the exception of the king and his son - with mattocks and plowshares (1 Samuel 13:19 ff).
Battle of Michmash
The first encounter was the attack upon the Philistine post at Michmash (1 Samuel 13 ; 14 ). The text of the narrative is uncertain, but the following outline is clear. On hearing that the Hebrews had revolted (1 Samuel 13:3 , the Septuagint), the Philistines gathered in great force, including 3,000 chariots (1 Samuel 13:5 , the Septuagint; the Massoretic Text has 30,000) at Michmash.
In dismay, Saul's troops deserted (1 Samuel 13:6 f), until he was left with only 600 ( 1 Samuel 14:2 ). In spite of this, Jonathan precipitated hostilities by a reckless attack upon one of the outposts. This was so successful that the whole Philistine army was seized with panic, and the onset of Saul and the desertion of their Hebrew slaves completed their discomfiture. Saul followed up his victory by making predatory excursions on every side (1 Samuel 14:47 ).
Defeats the Amalekites
Saul's next expedition was against the Amalekites under Agag, who were likewise completely defeated. The fight was carried out with all the remorselessness common to tribal warfare. Warning was sent to the friendly Kenites to withdraw out of danger; then the hostile tribe was slaughtered to a man, their chief alone being spared for the time being. Even the women and children were not taken as slaves, but were all killed (1 Samuel 15).
It is not clear what was the precise attitude of Samuel toward Saul. As the undoubted head of theocracy he naturally objected to his powers being curtailed by the loss of the civil power (1 Samuel 8:6 ). Even after the elections of Saul, Samuel claimed to be the ecclesiastical head of the state. He seems to have objected to Saul's offering the sacrifice before battle (1 Samuel 13:10 ff), and to have considered him merely as his lieutenant ( 1 Samuel 15:3 ) who could be dismissed for disobedience (1 Samuel 15:14 ff). Here again there seem to be two distinct accounts in the traditional text, which we may again call A and B. In A, Saul is rejected because he does not wait long enough for Samuel at Gilgal ( 1 Samuel 13:8 ; compare 1 Samuel 10:8 ). "Seven days," of course, means eight, or even more, in short, until Samuel should come, whenever that might be.
The expression might almost be omitted in translating. In B S aul is rejected because he did not carry out Samuel's orders (1 Samuel 15:3 ) to the letter. The two narratives are not mutually exclusive. The second offense was an aggravation of the first, and after it Samuel did not see Saul again (1 Samuel 15:35 ).
David Introduced to Saul
He had good reason for not doing so. He had anointed a rival head of the state in opposition to Saul, an act of treason which, if discovered, would have cost him his head (compare 2 Kings 9:6 , 2 Kings 9:10 ). Saul did not at once accept his deposition, but he lost heart. One cannot but admire him, deserted by Samuel, and convinced that he was playing a losing game, and yet continuing in office. To drive away his melancholy, his servants introduced to him a musician who played until his spirits revived (1 Samuel 16:14 ff; compare 2 Kings 3:15 ).
By a strange coincidence (compare I, 5, above) the minstrel was the very person whom Samuel had secretly anointed to supplant Saul. According to what looks like another account, however, it was his encounter with Goliath which led to the introduction of David to Saul (1 Samuel 17:1 ff; see DAVID ). In spite of all that has been said to the contrary, the two narratives are not incompatible, since we are not told the order of the events nor over how many years these events were spread.
The theory of duplicate narratives rests upon the assumption that all statements made by the dramatis personae in the Bible are to be taken at their face value. If 1 Samuel 16 and 17 had formed part of a play of Shakespeare, they would have been considered a fine example of his genius. Treatises would have been written to explain why Saul did not recognize David, and why Abner denied all knowledge of him. Septuagint, however, omits 1 Sam 17:12-31, 1 Samuel 17:41 , 1 Samuel 17:50 , 55 through 18:5.
Saul's Envy of David
Whether Saul actually discovered that David had been anointed by Samuel or not, he soon saw in him his rival and inevitable successor, and he would hardly have been human if he had not felt envious of him. His dislike of David had two motives. The first was jealousy, because the women preferred the military genius of David to his own (1 Samuel 18:7 f).
His consequent attempt upon the life of David ( 1 Samuel 18:8-11 ) is omitted in the Septuagint. Not least was the love of his own daughter for David (1 Samuel 18:20 ; in 1 Samuel 18:28 read with Septuagint "all Israel"). The second cause was his natural objection to see his son Jonathan supplanted in his rights to the throne, an objection which was aggravated by the devotion of that son to his own rival ( 1 Samuel 20:30 ).
Attempts to Get Rid of David
Saul could not believe that David could remain loyal to him (1 Samuel 24:9 ); at the first favorable opportunity he would turn upon him, hurl him from the throne, and exterminate his whole house. In these circumstances, it was his first interest to get rid of him. His first attempt to do so (omitting with Septuagint 1 Samuel 18:8-11 ) was to encourage him to make raids on the Philistines in the hope that these might kill him (1 Samuel 18:21 ff); his next, assassination by one of his servants ( 1 Samuel 19:1 ), and then by his own hand (1 Samuel 19:9 f).
When David was compelled to fly, the quarrel turned to civil war. The superstitious fear of hurting the chosen of Yahweh had given place to blind rage. Those who sheltered the fugitive, even priests, were slaughtered ( 1 Samuel 22:17 ff). From one spot to another David was hunted, as he says, like a partridge ( 1 Samuel 26:20 ).
David Spares Saul
It is generally maintained that here also we have duplicate accounts; for example, that there are two accounts of David taking refuge with Achish, king of Gath, and two of his sparing Saul's life. The latter are contained in 1 Samuel 24,26 , but the points of resemblance are slight. Three thousand (1 Samuel 24:2 ; 1 Samuel 26:2 ) was the number of Saul's picked men (compare 1 Samuel 13:2 ). David uses the simile of "a flea" in 1 Samuel 24:14 , but in 1 Samuel 26:20 for "a flea" Septuagint has "my soul," which is no doubt original. The few other expressions would occur naturally in any narrative with the same contents.
Saul's Divided Energies
Obviously Saul's divided energies could not hold out long; he could not put down the imaginary rebellion within, and at the same time keep at bay the foreign foe. No sooner had he got the fugitive within his grasp than he was called away by an inroad of the Philistines (1 Samuel 23:27 f); but after his life had been twice spared, he seemed to realize at last that the latter were the real enemy, and he threw his whole strength into one desperate effort for existence.
Consults a Necromancer
Saul himself saw that his case was desperate, and that in fact the game was up. As a forlorn hope he determined to seek occult advice. He could no longer use the official means of divination (1 Samuel 28:6 ), and was obliged to have recourse to a necromancer, one of a class whom he himself had taken means to suppress (1 Samuel 28:3 ). The result of the seance confirmed his worst fears and filled his soul with despair (1 Samuel 28:7 ff).
Battle of Gilboa
It says much for Saul that, hopeless as he was, he engaged in one last forlorn struggle with the enemy. The Philistines had gathered in great force at Shunem. Saul drew up his army on the opposing hill of Gilboa. Between the two forces lay a valley (compare 1 Samuel 14:4 ). The result was what had been foreseen. The Israelites, no doubt greatly reduced in numbers (contrast 1 Samuel 11:8 ), were completely defeated, and Saul and his sons slain. Their armor was placed in the temple of Ashtaroth, and their bodies hung on the wall of Bethshan, but Saul's head was set in the temple of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10:10 ). The citizens of Jabesh-gilead, out of ancient gratitude, rescued the bodies and, in un-Semitic wise, burned them and buried the bones.
Once more we have, according to most present-day critics, duplicate accounts of the death of Saul. According to one, which we may name A, he fell, like Ajax whom he much resembles, upon his own sword, after being desperately wounded by the archers (1 Samuel 31:4 ). According to the second (2 Samuel 1:2 ff), an Amalekite, who had been by accident a witness of the battle, dispatched Saul at his own request to save him from the enemy. But B is simply the continuation of A, and tells us how David received the news of the battle. The Amalekite's story is, of course, a fabrication with a view to a reward. Similar claims for the reward of assassination are common ( 2 Samuel 4:9 ff).
With Saul the first Israelite dynasty began and ended. The names of his sons are given in 1 Samuel 14:49 as Jonathan, Ishvi and Malchishua. Ishvi or Ishyo (Septuagint) is Eshbaal, called in 2 Samuel 2:8 ISH-BOSHETH (which see). 1 Chronicles 8:33 adds Abinadab. Jonathan left a long line of descendants famous, like himself, as archers ( 1 Chronicles 8:34 ff). The rest of Saul's posterity apparently died out. Malchishua and Abinadab were slain at Gilboa ( 1 Samuel 31:6 ; 1 Chronicles 10:2 ), and Ish-bosheth was assassinated shortly after (2 Samuel 4:2 ff). Saul had also two natural sons by Rizpah who were put to death by David in accordance with a superstitious custom, as also were the five sons of Saul's daughter Merab ( 2 Samuel 21:8 , not Michal; compare 1 Samuel 18:19 ). Saurs other daughter Michal apparently had no children. Saul had, it seems, other wives, who were taken into the harem of David in accordance with the practice of the times (2 Samuel 12:8 ), but of them and their descendants we know nothing.
Book of Chronicles
Saul's life and character are disposed of in a somewhat summary fashion by the Chronicler (1 Chronicles 10:1-14 , especially 1 Chronicles 10:13 , 1 Chronicles 10:14 ). Saul was rejected because he was disloyal to Yahweh, especially in consulting a necromancer. The major premise of this conclusion, however, is the ancient dictum, "Misfortune presupposes sin." From a wider point of view, Saul cannot be dismissed in so cavalier a manner.
Like everyone else, Saul had his virtues and his failings. His chief weakness seems to have been want of decision of character. He was easily swayed by events and by people. The praises of David (1 Samuel 18:7 f) at once set his jealousy on fire. His persecution of David was largely due to the instigation of mischievous courtiers ( 1 Samuel 24:9 ). Upon remonstrance his repentance was as deep as it was short-lived (1 Samuel 24:16 ; 1 Samuel 26:21 ). His impulsiveness was such that he did not know where to stop. His interdict (1 Samuel 14:24 ff) was quite as uncalled for as his religious zeal ( 1 Samuel 15:9 ) was out of place.
He was always at one extreme. His hatred of David was only equal to his affection for him at first (1 Samuel 18:2 ). His pusillanimity led him to commit crimes which his own judgment would have forbidden (1 Samuel 22:17 ). Like most beaten persons, he became suspicious of everyone (1 Samuel 22:7 f), and, like those who are easily led, he soon found his evil genius ( 1 Samuel 22:9 , 1 Samuel 22:18 , 1 Samuel 22:22 ).
Saul's inability to act alone appears from the fact that he never engaged in single combat, so far as we know. Before he could act at all his fury or his pity had to be roused to boiling-point (1 Samuel 11:6 ). His mind was peculiarly subject to external influences, so that he was now respectable man of the world, now a prophet (1 Samuel 10:11 ; 1 Samuel 19:24 ).
On the other hand, Saul possessed many high qualities. His dread of office (1 Samuel 10:22 ) was only equaled by the coolness with which he accepted it (1 Samuel 11:5 ). To the first call to action he responded with promptitude (1 Samuel 11:6 ff). His timely aid excited the lasting gratitude of the citizens of Jabesh-gilead ( 1 Samuel 31:11 ff) If we remember that Saul was openly disowned by Samuel ( 1 Samuel 15:30 ), and believed himself cast off by Yahweh, we cannot but admire the way in which he fought on to the last. Moreover, the fact that he retained not only his own sons, but a sufficient body of fighting men to engage a large army of Philistines, shows that there must have been something in him to excite confidence and loyalty.
There is, however, no question as to the honorable and noble qualities of Saul. The chief were his prowess in war and his generosity in peace. They have been set down by the man who knew him best in what are among the most authentic verses in the Bible (2 Samuel 1:19 ff).
IBSE, "Isaac" (in the public domain) with minor edits.