Notes on Saul

In this post I’ll be writing about I Chronicles chapters 1-10 and I Samuel.  But, despite the title to this post, these texts do not correspond exactly to Saul’s biography, for a couple of reasons.  First, once David is introduced in I Samuel chapter 16, his story and Saul’s are intertwined until Saul’s death in chapter 31 (the last chapter of I Samuel), and so some chapters are just about Saul, and some just about David, and some about both.  Second, except for a few verses about Saul’s genealogy in I Chronicles 9:35-44, there’s nothing about Saul in I Chronicles until chapter 10.  Likewise, Saul doesn’t appear in I Samuel until chapter 9; up until then the focus is on the prophet Samuel.

But have no fear, gentle reader:  After my little discussion here of Saul, I’ll tie up the loose ends of the chapters that don’t discuss Saul, and I’ll talk about David in a separate post, covering the relevant chapters here as well as other two other books that give us David’s biography, namely II Samuel and I Chronicles chapters 11-29.

The basic story line is this:  Israel is still being ruled by judges — priests, really — when I Samuel opens, and the next-to-last one, Eli, finds a worthy successor in the last one, Samuel.  But the people of Israel want a king, and Samuel reluctantly guides them to choose and anoint Saul, a Benjamite.  Saul has initial successes in fighting the Philistines, but eventually makes mistakes and falls into Samuel’s — and, more importantly of course, God’s — disfavor.  Meanwhile, an even more obscure Israelite, David, arises and is eventually anointed as Saul’s successor (long before he is actually king).  Saul becomes more and more mentally unstable and tries to kill David, who flees and becomes the leader of an outlaw band.  Through it all, David is close friends with Saul’s son Jonathan — perhaps the closest friendship in the Old Testament. Finally, Saul is killed by the Philistines and David becomes king.


I have to confess that I’ve always felt Saul gets kind of a bum rap.  He’s a decent guy, probably would have been perfectly happy living out his days as a big fish in a small pond in rural Judea, but improbably and involuntarily finds himself the first king of Israel.  Yet he does very well at it, at least for a while.  He did reign for 42 years; I’m not sure which way that cuts.

I’ll say, too, that I’ve always been a little suspicious of Samuel (who, by the way, may have written part of the text of I Samuel).  You get the sense that he’s not really pulling for Saul, and why would he, since he didn’t want there to be a king anyway, and since it meant less authority and power for him?

My NIV study Bible is very hard on Saul; I wonder if Christians for some reason think less of Saul than Jews do.  Jews are, after all, willing to name children after him; maybe Christians are, too — I just don’t know.


Let’s turn to the bill of particulars against Saul.  My NIV study Bible has a note to 13:3-4 that faults Saul for taking “all the credit” for Jonathan’s successful attack against the Philistines at Geba.  Well, maybe, but Saul was the overall commander of the Israelites, after all, and presumably he made the decision to send some troops to Geba and for them to be under his son Jonathan’s leadership.

Samuel harshly criticizes Saul in chapter 13 for not waiting for him to make a burnt offering after a battlefield victory, but Samuel certainly seems to have taken his sweet time to get there and Saul’s army was starting to disintegrate.  Saul’s actions is chapter 14 likewise seem to me to be ambiguous.  Chapter 15 begins (emphasis added):

1 Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ”
Hard stuff indeed, putting aside the Saul issue, and this passage is one that believers are often asked to explain to nonbelievers.  Well, here’s one question:  Do we have to trust Samuel when he says this is what God wants?  In all events, Saul carries out the instructions that involve killing all the Amalekite people — but not the king himself and not the best sheep and cattle.  Again Samuel arrives on the scene and upbraids Saul, who doesn’t really address the problem of not having immediately killed the Amalekite king (he’s later executed), and apparently equivocates about the good livestock, too.
Well, yes, it appears that Saul failed this time, but again that’s assuming he had to take Samuel’s word for what God wanted, and it’s ironic that Saul should have no problem with killing people rather than animals, and indeed all the people except for the one guy you’d expect him to be willing to kill, namely the opposing king.
But who cares what I think, and I must be wrong, because after the Amalekite battle, “the Lord was grieved that He had made Saul king over Israel” (I Samuel 15:35).  So clearly Saul had done something wrong.  One’s sense is that Saul never had the focus that, most obviously, David had on wholeheartedly following God and ignoring what he himself and other people wanted, and that Saul made matters worse by lying about what he was doing and why.
One other note:  It’s interesting that God should regret making Saul king.  Isn’t that a rather strong argument in favor of free will and against predestination?
Many of Saul’s failings took place when he was mentally unstable; perhaps this makes him more sympathetic to me than to someone back in the day.  Still, I was struck at the determinedly anti-Saul commentary by my NIV study Bible (e.g., in I Chronicles chapters 13-14) when, at the same time, David himself remained very respectful to Saul as the Lord’s anointed — right to the end, and indeed even after Saul’s death (see II Samuel chapter 1).  Twice, for example (chapters 24 and 26), David refuses to kill Saul when he easily could have, when Saul was trying to kill him, and when not only would his own men not have blamed him but were urging him to do it.  Chapter 24, in particular, ends poignantly:

16 … Saul asked, “Is that your voice, David my son?” And he wept aloud.   17 “You are more righteous than I,” he said. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. 18 You have just now told me about the good you did to me; the LORD delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. 19 When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the LORD reward you well for the way you treated me today. 20 I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands. 21 Now swear to me by the LORD that you will not kill off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.”

22 So David gave his oath to Saul. Then Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.


The Jews wanted a king, but Samuel tried to talk them out of it (8:10-18):

10 Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
Libertarians love to quote this.  And Samuel never changed his mind, and in his decidedly unsugary farewell speech chastised the Israelites for (among other things) insisting on a king.  He ends that speech, incidentally, by saying that, despite their many sins, “far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (12:23).  That’s interesting:  Failing to pray for sinners is itself a sin.
Why exactly did the Jews not want another judge or, to put it the other way, why did they want a king?  Was it as simple as the fact that they did not like Samuel’s sons?  Were they tired of following God’s commands?  Was it simply peer pressure?:  Everyone else has a king, and we want one, too.  Did they think that a king would be able to lead them better, particularly in secular matters, including especially as a war leader?
It’s interesting that God had left open the possibility of a monarchy in Deuteronomy:
14 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,”15 be sure to appoint over you a king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
These rules are apparently alluded to in I Samuel 10:25.

I don’t intend here to write an extended essay here on the Bible’s politics, but it is worth noting at this point — the outset of the Hebrew monarchy — that its record would prove to be mixed at best, and Samuel’s misgivings well-taken (one might even say prophetic).  My NIV study Bible says that only four of the forty kings of Israel following David were called “good.”  The greatest two kings, David and Solomon, were far from perfect, with each beginning their careers well but ending, to varying degrees, on an off-note.  I’d note too that the Bible’s gentile monarchs were likewise a mixed bag.  That seems to me to be realistic and clear-eyed:  neither a romanticization of princes and princesses, nor our age’s insistence that anything less than all power to all the people all the time must be oppressive.

(Of course, the Bible judges kings in a different way than secular historians do, with the former’s principal criterion being faithfulness to God and His laws, especially it would seem the prohibition on idolatry.  But the prophets condemned oppression and cruelty to the poor as well, and the Bible notes successes and failures in defense and foreign policy, too.)

And the trajectory of Israel’s first three kings — Saul, David, and Solomon — as well as many of its subsequent kings supports Lord Acton’s famous warning, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


Saul dies, falling on his sword after suffering a battlefield defeat that also cost him his son.  Jonathan’s death, by the way, is noted (31:2) without elaboration despite his being one of the most admirable men in the Old Testament.  And the end of the story of Saul, in the last verses of I Samuel, reminded me powerfully of the sad final lines of The Iliad.  Here are the Jews in I Samuel:

6 So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.
7When the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them.
8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.
9 They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people.
10 They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.
11 When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul,
12 all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them.
13 Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.

And here are the Trojans, having recovered another corpse desecrated by the enemy:

So they harnessed oxen and mules to the wagons, and assembled outside the city. For nine days they gathered huge piles of logs, and when the tenth dawn brought light to mortals they carried brave Hector, and, in tears, laid his body on the summit of the pyre and set the wood ablaze.

Next day, when rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, the people gathered at glorious Hector’s pyre. Then when all had assembled they worked together, quenching the embers with red wine, wherever the fire had reached. Then Hector’s brothers and his friends collected his ashes, still mourning him, their cheeks wet with tears. They placed the ashes, wrapped in a purple robe, inside a golden urn, and laid the urn in a hollow grave, covering it with large close-set stones. Then over it they piled the barrow, posting sentinels on every side, lest the bronze-greaved Greeks attacked them before the promised time. When they had heaped the mound, they returned to Troy, and gathered in Zeus-beloved Priam’s palace for the glorious funeral feast appointed.

And such were the funeral rites of Hector, tamer of horses.

Other notes on I Samuel chapters 1-8:

  • According to my NIV study Bible, judges ruled Israel for over 200 years, with the last two being Eli and Samuel.
  • The palindromic Hannah is yet another barren Jewish woman to whom God grants a remarkable son.  Hannah’s prayer, in verse, is at 2:1-10; the famous “Here I am story” about the young Samuel is in chapter 3.  In the latter, you have to give Eli credit for his lack of jealousy; he’s another good man with bad sons whom he failed to raise well.
  • It’s noted in 3:1 that there are times where God doesn’t say much or appear in visions.  Of course He has His reasons, and we must wonder what they are.   And are we in such a period now?
  • From 4:21, it’s no surprise that Washington Irving chose “Ichabod” as the first name of the ill-fated schoolmaster in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  On the other hand, Charles Dickens’s choice of a first name for Scrooge is more surprising, since the origins of “Ebenezer” are quite favorable, according to 7:12.
  • The award for most bad news per word ever delivered by a messenger has to be 4:17 — “‘Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses.  Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.'”  Have a nice day!   No wonder that, upon hearing this, Eli fell backward off his chair, broke his neck, and died; was it really necessary to add the observation, “for he was an old man and heavy” (4:18)?  Talk about adding insult, literally, to injury.  The chronicler, by the way, also notes that it was the news of the ark being captured, not the death of his sons, that did the trick, chairwise; as already mentioned, Eli’s sons were not prizewinners, and perhaps the chronicler is suggesting here that the father was under no illusions about their worthiness.

Other notes on I Chronicles chapters 1-9:

  • What’s the point of this long genealogy, you ask?  Here’s what my NIV study Bible says:  “This record of names demonstrates that God is interested not only in nations, but also in individuals.” And:  “This long list of names was compiled after the people of Judah, the southern kingdom, were taken captive to Babylon …. [and] one of their biggest fears was that the records of their heritage would be lost.  The Jews placed great importance upon their heritage because each person wanted to be able to prove that he was a descendant of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people.  Only then could he enjoy the benefits of the special blessings God promised to Abraham and his descendants ….”  And:  “There is more to the this long genealogy than meets the eye.  It holds importance for us today because it supports the Old Testament promise that Jesus the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham and David.”
  • I’m sure the author (Ezra, according to tradition) had good reasons, but it’s noteworthy that the genealogy annotates now and again (see, e.g., 2:3 and 2:7), but then will say nothing about that guy David (2:15) or a list of kings (3:10-16).
  • We find the “Prayer of Jabez” at 4:9-10.
  • David appointed temple musicians, and they and their sons are listed at 6:31-47.
  • It’s rather surprising to find a double divorce mentioned in the genealogy at 8:8.
  • Chapter 9 has a couple of quirks:  There’s the chronologically rather out-of-place inclusion of exiles from the Babylonian captivity, and Saul’s genealogy also seemed to me rather oddly placed (verses 35-44) — or maybe not, since in chapter 10 we return from genealogy to historical narrative, and that narrative commences with the death of Saul.
  • After an account of Saul’s burial similar to the one in I Samuel (see above), I Chronicles 13 adds:  “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the world of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord.  So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.”  The witch Saul consulted, by the way, lived in Endor (see I Samuel 4-24), and presumably that’s where Endora in the television series Bewitched gets her name.