King Saul - the Bible story
Saul, betrayed by many of the people he trusted most, is one of the great tragic figures of the Bible.
He was born the son of Kish in Gibeah of Benjamin. Just at the time that the Hebrew tribes were starting to organize real opposition to the Philistines, a warrior, Saul, emerged as a charismatic leader: “the spirit of God came mightily upon him” (1 Samuel 11:6). He rallied the tribes to battle against the Philistines and defeated them at Michmash, driving them out of the highlands in about 1020 BC.
Now that they had a capable military leader, the Israelites began to realize what they could do and be, and this realization made them push for Saul be made king.
There was however a conservative minority who wanted not a king, but a revival of the old tribal league. The attitude of the aging Samuel seems to have been ambiguous. There are two parallel accounts of Saul’s election to the kingship, one being tacitly favourable to the monarchy, the other hostile.
The notion of kingship came late to lsrael and it may have seemed like a heretical attempt to imitate pagan neighbours.
The 'Manner of the King'
Samuel was deeply suspicious of a monarchy, and he interpreted the people's demand as a rejection of the idea of God being their leader. He consulted his God and, although he was directed to 'hearken to the voice of the people in all that they saý to you,' he also had to 'solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king' (l Samuel 8:9).
His warning became the famous denunciation of monarchy, vividly illuminating the new political and social factors which were being introduced into lsraelite life at the time. Samuel predicted that a king would
Samuel feared the change but, under pressure, he agreed to the people’s demands (1 Samuel 8:4-22).
Many scholars ﬁnd the contrast between the two accounts irreconcilable. They regard the anti-monarchist outburst as a later insertion reﬂecting disillusion, after experience of lsraelite kings. It may well be so. But it may also be a vivid description of the semi-feudal Canaanite society as it existed prior to and during the time of Samuel.
'Three Captains', by James Tissot
Canaanite city states had small armed forces consisting of conscripted foot-soldiers and professional warriors recruited from the ranks of the aristocracy. These were the 'maryannu' or knights who drove the horse-drawn chariots. Performance of military obligations exempted the knights from payment of tithes or other taxes.
Under the Canaanite system
It seems, therefore, that the passage in I Samuel 8 may be a genuine appeal by Samuel or a contemporary of his urging the people not to impose an alien Canaanite way of life upon themselves. lts author could conceivably have been the prophet himself or the spokesman of the anti-monarchical movement of that period.
After rescuing the Israelites from the immediate Philistine danger, Saul led numerous punitive expeditions against the Moabites and Arameans. He also took an active part in the attempt to preserve Israel's religious purity, and tried to suppress the witchcraft practiced by Hebrews and Canaanites alike.
Saul's story, of course, is told by people who sympathised with David rather than Saul. The narrative links and contrasts David‘s heroic personality, charm and popularity with an increasing nervous depression on the part of Saul, accompanied by convulsions, attributed as was normal at the time to an evil spirit. He became unable to master outbursts of passion, showing a seriously disturbed and often cruel nature. David, who was his cup-bearer and a close friend of his son, Jonathan, was detailed to calm him with music (I Samuel l6:l4-23).
Saul grew increasingly jealous of David‘s spectacular military success and growing popularity - as well he might. His bitter persecution drove David to seek refuge with Achish, king of Gath and to serve him, together with a number of malcontents. Saul’s rage against David extended beyond pursuing him and his followers to molesting the priesthood which, up to then, he had treated well. The gulf which had come to separate him from many of his people was thus widened.
Saul’s relationship with Samuel also shows him in a tragic light. For the greater part of Saul’s life he was on bad terms with the people’s venerated religious leader. Although, again, conﬂicting accounts make it difficult to be sure of the reasons, the split between the two appears to have occurred quite early in Saul’s career.
A few years after Saul had driven David away from his court the Philistines rallied again, encouraged by the inner weakness of the Israelite camp. Instead of advancing against Saul into the central hills of Ephraim they marched northwards to Beth-Shean, cutting the country into two and preventing the tribes of Galilee and Transjordan from joining Saul.
This also presented the Philistines with a battleground which was favourable for chariot manoeuvring. Saul had no chariots and could not withstand the assault of the heavy Philistine armour in the plain. He moved on to the higher ground of Mount Gilboa.
Mount Gilboa where Saul and his sons fought and died; the Plain of Jezreel below
Tradition has it that before the battle Saul visited a medium, the Witch of Endor, who conjured up the spirit of the departed Samuel from Sheol (the underworld), only to hear him pronounce the curse of doom on the fearful king (I Samuel 28:16-19). Even after death, the prophet would not be reconciled to Saul.
On Mount Gilboa, Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, were killed, and their bodies strung up on the city gates of Beth-Shean. The Philistines regained control of the country and kept it until well into David’s reign (circa 990 BC).
It was David who was to establish the national unity of the Israelites, but he built on foundations which had been laid by Saul.
Saul falls on his sword, James Tissot
Young men are used in battle for several reasons:
In Saul's case, his sons fought because there was no other option. Their situation was desperate. Their father and his army faced overwhelming numbers and defeat was almost certain.
In the event of defeat, the princes would be executed by the enemy. Royal princes in the ancient world were never allowed to survive the overthrow of their father. This is why, for example, the seventy young princes of the Royal House of Omri were beheaded by Jehu when he killed King Joram and his mother Queen Jezebel.
Notes on Samuel's choice of Saul
1 Samuel 7:15-12:25 Saul becomes king
7:15 - 8:3 Samuel’s position in Israel. Samuel, like Eli before him (4:18), was a judge in Israel, both a leader and deliverer raised up by God, and a judge in the modern sense. His life revolved round a number of sanctuaries, and he was widely venerated. Despite this, his sons were not admired, nor did they deserve to be.
Bible Study Resource: Bible People: The life and times of Saul, king of the Israelites