Few figures in biblical literature provoke as many questions as King Saul. Was he a man of noble aspirations brought down by some tragic flaw (impulsiveness, ineptitude, irresolution?) or an arrogant tyrant infatuated with power? Was he a pitiable pantywaist, easily swayed by the dictates of others, or a hero, dignified by his struggle against an inscrutable fate and an implacable deity? Why was he rejected so quickly and decisively? And why did Yahweh punish him so severely?
The biblical portrait of Saul is a study in contradictions. Reluctant at the outset to 021accept the role of Israel’s king (1 Samuel 9:21), Saul later perceives his young armor-bearer, David, as a rival and clings ever more tenaciously to his crown. He is capable of decisive action—as when he rallies the tribes of Israel to defeat the Ammonites at Jabesh-Gilead (1 Samuel 10:27b–11:11)—but he is curiously vacillatory in confronting the Philistines at Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 28:3–15). A man of tender feelings, who seeks comfort in music, he turns viciously on friend and family alike (1 Samuel 20:30–33). A magnanimous monarch to those who contested his selection as king (1 Samuel 11:12–13), he later slaughters the priests of Nob on the mere suspicion of betrayal (1 Samuel 22:6–19).a
One thing is clear. The perplexities of Saul’s story mirror the turmoil and uncertainty of the context in which it unfolds—the creation of the Israelite monarchy. The emergence of the kingship presented the author of 1 Samuel, writing many years after the events, with significant ambiguities. First, although kings brought a measure of good (for example, by uniting the scattered Israelite tribes into a single nation), they could also be perceived as rivals of Yahweh, Israel’s true and eternal king.1
Second, Israel’s earliest traditions affirmed that Yahweh had endorsed a particular structure for Israelite society: a tribal confederacy led by charismatic leaders, called judges, who were chosen by Yahweh. Yet the course of Israel’s history revealed that Yahweh had later blessed a different social order: a kingdom led by a monarch from a divinely established dynasty (2 Samuel 7:8–16).
How did Yahweh negotiate this chasm, transferring his allegiance from the tribal social order established under Moses to the Davidic monarchy?
At least in part, 1 Samuel was written to resolve these tensions. The book recounts the transformation of Israelite society from tribal confederacy to dynastic monarchy, dramatizing this transformation through the main characters. If the seer, prophet and priest Samuel represents the old order under the judges, and King David the new order under an established dynastic monarchy, then Saul represents a transitional figure, embodying the profound social (and theological) crisis in which the nation is reshaped and redefined.
This national crisis is set in motion by the people’s request for a king. The request displeases both Yahweh and Samuel. Yahweh perceives the people’s request as a rejection of his rule, commenting that the people have continually forsaken him for “other gods” (1 Samuel 8:6–8); Samuel warns the people of the oppression monarchy will bring (1 Samuel 8:10–17) and predicts that when the people cry out because of the king’s tyranny, Yahweh will not answer (1 Samuel 8:18).
In another speech, Samuel underscores Yahweh’s ire at the establishment of Saul’s kingship (1 Samuel 12:6–17). Samuel begins with a review of Israel’s history, highlighting the effectiveness of Yahweh’s leadership under the old order, and concludes with a declaration that Israel has acted with great wickedness in seeking a king. When Yahweh ominously confirms Samuel’s words with thunder and rain, the 022people are terror-stricken and concede the wickedness of their request for a king (1 Samuel 12:18–19).
Curiously, however, Samuel acknowledges the people’s confession of sin and assures them that Yahweh will not abandon his people (1 Samuel 12:20–22). How has Yahweh’s anger been assuaged?
The answer lies in Saul’s role in the story. In terms reminiscent of Greek tragedy, the biblical writer presents Saul, the central character in this immense social reconfiguration, as a sacrificial figure: Saul is the sacrifice needed to appease Yahweh’s anger over the people’s demands and thus to make possible Israel’s transformation from confederacy to monarchy.2
The reign of Israel’s first king is a drama in four acts. In the first, Saul is anointed king by the prophet-priest Samuel. Both Samuel and Yahweh, in the second act, suddenly and decisively reject the newly anointed king. In the third act, King Saul gradually becomes isolated from friends, family and subjects. Finally, in the climactic fourth act, which takes place on Mt. Gilboa, Saul ends his life by falling on his sword.
The jarring events of this drama are held in place by the leitmotif of sacrifice.3 In Act I, Saul, while searching for some lost asses, decides to consult a seer (Samuel). He asks some women where to look, and they tell him that a seer is going to make a sacrifice that very day: “[T]he people will not eat until he comes, for he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those eat who are invited” (1 Samuel 9:13). Saul himself turns out to be the guest of honor. (Is he already the sacrifice for whom the people have been waiting?) Samuel gives Saul the choicest portion of the sacrifice and later secretly anoints Saul as king (1 Samuel 9:25–10:1).
Later, when Saul is publicly acclaimed king after his victory over the Ammonites, the celebration tellingly consists of sacrifices “before Yahweh” (1 Samuel 11:15).
In Act II, Saul is twice rejected. On the first occasion, Saul and his restive troops are awaiting Samuel at Gilgal, where Samuel is to preside at a 023sacrifice before a battle with the Philistines. They wait seven days past the appointed time, but Samuel doesn’t show. Impatient, Saul offers the sacrifice himself. Just as he finishes, Samuel appears. Brooking no explanation, Samuel proclaims, “Your dynasty will not endure” (1 Samuel 13:4–14).
Before the second rejection comes a strange, though pivotal, episode in which Saul unwittingly takes upon himself the status of a sacrificial victim. During a battle with the Philistines, Saul pronounces a rash oath: “Cursed be the man who eats any food before night falls and I take revenge upon my enemies” (1 Samuel 14:24). Except for one person, the famished troops desist, even when they discover a honeycomb—an image of life and sweetness in the midst of all this death and cursing (though the honeycomb, as we will see, is soon to become a symbol of that very death and cursing).
The one exception is Saul’s son Jonathan, who does not hear his father’s curse and so tastes the honey. One of the soldiers, seeing Jonathan eating the honey, tells him of Saul’s curse (1 Samuel 14:28). The soldier’s report underscores the irony of the act: Jonathan, the representative of the just-rejected dynasty, now stands under a curse.
The next scene presents nothing less than unbridled chaos. Famished by fasting, the troops descend on the Philistine booty, slaughter the livestock and begin eating the meat raw with its blood (1 Samuel 14:31–32). In a symbolic sense, this act represents the total breakdown of social prohibitions and a descent into barbarism. Saul orders the troops to slaughter the animals instead on a great stone, which serves as a makeshift altar—“the first altar he erected to Yahweh” (1 Samuel 14:35). The establishment of this altar is of crucial symbolic significance: The sacrifices instituted by Saul rescue the people from chaos and restore order.4
In subsequent events, the focus of the narrative shifts from Jonathan (and the dynasty) to Saul (the king himself). When Yahweh does not respond to a request for guidance, Saul consults the divine lots called Urim and Thummim to determine who is responsible.5 First, the lots absolve the troops, indicating that either Jonathan or Saul is to blame. Then the lots point to Jonathan—he has eaten the honey, 024thus bringing down upon himself his father’s curse (1 Samuel 14:37–42).
Recognizing that Yahweh is angry, Saul declares, “As Yahweh lives, who saves Israel, even if [the sin] is in my son Jonathan, he shall surely be put to death” (1 Samuel 14:39). Jonathan admits that he tasted the honey, adding, “I am ready to die” (1 Samuel 14:43). Saul then utters another oath: “God do so to me and even more [if I do not keep my oath]; you shall surely die, Jonathan” (1 Samuel 14:44).
But the troops take Jonathan’s side, vowing that “not a hair of his head shall fall,” for it was Jonathan, with God’s help, who had brought victory against the Philistines (1 Samuel 14:45). Saul thus stands alone. He must now face the consequences of his own oath: If Jonathan is not put to death, Saul has just said, “God do so to me and even more” (1 Samuel 14:44). This oath has the unintended consequence of deflecting the curse from Jonathan onto Saul himself. Because Jonathan is spared, as the troops demand, Saul becomes the victim of his own curse. He will die—not Jonathan or the people.
The second rejection of Saul comes after his victory over one of Israel’s ancient enemies, the Amalekites. Samuel has ordered Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, but Saul instead spares the Amalekite king, Agag, and the best of the livestock. As before, Samuel rejects Saul’s explanation: “Yahweh has rejected you as king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:2–26). The first rejection spelled the end of Saul’s dynasty. Now Saul’s own reign is under judgment; it is he who is rejected.
In a scathing denunciation, Samuel associates Saul with all manner of crimes against God: disobedience, rebellion, obduracy, divination and idolatry (1 Samuel 15:22–23). These are precisely the crimes ascribed to Israel during the period of the judges, which ended with the people’s demand for a king. Now these crimes are attributed to Saul; the king stands in place of the nation.
Note the words Samuel uses to inform Saul about Yahweh’s judgment: “Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh, he has rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:26). These words vividly recall Yahweh’s response to the people’s request for a king: “They have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7b)
As we have seen, though, the people have not been abandoned. Now we understand why: because the king now serves as their surrogate. Saul, the man Israel requested as king (Saul’s name in Hebrew, Shaul, means something like “asked for”), ensures the survival of the people by taking God’s displeasure on himself. Saul thus prepares the way for a king whom “Yahweh has sought after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
Subsequent events in Act III reveal the outpouring of divine wrath upon Saul as well as his increasing isolation from the people.
Yahweh takes the divine spirit from Saul and sends an evil spirit to afflict him (1 Samuel 16:14). Saul must bear the pain of seeing the one he “loved greatly,” David, now becoming the rival he fears (1 Samuel 18:12). Saul’s own son and daughter take David’s part against him (1 Samuel 19:1–17). Saul is publicly humiliated in front of his own troops, not once, but twice (1 Samuel 24:1–22, 26:1–25).
Why so much torment? Because Yahweh has suffered a long series of rejections from Israel (1 Samuel 8:7–8, 12:6–13); therefore, Saul must be rejected repeatedly.
The circumstances of Saul’s death in Act IV resonate with sacrificial imagery. The Philistines first slay Saul’s three sons. Himself wounded, Saul asks his arms-bearer to slay him. He refuses. “Whereupon Saul grasped the sword and fell upon it” (1 Samuel 31:4).
That Saul’s death is by his own hand fulfills one common criterion of certain ancient sacrifices—that the victim be a willing participant.6 Sacrificial ritual, moreover, concludes not with the death of the victim but, rather, with the dismemberment and disposition of the carcass. When the Philistines come upon Saul’s body, they behead it and hang the corpse, along with those of his sons, on the wall of Beth-Shean (1 Samuel 31:8–10). The men of Jabesh-Gilead, however, steal the bodies and burn them (1 Samuel 31:11–13), although Saul’s head evidently remains with the Philistines.7
The tragic conclusion of Saul’s story prepares the way for the rise of David, under whom Israel experiences something like a Golden Age. This pattern of social upheaval and restoration through sacrifice is an old one. In ancient societies, sacrificial offerings provided a means of understanding and responding to large-scale disruptions in the world. Sacrifices marked transitions in the cosmic and social order and brought opposed forces into harmony. A community suffering under the anger of a deity might, through sacrifice, restore itself to favor by redirecting the deity’s wrath toward the sacrifice. The sacrificial victim thus served both as the 025focus of communal tensions and as the vehicle by which necessary transformations might take place.
The Bible is no exception to this ancient practice. Key junctures in biblical history are marked by sacrifice. Humanity’s new beginning through Noah and his family (Genesis 8:20–22), Yahweh’s covenants with Abram (Genesis 15:7–21) and Israel (Exodus 24:1–8), Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land (Joshua 8:30–35), the consecration of the Temple (1 Kings 8:1–6, 62–64; 2 Chronicles 7:1–7), the rejection of Baalism (1 Kings 18:17–40) and the return from the Exile (Ezra 2:68, 3:1–7, 8:35)—all are accompanied by appropriate sacrifices.
For the biblical writer, Saul’s death resolves the paradox of kingship. The dissolution of the old tribal order and its replacement by a new one constitutes an affront to Yahweh, under whom the confederacy was established. Saul’s role as a surrogate for the people provides a legitimate target of divine wrath and makes possible the reconstitution of the nation through kingship, kingdom and Temple. With divine anger spent and the tribal confederacy dissolved, the Davidic monarchy can be established and blessed. Saul is the necessary sacrifice, whose life and death bring about the transformation of Israel.
Few figures in biblical literature provoke as many questions as King Saul. Was he a man of noble aspirations brought down by some tragic flaw (impulsiveness, ineptitude, irresolution?) or an arrogant tyrant infatuated with power? Was he a pitiable pantywaist, easily swayed by the dictates of others, or a hero, dignified by his struggle against an inscrutable fate and an implacable deity? Why was he rejected so quickly and decisively? And why did Yahweh punish him so severely? The biblical portrait of Saul is a study in contradictions. Reluctant at the outset to 021accept the role of Israel’s king […]