In ancient times history-writing and storytelling were two faces of the same coin. The reporting of facts was inseparable from their interpretation and from the utilization of narrative art to tell and interpret the facts.
In what follows, I want to understand Israel’s first king, Saul, by what the biblical narrator tells us through his narrative art and the structure of his story. His text, which has come down to us in 1 Samuel, is a piece of verbal art that presents Saul as a tragic hero. I suggest that we should listen to and respect its literary fullness, instead of stripping its message to the minimum based on what some scholars regard only as the reliable historical core.
Saul’s story, or history, commences in 1 Samuel 9 when the unknown young man from the tribe of Benjamin is called by the prophet/priest Samuel and is instantly elevated to a position of national prominence and importance. When the Bible introduces us to Saul, he is searching unsuccessfully for his father’s stray asses. He returns with a very different kind of find—he has been made king over all of Israel, the first person ever to hold this position. He searched for asses and found a kingship.
It is not hard to imagine his shock on the day we meet him, the same day he meets his destiny. Saul knows only that he is the son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin, a peasant boy whose current assignment is to find the lost animals. On a different level, however, another scenario is playing itself out. On the providential plane, which is concealed from Saul, he is, instead of the seeker, the sought. On one level, he is looking for something; on another, he is himself the object of a quest.
The previous day, God had told the prophet Samuel of Saul’s impending arrival, so Samuel is on the lookout for him. Saul means “desired” in Hebrew. Saul seems to be God’s answer to the people’s demand for a king, so that they—the tribes of Israel—can be a nation just like all the 021other nations that surrounded them.
Samuel leads the young peasant into a new, completely unexpected world. He explains to Saul that God has destined him to become king of Israel’s tribal federation. “For whom is all Israel yearning, if not for you and all your ancestral house?” Samuel tells him (1 Samuel 9:20). Saul is taken aback. He listens timidly, dumbfounded. In contrast to Samuel’s solemn words of destiny, Saul uses the language of humility. “Am I not from Benjamin, the smallest of the tribes of Israel? And is my family not the smallest of the tribe? Why do you speak thus to me?” (9:21)
At this point, the reader must wonder whether Saul will be suitable or strong enough to head the newly created monarchy. In the literary unit or episode which begins with chapter 9 and extends to chapter 10:16, Saul says almost nothing after this humble: reply to Samuel’s thunderous pronouncement. All the words thereafter are directed to Saul. He is, if anything, bewildered, and takes no initiative. Samuel, the old prophet, prepares and instructs the young man. Samuel makes a banquet for Saul at which Saul says nothing so far as we are told. Saul is given the choice portion and eats it. The next day Samuel pours oil on Saul’s head, kisses him and pronounces these words: “The Lord herewith anoints you ruler over his own people” (10:1). Saul says nothing.
As he returns home, Saul is uprooted in still another way. He encounters a group of ecstatics and becomes swept up in the vortex of their rapture. Those who knew Saul are shocked at seeing him behave in this way. They are uncomprehending: “Is Saul too among the prophets?” they ask (10:11). By portraying Saul in this moment of numinous exaltation, the narrator tells us that Saul is a person of unusual receptivity, a psychic. The question remains, however, whether this quality will stand him in good stead as ruler of the land.
Saul’s anointing was done in secret (9:27), so, in the second literary unit in which the Bible recounts the life of Saul (10:17–26), Saul is 023publicly acclaimed king according to a procedure involving the drawing of lots. Samuel calls the people together at Mizpah (mits-PAH).a From all the tribes, Benjamin is chosen. From among the clans (or families) of Benjamin, Saul’s clan is chosen. And from among the men of this clan, Saul is chosen.
The reticence we have seen in Saul in the earlier episode continues in this literary unit: “They sought him, but he could not be found” (10:21). Once again he is the object of a quest. Finally, he is found hiding among the baggage. This hardly evokes confidence in Saul’s leadership. The people solemnly proclaim, “Long live the king!” But does he himself have faith in his ability to undertake the task. Has he really accepted his new career?
Who will prove correct—the prophet Samuel whose choice was directed by God, or the reticent herder among the baggage who seems skeptical of his own abilities? A dissident faction grouses, “How can this fellow save us?” (10:27). One wonders if God himself may not be ambivalent. True, he had directed Samuel to give the people a king like other nations, in answer to the people’s demands, but that does not alter the fact that God feels his own leadership has been rejected by his own people. “Heed the demand of the people,” God told Samuel, adding, “It is not you they have rejected; it is me they have rejected as their king” (8:7), a sentiment echoed in verses 9:17 and 10:17. Are those grousers who 024doubt Saul from the very outset serving God—or are they thwarting his will?
In the next literary unit (chapter 11), Saul gets an opportunity to prove himself. Jabesh-Gilead (yah-VESH-gil-AHD), a town in Transjordan, is threatened by the Ammonites. Everyone abandons hope. Saul, however, is seized by the spirit of God. The divine fury that overtakes him is once again evidence of his capacity as a psychic; it is sufficiently infectious to mobilize a people’s army from all the tribes to relieve Jabesh-Gilead.
Saul’s successful charismatic intervention confounds his critics. Saul’s supporters want to kill the old grousers, but the king magnanimously restrains them: “No man shall be put to death this day! For this day the Lord has brought victory to Israel” (11:13).
At a national convocation at Gilgal (gil-GAHL), led by Samuel, Saul’s kingship is reaffirmed by acclamation. Saul the king and Samuel the prophet now appear to stand shoulder to shoulder. Saul’s political-military leadership is sanctioned by Samuel the spiritual leader.
Nevertheless, Samuel delivers a speech to the nation (chapter 12)—a break in the account of Saul’s life—in which, although announcing his own retirement, he sets limits on the powers of the king. The kingship of humans, he tells the 025people, remains subordinate to the will of God. Samuel’s speech ends with some threatening words: “If you persist in your wrongdoing both you and your king shall be swept away” (12:25). Thus, the king must function within theocratic limits. The severity of Samuel’s speech and its tone raise doubts as to whether Saul will be able to function effectively within such limits. How much room does Saul actually have to maneuver?
So concludes the first section of the Books of Samuel as they relate the life of Saul. The next section contains five groups of stories. It extends from chapter 13 all the way to 2 Samuel 1, and it may aptly be titled “The Crossing Fates.” For in it we witness the downfall of Saul against the background of David’s rise to power. The narrative is actually an interaction between the two processes. As one man’s fate goes down, the other’s goes up.b
Saul’s downfall is punctuated by three severe 026blows, and all of them are dealt to him in time of war (as told in chapters 13–15, 17 and 31). First, he is rejected by the prophet Samuel. Next, he is surpassed by David, his rival and successor. Finally, he is damned by God and is killed in action while fighting the Philistines, his archenemy (although a final twist has Saul committing suicide at the last moment by falling on his own sword).
The dialectic of one person (David) being chosen and another (Saul) being rejected is the theme of the literary unit comprised of 1 Samuel 13–15, which involves Saul’s early struggles against the Philistines.
Philistine pressure provides Saul with a new test as military commander. The Philistines invade with “3,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen and troops as numerous as the sands of the seashore” 027(1 Samuel 13:5 [AT]c). The men of Israel are afraid and defect in large numbers until only 600 are left to fight alongside Saul. This reduction in Saul’s troops is a literary allusion to Judges 7, in which Gideon gradually reduced the number of his troops to fight the Midianites until only 300 men remained. With 300 men, Gideon was successful. The reduction of Saul’s troops to 600 men is a literary way of telling us that he has an opportunity to become another Gideon, to achieve victory with only a small contingent of courageous followers.
Saul withdraws his troops to the Jordan Valley, to Gilgal, the holy place where his kingship was affirmed, there to wait seven full days for Samuel’s arrival so that they can first offer sacrifices to the Lord. In this way he intends to fulfill Samuel’s instruction of 10:8 to offer sacrifice. From the viewpoint of military strategy, this is at the very least a precarious loss of time and a dubious detour to battle. Saul is nevertheless loyal to Samuel and has the courage of his faith.
But when Samuel fails to arrive by the seventh day and Saul’s men begin to scatter, Saul makes the sacrifice himself, hoping to prevail upon God to give him support in battle. Precisely at the end of the seven-day period, however, the prophet appears, just as Saul completes the sacrifice.
Samuel shows not the least understanding for Saul’s military predicament, nor does he give the king the benefit of the doubt. Instead he speaks out in condemnation of the king: “You acted foolishly! If you had kept the commandments that the Lord your God laid upon you, the Lord would have established your dynasty over Israel forever. Bur now your dynasty will not endure. The Lord will seek out a man after His own heart, and the Lord will anoint him ruler over His people, because you did not abide by what the Lord had commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:13–14 [AT]).
The people see king and prophet engaged in bitter conflict while the nation is in great danger. The narrator does not reveal whom he regards in the right, leaving it to the reader to judge the conflict, to mediate between the extreme ambiguity when the conflict is seen from different viewpoints and interests. This incident is the breaking-point in Saul’s career. From here on it is all downhill for him. The rest is an account of his disintegration.
The downfall of no one else in the Bible is portrayed at such length and so thoroughly as Saul’s. His end, however, is inevitable. Saul was insecure from the very beginning. But when Samuel, the same man who had proclaimed him to be God’s anointed, informs him that he has fallen out of God’s favor, something snaps inside Saul. It will produce the most awful effects.
In the next episode (14:1–15), Saul’s son Jonathan raids a Philistine garrison without telling his father that he is leaving for a fight The raid is successful. To everyone’s surprise, Jonathan turns the tide of battle. He, and not Saul, is the hero of the moment.
This is more than the king can bear. It seems that his own son is superseding him. Some might see in Jonathan a charismatic liberator who will prove to be a worthy successor to his father. Saul, however, sees only insubordination. Saul inflates the matter into a major conflict between father and son: Jonathan is still pursuing the Philistines; he understands that victory must be attained quickly and efficiently. Saul, on the other hand, loses himself in a series of religious rites. He imposes on his soldiers an absurd vow that they may eat only after fighting a day of battle. The exhausted soldiers suffer from hunger, and then slay animals that they eat, blood and all. This impurity must be ritually appeased at the altar (according to Saul).
Saul asks God for instructions regarding pursuit of the Philistines, but receives no reply (1 Samuel 14:37). He looks for a scapegoat, by way of sacred lots. The lots choose his son Jonathan (verse 42). Saul condemns his son to death, but the troops intervene, preventing the king from killing his son, on the specific ground that Jonathan had brought Israel victory against the Philistines.
Everything that Saul does as a ritual or religious act is either inadequate or wrong. Saul attempts to rescind God’s rejection by means of his own fanatical religious zeal, but he only manages to accentuate his God-forsaken loneliness. His inner despair is so great that he is prepared, as we have seen, to kill his own son. After a catastrophic week, Saul is estranged from everyone—from his son, from his elite corps of troops, from Samuel and from God.
Saul gets one more chance, however. Samuel charges him in the name of God to put a detested enemy, the Amalekites,d under the ban, that is, to destroy them. “Kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels 028and asses!” (1 Samuel 15:3). After winning a military victory over the Amalekites, Saul spares the Amalekite king Agag. He and his troops also spare the best of the sheep and oxen to sacrifice at Gilgal. For this, Samuel definitively rejects Saul in a short, but fierce oracle:
22“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and
sacrifices As much as in obedience to the Lord’s
Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice,
Compliance than the fat of rams.
23For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
Defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim.
Because you rejected the Lord’s command,
He has rejected you as king.”
1 Samuel 15:22–23
Saul begs Samuel for forgiveness, but the prophet is unrelenting. In desperation, Saul grabs the corner of Samuel’s robe; it tears. Samuel retorts: “The Lord has this day torn the kingship over Israel away from you and has given it to another who is worthier than you” (15:28).
Again Saul pleads for forgiveness. Samuel allows Saul to bow low to the Lord, but on the other hand finishes what he had instructed the king to do. Samuel orders the Amalekite king Agag to be brought before him, “and Samuel cut Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (15:33).
Later, the priests of Nob innocently give succor to David who will be Saul’s successor. In retaliation, Saul orders the entire town of Nob, a city of priests, to be exterminated: “He put Nob, the town of priests, to the sword: men and women, children and infants, oxen, asses, and sheep—[all] to the sword” (1 Samuel 22:19).
Note the similarity of language between this enumeration and the passage in 1 Samuel 15:3 when Samuel ordered Saul to exterminate the Amalekites (“Kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses”). The rabbis long ago saw the subtle connection between the two passages. In killing everyone in Nob, including Yahweh’s priests, Saul takes his revenge against God. Saul does to a town of Yahweh’s priests what God through Samuel had ordered Saul to do to the Amalekites.
It is not difficult to perceive in this act the depth of Saul’s, inner desperation. Whether it was his son he wanted to kill or the priests of Yahweh, Saul’s hard line is only a mask for the weakness and desperation he obviously feels.
In 1 Samuel 16:14, the narrative tells us of psychotic fits that plague the king. In the biblical world-view, these are attributed to evil spirits sent by God. In chapter 19, Saul in a kind of delirium speaks “in ecstasy”; he tears off his clothes, and lies naked all day and all night (verses 23–24). Earlier, when Samuel had secretly anointed Saul king, “the spirit of God had gripped him and Saul, speaking in ecstasy, danced down the hill with a band, of prophets” (10:9–11). The people who saw him had said to one another, “Is Saul too among the prophets?” (10:12). Now they repeat the saying with an entirely different meaning. The repetition of this line in chapter 19 gives it a Janus-face. Here we see not a God-filled Saul, but a psychotic madman seeking to avenge himself against God.
By this time, Saul has still another problem: David has emerged as a powerful rival. For while God was rejecting Saul, he was already in the process of selecting his successor, David. Already 029in chapter 16 God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint the young David as the next king.
In the same chapter, David is brought to the court—Saul of course does not know that Samuel has already anointed David—to play the lyre and soothe the troubled Saul. The truth is Saul is going mad; David, his still secret successor, serves as Saul’s therapist. David plays regularly for Saul to relieve his fits of madness. Saul becomes dependent on him—the very man who he will soon understand to be his rival for the throne. Saul is in a double bind. He is dependent on his rival; God’s trap is compounded. Saul’s inner conflict is heightened almost beyond endurance.
David comes to the nation’s attention in the next round of war with the Philistines. Their superior strength is personified in the armor-clad colossus Goliath; once again Israel trembles. Structurally, the episode of David and Goliath parallels the previous encounter with the Philistines in which Saul faced them with 600 men. Then, Saul’s charismatic son Jonathan saved the day with a successful raid on the Philistines. This time, the charismatic David with his sling and his stones saves the day. David’s heroism signals his meteoric rise as commander of the army. David ingratiates himself everywhere. A paranoid Saul regards him with envy. Conflict is inevitable. Prompted by jealousy and madness, Saul reaches several times for his spear, but never succeeds in pinning David to the wall. To Saul, the rejected king, it must appear that nothing can harm this man David. The contrapuntal themes of rejection and chosenness guide the narrative on its inevitable course.
Jonathan, the hero of the first round with the Philistines, instead of considering David to be a rival, opens his heart to him and bestows his weaponry on him, as well as his cloak and tunic (1 Samuel 18:4). The symbolic significance is obvious; Jonathan is in effect bestowing on David his own claim to the throne. Henceforth, Jonathan recognizes David as Saul’s rightful successor.
Saul envies the relationship between David and Jonathan and tries to force Jonathan to choose between him and David (20:30–34). He orders his son to bring David before him to kill him. Jonathan refuses: “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” (verse 32). Saul throws a spear at his son Jonathan, just as Saul had previously done to David. However, he misses, and Jonathan warns David to escape.
Strangely enough, love plays a powerful role in this drama. It is love that dominates the relationship between David and Jonathan. Although the text itself is not explicit as to David’s love for Jonathan, it is surely implicit (1 Samuel 20:41 and 2 Samuel 1:26). David, on the other hand, was loved by all (1 Samuel 18:16). And the first to be mentioned in this respect—is none other than Saul himself (16:21)!
The relationship between Saul and David is by no means simple. Saul’s animosity toward David is especially evident when David is absent: Then Saul often appears as the pursuer and David the pursued. Saul broods, makes plans to kill David, feels abandoned by all and thinks he hates David. But when he sees David for the last time, one gets a different feeling. David sneaks into Saul’s camp while he sleeps and removes the spear and water jug at Saul’s head, refusing to kill the Lord’s anointed, although he could easily have done so (1 Samuel 26). When Saul awakes and sees what has happened, Saul takes a different tack. 030Confronted with David’s integrity, Saul’s better self emerges. He twice explicitly admits that David is in the right and not himself, and even concedes that David is the rightful king.e
If you listen carefully to this conversation between the doomed and the chosen you will, I believe, hear intonations of sincere mutual warmth and affection—and that despite the humiliating situation for Saul. Thus, the relationship between Saul and David ends on a positive note after all. Moreover, with Saul’s death at the battle of Gilboa, the narrator grants Saul a worthy departure. David loyally commemorates Saul with an unforgettable elegy that has a eulogy, here marked by indentation, in the center:
19“Your glory, O Israel,
Lies slain on your heights;
How have the mighty fallen!
20Tell it not in Gath,
Do not proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon,
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult.
21“O hills of Gilboa,
Let there be no dew,
Nor rain on you, high fields!
For there the shield of warriors lies tarnished,
The shield of Saul,
Polished with oil no more.
22“Without the blood of slain,
Without the fat of warriors
The bow of Jonathan
Never turned back;
The sword of Saul
Never withdrew empty.
23“Saul and Jonathan,
Beloved and cherished,
In life or in death!
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions!
24“Daughters of Israel,
Weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in crimson and finery,
Who decked your robes with jewels of gold.
25How have the mighty fallen
In the thick of battle!
“Jonathan lies slain on your heights!
26I grieve for you, my brother,
Jonathan, you were most dear to me.
Your love was wonderful to me
More than the love of women.
27How have the mighty fallen,
The weapons of war perished!”
2 Samuel 1:19–27 (AT)f
That Saul’s rejection is announced so early in the narrative raises the question as to why the process of deterioration is allotted so much space in the text. The answer is that Saul, through all his vicissitudes, constantly resists his fate with all his strength. We can interpret this negatively as an improper assertion of power and stubborn defiance of God, the ultimate source of Saul’s mandate. But we can also see Saul’s struggle in a more positive light. Here is a man who does not easily admit defeat. Surely he is entitled to ask himself just what it is that he has done wrong at the time of the early conflicts with Samuel, for it is by no means obvious. What compelled Samuel to be so severe? We can easily regard Samuel as someone who rants and raves against Saul because of the conflict in his own heart between his feelings of affection for Saul and his oft-expressed aversion toward the institution of the monarchy.
Saul is innocently caught in the inner conflict of an ambiguous prophet (Samuel), who appears, on one hand, to accede to the pressing demand of the people for a new form of government, a monarchy, but who in his heart resists. For this, Saul must pay dearly. He is in effect a plaything of forces beyond his control—the demand of the people for a king and the theocratic party’s natural resistance to this rejection of its own ruling authority. Ultimately, Saul is a victim of the theocratic faction’s revenge.
Even Saul’s vindictiveness toward David can be 031understood on two levels. On one level, Saul must be charged with responsibility for his own deeds. But on another level—when we see actions from the perspective of Providence—the part Saul plays may carry less moral weight. What Saul does is less an indication of his inherent wickedness than a sign of doom (or perhaps the consequences of his being rejected by God). From this perspective, it is really the “evil spirit of God” (16:14) that is responsible for what Saul does. Seen in this light, Saul emerges as little more than a pawn in an unrelenting scenario.
In any event, the narrator allows Saul to speak in such a way that we develop considerable sympathy for him. Moreover, the narrator also grants Saul a fitting end.
The closing group of stories is contained in 1 Samuel 27–31 and 2 Samuel 1, comprising six narrative units, as well as the dirge of David that concludes the whole section, which we have already quoted. The order of the narratives and the way they are handled has much to tell us.
Of the six narratives, four concern David and two concern Saul. The two concerning Saul depict the last 24 hours of his life. The first (chapter 28) portrays Saul’s last night with the necromancer of En-Dor (see the painting of Saul and the Witch of Endor); the second (chapter 31) describes Saul’s last day (at the battle of Gilboa). But these two episodes are embedded in four narratives concerning David. Together the six narratives reflect a structural relationship that reinforces the content—the crossed fates of Saul and David: As Saul descends, David rises.
Of the four narratives concerning David, two describe his relations with the Philistines (chapters 27 and 29) and two concern his confrontation with the Amalekites (chapter 30 and chapter 1 of 2 Samuel). Notice that the narrative about David and the Philistines is interrupted by the description of Saul’s last night (chapter 28) and the narrative about David’s bouts with the Amalekites is interrupted by Saul’s last day (chapter 31). While Saul is operating in the north (in the area of Mt. Gilboa), David is operating in the southwest (in Philistine territory).
All this can be diagrammed as follows:
In chapter 27 David and his entourage join the Philistines to avoid perishing at the hand of Saul. David becomes a vassal of Achish, the Philistine king of Gat, but manages to pull the wool over the eyes of his gullible liege concerning his true loyalty, which is to Israel.
Chapter 28 is largely taken up with Saul’s encounter with the necromancer of En-Dor.
In chapter 29 we see the Philistines arrayed for their final battle against Saul. David is with the Philistine army in their march past Aphek. The chapter is concerned with how David is relieved of his duty to fight alongside the Philistines: The Philistine generals do not trust him, so he is sent back to Philistia (to Ziklag where he resides), while the Philistine army proceeds to Mt. Gilboa.
Back in Ziklag, David finds that the Amalekites have burned his city and taken the women captive. Chapter 30 is the story of David’s defeat of the Amalekites and the recovery of the Israelite women. Some days later, word reaches David of Saul’s death during the battle against the Philistines at Mt. Gilboa.
The night before Saul’s final military confrontation with the Philistines, his adversaries encamp at Shunem (1 Samuel 28:4). “When Saul saw the Philistine force, his heart trembled with fear” (28:5). Unable to obtain counsel from the Lord, the terrified Saul in desperation seeks guidance from the banned necromancer, the woman in En-Dor. Samuel, who has now died, is conjured up. Saul bows to Samuel and asks for help. Samuel’s response is stern and laconic. It leaves no room for misinterpretation; it is unrelenting damnation: “Why do you ask me, seeing that the Lord has turned away from you and has become your adversary. Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me; and the Lord will also deliver the Israelite forces into the hands of the Philistines” (28:16, 19).
In his heart, Saul cannot be surprised. Both literally and figuratively he is floored. After Samuel first anointed Saul, he had experienced ecstasy among a band of prophets and the people had asked, “Is Saul too among the prophets?” What a contrast to the eerie experience he now has at the psychic of En-Dor’s. When Saul was chosen king before the people at Mizpah (chapter 10), Saul was “a head taller than all the people” (10:23). Trembling and totally shattered, Saul now lies on the ground before the woman of En-Dor, in his full length—the same length that was once the sign of his having been chosen—but this time floored. Everything has completely overturned.
Having fasted all day before his seance in En- Dor, Saul is finally prevailed upon to eat some food. In this condition, he will face the next morning’s battle with his deadly enemy. Now, however, during his last night, Saul is shattered; 032all resistance to his fate flows out of him. He is preparing to return to the earth. That he receives food from a necromancer is also significant; it is here that he finds support and sustenance; mangled between mortal fear and the deepest longing for support, Saul receives a completely different assistance than he could have imagined. Without realizing it, Saul begins to accept his fate. That too is expressed in his lying prostrate before the woman of En-Dor.
The rest of the story is well known (1 Samuel 31). Saul’s three sons are killed the next day in the fighting on Mt. Gilboa. Saul himself is closed in by Philistine archers. He asks his armor-bearer to run him through with his sword, lest he be taken by the Philistines. The armor-bearer refuses, however, whereupon Saul takes the sword and falls upon it.
The following day the Philistines find the bodies of Saul and his sons. They strip his body of his armor, behead him and hang his body and the bodies of his sons on the wall of Beth-Shean. The narrator betrays his sympathy for the hero Saul by devoting a poignant paragraph to the loyalty of the men of Jabesh (31:11–13). The men of Jabesh, the city that was relieved by Saul in his first military exploit, remove the bodies of Saul and his sons, purify them by fire and bury their bones.
As we have seen, the dramatic story of Saul’s end is remarkably interrupted in the biblical account. Saul’s visit to the woman of En-Dor is told in chapter 28; his battle the next day with the Philistines is not told until chapter 31. In between comes the story of David’s successful war with the Amalekites. As Saul goes down, David rises. But there is more. By interrupting the story of Saul’s death—between the night visit to En-Dor and his last battle—the Bible places David’s victory over the Amalekites on the very day of Saul’s defeat by the Philistines. Here is the hidden link between what happens to David and what happens to Saul. This implicit connection has extraordinary significance. It is the temporal expression of the intimate and inextricable relationship between Saul’s rejection and David’s being chosen.
We are now in a position to regroup and condense the two triangles diagrammed above into a double square of oppositions. But first, we must clarify one detail. The chief point of chapter 28 is a long speech by Samuel addressed to Saul in which he tells the king that God’s judgment is now irrevocable. In the middle of the speech Samuel explicitly refers back to Saul’s condemnation in chapter 15 after the battle against the Amalekites, when Saul failed to kill the Amalekite king. This produces the following configuration:
This double square—one of individuals, the other of communities in conflict—reveals the subject matter and the systematic order that underpins the composition. Once again, we see how much the downfall of Saul presupposes the rise of David and vice versa. The nation with which David now deals successfully (the Amalekites) is none other than the nation against which Saul has incurred his definitive rejection. We have already seen how (in chapter 30) David defeats the Amalekites who burned Ziklag. In 2 Samuel 1, he has another confrontation with an Amalekite: The messenger who brings him the news of Saul’s death is an Amalekite, whom David kills. In chapter 30, David defeats the Amalekites as a community; in 2 Samuel 1, David has an individual Amalekite executed. Ironically, it was the Amalekites who “defeated” Saul when he failed to follow the divine instruction to kill them after their defeat, at his hands (chapter 15). For Saul, the Amalekites represent a defeat; for David, they are a victory.
Another irony: Saul is killed by the Philistines, the same people with whom David found protection at Ziklag.
The result of placing Saul’s last night in chapter 28 and separating it from Saul’s last day in chapter 31 is that David’s victory over the Amalekites in chapter 30 is adjacent to Saul’s death in the battle with the Philistines in chapter 31. David’s victory and Saul’s defeat thus occur on the same day. They are adjacent in the recorded history because their deepest significance holds them together.
In the end, cornered by the Philistine archers, Saul takes his own life. Saul kills Saul. Saul is not only the object but also the subject. He has taken into his own hands the initiative to meet his end and in so doing has accepted his fate in an exceptional way. He has embraced his doom by executing the divine judgment himself, with his own sword. The choice, carried out in horrifying desolation, is his. The long road—inextricably intertwining his own fallibility with God’s harsh judgments against him—is over. Israel’s first king, a truly tragic hero, is dead.
20 In ancient times history-writing and storytelling were two faces of the same coin. The reporting of facts was inseparable from their interpretation and from the utilization of narrative art to tell and interpret the facts. In what follows, I want to understand Israel’s first king, Saul, by what the biblical narrator tells us through his narrative art and the structure of his story. His text, which has come down to us in 1 Samuel, is a piece of verbal art that presents Saul as a tragic hero. I suggest that we should listen to and respect its literary […]