I read recently that the story of Saul in I Samuel may be the oldest piece of literature about a mental collapse in the history of the world. If so, I want to contend that the world has yet to top it. Saul is an absolutely fascinating character whose entire life is characterized by brash and foolhardy attempts to cover up his insecurity and weakness. This is not to say that Saul does not have glorious moments. He does. He is filled with God’s Spirit and prophesies with the prophets. He is empowered by the Spirit and defeats his enemies like the judges. However, like Samson and Barak before him, he is defined by his weaknesses rather than his strengths. Weaknesses (in character) in Scripture is generally associated with sin, and Saul’s great sin is presumption. That flaw will play a pivotal role in both his rise and fall.
The story of Saul begins with a hunt for lost donkeys. The writer of I Samuel brings together a handsome young Benjaminite and the last judge of Israel. Samuel anoints Saul as king (and tells him where the donkeys are), and the Spirit comes upon Saul. However, at his coronation, Saul is found hiding behind the luggage instead of taking his rightful place as king. The three kings of united Israel all have a rise and fall, but Saul’s is the only rise that is tainted by weakness from the beginning. Still it is a rise to power, and he does get a few things right. Like most ancient rulers, he gains his real power on the battlefield. When the city of Jabesh-Gilead is besieged, Saul’s anger is kindled, and he raises an army of to save the city. His means of raising the army are somewhat suspicious though. He chops up an ox and says that the oxen of anyone who refuses to fight with him will also be chopped up. Threats and rash proclamations are going to be part of the story for a while, so you should get used to this kind of thing from Saul. After his defeat of the Ammonites, Saul’s political opponents back off and he shows mercy to them. This is the high point of his career, and it doesn’t last very long.
Chapter 13 opens with a descriptions of Saul’s age and the length of his reign. Unfortunately we don’t know what the numbers are there. I like the honesty the ESV translators showed here when they rendered it as, “Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign, and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.” Then we get a description of Saul’s battles with the . Jonathan is introduced here as well, and that’s good because after a host of good guys with bad sons (faithful readers will remember that our host here at the opinions commented on this last time) it’s about time we had a bad dad with a good boy. Anyway, the Philistines have a fairly massive army, and so Saul’s forces are deserting him and returning to their homes. (This was a big problem in ancient warfare. Large standing armies of professional soldiers were a rarity in the ancient world. Most soldiers were farmers or tradesmen called on to leave their homes for a particular battle or series of battles and who were anxious to return to their crops and families. Saul is no fool and he sees what’s about to happen. He needs to start the battle ASAP, but he knows that he can’t do that without making sure that God is there to help him. Sacrifices before battles were typical practice in the ancient world, and Israel is no exception. The problem is that Samuel has not arrived yet. Now if Saul were a good student of history and a faithful man, he might remember the story of Gideon and how God had purposely limited Gideon’s forces in order that He might have the glory. He might see the desertion of the faint-hearted as a way for God’s victory to be even more glorious. Instead, he decides that he can’t wait for Samuel any longer and presumptuously offers the sacrifice himself. Just as he’s finishing, up strolls Samuel. Saul goes out to greet him. It’s possible to read this greeting scene in such a way that Saul is genuinely surprised that Samuel is upset about the sacrifice, but I don’t think that’s probably right. I figure it’s more like when I would feign excitement about my parents coming home as the first step in deceiving them about something bad that I had done while they were away. When Samuel criticizes him, Saul begins making excuses (another typical pattern of behavior in the story), but Samuel doesn’t listen. He simply tells Saul that God is going to remove the kingdom from him and give it to another man, a man whose heart is like God’s heart and who will be fit to rule. Still Saul doesn’t repent and show true contrition.
Ellen will hopefully cover the story of Jonathan’s defeat of the Philistines, but I wanted to point out how Saul’s rash vow about nobody eating anything until the battle was over fits into our pattern. Like the cut-up ox from the first battle, Saul’s vow is a threat to those who refuse to fight with him. However, his forced fasting weakens his army so that they are not able to gain as great a victory as he intended. Rather than take responsibility for this, Saul accuses the army of breaking the vow and plans to kill the guilty party. When it turns out that Jonathan, the hero of the day, ate some honey without even being aware of his father’s stupid order, Saul orders his death. Of course, the army will not hear of this since Jonathan has just brought them a great victory. Saul caves to the will of the people (weakness again, but blessed weakness in this case), and Jonathan is spared.
The second great act of presumption comes when Saul doesn’t kill all of the . Samuel gets really steamed at him in this scene and you get that great line about how obedience is better than sacrifice. You also get to see Samuel finally do what judges do best, namely, horrific acts of violence, when he hacks Agag up into little pieces. The conversation between Saul and Samuel in this scene is the perfect insight into Saul’s character. First, he acts presumptuously based on earthly motives. He doesn’t kill the best of the livestock or destroy the valuables because he wants to enrich himself and his people. He doesn’t kill King Agag either. Probably this was a sort of self-preservationist policy. Kings have always been sort of reluctant about killing other kings. It puts ideas in peoples’ minds and undermines the whole concept of a divinely-appointed monarch. Thus when Samuel gives Agag the ole’ choppy chop he is not only passing judgment on God’s enemies, but he is saying something about the whole concept of the monarchy as well. Second, when confronted by Samuel Saul makes excuses and attempts to avoid responsibility. Notice his line of excuses from the text:
· The people did it, not me, and we were going to use it all for sacrifice
· Okay, I did it, but the people made me.
· Attempt to control the situation by force (grabs Samuel’s coat)
· Okay I sinned so I’m rejected, but don’t let me be humiliated before the people.
Saul is entirely self-serving in this scene. Samuel and God are seen as useful political allies, but little else. Samuel sees through all of the talk about sacrifice and worship and rejects Saul. This is going to be a nice point of comparison with David when we get to the whole Bathsheba thing. The author is purposely showing us that David was everything that Saul was not. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the story.
So David’s rise begins here, and you all read about Goliath and all of that already, so I’ll skip and focus on what’s happening with Saul. He’s jealous and threatened by this new rival, and so he pulls a Don Corleone move and tries to keep his enemies closer than his friends. Fairly quickly in the story, Saul recognizes that David is the one who is going to take his throne, and he behaves exactly as we would expect him to at this point. David becomes the new Samuel figure in the story. He is the one who confronts Saul when he sins, and Saul tries to manipulate, exploit, and eventually kill him. Of course this is all for naught since God is on David’s side, but Saul has never much cared about God’s will anyway, so he just keeps trying.
So Saul is sort of at war with David from here on, and there’s a big act of presumption in this period that I want to make note of. Samuel is dead at this point (I know, it’s really sad.), but Saul continues to try to control both God and the prophet. He goes to see the (not the forest moon filled with Ewoks mind you), and he asks her to call up Samuel’s ghost. Now that’s a big “no. no.” and Saul knows it. After all, he had passed a law saying that anybody who practiced necromancy would be killed. Nevertheless, he gets this woman to do it for him and then stays at her house and eats her food. Thus he defiles himself with one of the most heinous sins in Israel. Necromancy is so bad because it puts human beings in a position of power over the dead, and that’s something that Scripture really thinks belongs in the hand of God. Whether you believe in sorcery or witchcraft or not, in the story it’s another example of Saul replacing God’s will with his own will.
Now David has made sort of a huge thing about not killing Saul because Saul is God’s anointed. This may be political maneuvering on David’s part similar to what I said about Saul and Agag earlier. Regardless though, David has made an ethical and theological claim about killing the king. He’s agin’ it. Not because he loves Saul, though he does. Not because he loves Jonathan, though he does. It’s because he loves and respects God. David knows that to kill God’s anointed king is an act of presumptuous rebellion, and so he refuses to do it, even when he has the chance. When Saul’s forces are defeated at , and the king is injured with an arrow, even Saul’s armor-bearer knows better than to lay a hand on him. (There are some interesting things we could say about euthanasia here, but I won’t indulge myself since this is already so long.) So who do we have left that is presumptuous enough to raise his hand against God’s anointed? You guessed it folks, Saul himself. Even his suicide is an act of presumptuous rebellion against God.
I guess the take away from all of this is that we shouldn’t seek to impose our will in the place of God’s will. That’s the sin from the garden, it’s the sin of Cain, and it’s certainly the sin of Saul. Instead we ought to look to see what someone with God’s heart does. For that, imaginary readers, you’ll have to wait to see what Ellen has to say about David.
If a guest blogger is going to lay that kind of pressure on me, perhaps I should think twice before inviting CST1BF (or anyone else) to do a post. Just when I stumbled upon the perfect lazy girl's solution to having a blog without actually blogging, I get that sort of challenge. I'm almost finished with another week of David, so I'll see what I can manage for your edification, friends.
In the meantime, thanks to Mac for a great post on Saul. Though you said in a comment last post that David is the deepest character from the OT (and I agree), I've really enjoyed the time spent with Saul's character during this reading. So many lessons to learn.
And if you too would like to become a guest blogger here at the opinions, send two character references and a 250 word writing sample my way. If you're not up to my usual standard of excellence, I may still let you in with a small bribe. I'm still trying to find the perfect way to make this blog pay me. This could be it.