aul (Hebrew: שָׁאוּל, Modern Sha'ul Tiberian Šāʼûl ; "asked for"; Arabic: طالوت, Ṭālūt; Greek: Σαούλ Saoul; Latin: Saul) (1079 - 1007 BC) was the first king of the united Kingdom of Israel (reigned 1047 - 1007 BC) according to the Hebrew Bible. He was anointed by the prophet Samuel and reigned from Gibeah. He was killed in battle against Philistines at Mount Gilboa, during which three of his sons were also killed. The succession to his throne was contested by Ish-bosheth, his only surviving son, and David, who eventually prevailed.
The main account of Saul's life and reign is found in the Books of Samuel.
The Biblical account
House of Saul
According to the Tanakh, Saul was the son of Kish, of the family of the Matrites, and a member of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the twelve Tribes of Israel. (1 Samuel 9:1-2; 10:21; 14:51; Acts 13:21) It appears that he came from Gibeah.
David and Saul (1885) by Julius Kronberg.
Saul married Ahinoam, daughter of Ahimaaz. They had four sons and two daughters. The sons were Jonathan, Abinadab, Malchishua and Ish-bosheth. Their daughters were named Merab and Michal.
Saul also had a concubine named Rizpah, daughter of Aiah, who bore him two sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth. (2 Samuel 21:8)
Saul offered Merab to David as a wife after his victory over Goliath, but David does not seem to have been interested in the arrangement. (1 Samuel 18:17-19) Saul then gave his other daughter Michal in marriage to David, (1 Samuel 18:20-27) but when David became Saul's rival to the kingship, Saul gave Michal in marriage to Palti, son of Laish. (1 Samuel 25:44)
Saul was slain at the Battle of Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:3-6; 1 Chronicles 10:3-6), and was buried in Zelah, in the region of Benjamin in modern-day Israel. (2 Samuel 21:14) When Saul first became king, he followed Samuel's bidding. Eventually, as Saul disobeyed God, God told Samuel to anoint a new king.
Three of Saul's sons – Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchishua – died with him at Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:2; 1 Chronicles 10:2). Ish-bosheth became king of Israel, at the age of forty. (2 Samuel 2:10) Michal was returned as wife to David.
Ish-bosheth reigned for two years and was killed by two of his own captains. (2 Samuel 4:5) The only male descendant of Saul to survive was Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son, (2 Samuel 4:4) who had been five when his father and grandfather Saul had died in battle. In time, he came under the protection of David. (2 Samuel 9:7-13) Mephibosheth had a young son, Micah, (2 Samuel 9:12) of whom nothing more heard.
Armoni and Mephibosheth (Saul's sons with his concubine, Rizpah) were given by David along with the five sons of Merab (Saul's daughter) to the Gibeonites, who killed them. (2 Samuel 21:8-9) Michal was childless. (2 Samuel 6:23
Anointed as king
"Death of King Saul", 1848 by Elie Marcuse (Germany and France, 1817-1902)
Samuel, the Judge, had sons who were dishonest and not trustworthy of the faith. The leaders of the Israelites feared that it would be disastrous if his sons were to be judge over them and requested that Samuel give them a king. God warns that if he appoints a king over them, they will suffer from the dealings of the king. Saul, a young Israelite, was commanded by his father, Kish, to go and locate their lost donkeys. Saul obeys and Samuel sees him walking toward him. God reveals to Samuel that Saul will be the one to be anointed as the "first" King of Israel. Peter J. Leithart observes:
Saul, the first king, begins as an ideal choice to lead and judge Israel ..... Saul cares for his father's animals (as did Joseph and Moses, and as David will), and he is a dutiful son ..... Saul is a handsome man and a head taller than any Israelite (1 Samuel 9:2)
In the Books of Samuel, Saul is not referred to as a king (melech), but rather as a "leader" or "commander" (nagid) (1 Samuel 9:16; 1 Samuel 10:1). However (possibly representing an opposing literary strain), Saul is said to be made a "king" (melech) at Gilgal (1 Samuel 11:15). Even David, before he was anointed king, was referred to only as a future nagid, or military commander (1 Samuel 13:14).
The people generally used the term "king," because their desire was to be like the other nations (1 Samuel 8:5; 10:19). This may be indicative of the difference between what a certain faction of the people wanted, and a definite reluctance of certain leaders (e.g., the prophet Samuel) to break from the old tribal order: viz., an attempt to satisfy everyone without creating a riot. But Saul was finally crowned as "king" (melech) in Gilgal. (1 Samuel 11:14-12:2)
The Books of Samuel give three events in Saul's rise to the throne:
* (1 Samuel 9:1-10:16) Saul was sent with a servant to look for his father's donkeys, who had strayed; leaving his home at Gibeah, they eventually wander to the district of Zuph, at which point Saul suggests abandoning their search. Saul's servant however, remarks that they happened to be near the town of Ramah, where a famous seer was located, and suggested that they should consult him first. The seer (later identified by the text as Samuel), having previously had a vision instructing him to do so, offers hospitality to Saul when he enters Ramah, and later anoints him in private.
* (1 Samuel 10:17-24 and 12:1-5) Desiring to be like other nations, there was a popular movement to establish a centralised monarchy. Samuel therefore assembled the people at Mizpah in Benjamin, and despite having strong reservations, which he made no attempt to hide, allows the appointment of a king. Samuel uses cleromancy to determine who it was that God desired to be the king, whittling the assembly down into ever smaller groups until Saul is finally identified. Saul, hiding in baggage, is then publicly affirmed.
* (1 Samuel 11:1-11 and 11:15) The Ammonites, led by Nahash, lay siege to Jabesh-Gilead, who are forced to surrender. Under the terms of surrender, the occupants of the city would be forced into slavery, and have their right eyes removed as a sign of this. The city's occupants send out word of this to the other tribes of Israel, and the tribes west of the Jordan assemble an army under the leadership of Saul. Saul leads the army to victory against the Ammonites, and, in both gratitude and appreciation of military skill, the people congregate at Gilgal, and acclaim Saul as king.
Saul and the Witch of Endor by Gustave Dore.
According to 1 Samuel 10:8, Samuel had told Saul to wait for seven days after which they would meet; Samuel giving Saul further instructions. But as Samuel did not arrive after 7 days (1 Samuel 13:8) and with the Israelites growing restless, Saul started preparing for battle by offering sacrifices. Samuel arrived just as Saul finished offering his sacrifices and reprimanded Saul for not obeying his instructions. As a result of not keeping God's instructions, God took away Saul's kingship (1 Samuel 13:14).
After the battle with the Philistines was over, the text describes Samuel as having instructed Saul to kill all the Amalekites, which was in accordance with the mitzvah to do so. Having forewarned the Kenites who were living among the Amalekites to leave, Saul went to war and defeated the Amalekites. Saul killed all the babies, women, children, poor quality livestock and men, and left alive the king and best livestock.
When Samuel found out that Saul had not killed them all, he became angry and launched into a long and bitter diatribe about how God regretted making Saul king, because Saul was disobedient. When Samuel turned away, Saul grabbed Samuel by his clothes and tore a small piece off them, which Samuel states is a prophecy about what will happen to Saul's kingdom. Samuel then commands that the Amalekite king (who, like all other Amalekite kings in the Hebrew Bible, is named Agag) should be brought forth. Samuel proceeds to kill the Amalekite himself and makes a final departure.
Saul and David
Assyrian warriors armed with slings from the palace of Sennacherib, 7th century BC
It is at this point that David, a son of Jesse, from the tribe of Judah, enters the story. According to the narrative:
* (1 Samuel 16:1-13) Samuel is surreptitiously sent by God to Jesse. While offering a sacrifice in the vicinity, Samuel includes Jesse among the invited guests. Dining together, Jesse's sons are brought one by one to Samuel, each time being rejected by him, speaking for God; running out of sons, Jesse sends for David, the youngest, who was tending sheep. When brought to Samuel, David is anointed by him in front of his other brothers.
* (1 Samuel 16:14-23) Saul is troubled by an evil spirit sent by God (some translations euphemistically just describe God not preventing an evil spirit from troubling Saul). Saul requests soothing music, and a servant recommends David the son of Jesse, who is renowned as a skillful harpist and soldier. When word of Saul's needs reach Jesse, he sends David, who had been looking after a flock, and David is appointed as Saul's armor bearer. David remains at court playing the harp as needed by Saul to calm his moods.
* (1 Samuel 17:1-18:5) The Philistines return with an army to attack Israel, but, having amassed on a hillside opposite to the Israelite forces, suggest that to save effort and lives on both sides, it would be better to have a proxy combat between their champion, a Rephaim from Gath named Goliath, and someone of Saul's choosing. David, a young shepherd boy, happens to be delivering food to his three eldest brothers, who are in the Israelite army, at the time that the challenge is made. David, who is faithful of God's power to defeat his enemies, talks to the nearby soldiers mocking the Philistines, but is reprimanded by his brothers for doing so. David's speech is overheard and reported to Saul, who summons David and on hearing David's views decides to fit him out with his (Saul's) own armour. Saul then appoints David as his champion, and David defeats Goliath with a single shot from a sling, which hits him in between the eyes. Goliath falls forward and David uses his sword to decapitate Goliath.
Saul's love of glory
"Saul Throws Spear at David" by George Tinworth
In the text, Saul's son, Jonathan, and David become close friends and eventually David becomes Jonathan's brother-in-law by Michal. Jonathan recognises David as the rightful king, and 1 Samuel 18 states "Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul." Jonathan even gives David his military clothes, symbolizing David's position as successor to Saul.
God makes David successful wherever Saul sends him. Therefore Saul sets David in charge of the army. After David returns from battle, the women heap praise upon him and refer to him as a greater military hero than Saul, driving Saul to jealousy, fearing that David constituted a rival to the throne. And said that he loved him very much...
Another day, while David is playing the harp, Saul, possessed by an evil spirit, throws a spear at him but misses on two occasions. Saul resolves to remove David from the court and appoints him an officer, but David becomes increasingly successful, making Saul more resentful of him. In return for being his champion, Saul offers to marry his daughter, Merob, to David, but David turns the offer down claiming to be too humble, and Merob is married to another man instead. Another daughter, Michal, falls in love with David, so Saul repeats the offer to David with Michal, but again David turns it down claiming to be too poor; Saul persuades David that the bride price would only be 100 foreskins from the Philistines, hoping that David would be killed trying to achieve this. David obtains 200 foreskins and is consequently married to Michal.
The narrative continues as Saul plots against David, but Jonathan dissuades Saul from this course of action, and tells David of it. Saul then tries to have David killed during the night, but Michal helps him escape and tricks his pursuers by using a household idol to make it seem that David is still in bed. David flees to Jonathan, who wasn't living near Saul. Jonathan agrees to return to Saul and discover his ultimate intent. While dining with Saul, Jonathan pretends that David has been called away to his brothers, but Saul sees through this and castigates Jonathan for being the companion of David, and it becomes clear that Saul wants David dead. The next day, Jonathan meets with David and tells him Saul's intent, and the two friends say their goodbyes, as David flees into the country. Saul later marries Michal to another man instead of David.
Saul is later informed by his head shepherd, an Edomite named Doeg, that Ahimelech assisted David. A henchman is sought to kill Ahimelech and the other priests of Nob. None of Saul's henchmen are willing to do this, so Doeg offers to do it instead, killing 85 priests. Saul also kills every man, woman and child living in Nob.
David had already left Nob by this point and had amassed about 400 disaffected men including a group of outlaws. With these men David launches an attack on the Philistines at Keilahhe. Saul realises he could trap David and his men inside the city and besiege it. However, David hears about this, and having received divine counsel (via the Ephod), finds that the citizens of Keilah would betray him to Saul. He decides to leave and flees to Ziph. Saul discovers this and pursues David on two occasions:
* Some of the inhabitants of Ziph betray David's location to Saul, but David hears about it and flees with his men to Maon. Saul follows David, but while Saul travels along one side of the gorge, David travels along the other, and Saul is forced to break off pursuit when the Philistines invade. This is supposedly how the place became known as the gorge of divisions. David hides in the caves at Engedi and after fighting the Philistines, Saul returns to Engedi to attack him. Saul eventually enters the cave in which David had been hiding, but as David is in the darkest recesses Saul doesn't spot him. David swipes at Saul and cuts off part of his garment, but restrains himself and his associates from going further due to a taboo against killing an anointed king. David then leaves the cave, revealing himself to Saul, and gives a speech that persuades Saul to reconcile.
* On the second occasion Saul returns to Ziph with his men. When David hears of this he sneaks into Saul's camp by night, and thrusts his spear into the ground near where Saul is sleeping. David prevents his associates from killing Saul because of a taboo against killing an anointed king, and merely steals Saul's spear and water jug. The next day, David stands at the top of a slope opposite to Saul's camp, and shouts that he had been in Saul's camp the previous night (using the spear and jug as proof). David then gives a speech that persuades Saul to reconcile with David, and the two make an oath not to harm one another.
Saul is among the prophets
The phrase Saul is among the prophets, is mentioned by the text in a way that suggests it was a proverb in later Israelite culture. Two accounts of its origin are given:
* (1 Samuel 10:11 etc.) Having been anointed by Samuel, Saul is told of signs he will receive to know that he has been divinely appointed. The last of these signs is that Saul will be met by an ecstatic group of prophets leaving a high place and playing music on lyre, tambourine, and flutes. The signs come true (though the text skips the first two, suggesting that a portion of the text has been lost, or edited out for some reason), and Saul joins the ecstatic prophets, hence the phrase.
* (1 Samuel 19:24 etc.) Saul sends men to pursue David, but when they meet a group of ecstatic prophets playing music on lyre, tambourine, and flute, they become possessed by a prophetic state and join in. Saul sends more men, but they too join the prophets. Eventually Saul himself goes, and also joins the prophets, hence the phrase.
Battle of Gilboa and the death of Saul
The Battle of Gilboa, by Jean Fouquet, the protagonists depicted anachronistically with 15th Century armour
Despite the oath(s) of reconciliation, the biblical text states that David felt insecure, and so made an alliance with the Philistines, becoming their vassal. Emboldened by this, the Philistines prepared to attack Israel, and Saul led out his army to face them at Mount Gilboa, but before the battle decided to secretly consult the witch of Endor for advice. The witch, unaware of who he is, reminds Saul that the king (i.e. Saul himself) had made witchery a capital offence, but after being assured that Saul wouldn't harm her, the witch conjures up the ghost of Samuel. Samuel's ghost tells Saul that he would lose the battle and his life.
Broken in spirit, Saul returns to face the enemy, and the Israelites are duly defeated. To escape the ignominy of capture, Saul asks his armour bearer to kill him, but is forced to commit suicide by falling on his sword when the armour bearer refuses. An Amalekite then claims to have killed Saul, and the Amalekite tells David. Infuriated, David orders the Amalekite to be put to death as punishment for killing the God's anointed, despite Saul's earlier assassination attempt against him. (2 Samuel 1:1-16) The body of Saul, with those of his sons, were fastened to the wall of Beth-shan, and his armor was hung up in the house of Ashtaroth (an Ascalonian temple of the Canaanites). The inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead (the scene of Saul's first victory) rescue the bodies and take them to Jabesh-gilead, where they burn their flesh and bury the bones (Sam.I 31,13).
Classical Rabbinical views
Two opposing views of Saul are found in classical rabbinical literature. One is based on the reverse logic that punishment is a proof of guilt, and therefore seeks to rob Saul of any halo which might surround him; typically this view is similar to the republican source. The passage referring to Saul as a choice young man, and goodly (1 Samuel 9:2) is in this view interpreted as meaning that Saul was not good in every respect, but goodly only with respect to his personal appearance (Num. Rashi 9:28). According to this view, Saul is only a weak branch (Gen. Rashi 25:3), owing his kingship not to his own merits, but rather to his grandfather, who had been accustomed to light the streets for those who went to the bet ha-midrash, and had received as his reward the promise that one of his grandsons should sit upon the throne (Lev. Rashi 9:2).
The second view of Saul makes him appear in the most favourable light as man, as hero, and as king. This view is similar to that of the monarchical source. In this view it was on account of his modesty that he did not reveal the fact that he had been anointed king (1 Samuel 10:16; Meg. 13b); and he was extraordinarily upright as well as perfectly just. Nor was there any one more pious than he (M. Q. 16b; Ex. Rashi 30:12); for when he ascended the throne he was as pure as a child, and had never committed sin (Yoma 22b). He was marvelously handsome; and the maidens who told him concerning Samuel (cf 1 Samuel 9:11-13) talked so long with him that they might observe his beauty the more (Ber. 48b). In war he was able to march 120 miles without rest. When he received the command to smite Amalek (1 Samuel 15:3), Saul said: For one found slain the Torah requires a sin offering [Deuteronomy 21:1-9]; and here so many shall be slain. If the old have sinned, why should the young suffer; and if men have been guilty, why should the cattle be destroyed? It was this mildness that cost him his crown. And while Saul was merciful to his enemies, he was strict with his own people; when he found out that Avimelech, a kohen, had assisted David with finding food, Saul, in retaliation, killed the rest of the 85 kohanim of the family of Avimelech and the rest of his hometown, Nov. (Yoma 22b; Num. Rashi 1:10) The fact that he was merciful even to his enemies, being indulgent to rebels themselves, and frequently waiving the homage due to him, was incredible as well as deceiving. But if his mercy toward a foe was a sin, it was his only one; and it was his misfortune that it was reckoned against him, while David, although he had committed much iniquity, was so favored that it was not remembered to his injury (Yoma 22b; M. Q. 16b, and Rashi ad loc.). In some respects Saul was superior to David, e.g., in having only one concubine, while David had many. Saul expended his own substance for the war, and although he knew that he and his sons would fall in battle, he nevertheless went forward, while David heeded the wish of his soldiers not to go to war in person (2 Samuel 21:17; Lev. Rashi 26:7; Yalq., Sam. 138).
According to the Rabbis, Saul ate his food with due regard for the rules of ceremonial purity prescribed for the sacrifice (Yalq., l.c.), and taught the people how they should slay cattle (cf 1 Samuel 14:34). As a reward for this, God himself gave Saul a sword on the day of battle, since no other sword suitable for him was found (ibid 13:22). Saul's attitude toward David finds its excuse in the fact that his courtiers were all tale-bearers, and slandered David to him (Deut. Rashi 5:10); and in like manner he was incited by Doeg against the priests of Nob (1 Samuel 22:16-19; Yalq., Sam. 131) - this act was forgiven him, however, and a heavenly voice (bat qol) was heard, proclaiming: Saul is the chosen one of God (Ber. 12b). His anger at the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:2) was not personal hatred, but was induced by zeal for the welfare of Israel (Num. Rashi 8:4). The fact that he made his daughter remarry (1 Samuel 25:44), finds its explanation in his (Saul's) view that her betrothal to David had been gained by false pretenses, and was therefore invalid (Sanhedrin 19b). During the lifetime of Saul there was no idolatry in Israel. The famine in the reign of David (cf 2 Samuel 21:1) was to punish the people, because they had not accorded Saul the proper honours at his burial (Num. Rashi 8:4). In Sheol, Samuel reveals to Saul that in the next world, Saul would dwell with Samuel, which is a proof that all has been forgiven him by god('Er. 53ba]
Saul's name and Samuel's birth-narrative
The birth-narrative of the prophet Samuel is found at 1 Samuel 1-28. It describes how Samuel's mother Hannah requests a son from Yahweh, and dedicates the child to God at the shrine of Shiloh. The passage makes extensive play with the root-elements of Saul's name, and ends with the phrase hu sa'ul le-Yahweh, "he is dedicated to Yahweh." Hannah names the resulting son Samuel, giving as her explanation, "because from God I requested him." Samuel's name, however, means "name of God," and the etymology and multiple references to the root of the name seems to fit Saul instead. The majority explanation for the discrepancy is that the narrative originally described the birth of Saul, and was given to Samuel in order to enhance the position of David and Samuel at the former king's expense.