The youthful David plays the harp for Saul.
Friday, February 8, 2008

The Failed King Saul

I Samuel 8-19. The picture above is Saul and David by Julius Kronberg. I’ll be doing 8 through 31, but the first part will only cover up to chapter 19.

At chapter 8 the people are dissatisfied with the judgments rendered by Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah. So they kvetch and say they want to be like other nations and have a king. Now what is interesting here is that 8 is an anti-monarchical text while 9-10:16 is pro-monarchy. This rather like a biography of the blessed martyr Charles II written alternately by Archbishop Laud and John Milton. 8, 10:17-24 and 12 are anti-royalist and 9-10:16 and 11 are royalist.

The chapter sets out the bad things that will happen if the people have a king. These are primarily that there will be a draft (11-13), and there will be taxes (14-18).

At 9 we have the story of Saul going out for his father’s she-donkeys. Saul is consecrated in Chapter 10, and here we have one version of his prophesying. There will be another one later. 10:17 marks the return to the anti-royalist text, and here Saul is chosen by lot to be the king.

11 is the victory of Saul over the Ammonites, and is a royalist text. This gives way to an anti-royalist text at 12, and Samuel yields the leadership to Saul.

What exactly is wrong with having a king as opposed to a set of judges? Yahweh’s complaint is that he communicates through the judges, and that by means of them He rules over Israel. If the people of Israel choose to have a king, they are rejecting the theocracy, and not maintaining a proper subordination to Yahweh.

At 13 Saul begins a revolt against the Philistines, and smashes the Philistine pillar at Gibeah. Gibeah, which we saw at the end of Judges, is Saul’s hometown, and Saul is of the tribe of Benjamin. So he is a result of the rape and the war against Benjamin that we talked about in a previous post.

Saul is supposed to wait for Samuel at Gilgal, and Samuel, who is taking his time, fails to show up when Saul is expecting him. So Saul usurps Samuel’s duties, and offers the sacrifices. For this Yahweh rejects Saul. Saul is also rejected at chapter 15 because he fails to put all the Amalekite booty under the ban. He spares the king Agag, and keeps the best sheep and cattle.

Is this a sin of greed as well as a sin of disobedience, and why such violence? We’re inclined to be tender-minded, perhaps too much so, and we’re shocked by the violence of the Old Testament. Yet it was probably a part of the cultural ethos of the time. For a classical example consider the sack of Troy which saw the death of all the men, and of some of the male children (notably Astyanax, the son of Hector), and the enslavement of the women. That sack was probably within a century or two of the events of I Samuel.

Saul’s response to Samuel upon being challenged about the sheep is that they were for sacrifice. Samuel berates Saul, and then 15:22 we have “Is the pleasure of Yahweh in holocausts&hellip.” Saul petitions for pardon, and is denied. Samuel then butchers Agag “before Yahweh at Gilgal (15:33).

16 begins the story of David. Samuel anoints David. At 16:14 Saul apparently starts to experience bipolar disorder. (Maybe it’s just depression, but he is definitely not tightly wrapped at this point.) David takes service with Saul, but 17 seems to paint a different picture with David alternating between the sheep and the camp. David kills Goliath, and 18 is acclaimed for having killed tens of thousands. Naturally Saul, who gets acclaimed having killed thousands, is distressed that he is seen as such a piker compared to David. So he becomes depressed, and tries to trick David. He offers him his first born daughter Merab, and then fails to carry through. He then offers him Michal, his second daughter, if he will bring him the foreskins of 100 Philistines. A foreskin is something that an adult male wont give up willingly. The Philistines take the attitude that David will have to pry their foreskins out of their cold, dead hands, and he does. 200 of them.

At 19 Jonathan effects a temporary reconciliation of David and Saul, but as always it falls apart, and David is forced to flee to Samuel at the town of Ramah. Saul pursues him, and is driven to ecstacy, and prophesies again.