By Raymond Harris
Regarding Scripture: Various I Samuel Passages about Saul
Note to the Reader – I encourage you to invest additional time reading the Books of Samuel in conjunction with this article.
A Reluctant Hero: Fallen
As one begins I Samuel, one can begin to understand why Samuel follows Judges in the Tanak. We find out fairly early that Eli was a judge1 and that Samuel2 and his sons3 appear to be Israel’s last judges. Each reader probably finds different passages of intense meaning when they open I Samuel, which makes my decision difficult. Where do I begin? Does one discuss Hannah and her prayer for a son,4 or perhaps the prophecy against Eli which is completed with the Ark being taken by the Philistines,5 or how the Ark because of it presence at various places plagues the people, and is then specifically returned to Israel in order to test if Jehovah was behind the plagues.6 My decision is not an easy one.
Israel Desired a King
As we studied during Judges, Israel had been plagued by years of turmoil. While Israel did experience years of rest, the reality is that in the opening narrative of I Samuel, Eli had two sons who forced (stole) portions from sacrifices, and had fornicating relationships with female worshippers7 and Scripture describes their sin as “very great before [Jehovah]”. Their sin is so great, that these two influenced a nation to abhor (loathe) sacrificial offerings.8 Jehovah unceremoniously ended Eli’s reign as judge when his sons were killed and the Ark was captured. This event officially moved Samuel to be Israel’s next judge; but even Samuel did not remain uninfluenced by Eli.
While Samuel was an answer to Hanah’s prayer and technically fathered by Elkanah, Samuel was, in essence, raised by Eli. It is from Eli that Samuel learned his parenting skills and became a less than successful father himself. Unfortunately, Samuel did not raise his sons to reflect his own commitment to Jehovah.9 Samuel’s sons, while not as sinful (if that can be said) as Eli’s sons, still judged for ill gotten gain and took bribes. By doing so they assessed and judged situations based upon special influence, and thereby perverted justice.
So by the time Samuel became an old man, Israel experienced our axiom of “enough’s enough” and was determined to do something different. This is why this specific situation was chosen as our starting point. Even though I Samuel opens offering many lessons, we will begin with the Hebrew son: Sha’ul (pronounced shaw ool). We are probably more familiar with the English name Saul than Sha’ul, but in either case, his name means “desired”10 or “asked for”.11 How interesting it is that Sha’ul’s name reflects Israel’s situational request, I Samuel 8.4-5 reads,
Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, and said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.
Israel’s Requested King
Saul seemed to be everything Israel would want for a king. He is shown to be responsible by his actions regarding his father’s donkeys.12 He is described as having a strong athletic build, standing “head and shoulders” above his peers.13 And at his coronation ceremony he hid out, a seemingly reluctant leader14 and had to be dragged to his own crowning.15 This is the kind of hero that makes for great movies. The man is unaware that he is being sought to become the leader, he doesn’t believe himself worthy, he doesn’t want the leadership, but grudgingly takes the office. The reluctant hero.
While many lessons can be learned about the complex situation between Samuel and Israel, and Israel as a national whole, our lesson is necessarily restricted to Saul. For the reader who may not be familiar with Saul, here is the spoiler, his tenure as king begins with innocence and humility, but transforms into a tumultuous reign that terminates in tragedy. We will see Saul leave his humble beginnings16 and find him tortured and paranoid,17 unable or unwilling to trust in Jehovah. If it were not a compelling account of the first king’s spiritual decay, it seems to be the ideal source for one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies; a morality tale fit for Broadway rivaling Hamlet.
Saul was tremendous. He was skillful. He was humble. He became paranoid. He became a failure. It is a biography for the ages. Sha’ul: the man who would be king. How a series of unfortunate events seemed to wreck a man’s spiritual essence and devotion. Whether he is a result of his own arrogance or ignorance, Saul seems to be an example of how not to do things. In examining Saul, the reader is almost forced to ask themselves, “What type of leader am I?” May Saul’s tragedy inspire us all and may the Lord bless us as we seek to serve him.
1. “Judge Eli.” – I Samuel 4.15-18
2. “Judge Samuel.” – I Samuel 7.15
3. “Judge Joel, and Judge Abiah.” – I Samuel 8.1-2
4. “Hannah’s Prayer.” – I Samuel 1.1-2.11, 18-21
5. “Eli’s Demise.” – I Samuel 2.12-17, 2.22-4.22
6. “Have Ark, Will Travel.” – I Samuel 4.10,17; 5.1-6.18
7. “Hophni and Phinehas” – I Samuel 2.12-17, 22-26; Eli’s sons cf. 4.11
8. “Israel abhors offering.” – I Samuel 2.17
9. “Samuel’s sons are not him” – I Samuel 8.3
10. “Saul” Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon (BDB), e-Sword lexical help of H7586.
11. “Saul” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, August 7, 2008, Wikipedia.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul.
12. “Saul and the donkeys.” – I Samuel 9.3-5, 20
13. “Saul’s Stature” – I Samuel 9.2
14. “Reluctant Saul” – I Samuel 10.21
15. “Saul’s forced crowing” – I Samuel 10.23
16. “Saul’s humble beginnings” – I Samuel 9.21; 10.26-27
17. “Saul’s paranoia” – I Samuel 28.15