King Saul

Israel's first king was a controversial ruler.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, edited by Hershel Shanks (Biblical Archaeology Society).

The Bible depicts Saul as a study in contrasts. Although he was Israel's first king, he was ultimately rejected (1 Samuel 15:10-11). His dark, fitful personality suffers by contrast with the two legendary figures between whom he seems wedged--Samuel the prophet-priest and David, Saul's hero-successor. 

Facing the Philistines

The Bible describes Saul rising to the throne in the face of the Philistine military threat. The Philistines are known both from the Bible and from the extrabiblical sources. Egyptian inscriptions mention them as one of the so-called Sea Peoples. Apparently, they originally came from the Aegean area or from southern Anatolia [?]

The Sea Peoples settled in various parts of the Egyptian province of Canaan, probably with Egypt's agreement. The Philistines occupied the coastal plain between Gaza and Jaffa? 

king saul's death

Elie Marcuse' Death of Saul

Eventually, the Philistine military expansion near Aphek brought the Philistines close to the territory occupied by the Israelite confederation. The Philistines were apparently skilled warriors who used the most advanced military equipment of their time. Their weapons were made of both bronze, the predominant metal until about 1200 B.C.E., and iron, which was becoming increasingly available.

The Choice of Saul

Facing these dire circumstances, the Israelite tribes determined that they must have a king. The story of the choice of Saul as king appears in three different traditions: In the first, Saul is looking for his father's lost she-asses when he meets Samuel, who anoints him prince (nasi) over Israel (1 Samuel 9:3-10:16). In the second tradition, Saul is hidden among baggage at Mizpah when Samuel casts lots to choose the king (1 Samuel 10:17-27).

In the third and probably most reliable tradition, Saul, at the head of the Israelite columns, has rescued Jabesh-Gilead from an Ammonite attack, and the people, with Samuel's agreement, proclaim their allegiance to Saul at Gilgal (1 Samuel 11-15). In each of these accounts, Saul is installed and anointed as king by Samuel, now an old man.

Samuel was regarded as the last of the judges (1 Samuel 7:6,15,8:1-3), the charismatic leaders who emerged at time of crisis. Another tradition, probably a later one, regarded Samuel as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:20). He also officiated at the tabernacle at Shiloh, where the Ark was kept, which means he was a priest.

But Samuel's leadership was regarded as insufficient. The tribal elders apparently felt that the appointment of a king was a historical necessity: "Now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations," they told Samuel (1 Samuel 8:5) Saul, a Benjaminite, seems to have been chosen because he was tall and strong and well qualified to wage war against Israel's enemies.

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Andre Lemaire

Andre Lemaire is director d'etudes at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, History and Philology Section, of the Sorbonne, in Paris.