King Saul

Israel's first king was a controversial ruler.

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Written from David's viewpoint, the stories in I Samuel 16-27 tend to depict David as right in rebelling against Saul and seeking refuge in Philistine territory. But they also reveal that people from Bethlehem in Judah joined Saul in battle when the Philistines tried to invade the central hill country from the southwest (1 Samuel 17:1). Saul obviously exerted some political influence south of Jerusalem in the northern mountains of Judah, preparing he way for the federation of Israel and Judah under David.

The historicity of many of Saul's other wars, however, is doubtful. The wars against the Moabites, the Edomites, the king of Zobah and even the Amalekites (1 Samuel 14:47-48, 15) may simply be a transposition from David to Saul made by the Judahite historian because he had so little information about Saul. Such wars far from Saul's home seem improbable, especially when the Philistine threat was so strong and Saul's army was so poorly organized.

Saul's Reign

Unfortunately, we are left with little solid information about Saul or his reign. All that can be said with confidence is that Saul seems to have been named king so that he would lead the Israelites in their wars against the Philistines.

Saul's kingdom was not very large. It probably included Mt. Ephraim, Benjamin and Gilead. He also exerted some influence in the northern mountains in Judah and beyond the Jezreel Valley. Instead of having a capital city or a palace, Saul set up his tent "in the outskirts of Gibeah under the pomegranate tree which is at Migron" (1 Samuel 14:2) or in Gibeah where he sat "under the tamarisk tree on the height with his spear in his hand and all his servants (i.e. ministers) were standing about him (1 Samuel 22:6).

The Archeological Record

Saul's "kingship," as might be expected from the biblical record, left hardly a trace archeologically speaking. Surveys and excavations in the hill country of Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin and at sites like 'Izbet Satah have revealed farms, small villages, and open-air cult places on hilltops. To the south, in northern Judah, settlement was even sparser.

The fortified site of Khubert ed-Dawwara, northeast of Jerusalem, had perhaps one hundred inhabitants, and this was large for Saul's kingdom. The principle Israelite site of the previous period, Shiloh, seems to have been destroyed in the mid-11th century B.C.E. by an intense conflagration. This destruction is often attributed to the Philistines as a follow-up operation after their victory at Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4). Shiloh is mentioned only once in the stories of Saul and David (1 Samuel 14:3).

Archeology seems to confirm that until about 1000 B.C.E., the end of Iron Age I, Israelite society was essentially a society of farmers and stockbreeders without any truly centralized organization and administration. Recent population estimates set a figure of about 50,000 settled Israelites west of the Jordan at the end of the eleventh century B.C.E.

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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.