1 & 2 Samuel Week 3
Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: 1 Samuel 8–15
Who Gets Fed?
A story tells of an elder speaking to a youth about how inside of him — and inside of everyone — live two wolves: one good and kind, and the other cruel and violent. The two wolves are always at war. The youth asks, “Which one wins?” The elder responds, “The one I feed the most.” Such a parable runs counter to certain ideas we might have about heroes and villains — for example, that there is a clear and easily identified dichotomy between “the good guys” and “the bad guys.” In reality, all humans are far more complex and messy.
Saul is one of those messy, complex human characters [Author’s Note 1]. He is certainly not a hero; he is too self-effacing, too timid, too reluctant, and then too paranoid and cruel. But neither is he a villain. He is benevolent toward the “scoundrels” who doubt his kingship (1 Samuel 10:27, NIV); he is a successful military leader for Israel; he has an awareness of and a relationship with God. Instead of being a hero or a villain, Saul is more of a “tragic” figure, akin to the characters in Greek tragedies who have personal flaws and against whom the gods work. One of the most sobering aspects of Saul’s story is the detail that God abandons and even torments him (1 Samuel 16:14).
Give Us a King!
The context in which Saul is introduced is not a great one: Israel is asking God to give them a king, which constitutes a rejection of God as their leader. The people give three reasons, each of which is worth discussing further.
- The people say that Samuel’s sons, whom Samuel has appointed as judges, are not following in Samuel’s ways (8:5). This is not a bad reason for wanting new leadership; in the previous Lectio we saw Eli’s failed sons. Not only do the people recognize problems with those who are currently in leadership, but they also seem to be proactive, anticipating what might happen if they have a leader who does not follow God.
- The people want someone to lead them in battle (8:19–20). The battlefield is one of the most significant locations for leadership in Israel. The judges — of whom Samuel is one — do not simply adjudicate legal disputes, but are also military leaders. However, in all the myriad times before now that Israel has fought, God was fighting for them. It could be that the Israelites’ request for a human king to lead them in battle signals their lack of trust in God, the Divine Warrior.
- The people want a king to govern them so that they can be like other nations (8:5). Not only does this sound like peer pressure on a national scale — this reason also sends up the most red flags because the Israelites are not meant to be like other nations. They are a holy nation, which means that they are supposed to be set apart.
God describes the Israelites’ request for a king as their rejection of God as “king over them” (8:7). Samuel is upset by the request — more so than many translations indicate. The Hebrew in 1 Samuel 8:6 can be more literally translated as, “and the thing was evil in Samuel’s eyes.” Still, and somewhat surprisingly, God responds by telling Samuel to “listen to their voice.” This gets repeated twice, in 1 Samuel 8:9 and in 1 Samuel 8:22. The first time God tells Samuel to listen to the voice of the Israelites, God also tells Samuel to “solemnly warn them” what it will be like to have a king. Samuel does so: In a speech that spans eight verses (8:11–18), Samuel repeats the phrase “he will take” six times to indicate all the things the king will seize from the people, including their sons and daughters, their fields and vineyards, etc.
Samuel’s warning concludes with the sobering statement that when a king turns bad, the people will cry to God but God won’t answer [Author’s Note 2]. The Israelites, however, refuse “to listen to the voice of Samuel” (1 Samuel 8:19), and they persist in their desire for a king. The second time God tells Samuel to “listen to their voice” (8:22), God tells him to set a king over them.
Saul: Israel’s First King
In the very next chapter we are introduced to Saul, a handsome and tall Benjamite from a wealthy family (1 Samuel 9:1–2). We are told that he and a servant are looking for Saul’s father’s lost donkeys. After they are unsuccessful in their search, Saul’s servant suggests that they go ask “a man of God” about the donkeys (9:6). That man, of course, is Samuel, who has been told by God who will be king, when they will meet, and what the role of the king will be — that he will save the Israelites from the Philistines (1 Samuel 9:15–17).
When the two meet, Samuel first gives Saul all sorts of information and commands. Samuel identifies himself as “the seer,” commands Saul to stay with him, and tells him the donkeys have been found (9:19–20). Then comes the punch line: Samuel asks, “And on whom is all Israel’s desire fixed, if not on you and on all your ancestral house?” (1 Samuel 9:20) This must have seemed like a non sequitur or a surprise to Saul, as Saul answers Samuel’s question with his own: “Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” (1 Samuel 9:21). Saul speaks with a humility that turns out to be false; he says that he is a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe in Israel, and that his family is “the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin” (1 Samuel 9:21). It is true that the tribe of Benjamin is a small tribe, especially as it was almost wiped out in the civil war at the end of Judges (Judges 20–21), but Saul’s family is a wealthy one. Saul’s false humility could be motivated by fear or insecurity.
Saul eats with Samuel and stays with him, and then the next day — in private — is anointed by Samuel (10:1) [Author’s Note 3]. Different signs will help Saul know that God chose him: Saul will meet various people carrying various things, will encounter prophets, and will fall into “a prophetic frenzy” (1 Samuel 10:1–6). Samuel also gives Saul permission to do “whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you,” but also commands Saul to wait at Gilgal for seven days, “until I come to you and show you what you shall do” (1 Samuel 10:7–8). This instruction seems to qualify the freedom to do whatever Saul sees fit. In fact, Saul’s undoing will begin when Saul offers sacrifices at Gilgal before Samuel comes in chapter 13.
At this point, however, Saul is transformed when God gives him “another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9), and the spirit of God possesses Saul before he prophesies (1 Samuel 10:10). After all these events, however, when Saul meets his uncle he only tells him about the donkeys, saying nothing about having been anointed as king. We are not told why, leaving us to infer the reasons. Is Saul again being (falsely) humble? Is he still trying to grasp what has happened, and is therefore reluctant to voice it? Saul’s hesitance is repeated when the people cast lots for their king and Saul’s name is chosen; Saul is hiding among the baggage and only takes his stand among the people when they bring him out (1 Samuel 10:20–24).
But again, Saul cannot be characterized as entirely bad. When confronted by “worthless fellows” [Author’s Note 4] who doubt and despise him (10:27), Saul holds his peace. And though he was reluctant to step forth when his name was chosen as king, in 1 Samuel 11:1–11 Saul utterly defeats the Ammonites and saves the people of Jabesh Gilead from oppression. Saul clearly has met the criterion of being a king who will lead the people in battle (1 Samuel 8:20). After this military success, the people ask that those who were hesitant about Saul’s kingship be put to death, but Saul is magnanimous (1 Samuel 11:12–13). On the heels of this military victory and Saul’s generosity, the people go to Gilgal, where the kingship is renewed (11:14). There they make Saul king before the LORD, sacrificing and rejoicing.
Samuel’s Parting Words
Chapter 11 ends with great rejoicing, but in the very next chapter the story moves quickly into a speech from Samuel that includes sober admonitions to fear God, serve God, and obey God (12:6–17). These admonitions apply to both the Israelites and their king: if they follow God, things will go well; but if they rebel, God’s hand will be against them (1 Samuel 12:14–15). Samuel doesn’t merely use his words, but calls on the LORD to send thunder and rain, proving that the Israelites did evil in demanding a king (12:17). When this happens, the people fear God and Samuel, but Samuel tells them not to be afraid. Though they have done evil, it is not the last word. Samuel reminds them of God’s promise that God “will not cast away his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself” (1 Samuel 12:22). But if they persist in doing what is evil, they will be “swept away” (1 Samuel 12:25).
If there were some loose threads before in Saul’s behavior, things begin unraveling in chapter 13, when Saul makes a burnt offering at Gilgal instead of waiting for Samuel to come and do so. Saul has his reasons, as the text explains: They are in the middle of a battle with the Philistines, things are not going well for the Israelites, the people are starting “to slip away from Saul” (1 Samuel 13:8), and Samuel does not come at the appointed time. Samuel does, however, arrive “as soon as [Saul] had finished offering the burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:10), and tells Saul that now Saul’s kingdom will not continue.
We might wonder: Why does it matter so much that someone makes an offering instead of waiting for the priest? Two clues in the text point us toward an answer. First, when Saul explains what happened, he tells Samuel, “I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:12). Saul gives excuses, saying that he acted as he did because of the people, Samuel, and the Philistines. But even if circumstances make choices difficult, people always have a choice. Saul doesn’t take responsibility for his choice. A second clue is in Samuel’s words, repeated two times in 1 Samuel 13:13–14, that Saul did not keep “the commandment of the LORD, which he commanded you.” Consequences for not keeping God’s commands are serious, especially for leaders. For example, Moses was not able to enter the Promised Land because he did not do what God commanded in Numbers 20. Saul is still king, but because he did not keep God’s commandment his dynasty is taken away, to be given to “a man after [God’s] own heart.”
Saul’s Rash Oath
Knowing this, Saul moves on to battle the Philistines. There is a shortage of weapons among the Israelites; only Saul and his son Jonathan have them (1 Samuel 13:22). Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak over to the Philistine garrison, causing panic and killing many (14:6–15). Saul calls for the ark to be brought to the battlefield, and when it arrives God gives the Israelites victory (14:18–23).
Earlier in the day, Saul had made an oath that anyone who ate any food before evening would be cursed (14:24) [Author’s Note 5]. Jonathan hadn’t heard the oath, so when he comes upon a honeycomb that is dripping honey, Jonathan eats it, and immediately his “eyes [brighten]” (1 Samuel 14:27). The rest of the troops are faint with hunger, and when they tell Jonathan about his father’s oath, he responds by critiquing his father for that oath, saying, “My father has troubled the land; […] How much better if today the troops had eaten freely of the spoil taken from their enemies; for now the slaughter among the Philistines has not been great” (1 Samuel 14:29–30). Indeed, the troops are so hungry that they sin by eating meat with blood, and Saul must make a sacrifice on their behalf (14:31–35). Apparently this offering is lawful.
Saul then asks God for instructions about how they should proceed in battle against the Philistines, but there is no answer (1 Samuel 14:37). The silence from God leads Saul to surmise that there is a guilty person among them. They cast lots and discover that Jonathan is the one. In contrast with his father, Jonathan immediately takes responsibility, saying, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand; here I am, I will die” (1 Samuel 14:43). Saul is prepared to kill Jonathan, but the Israelites intervene and ransom Jonathan from death (14:44–45).
Saul’s Disobedience and God’s Rejection
If Saul’s previous actions were complex or unclear, what Saul does in chapter 15 is more unambiguously bad. God gives a clear command to attack the Amalekites and destroy all. Saul does not: He spares King Agag, along with the best sheep and cattle and “all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly [destroyed]” (1 Samuel 15:9).
The scene quickly jumps from Saul at battle to God and Samuel, zeroing in on their emotions. God “regrets” that God has made Saul king, while Samuel is both angry and sad (1 Samuel 15:10–11). Samuel then goes to Saul and gives Saul an opportunity to explain. Saul has multiple excuses: in 15:13, he maintains that he carried out God’s command; in 15:15, he explains that he saved these animals for a sacrifice; and in 15:20–21, he says, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, […] but from the spoil the people took sheep and cattle […] to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” Eventually, in 1 Samuel 15:24 Saul confesses that he sinned by disobeying God’s command, but there too he has an excuse: that it was because he was afraid of the people.
Samuel explains that it is better to obey than to sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22). While the sacrificial system is set up for people’s inevitable misdeeds, it is better to not do the wrong thing in the first place. To put this into more contemporary words, it is better to ask permission than forgiveness. Because of Saul’s rebellion and his rejection of the word of God, God rejects Saul as king (1 Samuel 15:23, 26). After pronouncing this, Samuel turns to leave. Saul holds onto the hem of Samuel’s robe — likely to catch it as it falls to the ground — and the robe tears. Samuel uses this as an object lesson to illustrate that likewise God has now torn the kingdom away from Saul (15:27–28). The chapter ends with grief — both Samuel’s grief and God’s.
Though Saul has been rejected and the kingdom has been torn from him, he will continue to serve as king until his death, even after David is anointed. In 1 Samuel 10:27, the specific question asked by the doubters is “How can this man save us?” The Hebrew, however, can be more literally translated as “How will this save us?” There is no subject specified; “this” could refer to Saul, to his actions, etc. In many ways Saul is representative of Israel’s entire relationship with its monarchy. The kings do lead in battle, and those who remember to fear and serve God bring blessing to the entire land. But ultimately, the people’s salvation comes from God.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Having a king is a complex situation. What are positive aspects of Israel having a king? What are negative aspects of Israel having a king? Why do you think God allows Israel to have a king?
- What are some of Saul’s positive and negative characteristics? Why do you think God chooses him in the beginning? Why does God ultimately reject him?
- Samuel and God continue to grieve over the fact of Israel’s monarchy, and particularly over Saul. Yet Samuel and God also continue to work with the “new normal” of human kingship. What does this say about the character of Samuel? What does this say about the character of God?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.