David and Saul, Julius Kronberg, 1885. I love this picture as it portrays a time in Saul and David’s relationship when things were going well. One would think from this painting that it was Saul, not Jonathan, who was in love with David!

King Saul gets a fairly bad rap in the Bible. Things begin well for him as he is chosen by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel to be Israel’s first king, but when things turn bad he becomes the nemesis of David, the man chosen to be the next king, and is variously portrayed as being insane, sacrilegious, and determined to kill David simply out of jealousy. However, I’ve often struggled with the way the biblical Book of Samuel portrays Saul – it seems to me that he is judged harshly and can’t do anything right as far as Samuel is concerned, even though he was apparently chosen by God to be king. Did God make a mistake? Did he not know how Saul would turn out?

We get a good example of how Saul is given a bad rap in the account of Saul offering a sacrifice which is criticised by Samuel for being ‘unlawful’. This ‘unlawful sacrifice’ is said to be the reason why God would thereafter remove Saul as king of Israel and put another king in his place:

8 He [Saul] waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people began to slip away from Saul. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the offerings of well-being.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel arrived; and Saul went out to meet him and salute him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul replied, “When I saw that the people were slipping away from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines were mustering at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the LORD’; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you. The LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, 14 but now your kingdom will not continue; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart; and the LORD has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”

1 Samuel 13:8-14

There are several problems with this account. First it is not clear what Saul did wrong. The story begins with “He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel; but Samuel did not come  …” without providing any background. This start to the story has little connection with its immediate context. Seven days from when? When did Samuel make this appointment? Why didn’t Samuel come? Some commentators think this is a link back to 1 Samuel 10:8 where Samuel says “I am coming down to you to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.” On the surface the connection seems plain enough, except that the way the intervening chapters read between 10:8 and 13:8 several years have transpired! Of course, the stories in this part of Samuel may not be in chronological order and the events described 10:8 and 13:8 may have taken place at some other time and inserted into the text here by an editor (and there are other signs of editing here which I may come back to in a later post). If so, the account of Saul’s life is severely disjointed and this would point to two or more possible sources being spliced together. This is not unusual in biblical texts, but serves as a reminder that here we are not reading a single continous account of Saul’s reign. But let’s assume that these commentators are right (which actually seems unlikely to me) and that the seven days mentioned in 10:8 come and go and 13:8 picks up the story and describes what Saul did next. Samuel said he would come in seven days and show Saul what to do next. Saul waited, but Samuel didn’t show up. What was he meant to do? Saul is king after all, and leaders are called on frequently to make judgment calls, especially in crisis situations. Saul made just such a judgment call, which seems reasonable in the circumstances: he offered the sacrifices without Samuel because he felt they needed to be made. It was then that Samuel turned up – late! – and Saul was criticised for going ahead in his absence. Was it so wrong of Saul to go ahead without him, when he had no idea whether Samuel was coming or not? Then Samuel’s rage seems to be disproportionate as he tells Saul that for not waiting for him (which was really Samuel’s fault, not Saul’s) the kingdom would be taken from him. This seems patently unfair. Another problem with this is that if this incident followed immediately after the incident in 10:8 (where Samuel says “wait seven days”) then it actually occurred just days after Saul was anointed as king. Making such a trivial mistake within days of being in the job as king hardly seems justification for losing the job, especially when he was the first king in Israel’s history and had no precedent to follow.

What’s really going on here? I’m a bit of a stickler for being on time. I’d rather turn up half an hour early for an appointment than be one minute late, so I don’t have much sympathy for Samuel. If you say you’ll be there in seven days then be there in seven days! If you’re late then you can’t blame anyone for starting without you. However, I used to have a friend who was never on time for anything, and it wasn’t simply because he was disorganised and couldn’t get himself ready in time. It was because he liked to be in control. If I suggested meeting at 4.00 he’d say “let’s make it 5.00” and then turn up at 5.30. If I suggested meeting at a Thai restuarant for dinner he’d say “let’s do Indian.” If I suggested Indian he’d say “let’s do Thai.”

I suspect that Samuel was just such a person and wasn’t keen on having Saul as king because it meant he was no longer in control. We actually get a clear indication in chapter 8 that he had issues with the proposal of a monarchy for Israel, when the elders of Israel came to Samuel saying “appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). Samuel disliked the idea and prayed about it. God responded by saying to Samuel “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (v.7). In fact he says it twice: “Listen to them” (again in v.9). Samuel returned to the elders and tried to talk them out of the idea, giving a long speech about all the bad things a king would do (vv. 11-18). But the people insisted on having a king, and Samuel prayed about it again. Again God said “Listen to their voice and set a king over them” (v.22). So, having been told three times by God to give them a king, you would think that’s what Samuel would tell the elders. God was in favour and they would get their king. But what does Samuel do? “Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home’” (v.22). Samuel may, in fact, have reported fully about his conversation with God, but if so the writer has chosen not to tell us. He wants to leave the impression that Samuel was still convinced that he was right, and by implication, God was wrong, and he’s not going to tell the people that they will get their king after all! As the story continues, God has to later tell Samuel he’s going to send someone to him to be anointed as king, and he sends Saul to Samuel the next day. Samuel made no effort himself to find a king or even to ask God about it. He just sulks about not getting his way.  What would Samuel have preferred? The writer leaves us in no doubt about that, right at the start of the story: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel” (v.1). He didn’t have a problem with hereditary leadership, he just wanted it to be his own dynasty that ruled Israel!

So now that Saul was king Samuel apparently set out to undermine him. Perhaps he was deliberately late for the meeting because he wanted to emphasise that he was above the monarchy, and Saul’s actions in the interim simply provided Samuel with an excuse to criticise the king and to further reinforce his superiority over him. As the “kingmaker” who anointed Israel’s first two kings, Samuel was making it clear that he was also a king-un-maker! But he was also making it clear that even though Israel now has a king he was not about to relinguish his control.

Next: Saul and Goliath