Saul, King of Israel

saul-and-the-witch-of-endor-1777 - Benjamin West

Painting: Saul and the Witch of Endor

Painter: Benjamin West (1777)

The birth of the monarchy in Israel came at a time when the nation was facing a great political and military crisis in its history. At the end of the time of the judges, the Ark of the Covenant was taken by the Philistines at the battle for Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:1-22).

When the Philistines and Israel met in battle, Israel suffered heavy losses, and in desperation the people went to Shiloh, and invoking the tradition of holy war, they carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle, believing that the presence of God with the army of Israel would guarantee the victory. However, the Ark did not save the people and Israel suffered a great defeat.

Because of the threat posed by the Philistines and the superiority of their army, the people of Israel recognized the need for a central government which could unite the tribes against a common enemy. They also recognized their need for a strong leader, a king who could lead them into battle against the Philistines.

In their desire for a king, the elders of Israel came to Samuel, who was the spiritual leader of the community, and said to him: “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:4-5). The leaders of Israel desired to set up a strong government, different from the government under the judges. They wanted a stable government like the other nations of the Ancient Near East.

So, at the request of the people and with the permission of Yahweh (1 Samuel 8:7), Samuel appointed Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul was a man of Benjamin. Saul was the son of Kish, the son of Abiel. Saul’s father was a wealthy man and probably a leader in Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1).

The expression “a man of wealth” (1 Samuel 9:1) in Hebrew is gibbor hayil. This phrase indicates that Saul’s father was a wealthy citizen in Benjamin, a man who owned land, and probably a man of high social status in the community. According to 1 Samuel 9:3, Kish was a man who owned donkeys and servants.

The expression gibbor hayil also is used to designate military officers and important citizens in the community. Thus, it is possible that Kish earned the title of gibbor hayil through his status as a landowner, or as a man who gained social standing in the community because of his wealth, or because of his military service to the militia that probably protected the tribe of Benjamin.

Thus, it is possible that Saul became king in Israel because of Kish’s social standings in Benjamin. Because of the military experience of his father, Saul was possibly already trained as a warrior before his anointing to be the first king of Israel.

If indeed Saul came from a family of warriors, then his military background would make him the ideal leader to lead the army of Israel against the Philistines.

There are other characteristics that drew the attention of the people toward Saul. According to the biblical text, Saul was a “handsome, young man.” He also was taller than most people in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2).

Saul had some personal problems that eventually brought his kingship to an end. Saul was insecure, a man who probably had a complex of inferiority, and an individual who wanted the approval of others.

I have written several studies on Saul, but not enough. Saul had a complicated personality and this alone indicates that Saul was an individual that needs to be studied in more detail. However, the studies listed below will focus on different aspects of Saul’s life. At a later time, I will discuss why Saul was rejected by Samuel, why he lost his kingdom, and the reason he sought to kill David.

In the mean time, enjoy these studies on Saul.

Studies on Saul, the King of Israel

How Long Did Saul Reign in Israel?

Rereading 1 Samuel 13:1

King Saul: Little in His Own Eyes

1 Samuel 28: The Medium of Endor – Part 1

1 Samuel 28: The Medium of Endor – Part 2

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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