The first king of Israel, who ruled ca. 1020–1000 BCE. His story is part of the larger account, in the books of Samuel, of how Israel became a nation‐state. Saul is one of the few biblical characters of whom the term “tragic” has often been used. Glimpsing this dimension, D. H. Lawrence in his play David has Saul say of himself, “I am a man given over to trouble and tossed between two winds.”

His story begins in 1 Samuel 8 with the elders of Israel asking Samuel, priestly prophet and judge, to appoint a king to judge (govern) them “like all the nations.” For the people, the theocratic rule that Samuel delegates to his corrupt sons portends disaster. Only a generation earlier such corruption in the house of Eli had incurred Yahweh's anger and brought Israel defeat. For the deity, however, the request spells yet again the people's failure to see Yahweh's sovereignty and providential care. To an equally affronted Samuel, Yahweh observes that it is “not you they have rejected, but me they have rejected from being king over them” (1 Sam. 8.7). Yet, surprisingly, Yahweh decrees that the prophet obey the people and appoint for them a king. And so it transpires, much against Samuel's better judgment, which he expresses in mighty counterblasts against both king and people (1 Sam. 8; 12). Thus, the kingship is grounded in conflict between deity, prophet, and people.

Saul (whose name means “asked for”), the handsome son of a wealthy Benjaminite, is Yahweh's “designate” (Hebr. nāgîd; NRSV: “ruler”). He goes looking for his father's livestock and finds kingship instead (1 Sam. 9–10).

Saul is made king before Yahweh at the cult center in Gilgal, and in Gilgal his kingship begins to unravel (1 Sam. 13). Pressed to act decisively when a great host of Philistines threatens his fearful and deserting army, he refuses to wait for Samuel beyond a time previously appointed by the prophet (10.8), and he offers a sacrifice. Samuel, as though waiting in the wings, immediately appears and, ignoring the king's explanation, condemns him outright. Saul, asserts the prophet, has not kept Yahweh's commandment, and his kingdom will not continue. Yahweh has sought out another “designate,” a man sought out according to the divinity's own intention (“heart”).

Commentators have long debated the reason for the condemnation. Other texts in Samuel and Kings make it unlikely that it is simply a matter of cultic law, involving the king's intrusion upon a priestly or prophetic office (cf. 1 Sam. 14.33–35; 1 Kings 3.3). Rather, the immediate cause appears to be Saul's breaking of Samuel's ambiguous instruction to wait—as interpreted by Samuel. But lying behind Samuel's readiness to condemn lurks perhaps a more pertinent reason rooted in the origins of Saul's kingship. Saul, asked for by the people, represents rejection for both prophet and deity. For the sake of theocracy this king must, in turn, be rejected.

In Gilgal comes final rejection (1 Sam. 15). Returning from a campaign against the Amalekites with the captured king, Agag, and the best of the livestock, Saul once again meets a vehement Samuel. Why, demands the prophet, has Saul not done as instructed and “devoted [by destruction]” to Yahweh all living things? Saul responds that he has done what he was commanded to do, and that the animals have been brought to Gilgal for sacrifice. The issue turns on the difference between “devotion” and “sacrifice” (see Ban). Samuel, however, ignores Saul's explanation and invokes Yahweh's judgment upon him. Before such unrelenting opposition Saul acquiesces and asks pardon. But spurning him, Samuel declares that he is rejected as king—Yahweh has chosen “a neighbor” who is “better” than he. The reader soon learns that this man is David, son of Jesse (1 Sam. 16).

The remainder of the king's story is played out against this backdrop. Saul knows that the deity has rejected him, but he does not know his successor's identity. Yahweh, soon to be so eloquent for David (see 1 Sam. 23.6–14; 30.7–8), remains silent before Saul. That silence produces the irony of the young David being introduced into Saul's court in order to make him well. It also feeds the king's growing suspicion and jealousy of the successful and admired young captain (1 Sam. 17–18). Yet, as if that corrosive silence were not enough, the deity provokes Saul directly: an “evil spirit from God” goads him to violence (1 Sam. 18.10–11) and disrupts his son Jonathan's attempt at reconciliation (1 Sam. 19.1–11).

David's fortune is Saul's fate: whatever Saul attempts to turn against David rebounds against Saul. Using as bait his own daughter, Michal, Saul seeks to entice David into a suicide mission; instead, he gains two hundred Philistine foreskins and loses his daughter, who will herself later betray her father to save the husband she loves (1 Sam. 18–19); her subsequent story is poignant (1 Sam. 25.44; 2 Sam. 3; 6). Likewise, Saul's savage revenge upon the priests of Nob for having helped the fleeing David only displaces into the fugitive's hand the oracular ephod (1 Sam. 21–22).

Both Jonathan with goodwill and Saul with resentment come to see David's succession as inevitable (1 Sam. 20.12–17, 30–33; 23.16–18; 24.16–22; 26.25). Saul, moreover, spared twice by his elusive rival (1 Sam. 24; 26), confesses publicly the superior justice of David's actions. King and competitor each forswear all hostile intent toward the other, but they keep their distance and go their own way (26.25). As David works for the Philistines and accumulates power (1 Sam. 27–29), Saul faces them in battle (chap. 28). He seeks again a word from the silent Yahweh and, in desperation, has a medium conjure up the spirit of Samuel. The word he receives is a reiteration of rejection, but with one addition: on the next day he and his sons will die. So it happens that as David carries off booty from the Amalekites (1 Sam. 30), Saul and his sons fall to the Philistines on Mount Gilboa among the slain men of Israel (1 Sam. 31).

The king asked for by the people has failed: the way is now open for the king offered by Yahweh. Yet the people's king never forfeits their loyalty. The book ends with a moving epilogue. The inhabitants of Jabesh‐gilead, delivered by Saul as his reign began, now risk their lives to close his reign with dignity. Retrieving his body from the walls of Philistine Beth‐shan, they claim him as their own and honor him with burial in Jabesh. David, too, pays his own homage in a poem of beauty and irony (2 Sam. 1.17–27), a poem perhaps more beautiful than honest.

See also Israel, History of; Judah, The Kingdom of


David M. Gunn