King Saul according to the Hebrew Bible, was the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel (Israel and Judah). His reign, traditionally placed in the late 11th century BCE; supposedly marked a transition from a tribal society to statehood.
King Saul’s life and reign are described primarily in the Hebrew Bible. According to the text; he was anointed by the prophet Samuel and reigned from Gibeah. He fell on his sword (committing suicide) to avoid capture in the battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa, during which three of his sons were also killed. The succession to his throne was contested by Ish-bosheth; his only surviving son, and his son-in-law David; who eventually prevailed. According to the Hebrew Bible, Saul reigned for two years, but scholars generally agree that the text is faulty and that a reign of twenty or twenty-two years is more probable.
House of King Saul
According to the Hebrew Bible, King Saul was the son of Kish; and a member of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the twelve Tribes of Israel. Saul married Ahinoam, with whom he sired four sons among them Jonathan, and two daughters (Merab and Michal).
Saul died at the Battle of Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:3–6. Three of Saul’s sons – Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua – died with him at Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:2. Ish-bosheth became king of Israel, at the age of forty. At David’s request, Abner had Michal returned to David. Ish-bosheth reigned for two years; but after the death of Abner, was killed by two of his own captains (2 Samuel 4:5).
King Saul is Anointed as King
The First Book of Samuel gives three accounts of Saul’s rise to the throne in three successive chapters:
King Saul is going looking for Donkeys and finds a Kingdom
Saul is sent with a servant to look for his father’s strayed donkeys. Leaving his home at Gibeah, they eventually arrive at the district of Zuph, at which point Saul suggests abandoning their search. Saul’s servant tells him that they happen to be near the town of Ramah; where a famous seer is located, and suggests that they should consult him first. The seer (later identified by the text as Samuel) offers hospitality to Saul and later anoints him in private (1 Samuel 9).
A popular movement having arisen to establish a centralized monarchy like other nations, Samuel assembles the people at Mizpah in Benjamin to appoint a king, fulfilling his previous promise to do so (1 Samuel 8). Samuel organizes the people by tribe and by clan. Using the Urim and Thummim, he selects the tribe of Benjamin; from within the tribe selecting the clan of Matri, and from them selecting Saul. After having been chosen as monarch, Saul returns to his home in Gibeah, along with a number of followers (1 Samuel 10:17-24). However, some of the people are openly unhappy with the selection of Saul.
The Ammonites, led by Nahash, lay siege to Jabesh-Gilead. Under the terms of surrender, the occupants of the city are to be forced into slavery and have their right eyes removed. Instead they send word of this to the other tribes of Israel, and the tribes west of the Jordan assemble an army under Saul. Saul leads the army to victory over the Ammonites, and the people congregate at Gilgal where they acclaim Saul as king and he is crowned (1 Samuel 11). King Saul’s first act is to forbid retribution against those who had previously contested his kingship.
King Saul among the prophets
Having been anointed by Samuel, Saul is told of signs indicating that he has been divinely appointed. The last of these is that Saul will be met by an ecstatic group of prophets leaving a high place and playing the lyre, tambourine, and flutes. Saul encounters the ecstatic prophets and joins them. Later, Saul sends men to pursue David, but when they meet a group of ecstatic prophets playing music, they become possessed by a prophetic state and join in. Saul sends more men, but they too join the prophets. Eventually, Saul himself goes and also joins the prophets (1 Samuel 19:24).
After relieving the siege of Jabesh-Gilead, Saul conducts military campaigns against the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Aram Rehob and the kings of Zobah, the Philistines, and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 14:47). A biblical summary states that “wherever he turned, he was victorious”.
In the second year of his reign, King Saul, his son Jonathan, and a small force of a few thousand Israelite soldiers defeated a massive Philistine force of 3,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and more than 30,000 infantry in the pass of Michmash. After the battle, Saul instructs his armies, by a rash oath, to fast. Jonathan’s party were not aware of the oath and ate honey, resulting in Jonathan realizing that he had broken an oath of which he was not aware, but was nevertheless liable for its breach until popular intervention allowed Jonathan to be saved from death on account of his victory over the Philistines.
During Saul’s campaign against the Philistines, Samuel said that he would arrive in seven days to perform the requisite rites. When a week passed with no word of Samuel, and with the Israelites growing restless, Saul prepares for battle by offering sacrifices. Samuel arrives just as Saul is finishing sacrificing and reprimands Saul for not obeying his instructions.
Several years after Saul’s victory against the Philistines at Michmash Pass, Samuel instructs Saul to make war on the Amalekites and to “utterly destroy” them including all their livestock in fulfillment of a mandate set out Deuteronomy 25:19:
- When the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.
Having forewarned the Kenites who were living among the Amalekites to leave, Saul goes to war and defeats the Amalekites. Saul kills all the men, women, children and poor quality livestock; but leaves alive the king and best livestock. When Samuel learns that Saul has not obeyed his instructions in full, he informs Saul that God has rejected him as king due to his disobedience. As Samuel turns to go, Saul seizes hold of his garments and tears off a piece; Samuel prophesies that the kingdom will likewise be torn from Saul. So Samuel then kills the Amalekite king himself. Samuel and Saul each return home and never meet again after these events (1 Samuel 15:33–35).
Saul and David
After Samuel tells Saul that God has rejected him as king, David, a son of Jesse, from the tribe of Judah, enters the story: from this point on Saul’s story is largely the account of his increasingly troubled relationship with David.
Samuel heads to Bethlehem, ostensibly to offer sacrifice and invited Jesse and his sons. Dining together, Jesse’s sons are brought one by one to Samuel, each being rejected; at last, Jesse sends for David, the youngest, who is tending sheep. When brought to Samuel, David is anointed by him in front of his other brothers.
Saul Evil Spirit
In 1 Samuel 16:14–23, Saul is troubled by an evil spirit sent by God. He requests soothing music, and a servant recommends David the son of Jesse, who is renowned for his skills as a harpist and other talents: a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the Lord is with him
When word of Saul’s needs reaches Jesse; he sends David, who had been looking after Jesse’s flock; with gifts as a tribute, and David is appointed as Saul’s armor bearer. With Jesse’s permission, he remains at court, playing the harp as needed to calm Saul during his troubled spells. (1 Samuel 17:15 suggests David only attended court periodically).
The Philistines Return!
(1 Samuel 17:1–18:5) The Philistines return with an army to attack Israel, and the Philistine and Israelite forces gather on opposite sides of a valley. The Philistine’s champion Goliath issues a challenge for single combat, but none of the Israelites accept. David is described as a young shepherd who happens to be delivering food to his three eldest brothers in the army; and he hears Goliath’s challenge. David speaks mockingly of the Philistines to some soldiers; his speech is overheard and reported to Saul, who summons David and appoints David as his champion. David easily defeats Goliath with a single shot from a sling. At the end of the passage, Saul asks his general, Abner, who David is.
David and Jonathan Become Close Friends
Saul offered his elder daughter Merab as a wife to the now popular David, after his victory over Goliath, but David demurred. David distinguishes himself in the Philistine wars. Upon David’s return from battle, the women praise him in song: “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands” implying that David is the greater warrior. King Saul fears David’s growing popularity and henceforth views him as a rival to the throne.
Saul’s son Jonathan and David become close friends. Jonathan recognizes David as the rightful king, and “made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” Jonathan even gives David his military clothes; symbolizing David’s position as successor to Saul.
Saul Chases David
On two occasions, Saul threw a spear at David as he played the harp for Saul. David becomes increasingly successful and Saul becomes increasingly resentful. Now Saul actively plots against David. Saul offered his other daughter, Michal in marriage to David. David initially rejects this offer also, claiming he is too poor. King Saul offers to accept a bride price of 100 Philistine foreskins, intending that David die in the attempt. Instead, David obtains 200 foreskins and is consequently married to Michal.
Jonathan arranges a short-lived reconciliation between Saul and David and for a while David served Saul “as in times past” (1 Samuel 19:1–7) until “the distressing spirit from the Lord” re-appeared. Saul sends assassins in the night, but Michal helps him escape, tricking them by placing a household idol in his bed. David flees to Jonathan, who arranges a meeting with his father. While dining with Saul, Jonathan explains David’s absence, saying he has been called away to his brothers. But Saul sees through the ruse and reprimands Jonathan for protecting David; warning him that his love of David will cost him the kingdom; furiously throwing a spear at him. The next day, Jonathan meets with David and tells him Saul’s intent. The two friends say their goodbyes, and David flees into the countryside. Saul later marries Michal to another man.
Saul is later informed by his head shepherd, Doeg the Edomite, that high priest Ahimelech assisted David, giving him the sword of Goliath, which had been kept at the temple at Nob. Doeg kills Ahimelech and eighty-five other priests and Saul orders the death of the entire population of Nob.
David Leaves Nob and Arranges an Army
David had left Nob by this point and had amassed some 300 disaffected men including some outlaws. With these men David rescues the town of Keilah from a Philistine attack. Saul realizes he could trap David and his men by laying the city to siege. David realizes that the citizens of Keilah will betray him to Saul. He flees to Ziph pursued by Saul. King Saul hunts David in the vicinity of Ziph on two occasions:
Some of the inhabitants of Ziph betray David’s location to Saul, but David hears about it and flees with his men to Maon. King Saul follows David, but is forced to break off pursuit when the Philistines invade. After dealing with that threat Saul tracks David to the caves at Ein Gedi. As he searches the cave David manages to cut off a piece of Saul’s robe without being discovered, yet David restrains his men from harming the king. David then leaves the cave, revealing himself to Saul, and gives a speech that persuades Saul to reconcile.
On the second occasion, Saul returns to Ziph with his men. When David hears of this, he slips into Saul’s camp by night, and again restrains his men from killing the king; instead he steals Saul’s spear and water jug, leaving his own spear thrust into the ground by Saul’s side. The next day, David reveals himself to Saul, showing the jug and spear as proof that he could have slain him. David then persuades Saul to reconcile with him; the two swear never to harm each other. After this they never see each other again.
Battle of Gilboa and the Death of King Saul
The Philistines make war again, assembling at Shunem; and Saul leads his army to face them at Mount Gilboa. Before the battle he goes to consult a medium or witch at Endor. The medium, unaware of his identity, reminds him that the king has made witchcraft a capital offence, but he assures her that Saul will not harm her. She conjures the spirit of the prophet Samuel, who before his death had prophesied that he would lose the kingdom. Samuel tells him that God has fully rejected him, will no longer hear his prayers, has given the kingdom to David and that the next day he will lose both the battle and his life. Saul collapses in fear, and the medium restores him with food in anticipation of the next day’s battle.
The Books of Samuel give conflicting accounts of Saul’s death. In 1 Samuel, and in a parallel account in 1 Chronicles 10, the defeated Israelites flee from the enemy and Saul asks his armor bearer to kill him, but the armor bearer refuses, and so Saul falls upon his own sword. In 2 Samuel, an Amalekite tells David he found Saul leaning on his spear after the battle and delivered the coup de grâce; David has the Amalekite put to death for having killed the Lord’s anointed king.
The Philistines are Victorius and Take Saul’s Body
The victorious Philistines recover Saul’s body as well as those of his three sons who also died in the battle, decapitated them and displayed them on the wall of Beth-shan. They display Saul’s armour in the temple of Ashtaroth (an Ascalonian temple of the Canaanites). But at night the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead retrieve the bodies for cremation and burial (1 Samuel 31:8–13. Later on, David takes the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan and buries them in Zela, in the tomb of his father (2 Samuel 21:12–14). The account in 1 Chronicles summarises by stating that:
- Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance.