The first king of Israel, Saul the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin, is seemingly chosen by God and almost immediately rejected by him.
He is known to us only from the biblical account of his rise to power and dramatic fall in 1 Samuel 8–31.
Destined to fail?
Saul comes to the throne against the backdrop of God’s dislike of kingship. Both the prophet Samuel and God are displeased when the people ask for a king: ‘They have not rejected you but they have rejected me as king over them’, God tells Samuel (1 Samuel 8:7; see also 10:17-19; ch. 12). Saul thus seems destined from the outset to fail, and, indeed, he is twice rejected as king by God in scenes that follow closely upon his anointing. The circumstances, however, are not unequivocal.
In the first rejection scene, it is not altogether evident wherein Saul’s disobedience lies. When Samuel fails to arrive to offer sacrifices within the seven days he had specified (1 Samuel 10:8), Saul reluctantly makes the offering himself because his army is scattering and he fears a Philistine attack before God’s favour has been sought. One might wonder if Samuel’s failure to keep the appointment on time, followed by his arrival just as Saul finished offering the sacrifice, is simply a matter of chance.
In the second rejection scene, Saul’s assertion that he has obeyed the command to destroy the Amalekites (15:13, 20) suggests that he considered sacrificing the spoils to God in Gilgal as compatible with the divine demand. But whereas Saul’s defence against the charge of disobedience in 1 Samuel 13 seemed reasonable, here his justification of his behaviour is somewhat feeble, as he shifts the blame to the people (15:15, 21). In the end, Saul confesses to the sin of listening to his people and asks forgiveness, but forgiveness is not forthcoming.
Saul as a tormented personality
Try as he may, Saul cannot seem to do the right thing in the eyes of Samuel and of God. He emerges in the story as a complex and sympathetic character, a man who does not seek the kingship but struggles to hold on to it at all costs once it is thrust upon him, a victim of himself but also of God, who sends an evil spirit to torment him (1 Samuel 16:14) and undermines him by furthering the fortunes of his rival David, whom God has chosen to replace Saul as king. Without doubt, Saul is guilty of disobedience, but though rejected by God, he remains a faithful Yahwist. He does not lead Israel astray, he enjoys military success (1 Samuel 11; 14:47-48), and he is not guilty of perpetrating the evils of kingship described by Samuel (1 Samuel 8:11-18). Nevertheless, though capable of magnanimity and inspiring loyalty among his followers, he also displays sinister, inflexible qualities, such as his willingness to carry out his rash oath and have his son Jonathan killed (1 Samuel 14) and his slaughter of the priests of Nob (1 Samuel 22).
After his rejection by God, Saul views David’s success and rising popularity with jealousy and growing apprehension. His attempts to kill his rival are thwarted by his own children, who, out of affection for David, help him escape. Saul’s descent into madness and his alienation from those once closest to him, Samuel, David, and Jonathan, are painfully detailed as he carries his single-minded pursuit of David almost—but not entirely—to the point of neglecting his duties as king.
Successes and failures
Saul manages to delay his downfall but not to avoid it. He rules some years after his rejection; there are signs that he still commands loyalty even though he himself doubts it; for a time he keeps the Philistines at bay; and he even shows on occasion a conciliatory attitude toward David (1 Samuel 19:6-7; 24:16-22 [Heb. 17-23]; 26:21-25). Moreover, to the end, he seeks God’s counsel, but he meets with divine silence and a reiteration of rejection from the ghost of Samuel (1 Samuel 28). His career ends abruptly on the battlefield where, seeing no possibility of escape, he takes his own life (a different version is told in 2 Samuel 1 by an Amalekite who wrongly expects a reward from David, since David stands to profit from Saul’s death).
Exum, J. Cheryl. “Saul: The Hostility of God.” Pages 16-44 in Tragedy and Biblical Narrative: Arrows of the Almighty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Green, Barbara. King Saul’s Asking. Interfaces. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003.