Saul by Nathaniel E. Greene

Imagine being sent out for groceries by your parents, only to return home having been selected as the first king of a freshly emerging monarchy. This is how the story of Saul ben Kish begins. We first meet Saul after his father has lost a drove of donkeys. Saul’s quest to find his father’s livestock then takes a rather unexpected turn when he encounters the prophet Samuel who informs him that Yahweh has chosen him to rule over Israel. This sudden alteration of Saul’s itinerary sets him on a path to becoming a somewhat successful military leader; however, this new trajectory also sets Saul on a path toward a contentious rivalry with the young David as well as toward his family’s demise upon Mount Gilboa.

Saul: King in the north? Or, no king at all?

The current form of the biblical text of 1 Samuel would have the reader believe that Saul ruled Israel as a king prior to David successfully usurping his throne. While Saul was certainly a social and political leader of early Israel, it is difficult to determine whether or not Saul was ever actually a king. After all, there are very few passages in 1 Samuel that actually describe Saul at court, in a palace, or performing kingly activities. Instead, the lion’s share of Saul’s activities are martial in nature. Saul’s encounter with Nahash the Ammonite (1Sam 11) and his sacking of various Philistine garrisons with his son Jonathan (1Sam 13:2-3; see 1Sam 14:6-15) serve as prime examples. Further, the notice of his regnal years in 1Sam 13:1 is problematic and was likely added at a much later date, leading many readers to question its reliability. (The Hebrew text that we have actually has Saul beginning his reign at one year old!) The archaeological reality of the time period when Saul would have ruled Israel—the early Iron Age, some time between the end of the eleventh and beginning of the tenth centuries BCE—is also more than a little problematic. While the Bible paints a picture of Saul leading a burgeoning political and military power, there is little archaeological evidence to support the existence of an Israelite monarchy at such an early date. In fact, most of the texts describing Saul in 1 Samuel anticipate the successful rise of David. The description of Saul’s good looks in 1Sam 9:1-2, for example, anticipates Yahweh’s concerns in selecting a king in 1Sam 16:7—namely, that Yahweh cares not about physical appearance. Instead, Yahweh is concerned with selecting a king on the basis of their character. It seems most likely that most of the older tales describing Saul and his military excursions were inherited by scribes who favored David and edited into political propaganda against Saul and in favor of David and the Davidic line. Perhaps Saul was never king in fact and was only made to appear as one to reinforce Davidic claims for the throne.

Prophet or prophetic pawn? Who is really in charge here?

From the very beginning of Saul’s story, the careful reader can discern a close relationship between Saul and the prophetic office. There is little that Saul does that takes place outside the oversight of prophets—Samuel in particular. Saul’s quest for seeking out his father’s lost livestock is sidetracked by an initially unnamed seer who turns out—surprise, surprise!—to be Samuel. From this point until the time of his death fighting against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, the trajectory of Saul’s story is ordered and directed by prophetic activity. He is first anointed by Samuel as “king designate” (Hebrew nāgîd) in 1Sam 10:1. Then, after the donkey tale appears to have come to a conclusion, Samuel directs a lot casting ceremony to determine Israel’s new leader in a more public setting in 1Sam 10:17-27. Indeed, here the people request a king (Hebrew melek) and proclaim Saul as such by the end of the tale. (Note, however, that this particular passage comes from a time much later than the texts that surround it and does not cast Saul in the most favorable of light.) The episode at Jabesh Gilead seems, at first glance, to have escaped the influence of the prophetic office and lacks almost any references to prophets or prophecy; the phrase “and after Samuel” in 1Sam 11:7, although probably a secondary addition to the text, serves to bring the entire episode under the watchful eye of this prominent Man of God. 1Sam 11 concludes with a transition to Gilgal—connecting the story to Samuel’s earlier directions to Saul and prepares the reader for Saul’s first rejection two chapters later. After failing to obey Samuel’s command to wait for him at Gilgal, Saul disobeys Samuel’s orders in 1Sam 13:7-15 and is denied the kingship by Samuel. After having waited the full seven days as Samuel had ordered him in 1Sam 10:8, Saul offered up a sacrifice to Yahweh, only for Samuel to jump out—almost as if he had been hiding behind some nearby bushes—to catch Saul in the act of illicit cultic activity. Similarly, Saul’s skirmish with the Amalekites and King Og in 1Sam 15 was intended to culminate with the Amalekites being put to the ban (Hebrew ḥrm). Saul spares Og, however, and is denied the kingship a second time by Samuel. Saul’s origin story is almost entirely directed by prophetic activity at every turn. Relatedly, an old “proverb” or saying concerning Saul (“Is Saul also among the prophets?”) and an association with prophets appears twice in 1 Samuel (1Sam 10:12 and 1Sam 19:24), which could also be understood to subordinate Saul to prophetic oversight. It is the prophet, after all, who both anoints and denounces various kings throughout the book of Samuel.

Nathaniel E. Greene, "Saul", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2022]. Online:



Nathaniel E. Greene
Lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, University of Aberdeen

Nathaniel E. Greene is a Lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in the Department of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen. He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His forthcoming book,  Warlord and Scribe: The Nascent Israelite State beneath Its Textual Veneers, is an examination of 1 Samuel 9–14 in light of the archaeological and textual realities of 1 Samuel in the eleventh–ninth centuries BCE.

Although the biblical text portrays Saul as the first king of Israel, he was, historically speaking, perhaps not a king at all, but rather a military leader at a time of great sociopolitical change in Israel.

Did you know…?

  • The narrative about Samuel’s birth in 1Sam 1-3 contains several puns on Saul’s name. Some believe that Samuel’s birth story was originally about Saul.
  • Saul appears in the narrative superscription of five different Psalms: Ps 18, Ps 52, Ps 54, Ps 57, and Ps 59.
  • Saul nearly had his son Jonathan executed because of an oath he made his army swear (1Sam 14:28, 1Sam 14:36-46).
  • Unlike many other prominent figures in the Hebrew Bible, Saul does not appear in any texts of the New Testament.
  • The horrific story of the Levite and his concubine in Judg 19 has several literary parallels with Saul’s encounter with Nahash the Ammonite in 1Sam 11.
  • One could say that Abimelech was technically the first king in Israel’s collective history (Judg 9); Abimelech, however, was unsuccessful in attempting to establish a lasting, dynastic political institution and thus most do not count him.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

royal, related to kings

1Sam 11

Saul Defeats the Ammonites
1About a month later, Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treat ... View more

1Sam 13:2-3

2 Saul chose three thousand out of Israel; two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and the hill country of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah o ... View more

1Sam 14:6-15

6 Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the Lord will act for us; f ... View more

1Sam 13:1

Saul's Unlawful Sacrifice
1Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.

1Sam 9:1-2

9 There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. 2 He had a son whose ... View more

1Sam 16:7

7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals ... View more

related to a system of religious worship

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

of lower social class or status

1Sam 10:1

1Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the ... View more

1Sam 10:17-27

17 Samuel summoned the people to the Lord at Mizpah 18 and said to them,[a] “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I res ... View more

1Sam 11:7

7He took a yoke of oxen, and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Sau ... View more

1Sam 11

Saul Defeats the Ammonites
1About a month later, Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treat ... View more

1Sam 10:8

8 And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall ... View more

1Sam 15

Saul Defeats the Amalekites but Spares Their King
1Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the ... View more

1Sam 19:24

24 He too stripped off his clothes, and he too fell into a frenzy before Samuel. He lay naked all that day and all that night. Therefore it is said, “Is Saul al ... View more

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The addition of a title or subtitle in an ancient work; see especially the designation of certain types of psalms in the book of Psalms.

1Sam 1-3

Chapter 2Chapter 3

Ps 18

Royal Thanksgiving for Victory
To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lor ... View more

Ps 52

Judgment on the Deceitful
To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
1Why ... View more

Ps 54

Prayer for Vindication
To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is in hiding among us.”
1Save m ... View more

Ps 57

Praise and Assurance under Persecution
To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.

1 Be merciful to me, O God, be m ... View more

Ps 59

Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies
To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.

1 Delive ... View more

1Sam 14:28

28 Then one of the soldiers said, “Your father strictly charged the troops with an oath, saying, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food this day.’ And so the troops ar ... View more

1Sam 14:36-46

Jonathan in Danger of Death
36 Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and despoil them until the morning light; let us not leave one of ... View more

Judg 19

The Levite's Concubine
1In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to ... View more

1Sam 11

Saul Defeats the Ammonites
1About a month later, Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treat ... View more

Judg 9

Abimelech Attempts to Establish a Monarchy
1Now Abimelech son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother's kinsfolk and said to them and to the whole clan of hi ... View more

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