King Saul of Israel: History & Timeline

Instructor: Jonathan Reich
Saul was the first king of Israel. Chosen to unite the tribes and provide protection and guidance to the nation, he was often overmatched by the circumstances and personalities surrounding him. After losing God's blessing and failing to establish a stable dynasty, he died in battle against Israel's enemies.

Who Was King Saul of Israel?

Saul, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, was the first king of all of Israel. Appointed as king to unite the tribes of Israel into a true nation and to establish a standing army in order to deter and repel outside threats, Saul was a tragic figure. He was unable to keep to the limits of his office and was quickly overshadowed by a charismatic rival. Though handsome and tall, Saul's personality often didn't seem up to the task of being a king, and even in his own story he often seemed like a secondary character, first to Samuel and then to David.

The Time Before Kings

In order to understand how and why Saul became king, it is important to understand the state of Israelite politics during that period. The Israelites were a nation united by history, language, and religion, but not, at that stage, by politics. The tribes of Israel each lived autonomously in their own region of the land, with the priestly tribe of Levi living dispersed amongst the others and seeing to their religious matters. There was no central authority, and the tribes were, politically, left to their own devices.

Having conquered the land of Israel, the Israelites lived there, although not peacefully. They were periodically attacked by various Canaanite tribes still living in the land, as well as neighbors like the Moabites and Ammonites. Around 1175 BCE, a Hellenistic people called the Philistines established themselves on the Mediterranean coast and often came into conflict with their neighbors, including the Israelites.

Periodically, a crisis would arise that required cooperation; a common enemy would require that the tribes pull together. When this happened, the tribes would choose a charismatic leader, seen as divinely appointed, known as a Judge. The Judge would have political and military power during the crisis; he or she could raise an army, demand supplies and war material, and command the troops. When the crisis was over and the threat had passed, the Judge would relinquish his or her powers and everything would go back to the way it was before. Some of the more famous Judges were Deborah, Jephthah, Gideon, and Samson.

During the times when there was no Judge, priests and prophets often acted as leaders of the people, although informally. This was the case with the prophet Samuel. Samuel provided spiritual and practical guidance to all who came to him and settled disputes. As he began to grow old, it was obvious that when he died the nation would be left with absolutely no central figure. Faced with this prospect, as well as a Philistine threat, a group of elders approached Samuel and asked him to do the unthinkable: appoint a permanent king over the whole nation of Israel.

Saul Anointed

Initially reluctant, Samuel picked Saul, a young man from the tribe of Benjamin. Saul was handsome and tall, and looked the part of a king. The phrase 'head and shoulders above' to signify superiority may have entered the English language from the description of Saul in 1 Samuel 9:2. Saul was also from the smallest of the tribes, which was politically advantageous, since it was less likely that the larger tribes would feel their autonomy threatened.

At first, Saul was successful. He, along with his son Jonathan, led the Israelite armies to defeat the Philistines, as well as most of the Israelites' other traditional foes. Saul established a court, advisors, and the rest of the trappings of power. Israel was secure and prosperous. Saul, however, began to overstep his bounds. Leading a raid on the tribe known as the Amalekites, Saul transgressed Divine law.

The Amalekites were a desert tribe who, when the Israelites were fleeing Egyptian servitude, staged brutal attacks upon the refugees, usually targeting the slowest and weakest groups. Because of this, the Amalekites were cursed by God. They were to be killed whenever possible, whereas other tribes and nations could be negotiated with. No slaves were allowed to be taken from the Amalekites; prisoners, if any, were to be killed. No spoils were to be kept; they were to be burned. Warfare at this time was often done for profit, but this type of warfare was not allowed where the Amalekites were concerned. That is precisely what Saul did.

Upon seeing that Saul had taken the Amalekite King Agag captive and had kept the best of their valuables for himself, Samuel flew into a rage. He declared that because Saul had disobeyed the divine command, God had withdrawn the mantle of kingship from Saul. Saul was, of course, still king in fact; politically, and in the minds of people, Saul was the ruler. However, he no longer had God's blessing or guidance in his rule.

Samuel Cursing Saul, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1530
Samuel Cursing Saul, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1530

The Rise of David

Samuel set out to find a new king, and his prophetic gifts drew him to the house of Jesse, a shepherd, where he was instructed by God to anoint Jesse's youngest son, David, as rightful king of Israel. David was not king, but God's intentions were clear; David was God's choice to be the rightful ruler.

Saul and David met during a famous incident at a battle against the Philistines. In typical Hellenistic fashion, the hugest member of the Philistine army paraded in front of the Israelite lines, challenging anyone to single combat. The Philistine in this case was the six-fingered giant Goliath, and the biggest warrior on the Israelite side was, of course, King Saul. But Saul didn't step up to battle, and it was David who killed Goliath instead, leading the Israelites to win the battle that followed. Saul brought David back to court with him, but was jealous when the people greeted the victorious forces with a new song, chanting 'Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands!'

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