—Biblical Data:

The first king of all Israel. He was the son of Kish, "a Benjamite, a mighty man of valor" (I Sam. ix. 1). For many years Israel had been ruled by judges, and had suffered many and severe sorrows at the hands of her hostile and ambitious neighbors. In the time of Saul's youth, Samuel was the active judge of Israel. The Philistines were the perpetual harassers of Israel's borders, and were threatening the very life of the tribes. Samuel's intervention had done something to relieve the distress (ib. vii. 1-11); but the people of Israel were ambitious for a military leader, such as they saw among their neighbors. They made a formal appeal to Samuel for a king; and at the command of Yhwh their request was to be granted.

The method of the selection of this new monarch is given in two different records. In the first (ib. ix.) Saul with his attendant, after searching far andin vain for the lost asses of his father, resorted to the well-known "man of God," who happened at this time to be conducting a sacrifice and feast in the land of Zuph (ib. ix. 5). The outcome of this visit was that Samuel, according to the command of Yhwh, anointed Saul to be a prince over the inheritance of Israel (ib. x. 1). In confirmation of this appointment, Saul saw several signs which Samuel had foretold him. Saul then modestly retired to the family inheritance, probably at Gibeah.

Another, and a public, selection of Saul as king took place in a general assembly of Israel at Mizpah. Saul, as if avoiding the prominence which his private anointing would certainly bring him, hid himself among the baggage; but the lot fell to him, and he was found and enthusiastically proclaimed, the people shouting "God save the king!" Samuel also prepared the charter of the kingdom to be established and wrote it in a book. Saul, however, in his modesty again retired to Gibeah, not without having aroused jealousy on the part of some base opponents (ib. x. 19 et seq.).

Rescues Jabeshgilead.

Saul probably could not as yet safely assume the rule over Israel; but the desperate straits into which the people of Jabesh-gilead had fallen before Nahash the Ammonite soon furnished him with his opportunity. Nahash, willing to acquire as great power and fame as possible, gave the besieged Israelites time to appeal to the west-Jordanic tribes. Doubtless aware that Saul had been crowned king, the people of Jabesh came to Gibeah just as the king was coming in from his daily toil. Saul responded to the appeal, summoned and threatened all Israel, and by a forced march completely rescued the besieged Jabeshites. This victory assured Saul of his place at the head of the nation; and he was formally inaugurated king of Israel.

Saul was now responsible for the administration of central regal government of Israel. The first menace to his supremacy was the power of the Philistines. They had established a garrison at Geba (ib. xiii. 3) to protect their interests and to keep in subjection the restless Israelites. Saul had 2,000 men at Michmash and Jonathan 1,000 at Gibeah in Benjamin. The latter valiantly attacked and routed the Geba garrison; and this so roused the ire of the Philistines that they collected a great army of infantry, cavalry, and chariotry (ib. verse 5). This large body of troops forced itself up through the heart of the country to cut off any cooperation between the northern and southern tribes. In desperation the Hebrews fled in every direction, hiding themselves in caves, thickets, rocks, coverts, and cisterns. Saul withdrew with his meager 600 to Gilgal, until the arrival of Samuel, who severely rebuked him for attempting by himself to offer sacrifice to Yhwh. Firmly entrenched in their mountain fastnesses, the Israelites looked down upon the hosts of Philistines encamped in the valleys. To secure food and intimidate any possible recruits, the Philistines sent out foraging parties in three directions. The supposed security of the Philistines doubtless led them to be somewhat careless in discipline. At any rate Jonathan's valor surprised them; they were pursued; and the whole mass of Israelites completely routed their enemies, and for a time shook off their galling yoke. The close of this campaign witnesses the remarkable rescue of Jonathan from death, which Saul's hasty oath would have demanded (ib. ch. xiv.).

His Campaigns.

This was only one of the many military campaigns in which Saul was engaged. He fought against Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Amalekites. It was in the exterminating war against this last people that Saul sees his end as king. Though commanded to destroy them wholly, he saved Agag, their king, and the best of the flocks. Now Samuel for the second time (ib. xiii. 14, xv. 26) tells Saul of the certain downfall of his house as rulers over Israel. This rebellion on the part of Saul serves as a fitting introduction to the story of David's life. Samuel finds this successor to Saul, and formally anoints him at Beth-lehem.

Saul has not yet finished with the Philistines. He has driven them from the hills, and is now fighting them on their own ground. His great success at Socoh (A. V. "Shocoh") was due to the valor of David against Goliath. As Saul returns to his court the people give David the greater ovation, and thus slight the king, who now makes him an officer in his army. Later events show that this was a design on Saul's part to secure the death of his rival. By means of the army, of David's wife (Michal, daughter of the king), of ambushes, and of his own javelin, Saul tries to kill David, who flees to Ramah from the king's rage, only to be followed. Thence he goes to Nob, and to Gath in Philistia. Only by feigning madness does he escape. After collecting a band of sympathizers, David flees like a bird of the mountains, from one place to another, from the rage of Saul. At En-gedi he has the king in his power, but mercifully spares him. At Ziph, later on, he again spares the king when he might have slain him. David, however, can not trust Saul, and so goes to Philistia and takes up his residence in Ziklag.

Death of Saul.

Saul returns to his court; and the Philistines become still more aggressive. David's friendliness perhaps encourages them to strike a still harder blow at Israelitish power. To prevent Saul from enlisting the northern tribes they despatch a great army to Aphek in the valley of Jezreel. Saul musters all his forces, but before engaging the enemy, he, in desperation for some prophecy of the outcome, consults a witch of En-dor. With downcast heart at her reply, he returns to the scene of conflict. Broken in spirit, the Israelites are routed, pursued, and slain. Saul falls on his own sword on Mt. Gilboa; and the Philistines are victors.

Saul was beheaded; his body, with those of his sons, was fastened to the wall of Beth-shan, and his armor was hung up in the house of Ashtaroth. When the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead, the scene of Saul's first victory, heard of the deed of the Philistines, they sent valiant men who marched all night, took the bodies from Beth-shan, brought them to Jabesh, burned them there, buried the ashes, and fasted seven days.

Saul's reign of, possibly, twenty years was a failure, except that he succeeded in part in unifying Israel and in bringing to the front so valiant and capable a man as David.

J. I. M. P.—In Rabbinical Literature:

Two opposing views of Saul are found in rabbinical literature. One is based on the usual opinion that punishment is a proof of guilt, and therefore seeks to rob Saul of the halo which surrounds him. The passage I Sam. ix. 2, "a choice young man, and a goodly," is accordingly interpreted as meaning that Saul was not good in every respect, but "goodly" only with respect to his personal appearance (Num. R. ix. 28). According to this view, Saul is only a "weak branch" (Gen. R. xxv. 3), owing his kingship in no wise to his own merits, but rather to his grandfather, who had been accustomed to light the streets for those who went to the bet ha-midrash and had received as his reward the promise that one of his grandsons should sit upon the throne (Lev. R. ix. 2).

His Comeliness.

The second view of Saul makes him appear in the most favorable light as man, as hero, and as king. It was on account of his modesty that he did not reveal the fact that he had been anointed king (I Sam. x. 16; Meg. 13b); and he was extraordinarily upright as well as perfectly just. Nor was there any one more pious than he (M. Ḳ. 16b; Ex. R. xxx. 12); for when he ascended the throne he was as pure as a child, and had never committed sin (Yoma 22b). He was marvelously handsome; and the maidens who told him concerning Samuel (comp. I Sam. ix. 11-13) talked so long with him that they might observe his beauty the more (Ber. 48b). In war he was able to march 120 miles without rest. When he received the command to smite Amalek (I Sam. xv. 3), Saul said: "For one found slain the Torah requires a sinoffering [Deut. xxi. 1-9]; and here so many shall be slain. If the old have sinned, why should the young suffer; and if men have been guilty, why should the cattle be destroyed?" It was this mildness that cost him his crown (Yoma 22b; Num. R. i. 10)—the fact that he was merciful even to his enemies, being indulgent to rebels themselves, and frequently waiving the homage due to him. But if his mercy toward a foe was a sin, it was his only one; and it was his misfortune that it was reckoned against him, while David, although he had committed much iniquity, was so favored that it was not remembered to his injury (Yoma 22b; M. Ḳ 16b, and Rashi ad loc.). In many other respects Saul was far superior to David, e.g., in having only one concubine, while David had many wives and concubines. Saul expended his own substance for the war, and although he knew that he and his sons would fall in battle, he nevertheless went boldly forward, while David heeded the wish of his soldiers not to go to war in person (II Sam. xxi. 17; Lev. R. xxvi. 7; Yalḳ., Sam. 138).

His Character.

Saul ate his food with due regard for the rules of ceremonial purity prescribed for the sacrifice (Yalḳ., l.c.), and taught the people how they should slay cattle (comp. I Sam. xiv. 34). As a reward for this, God Himself gave him a sword on the day of battle, since no other sword suitable for him was found (ib. xiii. 22). Saul's attitude toward David finds its excuse in the fact that his courtiers were all tale-bearers, and slandered David to him (Deut. R. v. 10); and in like manner he was incited by Doeg against the priests of Nob (I Sam. xxii. 16-19; Yalḳ., Sam. 131). This act was forgiven him, however, and a heavenly voice ("bat ḳol") was heard, proclaiming: "Saul is the chosen one of God" (Ber. 12b). His anger at the Gibeonites (II Sam. xxi. 2) was not personal hatred, but was induced by zeal for the welfare of Israel (Num. R. viii. 4). The fact that he married his daughter Michal, the wife of David, to Phalti, the son of Laish (I Sam. xxv. 44), finds its explanation in his (Saul's) view that her betrothal to David had been gained by false pretenses and was therefore invalid (Sanh. 19b). During the lifetime of Saul there was no idolatry in Israel. The famine in the reign of David (comp. II Sam. xxi. 1) was to punish the people because they had not accorded Saul the proper honors at his burial (Num. R. viii. 4). In the other world Saul dwells with Samuel, which is a proof that all has been forgiven him ('Er. 53b).

S. J. Z. L.—Critical View:

The history of Saul's life and career is often embarrassingly confusing until the sources are critically analyzed. The matter as presented in I Samuel contains traces of more than one narrative. It is found, for example (viii. 4 et seq.), that the people ask for a king in spite of the protest of Samuel and the apparent disappointment of Yhwh; and yet Saul is to be anointed to save Israel out of the hands of the Philistines because its cry went up to Yhwh (ix. 16). Samuel selects and anoints Saul by the direct command of Yhwh (x. 1); but in his farewell address he charges the people with the rejection of Him because they asked for a king (xii.12). Samuel anoints Saul strictly in private (x. 1), but in another account the people select him by lot in a great national assembly at Mizpah (x. 20 et seq.).


Saul's consecration and selection do not seat him on the throne, however: for he goes to his house in Gibeah, where he engages in the peaceable pursuits of agriculture. Even when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead appeal to the west-Jordanic tribes for assistance, they do not seem to know that a king has been anointed over them. Saul apparently learns simply by accident the reason of the commotion caused by the messengers from Jabesh-gilead. When he takes the lead of the western tribes his appeal to the nation is made as if he were not a king but an associate with Samuel, whose authority will be instantly recognized. Again, Samuel in his final address to the people (xii. 12) states that the reason why the people asked for a king was the campaign against them of Nahash the Ammonite. On the overthrow of the invader, Saul is publicly proclaimed king before Yhwh in Gilgal. The order of the narrative that recites these facts seems to point to a combination of at least two different documents, though such a theory does not solve all the difficulties.

Budde's Views.

Budde maintains that a combination was made of two independent narratives, particularly as regardsthe choice of Saul as king and the characters of Samuel and Saul. The first or older document is contained in ix. 1-x. 16, x. 27b (Septuagint), and xi. 1-11, 14, 15, where Samuel calls the people together at Gilgal and Saul, because of his actual success in defeating the Ammonites, is formally made king over all Israel. This narrative is continued directly in ch. xiii. and xiv., which describe somewhat in detail Saul's activity against Israel's oppressors, the Philistines. The second or later document is found in ch. viii., where the people ask for a king; in x. 17-27a, where Saul is chosen by lot at Mizpah; and in ch. xii., which consists of Samuel's farewell address to the people.

The older document, as outlined by Budde, presents a consistent story of Saul's coronation and his clash with the Philistines. Samuel the seer was present in a certain unnamed city to celebrate a feast. Saul, who had been unsuccessful in the search for his father's lost asses, appealed to the seer for information. Yhwh had revealed to Samuel on the previous day that He would send to him a man out of the land of Benjamin, and that he (the seer) should "anoint him to be prince" over His people Israel; "and he shall save my people out of the hand of the Philistines" (ix. 16). At the feast Samuel honors Saul, detains him overnight, and privately anoints him the next morning, averring that it is Yhwh who has commanded him to do so. Samuel then points out the signs that he shall see, the change that he shall experience, and admonishes him: "do as occasion shall serve thee; for God is with thee" (x. 7). When Jabesh-gilead was besieged about a month later, according to the Septuagint (x. 27b), Saul had the "occasion" to demonstrate his ability. Summoning all the tribes of Israel, he successfully marshaled his forces, and routed the besiegers and invaders. Returning to Gilgal, he was confirmed king in accordance with Samuel's consecration of him at the gate of the unnamed town.

Interpolations in Ch. xiii. and xiv.

The real purpose of Saul's coronation (ix. 16) is fulfilled in ch. xiii. 1-7a and 15b-xiv. 46, where he and Jonathan, his son, with their troops completely overthrow and drive out the Philistine oppressors. These chapters have been worked over, and now contain several interpolations that interfere with the smooth flow of the narrative. Ch. xiii. 7b-15a belongs rather to the rejection of Saul in ch. xv., and glances back to x. 8. Ch. xiii. 18 should be followed immediately by xiv. 1, as xiii. 19-23 is a very corrupt text and deals with an issue aside from the main line of the narrative. Ch. xiv. 47-52 is supplementary to the preceding narrative, and is not connected with the theme in question.

In the later narrative (viii., x. 17-27a, xii.) Samuel is a judge, who has established his sons as judges in various cities of the land. After repeated requests of the people, in which are embodied protests against the conduct of these sons, Yhwh finally agrees to allow Israel to have a king like the other nations. Samuel is commanded to choose such a king, and then dismisses the people. It must be noted that mention is made here not of foreign oppression, but of the manifest malfeasance of Samuel's sons, as the basic reason for the request and the final concession of Yhwh. The people are then called together in assembly (x.17-27a); and a king is chosen by lot. The note in xi. 14 regarding the renewal of the kingdom is thought to be merely a harmonizing statement of the editor. Samuel's address (xii.) reviews the situation, and cites as another reason for the people's request the Ammonite campaign (ib. verse 12); but at the same time it condemns them for the request (ib. verses 17, 19).

Ch. xv. does not properly belong to either of the two narratives already treated. It seems to occupy a kind of intermediate position, placed, as it is, after the formal close of Saul's reign, and before the introduction of David's life. It is a prophecy of the fall of Saul's house, and paves the way for the beginning and continuation of the kingdom through the house of David.

Ch. xvi.-xviii. Contain Two Documents.

Ch. xvi.-xviii. contain two documents descriptive of David's introduction to Saul. In the first, Samuel goes to Beth-lehem to offer sacrifices and anoint the future king of Israel. After he has passed; by Yhwh's order, upon all the sons of Jesse that are present, the youngest one, David, who, caring for his sheep, is absent from the sacrifice, is called in and formally anointed (xvi. 1-13). After this act "the Spirit of Yhwh came mightily upon" him "from that day forward." The character of David as a shepherd boy is developed in xvii. 1-xviii. 5, where David chances to visit his brothers during a battle with the Philistines, and with a shepherd's sling slays Goliath, and wins the encomiums of the people of Israel. The second account (xvi. 14-23) introduces David as a skilful musician, "a mighty man of valor, and a man of war, and prudent in speech" (ib. verse 18). Saul is so impressed by him that he makes him his armor-bearer and holds him in high esteem. If the accounts are not separate in origin, it is not clear how Saul could have asked the question attributed to him in xvii. 55-58. Subsequent references (xix. 5; xxi. 9, etc.) to David's victory over Goliath show how this event was woven in with the traditions of his early life.

The Septuagint, however, almost harmonizes the differences between xvi. 14-23 and xvii. 1-xviii. 5 by the omission from the latter of verses 12-31, 41, 50, 55-xviii. 5. In xviii. 6-30, which is a continuation in thought of xvi. 14-23, there are also several variations in the Septuagint, each clearly showing the increasing enmity toward David on the part of Saul.

Duplication in Ch. xix.-xxxi.

There is a variety of opinion in the analysis of the matter contained in xix.-xxxi. One of the most striking and critical features of the whole narrative of this section, however, is the duplication of the account of David's merciful treatment of Saul when the pursued had the pursuer in his hands. It is maintained that the record of David's hiding in the cave and his treatment of Saul, in xxiv., and that of David's elusion and final potential capture of Saul within the camp of his army, are two versions of one and the same story. Theframework of one is the framework of the other. The points of agreement and the character are just what would be expected had each been built on the same original event.

Saul's despair in the face of the Philistine army led him to consult the witch of En-dor as to the probable result of the battle about to be fought. H. P. Smith ("Old Testament History," p. 126) holds that ch. xxviii. is only the dramatic embodiment of an idea; and that was the popular idea concerning intercourse with the dead. It is asserted that there are two accounts of Saul's death. In one it is stated that he was defeated, his sons were slain, and he himself was wounded. To escape the ignominy of falling alive into the hands of the enemy he urged his armor-bearer to slay him. Upon the attendant's refusal to do so, he fell upon his own sword. According to the other account an Amalekite slew him. These two records are doubtless built upon the fact that Saul and his sons died on the field of battle fighting for the liberty of their people.

  • Wellhausen, Der Text der Bücher Samuelis, 1871;
  • Wellhausen, in Bleek, Einleitung, 1878, pp. 206-231;
  • K. Budde, Die Bücher Richter und Samuel, 1890, pp. 167-276;
  • idem, in Haupt, S. B. O. T. 1895;
  • S. R. Driver, Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel, 1890;
  • T. K. Cheyne, Aids to the Devout Study of Criticism, 1892, pp. 1-126;
  • H. P. Smith, Old Testament History, 1903, ch. vii.;
  • Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl.
J. I. M. P.