Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Man Who Would Be King (I Samuel 13-15)

As far as Samuel is concerned, Saul’s career is over as soon as it starts.

The first incident seems pretty innocent (not unlike Moses at Meribah). The Philistines are invading with a mind-bogglingly huge army. Refugees are pouring out of Israel into Gilead. Everyone is terrified. Samuel had instructed Saul to wait at Gilgal seven days. When Samuel still doesn’t show up and Saul’s support is beginning to buckle, he goes ahead and offers a sacrifice without him.

Apparently, this was a very very bad move.

Samuel has some choice words for impatient Saul:
The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.
Saul has shown, by this little slip of protocol under pressure, that he’s not the sort of King that will follow the Lord’s commands. This seems rather disproportionate to me, and there’s obviously some tension between Saul and Samuel. At first glance it hardly seems fair – Saul never wanted to be king in the first place. Why, we ask, didn’t God pick someone else?

While Saul is trying to get his act together, his son Jonathan runs off with his armor bearer to check out the enemy. Compare Jonathan’s confidence with his father’s indecision:
Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.
Jonathan and his servant end up killing 20 men, and throwing the enemy into a panic. Saul sees it, and the Israelite army attacks. They end up routing the Philistines. However, thanks to a rash vow of Saul forbidding anyone from eating before they win the battle, the people are famished and end up eating raw meat with the blood still in it. What’s more, Jonathan didn’t know about the vow, ate a bite during his expedition, and is now about to be put to death by his father despite the victory. Thankfully the army will have none of it, and Jonathan is spared.

Finally, Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has decided the time has come to avenge the mistreatment that Israel received from the Amalakites. He is to devote their capital city to complete destruction – people, buildings, and cattle. Saul kills the people all right, but (like Achan at Jericho) decides to keep the cattle for himself, thus reducing an act of divine judgment to a raid for his personal gain. Oh – and he spares Agag, the king, for a trophy. This is the last straw. Upon hewing Agag down, Samuel announces that the Lord has officially rejected Saul as king over Israel.

Saul is actually a perfect example of the reluctant leader – apparently the sort of guy our culture likes. One of my frustrations with Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King was that he made Tolkien’s kingly Aragorn into one of these pathetic guys. We see the desire for power as dangerous above all else, so a good man would avoid it like the plague. The safest sort of ruler would be the mild-mannered man who is forced against his will to lead by circumstances beyond his control, and only does so with great reluctance. He doesn’t presume to know the best decision. He just tries to make the best call he can.

I guess he’s sort of like Esau. The guy never wanted much – just a bowl of stew when he was hungry. He’s humble. He’s practical. He’s not the type to chase after grandiose promises. That is, not until he finds his current station slipping away, and then he’s liable to lash out blindly.

Saul and Esau may be men after our own hearts, but the God of Jacob has someone else in mind.

Great observations about Saul's character. But we can't competely knock the "reluctant leader" model just because of Saul... Moses, after all, argued for a good long time about his calling, even flat out commanding God to choose someone else. How do you suppose you would contrast their reluctance, or contrast the way their different characters handled that reluctance?

Hmmm - that's a good question. I would say an intense love of the people (which Moses showed with his killing of the Egyptian) and then probably a willingness to pursue and wrestle with the Lord on a personal level. Saul seems to only deal with Him through ceremony when he has to.

It's best if we remember that Saul's biography was written by people who, very likely, had a hand in his untimely demise. Take it with a grain of salt.

That said, however, there is another place to look for a more positive account of Saul and that is in Exodus. According to S. David Sperling, Moses was an allegorical character based upon King Saul. So, if you look at those portions of Exodus that were written by J, JE, or E (see Documentary Hypothesis for identification) and replace the name Moses with Saul, you get some idea of what Saul may have been like. Saul was probably the illegitimate son of nobleman from Kish and a Shasu bedouin (habiru) woman who was raised by an upper-class Egyptian family that had stayed in Canaan after Rameses VI withdrew Egyptian troops in 1141 to quell a civil war at home. After avenging the death of one of the habiru with whom he felt some affinity, he fled to Midian for safety and there met a priest who presided over the Yahweh cult at the coppermines at Timna. Later, on his return to Canaan, he united the semi-nomadic habiru with the Canaanite peasants who had migrated to the highlands after 1141 BCE. It was Saul, not the allegorical Moses, that introduced the worship of Yahweh to the Canaanites. Saul's reign came to an end when he was killed by a coalition of Philistines and Amalekites under the command of Achish, the Philistine king of Gath. Saul was succeeded by David, himself a habiru, and David was succeeded by Bathsheba's son, Solomon.

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