Why God Picked Such an Incompetent Wretch as the Israelites' First Monarch

The Complete Book of 1 Samuel

Why God Picked Such an Incompetent Wretch as the Israelites' First Monarch

The Complete Book of 1 Samuel

Why God Picked Such an Incompetent Wretch as the Israelites' First Monarch
What's really in the Good Book.
Oct. 24 2006 5:21 PM

The Complete Book of 1 Samuel


Chapter 9 and Chapter 10
Samuel is keeping his eye peeled for a suitable king. The Lord tells him that His chosen candidate is about to visit. It turns out to be the young man Saul, who has lost a donkey and wants Samuel to help divine its whereabouts. These few details perfectly sum up the character of the future king: Saul's the kind of person who loses the animal he's supposed to watch and then wastes the time of Israel's most powerful man in order to find it. He's at once incompetent, careless, and entitled. But no matter: Saul is the best-looking man in his tribe and the tallest Israelite around, so Samuel anoints him in a private ceremony.

(Incidentally, Saul's anointed after a dinner in which Samuel serves the future king the thigh of lamb, or maybe goat. This is another example of how the thigh is prized—it's the choicest cut during animal sacrifices, as well. Me, I prefer white meat.)

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David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


Samuel dispatches the new king to a religious commune called the "Hill of God," where Saul is greeted by a dancing, singing mob of prophets. Saul is transported into a religious euphoria. The spirit of God "gripped him, and he spoke in ecstasy." He becomes "another man." This is the Bible's first description of religious ecstasy. We've seen lots of religious rage—for example, Samson—and plenty of calm revelation—God conversing sedately with a prophet or judge (Gideon, Moses at the burning bush, etc.). But Saul's spiritual abandon is new.

Saul's unusual ecstasy is a reminder of just how rational the Bible tries to be. The Bible makes its appeal in a very logical way. The Israelites aren't supposed to follow God because of a mystical experience, but because they have direct, tangible evidence of His works. Given that He drove back the Red Sea, fed them with manna, and led them to military victory, it makes perfect sense to fear and obey Him. Saul's conversion, by contrast, is purely spiritual and irrational. Unlike so many other Bible leaders, Saul is driven by faith, not reason.

Samuel convenes all the Israelites to name the king. When he announces his choice of Saul, the young man has vanished. A search party discovers him hiding in the luggage. A sympathetic reading of this episode is: Saul is a modest young man, showing proper humility in the face of God's extraordinary demand. A less forgiving reading is: How many warning signs do you need? He's not merely careless and incompetent. He's also deeply phobic! Even Samuel recognizes that Saul isn't qualified to rule. Rather, he merely observes that Saul is very tall: "There is none like him among all the people."

Chapter 11

Vicious King Nahash the Ammonite has decided to gouge out the right eye of everyone in Jabesh, a town he's besieging. He gives them seven days to decide whether to submit to the punishment. Jabesh sends messengers to Saul, who receives the dispatch as he returns from plowing in the fields. Yes, the king of Israel is a plowboy! From this one sentence, we understand that he's been unable to rule, that he's been so ineffective that he's been reduced to farming. But for the first time in his life, Saul rises to the occasion. He raises a gigantic army and easily smashes the Ammonites.


A puzzle: The chapter describes Saul's army this way: "The Israelites numbered 300,000, the men of Judah 30,000." Why is Judah counted separately? Why are the Judahites not Israelites?

Chapter 12

Samuel gives his farewell address. It's a lovely sermon, a stark contrast to the wild threats issued by Moses and Joshua on their deathbeds. Samuel glumly accepts that the Israelites want a king but reminds them that their earthly monarch holds no candle to the only ruler who matters. Saul won't be able to protect them if they disobey the Lord: God will sweep away the king and his people. Rather than worrying about "useless things," Samuel exhorts, they should revere and serve God. Samuel is unlike any Bible figure before him. Unlike the patriarchs, he does not appeal to economic self-interest by talking of covenants and Promised Land. Unlike the judges, he does not seek mere military triumph. And unlike Moses, he is not concerned about codifying laws for an entire people. No, Samuel is focused on individual belief, the unshakeable obligation of each Israelite to love and fear the Lord. More than anyone in the Bible so far, Samuel speaks a modern language of faith.

Chapter 13

Here's a verse that must give biblical literalists fits. It certainly baffles the translators. Verse 1 reads: "Saul was … years old when he became king and he reigned over Israel two years." That ellipsis does not represent a missing English word but rather a missing Hebrew word. Translated literally, the verse would say: "Saul was 1 year old when he became king and that he reigned for two years." Neither of those numbers makes any sense, given what we've been told about Saul and his reign. Other translations try to solve the problem by claiming he was 30 years old and reigned 42 years, but that adds words that may not be in the original text.

Saul starts a war with the Philistines. After Saul's son Jonathan routes an enemy garrison, the Philistines, who now have 30,000 chariots, march against the Israelites. Saul's forces flee into caves, and the king doesn't rise to the occasion. Saul waits for Samuel to come bail him out. (Though Samuel gave his farewell address already, he's alive and well, and keeps reappearing throughout the book.) Saul has the burnt offering brought to him and makes the offering himself. When Samuel arrives, he flies into a rage at Saul's apparent blasphemy. Samuel does not make clear exactly what crime Saul has committed. My guess is that it's a church-state separation problem. The king has secular authority, but the divinely ordained priest class remains, and it's very aggressive about protecting its prerogatives. In handling the burnt offering, Saul is usurping the cleric's job. This is incredibly alarming to Samuel and the priests because it endangers their essential authority. Saul, like a too-greedy president, is trying to undo the separation of powers. Samuel won't stand for it. He strips the king of his legacy, saying, "now your dynasty will not endure." God will find a more obedient king, "a man after His own heart." (Etymologists, lexicographers—please help me out! I presume this is the origin of, "a man after his own heart," since the same phrase also appears in the King James translation.)


There is a bizarre, unexplained detail at the end of the chapter. One reason the Israelites are ill-equipped to fight the Phils is that they have no metal weapons. The chapter says that the Philistines did not permit the Israelites to have blacksmiths, to prevent them from arming themselves. Presumably the Philistines couldn't have barred smiths unless they utterly dominated Israel, which suggests the Israelites were actually vassals of the Philistines, not a competing nation. Is this true? If so, then what was Saul king of?

Chapter 14

Jonathan is the world's first special-ops soldier—the original Ranger. While Saul and his mangy militia hide out, Jonathan and his servant launch a sneak attack on the massive Philistine army. Jonathan and his aide kill 20 of the enemy and throw the Philistines into a panic. Seeing the chaos, Saul sends his troops after the confused enemy and defeats them.

Trust Saul to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Having won in the field, he commits the Jephthah mistake of making a moronic vow. He swears that his men won't eat until the enemy is defeated and lays a curse on anyone who flouts him. Jonathan, not knowing of Dad's oath, takes a bite of honey, which gives him strength to fight harder. Saul's hungry soldiers, by contrast, lack the energy to rout the enemy. Saul discovers that Jonathan had a snack. Jephthah-like, Saul prepares to kill his son for violating the oath. The Israelites, who are much more logical and decent than their increasingly unhinged king, implore him not to kill his son, who led them to their great victory. The people ransom Jonathan from Saul and free him.

Chapter 15

Channeling the Lord, Samuel orders Saul to "utterly destroy" the Amalekites, killing all their men, women, children, and animals. Saul disobeys. He kills everyone except the king, but he spares the best livestock. The Lord and Samuel are furious that Saul has flouted God's direct order. (This puts modern readers in the bizarre position of siding with mercilessness and genocide.) Confronted by Samuel, Saul sputters that he only kept the animals alive so they could be sacrificed to the Lord. (Given Saul's lack of fidelity, this is almost certainly a lie.) Samuel rebukes the king: "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of lambs."

I am not sure what to make of Samuel's conclusion that obedience trumps anything else, even good intentions. It's a very martial philosophy: You must obey orders, even when you think you have a better idea.

 Samuel again disavows Saul as king. Saul begs him to "pardon my sin." Samuel refuses: "You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel." Samuel turns away from Saul.

A dreadful, vivid incident follows. Samuel summons Agag, the Amalek king spared by Saul. Agag cries when he sees Samuel, "Surely this is the bitterness of death." Then Samuel cuts Agag into pieces. Samuel goes home and never sees Saul again. "And the Lord was sorry that He had made Saul king over Israel."

I bet He was sorry. Just as the Israelites are discovering what a pain it is for them to have a king (especially a nutter like Saul), God is discovering what a pain it is for Him to have a king. A king, after all, sets himself outside of God's laws. A king doesn't think the rules apply to him. According to the Bible, there can be only one true king. That's very galling for the king on earth, who will do everything he can to circumvent God's rule. In a sense, the face-off between Saul and Samuel is an encapsulation of the entire history of Western civilization until 1900. God and his priests demand one thing; the king thinks he knows better; the sparks fly upward.