King Saul

Israel's first king was a controversial ruler.

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Like earlier charismatic leaders,  Saul's principle task was to conduct a war of liberation. Saul's successful expedition against the Ammonites at Jabesh-Gilead (1 Samuel 11: 1-11) was no doubt an important consideration in his selection. Now he was called upon to lead his people against the Philistines, people who were well organized, well equipped and motivated by an expansionist ideology that included plans to bring the whole country west of the Jordan under its control [?]

Saul the Warrior

"There was hard fighting against the Philistines all the days of Saul, and when Saul saw a strong man, or any valued man, he attached him to himself" (I Samuel 14:52).

The Philistine war thus became a guerilla war, characterized by ambushes and surprise attacks against enemy posts. Generally, it did not involve great numbers of fighters. Saul had only about six hundred men with him near Gibeah (1 Samuel 14:2). Unfortunately the Bible gives only brief intimations of the details of the continuing war with the Philistines. Saul probably succeeded in driving the Philistines out of the central part of Israel. But the Philistines did not give up. They apparently attacked form the south, threatening Judah in a confrontation in which a young Judahite named David distinguished himself (I Samuel 17) [?]

Other than the Philistine war, which seems to have been the principle feature of Saul's reign, the biblical text mentions wars against the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the king of Zobah and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 14:47-8) [?]

Saul's Reign: An Historical Assessment

We do not know how long Saul ruled. According to the traditional Hebrew text (the Masoretic text) which unfortunately is badly preserved at this point, Saul became king when he was one year old! And his reign lasted only two years. (1 Samuel 13:1). This of course seems improbable, and several commentators correct the text to read "twenty-two years," but this remains conjectural.

It is difficult to give a balanced historical assessment of Saul's reign. In the biblical tradition, he seems to be presented as the typical bad king in contrast to his adversary and successor David. This contrast is the central theme of stories in 1 Samuel 16-27, the bulk of which seems to have been written by David's companion and priest Abiathar (cf. 1 Samuel 22:20) or someone close to him. These chapters may contain some reliable information, but it is represented in a one-sided and tendentious way. They describe, in somewhat divergent traditions, the stormy relationship between Saul and young David.

David and Saul

David had distinguished himself in the Philistine wars and had been given Saul's second daughter, Michal, in marriage. Saul became increasingly jealous of David, accusing his son-in-law of conspiring against him. On several occasions, Saul tried to kill David. David fled to Judah but Saul pursued him. Finally, David took refuge in Philistine territory.

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Andre Lemaire

Andre Lemaire is director d'etudes at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, History and Philology Section, of the Sorbonne, in Paris.