13 reasons why King Saul wasn't as bad as Sunday school teachers make him out to be

I have spent much of my life thanking my old Sunday School teachers for introducing me to the Scriptures and to Jesus. But I have also spent much of my adult life undoing poorly interpreted and moralistic uses of the Bible that simply don’t fit with what the biblical authors intended.

One of the characters that I have revisited over the past 17 years is King Saul, the first king of Israel. The typical Sunday School version of 1 Samuel reduces the three main characters to a simple good-bad analysis, with Samuel being good, Saul being bad, and David being good. The book is rarely preached on at all (which is probably why I did). And when it is, it’s generally to pull a few favorite passages or quotes. Because of this, the Sunday School treatment is never questioned.

But in 1999, I was commuting to work and back and listening to the Bible on cassette (remember those things?). I spent at least 1:15 in the car each day, so I was able to move pretty quickly through the Scriptures. As I did so, I started noticing things I had never noticed before in relation to Saul of Gibeah.

1. The apostle Paul’s mom named him Saul. Generally, moms avoid negative names. If anything, moms choose big names for their kids to grow into. Jesus was given the same name as Joshua, the one who led God’s people into the promised land. Judas was given the same name as Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish freedom fighter who kick the Syrians’ butts. And Saul of Tarsus was named after the first Israelite king, who was also from the same tribe of Benjamin. The name of Saul was a name of hope, not of shame.

2. Both Deuteronomy and Judges anticipate kingship in Israel. In fact, 1 Samuel itself anticipates kingship. The last words of Hannah’s song/prayer (which Mary echoes in her song/prayer in Luke 1) are: “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10). That sure sounds like the boy Samuel is supposed to be supportive of Israel’s king (which he’s not). And when the man of God prophesies against Eli’s wicked family, he prophesies about Samuel and Saul, saying, “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his priestly house, and they will minister before my anointed one always” (1 Sam. 2:35). In both the quotes, the “anointed” refers to the one anointed to be king: Saul.

3. Saul is never listed among the bad kings. In 1 & 2 Kings, there is no hesitation to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down evaluation of each king. “And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” is a common summary that very few avoid. But not only is Saul spared that summary, he is never compared with those who are. Jeroboam is the prototypical bad king, being the first of that list (not Saul). “He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the ways of Jeroboam and committing the same sin Jeroboam had caused Israel to commit.”

4. Saul had a pretty rough job. The 12 tribes were not one unified nation. If anything, they were a loose confederation and had been so for many, many years of dwelling in the land. In the book of Judges, the attacks on Israel were never on the entire country. They were regional assaults, affecting only one or several tribes at a time. As such, only those who were attacked dealt with the invaders and only they were saved by and ruled by the judges who saved them. The only time in the entire book that they come together as one is when 11 tribes fight against and almost destroy the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20). But can you imagine how tough that would have been to unite the tribes, especially coming from a dishonored tribe?

5. Saul was a beloved hero. The horrific crime done by the men of Benjamin (Judges 19) echoes the crime of the men of Sodom (Genesis 19) and is itself echoed in reverse by Saul as his first act of heroic kingship, taking a negative in his tribe’s history and turning it upside down in an act of salvation of the people of Jabesh-Gilead (1 Samuel 11). I love that. And the men of Jabesh-Gilead loved it too. In fact, 40 years later, they are the ones who risk their lives in a dramatic rescue of Saul’s dead body from being hung in dishonor upon Philistine gates and return it to Israel to be buried in honor in Jabesh (1 Samuel 31:11-13). Saul was deeply loved by the people.

6. David honored Saul. David wept over not just Jonathan, but Saul as well (2 Samuel 1:17-27). The reason David doesn’t take over all of Israel for a long time is because of the honor Saul had in Israel after ruling for a full 40 years. The people would not have accepted David if he had killed Saul’s offspring. (It would have been a bad move by David to have done so, since it would have opened the door for that to be done to him. Hmm. Wait. Didn’t one of his sons try that …) In many ways, Saul was David father. David was the forgotten son of Jesse (1 Samuel 16:8-11), unwanted by his brothers (1 Samuel 17:28-29), but welcomed into Saul’s household and loved by them all (1 Samuel 18:1-2, 5, 28).

7. Saul was the people’s king. When the 10 northern tribes rebel against David’s grandson, Rehoboam, they are justified, since they take the Davidic dynasty as usurping the Saulide rule (1 Kings 12:16). Remember, Saul was anointed in public (1 Samuel 10) and David was anointed in view of only a few people in a small town. David’s throne was less well-attested than Saul’s.

8. Saul was “one of the prophets,” as we hear him referred to on several occasions (1 Samuel 10:11-12; 19:24). The fact that Saul manifested a charismatic gifting was evidence of the Presence of God upon him. There may have been a bit of a smirk when some people quoted the line, since it included ecstatic speech and behavior (one time, Saul ends up naked after an episode). But it may also have been quoted with approval, especially among the tribe of Benjamin. I’ve wondered if there were stories about Saul that the Benjaminites passed on which didn’t make it into the canon of Scripture. In fact, there may be a tie between it and the apostle Paul/Saul and his acceptance and participation in ecstatic speech/tongues.

9. Saul turned the beat-up confederation of the book of Judges into a stable monarchy that could stand on its own against the Philistines. And get this: The Israelites at the beginning of his reign were in the Bronze Age, while the Philistines were in the Iron Age. The Israelites had to go to the Philistines to have edges put on the iron tools they got from them. They were technologically so far behind the Philistines at the time Saul ascended the throne that they were pushed around at will. But that changed during Saul’s 40-year reign. That’s the whole reason why the people asked for a king: to be able to compete militarily and economically.

10. Saul never has more than one wife. Kings and princes were expected to have harems. David did (1 Samuel 19 & 25; 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 11:1-17). David started gathering wives as part of his claim on the throne. But Saul was only ever married to Ahinoam. He may have been Israel’s only monogamous king.

11. Samuel was a petty, whiny guy who undermined Saul’s rule. God told him not to take it personally (1 Samuel 8) when the leaders among the tribes asked for a king (wanting someone to make alliances, uphold the laws, and keep a standing army to protect the land and stabilize commerce), but that’s exactly what he did. He did everything he could to undermine Saul’s kingship. He anointed Saul privately — no one was around except for the two of them — and then did nothing to help him become king. When Saul won his first big battle, Samuel called on the people to reaffirm the kingship in Gilgal. But then he gave a long speech (1 Samuel 12) which ended with the people repenting of asking for a king. (Nice affirmation!) And at the beginning of the speech, he says, “Here I am. And here are my sons …” (1 Samuel 12:2). The point being, “Here are my boys who should be carrying on my judgeship over Israel after me, but you didn’t want them.” And the people had a good reason for not wanting them. They were corrupt! Come on, Samuel! You knew better than that. And then when Samuel chews out Saul for being hasty and offering a sacrifice without him there, that’s not the real story. The real story was that Samuel was late. A week late (1 Samuel 13:8). And the Israelite army had shrunk so drastically while waiting that they were about to get destroyed. Also, it was no sin for a king to offer a sacrifice. David did and got away with it. Saul was just trying to do the right thing after being abandoned by his priest (1 Samuel 13:11). What’s interesting about the exchange is that Samuel says that Saul has disobeyed God, but we haven’t actually heard anything from God in the passage. And one of the rules of Hebrew narrative is that if we’re told specifically that God said something, we’re to believe that he did. But if we’re not told that specifically, we’re necessarily to believe that he did. In this case, I don’t believe he did. I believe this was Samuel’s ego getting in the way and misusing his position as prophet to say that his anger is really God’s anger. The ambiguity in the passage leaves that as a real and valid interpretation.

12. Saul hunts down David. Yep. This is actually a positive. David was a former general in the army who had formed an army of his own within the land. That army was made up of all the good-for-nothings and malcontents in the land (1 Samuel 22:2). And he charged for “protection” like a mafia boss from Nabal and presumably others (1 Samuel 25). Running him out of the land was actually an act of securing the land. Can you imagine the United States letting a former general have a weaponized militia running loose and extorting unhindered?

13. Saul makes witchcraft illegal in the land. He does such a good job of it that he has to travel pretty far away to find one when he finally breaks down at the end of his life.

OK. I think you get the point. There’s a lot about Saul that has been misrepresented.

At the same time, I’m not glossing over Saul’s failures.

1. He operated out of fear instead of faith on many instances.

2. He became an angry and jealous man. (Thanks for getting started down that road, Samuel.) Throwing spears at innocent people is bad.

3. His ignoring of the ark shows a lack of interest in promoting the worship of Yahweh. David, on the other hand, makes the ark and Yahweh’s worship a point of central importance at the beginning of his kingship. Empty worship is bad.

4. He disobeys God’s command in the battle against the Amalekites. Disobedience is bad.

5. He has the priests of Nob killed. Killing priests is bad.

6. He seeks out necromancy services from a witch. Witchcraft is bad.

The curious thing to me is that David’s list of bad things is similar. He just had a better prophet. Nathan speaks just as pointedly to David as Samuel does to Saul, but he also expressed more grace. Where Saul pleads to Samuel, he’s rebuffed. Where David pleads to Nathan, he’s accepted.

What I am amazed by is the honesty of the author of 1 & 2 Samuel. None of the three main characters fairs very well. Samuel, Saul, and David all show signs of pettiness, sinfulness, anger, and ego. But all show signs of tenderness and kindness. (I love how, when Saul and David speak to each other after Saul has been chasing David, Saul weeps with remorse and calls David his son. David is his rival, but he’s also his adopted son. It’s a sweet and agonizing moment.) All of them seek God. It’s just that poor Saul has a tougher time of it.

There’s a good reason why there have been two TV shows (Kings and Of Prophets and Kings) in the last few years that have tried to mine the incredible story that centers on these three very human, very important men. That’s also the reason why I’ve been writing a novel on the life of King Saul for the last 16 years. It’s almost done and will be called The Last Night of the First King. Keep posted for more details.