SHIFTING SANCTUARIES

The 1956 Marc Chagall etching “Samuel Anointing Saul” depicts the last of the judges, the middle-aged Samuel, anointing the young Saul as Israel’s first king. This action, in the literary development of First Samuel, expresses a symbolic, narrative shifting of
sanctuaries for Israel. Yahweh’s people, rejecting the sons of Samuel, and thus rejecting the hereditary line of judges, ask for their first King. The Israelites desire what other nations have. They desire the sanctuary of strong, human leadership in a king. It is with this pivotal point in the drama of First Samuel that Israel’s mode of sanctuary shifts from the security of the prophetic leadership to the security of an earth-bound leadership.

Chagall’s etching is interesting in it’s expressive depiction. There is, of course, debate as to the actual age of Saul, ranging from a man in his early twenties to a middle-aged man of
forty. Naturally, such a debate potentially treats the character as an historical one. The degree of historicity is, wisely, not at all a concern to Chagall. The artist’s youthful depiction of the literary character, serves the work well. In representing the Saul figure as a youth, Chagall captures the inherent humility of the character in the scriptural text. “Is not my family the least of all the families from the tribe of Benjamin?”[1]Later,
after being anointed king, Saul returns home, as if nothing has happened, and
even neglects to tell his family of his kingship. The look on Saul’s face in the etching, as Samuel anoints him, captures the introverted essence of the character. Further emphasizing that inner quality, is the gesture of Saul’s hand, across his bosom. Samuel’s fatherly hand cups Saul’s hand, depicting an intimate admiration, on Samuel’s part, for the young Saul. Saul looks heavenward, feeling unworthy of this coronation.

Additionally, there is a milieu of pathos in Chagall’s work. This is pronounced in the expressive eyes of both Samuel and Saul. Samuel’s eyes are like a doe’s eyes. They are black, soft, and penetrating, seemingly foreshadowing the tension of his future relationship with the king. Saul’s humility is coupled with his feelings of insecurity.
Chagall seems to sympathize with both men in this visual interpretation and the
artist masterfully captures a fully emotional range, which is only hinted at in
the text. Knowledge of the unfolding narrative, after the anointing of Saul,
undoubtedly influenced Chagall’s interpretive choices.

The story of Saul’s anointing is one of the most uniquely edited in the whole of scripture. The narrator’s juxtaposition of Saul’s search for lost mules with Samuel’s searching for
Israel’s first king is strikingly compelling. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The pericope is destined to bring out Samuel’s capacity as seer and Saul’s slowness to comprehend the movement of history as it swirls around him. The two themes of kingship and asses play off each other masterfully.” [2] Chagall’s newly anointed Saul is drawn as a youth we can readily imagine as a man who feels perplexed as the movement of history swirls around him. Barbara Green poses an interesting question that adds to Chagall’s etching of Saul and to Saul’s portrait from the biblical text, “ What sense can we make of Saul’s
prominent hesitation to be king, his apparent squeamishness about handling both
approbation and opposition?” [3]

Later in the text, when instructing Samuel to chooses Saul’s successor, Yahweh tells Samuel, “ God does not see as human beings see; they look at appearances but Yahweh looks at the heart.”[4] Yet, oddly, Yahweh seems to look primarily at appearances in both the choosing of David and in the previous choosing of Saul because we are told that both are beautiful or handsome men. Chagall’s Saul personifies the notion of physical
beauty.

Chagall’s etching captures the sublime, physical beauty of the narrative moment it depicts. Simultaneously, this work also expresses the deep, rudimentary emotions at play under the surface of the text. Chagall’s later works on the subject of Saul convey the tragic arch of the reign that followed Saul’s coronation. Saul’s sanctuary of an anonymous life at
home shifts to the total absence of sanctuary as the first king of Yahweh’s people.


[1] The New
Jerusalem Bible: First Samuel
.  New
York: Doubleday, 1990.

[2] Brueggemann,
Walter. First and Second Samuel. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.p.73

[3] Green, Barbara. King Saul’s Asking. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1989.p.43

[4] The New
Jerusalem Bible: First Samuel
.  New
York: Doubleday, 1990.

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About Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is fine arts painter, filmmaker, and has a masters degree in theology. He currently lives in Portland, oregon with his wife: Aja Rossman-Gray.
This entry was posted in Art, Essays, Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to SHIFTING SANCTUARIES

  1. Venkatesan Iyengar says:

    Enjoyed reading the words:
    “Later in the text, when instructing Samuel to choose Saul’s successor, Yahweh tells Samuel, ‘God does not see as human beings see; they look at appearances but Yahweh looks at the heart.’ Yet, oddly, Yahweh seems to look primarily at appearances in both the choosing of David and in the previous choosing of Saul because we are told that both are beautiful or handsome men.”

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