The Rejection Of Saul: An Inquiry Into A Pitiless Theology.

The Rejection Of Saul: An Inquiry Into A Pitiless Theology.

“The story of King Saul is, I believe, one of the bible’s uncomfortable stores.”[1] The rejection of Saul is a dynamically spun legend that reveals much in the way of ancient and contemporary biblical narrative, lackadaisical tradition, and theological interpretation.

Rabbinical tradition has often approached the subject of Saul’s rejection with a certain amount of tolerant flexibility and honest scrutiny. However, Christianity has been predominantly consistent in two-dimensional readings of the text, normally mantling a judgmental and hostile attitude towards the figure of King Saul. In his commentary on the Psalms, Augustine’s interpretation of the narrative is ostentatious in his pointed agenda to read the text as a comparative precursor to Christ (David) persecuted by Judas (Saul), “For Saul having been chosen king not to abide, but after the people’s hard and evil heart, having been given for their reproof not for their profit, according to that text of holy Scripture which saith of God, Who maketh a hypocrite man to reign, because of the perverseness of the people: since thereof such sort was Saul, he persecuted David, in whom God was prefiguring the kingdom of eternal salvation, and whom God had chosen to abide in his seed: inasmuch as indeed our King, King of Ages with Whom we are to reign everlasting, was to be from the seed of that same David after the flesh.” [2]

Knowing the tale’s end, with David as precursor to Christ, an Augustine styled reading then goes back to the beginning of the tale making Samuel a type of John the Baptist Figure. Saul comes to first represent Herod in the New Testament King’s enmity with the Baptist. In this reverse reading Saul will eventually also come to represent Judas and the Jews who persecuted Christ.

Genealogical lore names Yeshua bar Yosef as a direct descendent of King David, therefore giving inherently biased motive towards a dishonest, superficial reading of a text that is more complex, and consequently, more interesting than the way that traditional appendage paints the saga.

Antagonism towards the figure of Saul may also be quite revealing in our preferences towards protagonists and gods. To place our heroes on an edified pedestal we must dehumanize them.  David, despite his transparent faults, can indeed be edified because the text places him at an emotional distance to the reader. As Barbara Green states, “We are rather often privy to Saul’s private conversation, so that we know what he aims for and so often misses. Conversely, we rarely have any inside view of David, so that he is presented to us as enigmatic, cards held to his chest much more difficult to appraise.”[3] David, as the Psalmist, is, like Christ, elevated through psychological distancing.

Samuel presents a slightly more difficult dilemma. The emotional range his character is given makes it as hard to sanitize him, as it is to sanitize a prophet who eats locusts in the desert. Samuel falls slightly short of deification, but because of his judge/prophet status, Samuel’s ranking in the context of the fable is that of an unquestionable protagonist, which leads us to Saul. Such is Samuel’s reputation as prophet that the following evaluation is typical in unquestioning evangelical readings, “God saw Saul’s heart and there he saw a Self or My Own Way Ruling. Saul chose the way of the Big I. Saul began to think he was wise enough to decide for himself what was right to do instead of following God’s instructions.” [4] Because the cotemporary idea of preferred story telling demands a tangible villain for essential conflict, Saul is, naturally, demonized.

However, predilection for over-simplified narrative makes for brittle drama. In the arena of religious story telling, that predilection leads to precarious, judgmental religiosity, which fails to give the original authors, and the fathered religious implications, due credit for decidedly progressive anecdote.

When examining the rejection of Saul, Rabbi Moshe Reiss gives an honestly perplexed assessment of Saul’s rejection, “What indeed has Saul done to incur Samuel’s wrath and, according to Samuel, God’s wrath? Samuel had told Saul to wait in Gilgal for seven days for a sacrifice. Could that old request still be valid now, at a desperate stage of a war against the nation’s enemy? If Samuel still held it valid, then more questions arise: Why also critical a point did he wait until the last possible minute to arrive? Saul had waited and Samuel failed to come. When Saul, therefore, went on with the sacrifice, just which of God’s commands did he break? Did not David prepare sacrifices? Did Samuel usurp the priestly position? God does not speak in this chapter. It is only Samuel who is issuing commands. Is he according Divine status to his own orders? Did Samuel, perhaps, deliberately delay his arrival until he was given an excuse to condemn Saul?”[5]

Yet, as David M. Gunn correctly states, the seemingly obvious implications have been muted through Christian blinders, “We see the same negative evaluation of Saul in Christian commentator after commentator. The story of Saul is to be read as a salutary warning. “Let us not be like Saul is the concluding prayer.” [6] In other words, let us not be “too human” like Saul. Rather, let us aspire to the divine-like figure of the prophet Samuel.

Saul’s inherent humility is aroused, even when he is not so clearly in the wrong. Such is the case in Samuel’s second and final rejection of Saul when Saul apparently spares King Agag. Christian tradition has disturbingly ignored Saul’s attempted act of repentance to both God and Samuel. It is a repentance that is refused, which is shocking in Christian portrayals of the divine as being all-forgiving. “Thrust into destructive context by Samuel and his god, Saul is abandoned by prophet and deity. As we meet the god of the tragedy of King Saul we encounter a force whose power is not in question. But it is a distant force, remote and, too often, silent. Appearing in radical discontinuity with his king, in many ways this is a savage god.”[7]

To the objective reader of 1 Samuel, the sadistic nature of the deity is unmistakable in the narrative. Yhwh could simply have removed Saul from the throne. Instead, Yhwh repeatedly violates Saul by inflicting insanity, thereby usurping Saul’s supremacy. This is, literally, the action of a jealous God, which, of course, is quite nonsensical since God himself chose Saul earlier in the text. Clearly, the narrative is the work of multiple writers, with varying priorities, which inevitably renders singular, simplistic interpretation of the drama as absurd.

In marked contrast to an evangelical Christian reading, Jewish artist and author Adam Green takes up an outraged, impassioned defense for the figure of Saul, the underdog. However, Green unfortunately errs by identifying the story as unquestionably historical, which ultimately renders his defense as an alternate, extreme example as he attempts to equate Saul with messianic qualities, “David was a false king-messiah, a traitor, and usurper of the true king-messiah, Saul. The implications are sweeping, for all David’s supposed all royal-messianic descendants, however sincere, have to be false by association. Neither Jewish nor Christian beliefs can easily withstand such a blow.” [8]

While we need not subscribe to such a severe, vicarious theological translation, an unpretentious reading of 1 Samuel can only beneficial. In rendering a perfunctory, judgmental condemnation on the figure of Saul, traditional Christian preaching has unwittingly expressed its intrinsic tendency towards a slip-shod, pitiless theology, which is genuinely troublesome.

Marti Steussy seems sensitively aware of the symbolic importance in the way we read this text when she states, “I would love dearly to be able to say the pre-Axial God of Samuel is a museum piece, a souvenir of a religious outlook that we have left far behind. But religions seldom leave anything behind.”[9]


Augustine  Exposition On The Book Of Psalms. Oxford: John Henry Parker

Publishing, 1848.

Green, Adam King Saul: The True History of the First Messiah. Cambridge:

Lutterworth, 2007

Green, Barbara. King Saul’s Asking. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1989

Gunn, David M The Fate Of King Saul. Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1980

Steussy, Marti Samuel And His God. South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 2010

[1] Gunn, David M  The Fate Of King Saul. Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1980 P.9

[2] Augustine  Exposition On The Book Of Psalms. Oxford: John Henry Parker Publishing, 1848. Pp390-391

[3] Green, Barbara. King Saul’s Asking. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1989. p. 18

[4] Seekamp, Gloria. “How Saul Disobeyed God.” Fighting The Giants 2004. Online.

[5] Reiss, Moshe. “Samuel And Saul: A Negative Symbiosis.” Bible Commentator May 2010: MoshReiss.Org. Online.

[6] Gunn, David M. The Fate Of King Saul. Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1980. P. 24

[7] Humphries, W.L. From Tragic Hero To Villain: A Study Of The Figure Of Saul And The Development of 1 Samuel. JSOT22 (1982) 95-117

[8] Green, Adam King Saul: The True History of the First Messiah. Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2007.P. 24

[9] Steussy, Marti Samuel And His God. South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 2010.0P.101

4 thoughts on “The Rejection Of Saul: An Inquiry Into A Pitiless Theology.

  1. Adam, been away for the season and I just stumbled upon your reply. I apologize. I have ordered your book and am anxious to read that in full. Hopefully, I will get to that by year’s end. Right now I am catching up on a an epic backlog of school work. Thank you again. Shalom

  2. Thanks Alfred for your courteous reply. One of the sadder elements of my brief flirtation with the world of biblical historical scholarship has been the distinct lack courtesy from most of its inhabitants on the other side of one’s argument. There are glorious exceptions to this ‘rule’ (Baruch Halpern and William Dever, to name two) but in general I have been shocked (if not entirely surprised) by the level of vitriol I have experienced (especially from the two pious/positivist and minimalist/revisionist extremes of the historicity debate) for having the damn cheek to approach “their subject” at all as a mere amateur ‘non-academic’. Despite this however, I have had the honour of being reviewed in three normally exclusively academic journals (one fairly favourable, one hostile and one ‘rave’) and it occurred to me that you might like to have access to these (if you have not already read them) when you re-read King Saul. If so, please contact me directly at my email address and I can provide you with them.

    I also want to add that you are of course correct in your suggestion that if I could change things about the book now I would. The truth is, there were things I wanted to change from the moment I received my first complementary copy from my publisher, including the inference that my representation of the messianic construct would have a catastrophic effect upon the mind sets of pious Jewish and Christian readers. It’s not that I don’t wish that would have happened in the interests of a more sane and rational world, it’s just that it can be read as naive hubris the way I expressed it in the text. In addition, since the book was published I have been privileged to become acquainted with two of the great scholars I cited and they too have helped me see where I could make my arguments stronger and where I got (just) one or two things absolutely wrong.By the same token though, they also all took my work seriously and were otherwise very complementary about the book and my general hypothesis.


  3. Hello Adam,
    many thanks for your reply.

    I will, frankly, have to go back and re-read your book. This was an essay for a colloquium class from over a year ago. I merely copied and pasted it here and did not re-read the essay before posting it. But, I will say for now, these were, obviously, my impressions at the time. It is,often, odd to go back and re-read one’s own writing. I frequently find I may not agree with a previous conclusion and or assessment. However, I will say that your focus on the topic is one I found myself in strong agreement with, as far as my own sympathies go. Since,I do not take the people and events of 1st and 2nd Samuel(or any biblical narrative, for that matter) as historical, perhaps I felt that such an impassioned defense was coming from the point of perceived historicity. Again, I will have to re-visit your book. This was in grad school and, sometimes, the heaping mound of reading material gets blurred together when trying to recollect in hindsight.

    My primary sources for this essay were the books by Dr. Green and Dr. Steussy. I discovered yours midway through the writing of the essay. I might add, just fyi, that for Dr. Steussy’s class I had to do an artistic presentation of something from the text. I produced a short film about Saul, taking a pronounced, sympathetic perspective on that figure, while I also presented Samuel and David in far less favorable light.

    As for the messianic qualities, even though part of my heritage is Jewish, I was writing for a predominantly Christian audience at the time. So, again, this forces me to go back and revisit your work. Overall, I remember a very favorable response to your work as a literary work of art. But, being in grad school, I, of course, had to approach it in a different mindset.

    After I plunge back into your work, I will do a more thorough writing on it and, if I find those brief conclusions of mine were, perhaps, hasty, or erroneous, I will address that as well. If I remember correctly, I borrowed a copy of your book from the school library or a fellow student there. Although, I have since graduated I will search around Amazon or some other outlet. I will keep you posted and, again, many thank for your reply.


  4. I would be grateful if you could remind me, where in my book I claim that the story of King Saul is “unquestionably” historical?? It’s been a few years since I read it myself but I’m pretty certain that I do not make such an unreasonable claim anywhere within it. You also apparently misunderstand my definition of what “messiah” / ‘messianic qualities” actually means. Outside of the new relativist universe we now seem to inhabiting it is crucial to be sure of one’s facts before labelling someone or something as “extreme”. Anyhow, thanks at least for reading my book…

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