The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Is/Was There a “King Saul”? Characterization, Redaction, and the Biblical Sense of Self

How does the book of Samuel portray King Saul? As the heroic founder of the United Kingdom of Israel? As a potentially good choice for king who ultimately failed at his mission? As a tragic figure – a good person in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e. he should never have been anointed)? As the rebellious rival who founded Judah’s nemesis, Israel? The narratives themselves show conflicting characteristics for Israel’s first king. In some passages, he is righteous, God’s anointed king. In others, he rebels against God and prophet. Some passages have him displaying cruelty to anyone he perceives as a rival. Others highlight his emotional rapprochement with his rival, David.

Biblical scholarship has taken different directions in its analyses of Saul, as it has with other Biblical characters and their internal ambiguities. Classical Higher Criticism uses such contradictions to point to multiple authorship. Narrative analysis points to a complex unity, as the author (or redactor) of the Saul narratives delves into the humanity of a legendary king. Historians may try to look through the historiography to find hints of historical reality, either from the age of Saul or from that of the Biblical authors. A newer, more psychologically-oriented, direction may do away with looking at characterization in ancient literature in general, as the ancients’ sense of self was vastly different and much “weaker” (to use Kugel’s term) than ours.

In this paper, I show how the different aspects of Saul’s character(s) play out in various passages in Samuel, suggesting possible explanations according to the different directions in scholarship enumerated above. Taking all this into account, I consider which direction best suits the textual details regarding the book’s portrayal of Israel’s first king.