When we read this passage we always feel a little sorry for Saul, and sympathy is not an emotion often thrown his way. Saul is forever the villain: the epitome of the corrupt politician, unjust ruler, evil father-in-law, and sore loser all rolled up into one perfectly crafted, ball of biblical insanity. A host of evil characters from the Brothers Grimm and Disney movies could learn a thing or three from Saul’s antics. This is made more poignant when we remember that, biblically, Saul's whole purpose is to be David's foil: the mean older monarch the young and ruddy shepherd-warrior-poet protagonist must overcome to fulfill his destiny. But there is more to Saul than is often considered.
From the very beginning Saul wanted no part in being the king of Israel. In 1 Samuel chapter 9, when Samuel informs Saul he will be king, Saul is incredulous: he was simply out looking for his father’s missing donkeys (1 Samuel 9:21). So when Saul returns home, he doesn’t tell his family about his anointing (1 Samuel 10:16). After this, when he is to be declared king in front of the nation, he hides in the luggage and has to be dragged into the limelight.
But can we really blame him?
Saul was being told it was his job to unify the numerous families, which made up the clans, which were loosely aligned into 12 tribes, which were geographically separated as two semi-nation states, each with their own priesthoods (to say nothing of the various Canaanite religions generally frowned upon), into one theocratic monarchy for the first time in the Children of Israel’s history. Who wants that type of responsibility? Ain’t nobody got time for that. You might have hid in the luggage as well, or pulled a Jonah and took off altogether.
To this should be added the suggestion that 1 Samuel represents Saul as clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness. We leave it to you to determine if this was a spiritual punishment from God, or a non-divinely imposed, chemical imbalance in the brain, later explained as punishment. [see 1 Samuel 16:14-23] However you look at it, no one ever gives Saul a break, and the text does not seem to want us to.
Even the background of the text sets the knowledgeable reader up to be suspicious of Saul from jump. The Book of Judges ends in a way designed for the reader to negatively view Saul when he arrives on the scene. It is important to note that in the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Ruth does not separate the narrative which moves from Judges into the Books of Samuel.
Judges ends with the gang rape, murder, and dismemberment of a woman from Bethlehem, which was the catalyst for a civil war. All of this begins in the town of Gibeah, which is a part of the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin raises their spears and slings against their fellow tribes, and thousands die on all sides. The book ends with the utter chaos and evil that is rampant in society. A few pages later, in Samuel, the narrative returns to the town of Gibeah as Saul’s home and the place he will designate as his capital. We also learn that Saul is from the tribe of Benjamin. Later David enters the story and is soon persecuted by Saul. David is from Bethlehem, just like the woman who was assaulted and desecrated in Judges, though unlike her, David is able to make it out of Gibeah alive. Like we said, all signs point to hating on Saul by design, but why should we care?
Perhaps it is important to remember that Saul was chosen by God, and as such Saul could have made it work despite his personal shortcomings and misgivings. The Hebrew Bible is filled with marginal characters who get the job done despite themselves, with the help of God (e.g. Moses, Gideon, Elijah).
However, perhaps it is more important to remember that there are those who are better served by our support than our recriminations. Those who could use a hand or a break.
Perhaps we should sometimes give ourselves a break.
This in no way excuses poor behavior, bad life choices, or absolves us from being invested in the lives of other to help them not me piss-poor decisions of their own: ideas we’ve discussed before here, here, and here. But perhaps this is a perspective that bears repeating and we can take with us when we or others fail.
But what do we know: we made this game and you probably think we’re going to Hell.