1 Chronicles 10: Saul in Brief

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Virtually no time at all is spent on Saul’s time holding the reins of Israel. Despite giving his genealogy two separate spots (1 Chron. 8:29-40; 1 Chron. 9:35-44) to Saul’s lineage and devoting the better part of 1 Chron. 10 to his death, his life gets a mere two verses in 1 Chron. 13-14. Interestingly, the only thing we learn about his life comes after the story of his death (and gets even less treatment than the story of his bones).

It’s clear that the Chronicler felt that Saul needed some kind of mention, but wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Even more intriguing is that the Chronicler assumes knowledge of Saul’s story. If 1-2 Samuel had been lost and we only had the chapters we’ve read so far in 1 Chronicles, it would be difficult to piece together that Saul was Israel’s first monarch, and impossible to guess that he was anointed as a God-chosen king.

This makes it rather clear that the Chronicler viewed David as the true founder of the Israelite monarchy, and perhaps wished to downplay the role Saul played in the cultural shift from loose tribal associations led by local judges.

Saul’s Death

And so our narrative jumps straight from the genealogies to the story of Saul’s death, our only bridge a listing of Saul’s lineage. The story in this chapter is copied almost word-for-word from 1 Sam. 31:1-13.

The Suicide of Saul, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561

The Suicide of Saul, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561

We begin with Philistia and Israel at war, and Israel is losing. Many are killed on Mount Gilboa, including Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, and many are routed. Saul is injured by archers and, afraid of falling into Philistine hands, he asks his armour-bearer to kill him. The armour-bearer, afraid, refuses. Out of options, Saul draws his own sword and kills himself, after which his armour-bearer does the same.

With the battle lost and their king dead, the Israelites flee from their cities, leaving them open to Philistine occupation.

The next day, the Philistines are stripping the dead on the battlefield when they come upon Saul’s body. The Philistines take Saul’s armour and head, and they send messengers throughout Philistia to proclaim news of their victory to both people and gods.

From this point onward, the narrative in 1 Chron. 10 diverges from 1 Sam. 31: They bring Saul’s armour to the temple of their gods (1 Sam. 31:10 has it the temple of Ashtaroth) and fasten his head in the temple of Dagon (while in 1 Sam. 31:10, they fasten his body to the wall of Bethshan). Neither of these is necessarily a contradiction. “Ashtaroth” is the plural form of the goddess Ashtoreth, which could easily be rendered as the “gods” of 1 Chron. 10:10. And while his head might have gone into the temple of Dagon, his body might also have gone to the wall of Bethshan. But the divergence is still interesting; how did it come about, and why?

In both accounts, the people of Jabesh-gilead hear about what’s been done to Saul’s body, so they come to reclaim it and the bodies of Saul’s sons (marching all night in 1 Sam. 31:12, though the detail is omitted here).They bring the bodies back to Jabesh and bury the bones under the oak of Jabesh, while in 1 Sam. 31:12-13, they burn the bodies first and then bury the bones under a tamarisk tree. In both accounts, they then fasted for seven days.

While 1 Samuel provides some context for Jabesh’s loyalty, it is entirely absent here. Why did the people of Jabesh go through the trouble of reclaiming the bodies of the royal family, and why not some other group? From 1 Sam. 11, we can guess that it’s because Saul had freed Jabesh from Nahash the Ammonite.

Saul’s Family

Many commentors bring up the question of whether Saul’s family died with him or not. 1 Chron. 10:6 (“Thus Saul died; he and his three sons and all his house died together”) certainly seems to suggest that they were all killed at the same time. Yet the verse omits the clause “on the same day together” found in 1 Sam. 31:6. This better allows for the interpretation that the Chronicler is summarizing the fall of Saul’s family over a period of time (which can therefore include Ishbosheth, who managed to hang on for a little while longer – 2 Samuel 2:8-11).

The lineages in 1 Chron. 8:29-40 and 1 Chron. 9:35-44 make it rather clear that the Chronicler knew the house of Saul survived. I think this forces us to conclude that the phrase “all his house died together” (1 Chron. 10:6) is poetic rather than literal. Saul’s house – his dynasty, his family’s social position – died as a result of the events of the battle at Mount Gilboa, even if some members survived, even if one member continued to call himself king.

This rhetoric isn’t new. Over and over again in our readings, we have seen the claim that a particular group of people was entirely destroyed (such as the claim about the Amalekites in 1 Sam. 15:7-8) only to have the group reappear later (as when David utterly destroys them again in 1 Sam. 27:8-9). In the Old Testament, it seems, to kill the entirely of a group of people should be interpreted to mean that they were entirely brought low, entirely defeated, even if some members survive.

Saul’s Reign

Of Saul’s life, we learn only that he was killed for his unfaithfulness: His refusal to keep the command of the Lord (presumably referring to passages like Leviticus 19:31) when he consulted with a medium instead of seeking guidance from God.

Of course, when the story is narrated in 1 Sam. 28:6-7, Saul did consult God but God failed to answer him. It was only then, in desperation, that he turned to alternative means. So why the discrepancy?

One possibility is that Saul consulted with a medium, and that is a sin. The reasons don’t matter, there are no mitigating factors. He broke the commandment, and thus he was judged. A second possibility is that the means through which he consulted with God were unsatisfactory (or, alternatively, that he demanded word from God rather than passively waiting for God’s word – and, worse, actively sought alternatives when God was not forthcoming).

James Pate adds the possibility that Saul’s motive lacked a desired purity. “[O]ne can pray to God in pursuit of one’s own agenda, which is different from actually seeking God.” Given what we know of the Urim (which Saul used, according to 1 Sam. 28:6), it’s possible that he did receive an answer, just not the answer he wanted.

It is for this reason that God killed him and turned his kingdom over to David.

Here, a few commentors point out a contradiction: Did God kill Saul, or did Saul kill himself? It seems rather obvious, however, that the phrase used in 1 Chron. 10:14 is meant to mean that God orchestrated Saul’s fall, the situation which made his death inevitable. It is therefore just as true to say that God killed him as it is to say that he killed himself.

Here, James Pate points out that, in Genesis 49:10, Jacob predicted that Judah would possess a sceptre. This raises an issue of free will, since it implies that God knew even then that Benjamin’s turn with the crown would be short lived, that Saul would sin and his dynasty would be lost. Pate discusses the issue at more length in his post, but since this falls under theology, I won’t be touching it.

2 Samuel 1: A poor play

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Once cobbled together from multiple sources, 1-2 Samuel was presented as a single, continuous narrative, only to be separated when translated into Greek. This is rather clear given that 2 Samuel 1 follows seamlessly from where we left off in the last book.

Three days after David has returned to Ziklag with his rescued wives, an Amalekite with torn clothes and dirt in his hair – signs of mourning. He claims to have just escaped from the Israelite camp and brings word that Saul and his sons are dead.

When David asks the Amalekite knows that Saul is dead, he answers that he found Saul leaning on his spear (presumably injured), and that Saul asked him to kill him. He agreed, then removed Saul’s armlet and crown, which he has brought for David.

David and his men rend their clothes, then weep and fast until evening. When they are done, David asks the Amalekite to give him his identity – he is, he says, the son of an Amalekite sojourner (which, as we see in places like Ex. 20:10 or Deut. 14:29, implies a long term resident rather than someone just passing through).

You’ll notice a few things about this. First, that this does not match the description of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 (where Saul kills himself after his armour-bearer refuses). Second, the fact that the Amalekite just happened to stumble on Saul and that he then took Saul’s stuff suggests that he may not have been a combatant, but rather a battlefield scavenger (it’s perfectly plausible that the Philistines did not find Saul right away, and while it is said that they removed his armour, his crown and armlet are not mentioned in 1 Samuel 31). Thirdly, it’s clear that the Amalekite considers David to be Saul’s successor, and presumably hopes to win favour by being the one to bring him the symbols of kingship.

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems that the Amalekite stumbled on Saul’s body, looted it, then invented the story of killing Saul in the hopes of ingratiating himself with Saul’s enemy and competitor for the crown of Israel.

(Another amusing theory is that Saul is being portrayed as so utterly incompetent that he couldn’t even get his suicide right and had to ask a second person after his armour-bearer had already tried to follow his king to the grave.)

You may also notice that the Amalekite is an Amalekite, not an Israelite. So when David asks him, “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) and has him killed, he is – once again – spared from ever having to do violence against an Israelite. He may be a bandit raider, but at least he’s our bandit raider.

On having the Amalekite killed,David either believes the man’s story, or wants to make sure that he sets an example early on. As for why punish him for essentially doing him a favour, I think that there are two things going on.

The first is that David is portrayed fairly consistently through our narrative as Totally Not A Traitor. He is driven out, sure. He even defects to the Philistine side, but that’s only because Saul gives him no choice and he’s got to provide some form of stability for his family. But at no point is he shown to be the antagonist in his relationship with Saul (and, in fact, explicitly refuses to move against Saul on two separate occasions – 1 Sam. 24 and 1 Sam. 26). So we can take his execution of the Amalekite as an extension of his Totally Not A Traitor persona.

The second reason may have something to do with the “we do not kill princes” policy. If we imagine this story to be taking place in a time of flux and social upheaval, in the nascent years of a monarchy in a land that is accustomed to tribal rule, David’s reign stands a fair chance of ending in the same way as Saul’s. The killing of one’s predecessors as a means of gaining the throne is probably the last precedent David would want to set for his budding monarchy. (There’s a really cool parallel in the rule of Elizabeth I, where she refused to kill her would-be successor to avoid reinforcing the precedent of killing princes. In the end, her followers had to stage an elaborate sham plot to trick Mary into semi-open treason – maybe, or just gave up and forged it – to force Elizabeth’s hand. It’s called the Babington Plot, and it is a surreal and fascinatingly convoluted story of court intrigue.)

David’s question – “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) – helps to illustrate the rationale Saul’s armour-bearer might have been using when he refused to follow Saul’s direct command to kill him.

The lament

David has a reputation as a musician. Like most musicians I know, he turns to song to express the pain of his loss, composing a piece that fills up the second half of the chapter. David commands that his lament be written down in the Book of Jashar, and that it be taught to the people of Judah (presumably only Judah because they are David’s people). The Book of Jashar is a now-lost book that seems to have been a source for at least some of 1-2 Samuel, as well as Joshua. In Joshua 10:13, we are told that the episode of the sun stopping in the sky was described in the Book of Jashar. Given that Jashar contains both stories, we can assume that it was composed – at the very earliest – during the reign of David. Since the Book of Joshua cites it, we can therefore assume that Joshua was written sometime even later.

In his lament, David writes glowingly of Saul, calling him “mighty” several times. He wishes that the Philistines not be told of his death lest they rejoice at it. He asks that the mountains of Gilboa (the site of the battle) become barren for having had Saul die upon it. Then he praises Saul and Jonathan’s military prowess in the battle prior to their deaths, and states that they were not divided in life – a strange thing to say given that Jonathan most certainly had sided with David and Saul tried to kill him for it (1 Sam. 20:32-34). Only in the strictest sense that we say that they were not divided, in that Jonathan had remained at Saul’s side rather than going to Ziklag with David.

In the penultimate verse, David writes of Jonathan: “very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). The phrasing resonates with that of Leviticus 18:22, and certainly seems to suggest that their relationship was of a sexual nature. The other possibility is sexism – equating women with the bedroom and reserving friendship for between men. If that’s the case, then David is essentially saying that he valued his friendship with Jonathan even more highly than he values getting laid. Or, to put it into more modern parlance, it could be his way of saying “bros before hoes.”

1 Samuel 31: The king is dead, long live the king!

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With David safely back at home with his family and far, far away from the battle (lest anything be said about his ambitions), we return to the battlefield where, as we know, Saul is soon to die. Given the locations, it seems probable that the scene with the witch of Endor should have been placed just before this chapter, and not all the way back in 1 Samuel 28 (it’s current location requires some geographical skipping).

the narrative jumps right in, telling us that the Philistines win the day. Saul’s sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua) are killed and Saul is badly wounded by archers. Unwilling to be slain by those “uncircumcised” Philistines who might make sport of him (1 Sam. 31:4), Saul asks his armour-bearer to kill him instead. The armour-bearer refuses.

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

It’s unclear why the armour-bearer refused. It could be that killing his king – even if commanded to do so – is just too great a sin for him, or it could be a final dig at Saul, a reminder that he really has no control over his subjects (as we saw in 1 Sam. 22:17, where his followers refused his command to kill the the priests at Nob).

Saul takes matters into his own hands and falls on his sword. The armour-bearer follows suite and kills himself as well. When the Israelites in the area hear that the royal family is dead, they flee the cities, leaving them empty for the Philistines to occupy.

The next morning, the Philistines return to the battlefield to scavenge the dead. They find Saul and his sons, strip Saul of his armour, and cut off his head. The armour they send to the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his corpse to the wall of Beth-shan (and, apparently, the corpses of his sons, too, though they aren’t mentioned here).

The mention of a temple of Ashtaroth here is a little confusing. So far, the term has been used as the plural of the shrines/idols/poles used in the worship of Asherah (maybe?), not as the name of the goddess herself (though a variation of the old semitic mother-goddess, Ashtoreth, is very similar sounding). So it could be that the temple of Ashtaroth is a typo, or perhaps we’re to understand that the temple contains several idols to the goddess.

Another possibility, though I don’t know how plausible it is, is that the name of the temple refers to its location. We saw in, for example, Deut. 1:4 and Jos. 9:10 that King Og of the Amorites ruled from a town called Ashtaroth. Either way, it seems that the phrasing causes some confusion.

When the people of Jabesh-gilead hear that Saul’s body has been fastened to a wall, they sneak out at night to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons. Note the identity of the corpse-rescuers here – one of Saul’s first acts as leader/king was to rescue Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite raiders.

The people of Jabesh-gilead burn the bodies of Saul and his sons, then bury their bones under a tree. They finish up by fasting for seven days. It’s not clear why they choose to burn the bodies rather than simply bury them. It could be that the fire is intended as a sort of purification after the bodies were left hanging too long (if they rescue the bodies on the night of the same day that they were hung, this would still violate Deut. 21:23). It could also be that there was some variation in burial practices at this time.

With Saul’s death, 1 Samuel comes to a close.