In our narrative so far, we’ve been setting the scene for the emergence of the first king of Israel. The people have asked for a monarchy and, despite his reservations, God is going to give them one.

We open with Saul, a wealthy Benjaminite who is exceedingly tall and handsome, and we are given his lineage (all the way back to his great-great-great-grandfather). Between his lengthy lineage and personal physique, there is little question that this is a guy we need to be paying attention to. As Tim Bulkeley puts it: “You can’t get into hero school unless you’re tall and handsome.”

But then we take a sudden turn. Rather than going off into heroics, or turning a lion into a beehive, or whatever, Saul’s great quest is to go find some donkeys. You see, his father – Kish – has lost some of his donkeys, and he entrusts his tall, handsome son with their retrieval.

Collins writes in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible that “this story speaks volumes about early Israelite society. Lost donkeys were a matter of concern for prophets and for future kings” (p.118).

Now, according to my study Bible and to Collins’s handy textbook, the last chapter was written by the anti-monarchy source, whereas this one was written by the pro-monarchy/pro-Saul source. According to them, when Samuel appears as a local “man of God” in 1 Sam. 9, it is because this source did not view him as the super special national hero that he was in, say, 1 Sam. 7-8. Here, he is a local seer who happens to play a role in the anointing of the true hero of the story – Saul.

Further, the monarchy is no longer seen as something that the Israelites asked for and God grudgingly obliged. Rather, it is a gift from God, freely given.

But then I read Tim Bulkeley’s spin, and my perception of this story changed quite dramatically. Since I find Bulkeley’s version far more interesting, I’m going to stick to that one as we proceed.

Shilly-Shallying Around

So Saul and his servant search for the donkeys high and low. Several place names are given in their search, none of which sounded familiar. Bulkeley suggests that perhaps the names were chosen because of their sound – Shalisha and Shalim, said too fast, might indeed trip the tongue. As Bulkeley puts it, perhaps the point is that Saul is “shilly-shallying around.” (That doesn’t mean that these were not real places – they may have been little known villages chosen because they evoked images of backwater, as well as for their sound.)

Saul’s servant plays a comedic foil. While Saul rides around not finding these donkeys (and, really, how far could they have gone?), his servant makes a solid proposal – why not ask the local man of God, see if he can help? Saul, portrayed as the kind of guy who chronically forgets to bring his wallet when he leaves home, naysays the plan because he has nothing to offer the seer as payment. In an amusing reversal, it is the servant who has the necessary money.

Donkey and rider, by Saul Raskin, 1929

Donkey and rider, by Saul Raskin, 1929

This is the Beleaguered Assistant trope, in which the assistant is the one who has to do most of the work and suffer most of the consequences, yet reaps none of the benefits. In this case, we have Saul who is handsome, rich, and about to stumble into becoming king, yet the servant who put him on the necessary path doesn’t even get a name.

When they arrive at a well near the town where the man of God is said to live, they stop to ask a group of maidens for directions. This is another trope that should be familiar, since we’ve seen it play out with Rebekah in Genesis 24, Rachel in Genesis 29, and  Zipporah in Exodus 2.

As Bulkeley points out, the directions the maidens give are repetitive, almost breathless-sounding. Are they babbling because Saul is such a hottie? Or perhaps because they are conscious of their fictionality and the trope of meeting maidens by the well, so they are expecting one of them to soon be married?

But Saul fails to seal the deal. In fact, he seems to have no idea of the proper literary conventions for this kind of meeting. Just to reinforce the point that perhaps he isn’t the sharpest bulb in the basket, Saul listens to these maidens tell him half a dozen time that he will totally meet Samuel as soon as he steps into the town, and that he really can’t miss him because everyone else is waiting for Samuel to start the feast so no one else will be there.

Yet when Saul walks into town and sees a guy, he asks him for directions to Samuel’s house, apparently failing to even consider that he might be talking to the man of God himself.

Meanwhile, we get a flashback telling us that Samuel was expecting Saul, having gotten God’s memo about the king-to-be arriving shortly. You’ll note that Samuel’s name has not been mentioned until this moment, making the “OMG, Samuel was the man of God all along!” reveal all the more dramatic.

So Saul doesn’t recognize Samuel, but Samuel recognizes Saul. Samuel reveals his identity and tells Saul not to worry about the donkeys – they’ve already been found and, in any case, he’ll have his pick of donkeys soon enough. Saul doesn’t catch on and seems rather confused that Samuel would take an interest in a mere Benjaminite, “from the least of the tribe of Israel” (1 Sam. 9:21).

In the context of the story, there’s no reason for Saul to guess that he might go out one morning looking for donkeys only to find himself crowned king of all Israel. But for the audience – who almost certainly already know about Saul and that he will be king – his interactions with Samuel must have been quite funny.

Samuel wines and dines Saul, seating him at the head of the table, giving him what appears to have been choice cuts of meat, then prepares a bed for him. In the morning, Samuel asks Saul out for a walk-and-talk and tells him to send his servant on. Saul himself must stay behind so that Samuel might “make known to you the word of God” (1 Sam. 9:27).

Positive Portrayal

Is this really the positive portrayal of Saul that my study Bible claims it to be? If we assume that the answer is yes, then the MacGuffin of the donkeys serves to show that Saul did not go out looking to become king. He was – at least in the beginning – a humble man who was totally surprised when God chose him out of the blue. He even argues against his special treatment from Samuel: “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribe of Israel?” (1 Sam .9:21).

On the other hand, Saul consistently fails in this story. He fails to find the donkeys, he fails to have something on him with which to pay the seer, he fails to secure a bride at the well, he fails to recognize Samuel, and he fails to realize why Samuel takes an interest in him. As Brant Clements puts it: “this sets the tone for Saul’s entire kingship. Overall he will be a failure. He will not establish a dynasty. He will die by suicide. Preemption, disappointment, and subverted expectations are the hallmarks of Saul’s story.”

Whether we buy it outright or not, it seems that Bulkeley’s reading of this story as poking fun at Saul is, at the very least, plausible. It makes a fool of the king-to-be even while it tells of his rise.