Who Was Saul?
The Hebrew Bible (referred to as the Old Testament by Christians) names Saul (Hebrew Sha'ul) as the first king of Israel, who reigned circa 1020 to 1000 BCE. According to the Bible, as king, Saul marshaled military forces to fight the Ammonites, Edomites, Moabites, Amalekites and Philistines. In one version of Saul's death, he took his own life following an unsuccessful battle against the Philistines circa 1000. Saul was eventually succeeded by David, a formerly valued member of his court who had become a rival. There are no non-biblical sources that recount Saul's life, but some archeological discoveries have corroborated aspects of his reign.
Saul's exact date of birth is unknown. Under the assumption that he became king at the age of 30 circa 1020 BCE, he would have been born circa 1050 BCE. He was a member of the northern tribe of Benjamin.
King of Israel
The Hebrew Bible offers three different versions of Saul's ascension to the kingship of Israel. In one, Saul is anointed as king by the judge Samuel; a selling point is Saul's notable height. In another, Saul is chosen by lots when Israelites seek a king to unite different tribes and confront external threats. The third version links Saul's selection to his rescue of the town of Jabesh-Gilead from besieging Ammonites.
For some, the third story is the most believable. Having military ability could have helped Saul build power, and would explain his later successes fighting the Philistines.
The small kingdom that Saul ruled likely included Mt. Ephraim, Benjamin and Gilead.
The time that Saul served as king of Israel is generally approximated as about 20 years, circa 1020 to 1000 BCE. However, the Hebrew text of the Bible reads that Saul became king at the age of 1 and ruled for two years, which is obviously unlikely. Some early Greek translations of the Bible state that Saul took power when he was 30 years old.
Saul was initially succeeded by his youngest and only surviving son, Ishbaal (also written as Ishba'al and also called Ishbosheth). After Ishbaal was killed, David took control of his kingdom.
Though the Bible states that during Saul's reign he demonstrated shortcomings like extreme jealousy of David, as the first king of Israel, Saul succeeded in bringing different tribes into a closer association and achieved several victories over Israel's enemies. In addition, the united monarchy that Saul established was subsequently ruled by the lauded leaders David and Solomon.
Saul and David
Samuel decreed that Saul no longer had God's favor and anointed David as the next king. There are different stories about Saul and David's early relationship. In one, Saul initially welcomed David to his court as a harpist; his musical talent could soothe Saul should he be tormented by an "evil spirit." In another, David's military talents were the avenue by which he became known to Saul.
Triumphs such as David's heralded defeat of Goliath awakened Saul's jealousy. This feeling continued despite David's marriage to Saul's daughter Michal, and his friendship with Saul's son Jonathan. After Saul decided to kill David, the younger man ended up seeking safe harbor with the Philistines.
Saul died circa 1000 BCE on Mount Gilboa. The Bible recounts that before an important battle with the Philistines, Saul visited a witch to ask about his fate. The witch conjured the spirit of the departed Samuel, who informed Saul that he and his sons would be defeated and die.
After fighting the Philistines at Mount Gilboa, 1 Samuel relates that Saul chose to fall on his sword to avoid being taken by the enemy.
Questioning Saul's Existence
Information about Saul's life and reign comes from the Bible, whose text was not written down until years after Saul had allegedly lived and ruled. No other texts confirm his existence, and views on the accuracy of the Bible vary. For some scholars it contains historical accounts, others feel there are pieces of historical information to be uncovered, and in another view, the tales are more literary than factual.
Yet there is evidence confirming some aspects of Saul's life. Excavations at Tell el-Ful (biblical Gibeah) revealed a "rude fortress" that has been linked to Saul. In 2019, an archeological team claimed to have discovered the biblical city of Ziklag, which is where David supposedly went to evade an envious and murderous Saul. And the existence of Saul's successor David was supported by the discovery of a stone with the words "House of David" inscribed upon it, though this reading of the inscription is not definitive.
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