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This article is about Saul, first king of Israel. For information about Paul (né Saul) of Tarsus, see Paul.

King Saul (שאול המלך) or Sha'ul (Hebrew שָׁאוּל or Šaʾul or Šāʾûl, "asked for" or "borrowed") (r.1095BC-1055BC according to Ussher,[1] or r. 1050-1010 BC according to Thiele[2]) was the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel. His forty-year reign began well, but in the end turned inauspicious,[3] until at last Saul fell in battle. His successor was David, of whom he remained almost to the end of his life a bitter enemy in civil war.

Birth year

The Bible may or may not give an age-at-accession for Saul. The key verse is 1_Samuel 13:1 . The New American Standard Bible renders it thus:

Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty two years over Israel. 1_Samuel 13:1

But in fact only the Septuagint furnishes the number thirty above; the Masoretic Text has no number. As to the length of reign, the Hebrew text has only the number two, not the number forty. In fact, a better rendition of the Hebrew text would be, "Saul was ... years old when he began to reign, and he had already reigned for two years."

When Saul began to fight his wars with the Philistines in the second official year of his reign, he already had a son, Jonathan, who was old enough not only to serve in the army but also to receive an important field command. Floyd Nolen Jones shows that Jonathan was twenty-eight years older than David, because he must have been at least twenty years of age when he led the attack against the Philistine garrison.[4] (1_Samuel 14 ) Therefore, Jonathan was born in 1113 BC. Saul was probably born at least twenty years earlier, in 1133 BC. This would make Saul thirty-eight years old when he began to reign, not thirty.

The editors of the Amplified Bible estimated that Saul was forty years old when he began to reign. Though they gave no rationale for that estimate, this would be consistent with Jonathan's age when he was entrusted with a highly sensitive military command.

Saul's Selection

Saul was a most unlikely candidate for the kingship, by his own admission:

And Saul answered and said, Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? wherefore then speakest thou so to me? I_Samuel 9:21 (KJV)

However, when Judge Samuel received orders from God to search for a king in Israel, after the people of Israel had said that they wanted a king, "like other nations," Saul was God's candidate.[5][6]

Saul's selection began as a search for some lost donkeys belonging to his father, Kish. When Saul had gone a great distance at the head of a search party, he at first wondered whether they ought to turn back if they didn't want his father to start worrying about them instead of the donkeys. But a member of the party said that they had come to a town where a "seer," that is to say a prophet, lived. Though the party had little enough with which to pay a prophet, Saul agreed to send for him. That prophet turned out to be Samuel, and Samuel told Saul that "the desire of Israel" was "on" him—the equivalent of a modern military recruiter saying, "Your country wants you."[3][5][6]

Saul couldn't believe it, and made the protest described above. But Samuel persisted, and eventually persuaded Saul to accept a private anointing. Then Samuel told Saul where his lost donkeys could be found. Later, Samuel anointed Saul publicly and declared him to be Israel's first king.[3][7]

Early career

Almost at once, Saul had a battle to fight. Nahash of Ammon[5] laid siege to Jabesh-gilead and demanded a terrible condition for that city's surrender: that he would blind everyone in the town in the right eye. The city fathers begged for seven days to consider the terms—and immediately sent messengers to Saul.[3][6]

Saul drafted an army three hundred thousand strong by threatening the slaughter of the oxen belonging to anyone who did not respond to the muster. (He slaughtered a team of oxen and sent the pieces to all the tribes to make his point.) With this army, he routed the Ammonite army and raised the siege. This established Saul as a military leader of consequence, and the people rallied to him.[3][5][6]

Two years later, Saul attacked several Philistine garrisons using small elite forces under his personal command or that of his favorite son Jonathan. But then he made a major mistake: he did not wait for Samuel to make a required burnt offering to God, but instead made the offering himself. For that, Samuel prophesied that Saul would lose the kingdom to another man, though Samuel did not tell Saul who that man might be.[3][6]

Interestingly, Saul's and Jonathan's troops were hampered in that Israel had no metalworking industry, so that only Saul or Jonathan actually bore sword or spear. Despite this, Jonathan enjoyed early success in action against the Philistines.[3]

The Agag Incident

On or about 1079 BC (or 1034 BC according to Thiele), Samuel passed along to Saul God's direct order to do battle against the Amalekites and destroy them to the last man, woman, child, and item of livestock. Saul disobeyed again. He offered Agag, king of the Amalekites, terms of surrender, and preserved intact much livestock and other booty.[3]

Now Samuel told Saul definitely that God now rejected him. Saul made a show of repentance, and Samuel accepted it for the moment—but he took care to execute Agag personally. Then Samuel departed from Saul's presence. The two men never saw one another again.[3][5][6] (And neither would either man ever know the magnitude of Saul's original error: Agag sired a son before Samuel executed him, and a later descendant of that son, named Haman, would threaten death to the entire Jewish nation under a Persian king whom he served as vizier.[5])

Early Involvement with David

Saul now began to be troubled by "evil spirits." His officers recommended that he keep someone to play pleasant melodies on the harp for him, to keep the spirits at bay. How they came to recommend David is unclear, but this is actually how David first became involved with Saul.

Single Combat

Subsequently, Saul's army was in a standoff against a Philistine army of some size. In the middle of the standoff, a giant-sized warrior named Goliath came out to challenge the Israelites to send a champion to fight him in single combat, to decide the issue. The role of single combat to decide a battle between evenly matched forces is well-attested in the Middle East and the Mediterranean world, so this was hardly an unusual request. What made it formidable was Goliath's sheer size: six cubits and a hand-span tall (equivalent to 9 feet 9 inches, or 3 meters), and wearing armor that weighed 500 brass shekels.[3][8]

In all the army of Israel, no warrior was willing to accept the challenge—none, that is, except a strapping young red-cheeked lad of eighteen. Saul heard that the lad was asking every trooper in sight what reward Saul would give to any man who bested Goliath, and sent for him. Instead of apologizing, the young man said,

Let no man's heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine. Samuel 17:32 (KJV)

Saul couldn't believe such brashness. He pointed out that Goliath had been in the army since he'd been about this youth's age. The lad was unmoved, and said that he had handled lions who had tried to steal his father's sheep, and he would handle Goliath the same way.[3]

To Saul's great surprise, the lad not only killed Goliath, but killed him with no weapon other than a shepherd's sling, and wearing no armor. The Philistines broke and ran, and the Israelites made short work of them and took much battlefield spoil. After it was over, Saul inquired after the lad—and one can only imagine his shock when he learned that the lad was none other than David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem, the very boy who was accustomed to comfort him by playing on the harp![3]

A New General

Saul was so impressed that he made David a general officer. Jonathan was even more impressed: he and David sealed a friendship that made them closer than brothers.

But Saul eventually grew jealous of David, especially when the people credited Saul with killing thousands of enemy, and David with killing myriads.[3][9]

As part of the reward for killing Goliath, Saul was supposed to let David marry his daughter Merab. But when the time came, Saul refused—though he did let David marry his younger daughter Michal, who as it happened had fallen in love with David.

David's reputation continued to wax, and Saul's to wane. From that point on, Saul was David's bitter enemy, to the point where he even threw a javelin at David during one of David's visits to the palace.[3] But in his enmity against David, Saul stood virtually alone—even his own son could not support Saul in his determination to kill David.[3]

Civil War

Nevertheless, Saul plunged his nation into civil war by declaring David to be an enemy of the kingdom. Saul even ordered the execution of several priests when they refused to tell him where David had gone. He pursued David ruthlessly throughout the land of Israel.[3][6]

And then one night, David did a strange thing: he stole into Saul's camp, crept close to him, and cut off the skirt of his robe. This was the most serious breach of royal security in the annals of Israel. David returned to his own camp and shouted to Saul what he had done.[3]

Saul was greatly moved: David had the perfect opportunity to kill Saul, but had not done so, and only because Saul was still God's anointed king. Saul then pleaded with David not to "cut off" Saul's family after David became king himself. David accepted the condition, and the two men parted.

The Last Battle

Shortly after this event, Samuel died. Eventually, Saul found himself about to face a large force of Philistines again, and he urgently desired another message from Samuel, by any means. So he disguised himself, sought out a witch at Endor, and asked her to "bring up" Samuel from the dead. What sort of spirit manifested itself as Samuel, the Bible does not fully explain—but in any event, the message held no hope for Saul.[3]

In the subsequent Battle of Mount Gilboa, Saul and his three sons, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, all fell. The Philistines found his body, dismembered him at the neck, and fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan. It was one of the worst humiliations a man could suffer in death. Happily, the men of Jabesh-gilead, which was nearby, recovered the bodies of Saul and his sons and decently cremated them.[3][6]

Ishbosheth succeeded Saul immediately as king of the United Kingdom of Israel. But the tribe of Judah seceded from the kingdom for seven and a half years and accepted David as its king. Eventually all the other eleven tribes would transfer their allegiance to David.

Chronological Placement

Main Article: Biblical chronology dispute

James Ussher dates the reign of Saul as from 1095-1055 BC. Edwin R. Thiele dates it forty-five years later. The actual key point of dispute has to do with events that occurred nearly two hundred years after Saul's death, and their synchrony with archaeological records that appear to conflict with the Bible.


  1. James Ussher, The Annals of the World, Larry Pierce, ed., Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2003 (ISBN 0890513600), pghh. 392-406
  2. Leon J. Wood. "King Saul." A Survey of Israel's History, rev. ed. David O'Brien. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1986 (ISBN 031034770X), pp. 197-216.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 Authors unknown. "King Saul - Biography." The Kings of Israel, hosted at Retrieved June 22, 2007.
  4. Jones, Floyd N., The Chronology of the Old Testament, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2004, pp. 97-98
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Spiro, Ken, Rabbi. "Entry for King Saul." Crash Course in Jewish History, Part 16. Aish HaTorah, 2007. Retrieved June 22, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Driscoll, James F. "Entry for Saul." The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. VIII. New York. Robert Appleton Co., 1910. Retrieved June 22, 2007 from New Advent.
  7. I_Samuel 9-10
  8. I_Samuel 17
  9. The Hebrew word, translated myriad here, is commonly rendered "ten thousand" or "ten of thousands."

See also