1 Sam. 9: The hayseed king

Why does the narrator of First Samuel make Saul out to be such a buffoon?

As I’ve mentioned before, the much-lamented death of Jack Hirshleifer left me as the note-taker for a group of UCLA faculty that has been meeting weekly for some two or three decades to read Jewish religious texts. When I joined eight years ago we were at about chapter 15 of Devarim (Deuteronomy), which we finally finished last year. (I calculate that we moved through the text at an average rate of about four verses per meeting.)

Our new project is 1 and 2 Samuel; we’re using Alter’s translation and commentary, published as The David Story.

This week we started in on Chapter 9, the story of Saul’s accession to the kingdom. The narrator portrays Saul as something of a buffoon, and we tried to figure out why.

Full text of the notes, and of chapter 9, at the jump. I’ve enabled comments.

We tried in vain to recall another instance in history or folklore of someone becoming king with so little apparent claim whatever on the job. Many a legendary king is brought up as a commoner (e.g., Arthur, Oedipus) but always with a concealed regal lineage. David makes himself king after a successful military career. But Saul starts out as a nobody, and ascends due merely to Samuel’s report that he is the Divine choice.

Clearly, Saul comes of no very distinguished lineage, though we need not take his modest remark about his own clan being the least among Benjamin any more literally than we take literally the parallel remark about Benjamin being the least among the tribes. Equally clearly, his family is prosperous, with cattle and servants. (It appears that a “mighty man of valor” was a heavy-armed infantry fighter, which in the Bronze Age meant someone rich enough to afford expensive bronze armor.) On the other hand, the family is not so prosperous as not want to send one of its sons (as opposed to a servant) after missing she-asses. Physically, he is tall and handsome (or perhaps merely tall). Intellectually, he is nothing to write home about; it would be fair to say that he can’t find his asses with both hands.

Saul’s pursuit of the she-asses is, as Alter points out, ludicrous. He and the servant “seek” the she-asses, but don’t appear to track them; no particular reason is given for their itinerary. When Saul is willing to give up, the servant comes up with the information that there is a seer nearby. The servant has even saved enough silver for a present. Saul asks for directions of some maidens at the local well, and they give them in excruciating detail. Some midrashim suggest that they are taken by Saul’s manly beauty; Alter suggests that they find it necessary to explain things v-e-e-r-y slowly and carefully to the obviously clueless visiting bumpkin.

The servant’s knowledge seems spotty. On the one hand, he knows that there is a “man of God” in the town. On the other, he seems not to know the name of Samuel, though we were told earlier (4:1) that “the word of Samuel was upon all Israel.” His words to Saul suggest that the “man of God” is a local figure, though it turns out that Samuel is merely visiting to conduct a sacrifice at the local “high place.” (Between the destruction of Shiloh and the building of the Temple, apparently such local shrines flourished; they are not yet identified with idolatry.)

The narrator gives his account temporal depth, distancing himself in time from the events described; he explains that seers in those times performed the work of predicting the future handled by prophets in the time of the narrator and his audience. (Or perhaps a redactor had to try to make sense to his audience of material from an already-established folk-tale.) The narrator assumes that “men of God,” whether called seers or prophets, had among their functions answering questions about future events and the location of lost cattle. (Saul inquires of the “man of God” in just the same way he will later inquire of the Witch of Endor.)

Saul seems to think that the seer is a local figure, since he asks after the seer’s house. Comically, he asks none other than Samuel himself; you can almost see him plucking the hayseed out of his hair as he does so.

Samuel makes a fuss over Saul, publicly giving him the choice cut of meat at the sacrificial meal. But he doesn’t proclaim him king, and indeed keeps the matter secret even from Saul’s servant. Alter suggests that this reflects Samuel’s reluctance to ratify publicly Ha-Shem’s choice of Saul; alternatively, it might be read as a perfectly normal piece of political prudence. (We will see in Chapter 10 that Saul is not universally welcomed.)

Why is Saul portrayed so unheroically? That someone chosen to be king might be reluctant to assume the responsibility is expected and even praiseworthy; a strong desire to rule is not an especially pleasing characteristic in a ruler. But Saul is shown as not merely reluctant but unworthy, and as much so after his accession as before. The story of the obscure boy who becomes king usually has an element of wish-fantasy in it, even if his royal career is as rough as David’s or Arthur’s. But Saul has the suffering without the glory. Was the intended effect to prevent Israelite boys from imagining themselves as potential kings?

Text of Chapter 9 (JPS version):

9:1 Now there was a man of Benjamin, whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah, the son of a Benjamite, a mighty man of valour.

9:2 And he had a son, whose name was Saul, young and goodly, and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.

9:3 Now the asses of Kish Saul’s father were lost. And Kish said to Saul his son: ‘Take now one of the servants with thee, and arise, go seek the asses.’

9:4 And he passed through the hill-country of Ephraim, and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they found them not; then they passed through the land of Shaalim, and there they were not; and he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they found them not.

9:5 When they were come to the land of Zuph, Saul said to his servant that was with him: ‘Come and let us return; lest my father leave caring for the asses, and become anxious concerning us.’

9:6 And he said unto him: ‘Behold now, there is in this city a man of God, and he is a man that is held in honour; all that he saith cometh surely to pass; now let us go thither; peradventure he can tell us concerning our journey whereon we go.’

9:7 Then said Saul to his servant: ‘But, behold, if we go, what shall we bring the man? for the bread is spent in our vessels, and there is not a present to bring to the man of God; what have we?’

9:8 And the servant answered Saul again, and said: ‘Behold, I have in my hand the fourth part of a shekel of silver, that will I give to the man of God, to tell us our way.’

9:9 Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, thus he said: ‘Come and let us go to the seer’; for he that is now called a prophet was beforetime called a seer.

9:10 Then said Saul to his servant: ‘Well said; come, let us go.’ So they went unto the city where the man of God was.

9:11 As they went up the ascent to the city, they found young maidens going out to draw water, and said unto them: ‘Is the seer here?’

9:12 And they answered them, and said: ‘He is; behold, he is before thee; make haste now, for he is come to-day into the city; for the people have a sacrifice to-day in the high place.

9:13 As soon as ye are come into the city, ye shall straightway find him, before he go up to the high place to eat; for the people will not eat until he come, because he doth bless the sacrifice; and afterwards they eat that are bidden. Now therefore get you up; for at this time ye shall find him.’

9:14 And they went up to the city; and as they came within the city, behold, Samuel came out toward them, to go up to the high place.

9:15 Now the Lord had revealed unto Samuel a day before Saul came, saying:

9:16 ‘To-morrow about this time I will send thee a man out of the land of Benjamin, and thou shalt anoint him to be prince over My people Israel, and he shall save My people out of the hand of the Philistines; for I have looked upon My people, because their cry is come unto Me.’

9:17 And when Samuel saw Saul, the Lord spoke unto him: ‘Behold the man of whom I said unto thee: This same shall have authority over My people.’

9:18 Then Saul drew near to Samuel in the gate, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, where the seer’s house is.’

9:19 And Samuel answered Saul, and said: ‘I am the seer; go up before me unto the high place, for ye shall eat with me to-day; and in the morning I will let thee go, and will tell thee all that is in thy heart.

9:20 And as for thine asses that were lost three days ago, set not thy mind on them; for they are found. And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not on thee, and on all thy father’s house?’

9:21 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 to me after this manner?’

9:22 And Samuel took Saul and his servant, and brought them into the chamber, and made them sit in the chiefest place among them that were bidden, who were about thirty persons.

9:23 And Samuel said unto the cook: ‘Bring the portion which I gave thee, of which I said unto thee: Set it by thee.’

9:24 And the cook took up the thigh, and that which was upon it, and set it before Saul. And Samuel said: ‘Behold that which hath been reserved! set it before thee and eat; because unto the appointed time hath it been kept for thee, for I said: I have invited the people.’ So Saul did eat with Samuel that day.

9:25 And when they were come down from the high place into the city, he spoke with Saul upon the housetop.

9:26 And they arose early; and it came to pass about the break of day, that Samuel called to Saul on the housetop, saying: ‘Up, that I may send thee away.’ And Saul arose, and they went out both of them, he and Samuel, abroad.

9:27 As they were going down at the end of the city, Samuel said to Saul: ‘Bid the servant pass on before us–and he passed on–but stand thou still at this time, that I may cause thee to hear the word of God.’

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on “1 Sam. 9: The hayseed king”

  1. The mention of Oedipus and his claim to the throne raises an interesting point. In Greek there are two words for "king": "tyrannos" and "basileus." A "basileus" is a hereditary king; a "tyrannos" is someone who wins the throne by dint of his own efforts. Sophocles' play is titled "Oedipus Tyrannos"; the irony, and the tragedy, is that Oedipus is actually not a tyrannos but a basileus.

  2. Samuel is pretty annoyed with the people asking for a king. He sees it as a rejection so why should he work hard to choose the best candidate. The request for a King comes in chapter 8 and is an explicit rejection of Samuel's sons. He appointed his sons judges and they are corrupt, but he does nothing about it. In fact he is displeased when the elders come to him, yet the English text indicates that he is upset because of the rejection of him and his sons (the governing status quo). G-d tells him not to worry about that; they are rejecting Him. Samuel then tells everyone how bad a King will be. In that context, why is Saul not being presented by the Bible (or G-d) as the King the people deserve? If you don't accept that the choice of Saul was divinely inspired then what about the idea that Saul was a patsy. He is supposed to fail so that Samuel (or his sons) can rule again and the issue of kingship is dead.

  3. My recollection is that God (Samuel?) gave Israel a king only with great reluctance, after much popular insistence on being like other peoples. Perhaps he was thinking, "You really think you want a king, huh? How about this schlub?"
    Your mention of the high places brought to mind a book I finished a few weeks back, "The Origins of Biblical Monotheism : Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts" by Mark Smith. And searching Amazon for the title, I noticed the other one of his that I read recently, "The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel." Both, esp. the second, were to a great extent over my head, relying a great deal on knowledge of Hebrew and Ugaritic, so I head to blip over not just a lot of words, like Linus's approach to Russian names in Russian novels, but whole arguments, taking away just conclusions. But they nevertheless were fascinating.

  4. Two Points
    For one thing, who you calling a hayseed? My own historical rule of 90s is that for over 90% of human history, over 90% of people have lived by > 90% subsistence farming. In Samuel's time, among the people of Israel, the last two rates were probably closer to 99%. They couldn't get a king who wasn't a hayseed. Carrying 1/4 shekel of silver, and having a servant along to do the carrying, on an ass-recovery journey, probably places Saul easily in the 99th percentile of his place and time for ease and luxury. Nor is it at all clear that the folks at the time Kings was written would look have looked down on hayseededness, even if Saul was not 99th percentile. In the early Roman Republic, Cincinnatus was said to have been called to the dictatorship (to handle a military emergency with the Samnites) from behind his plow, and returned to his planting as soon as the crisis had been dealt with. Now, when Livy wrote this story down, it was certainly true that members of the Senatorial class no longer personally worked their own fields, but even by that time, this personal acquaintance of the ruling class of an earlier time with manual agricultural labor was seen, not as a bad thing, but as a mark, and perhaps even cause, of the pure and simple Republican virtue of a purer and simpler time.
    Which leads to my second point. While I don't see that the narrative tears down Saul, simply because he is described as going about some agricultural chores, it is certainly true that he is not presented as some superhuman gift from God. No supernatural salvation in a bullrush basket, no burning bushes guiding his career, no slaying of any giants, not even any particular gift with a musical instrument. But there is no mystery why the narrative would fail to record some etiologic myth of superhuman origins upon the kings of Israel. The idea of having kings in Israel was a failed experiment (at least to the authors of the text), undertaken by a disobedient people against God's will by the time the narrative was written down. The people are depicted as demanding a king be set over them because they think this will help their security situation, despite Samuel's argument, representing what is surely the authors'own stance, against this on the grounds that kings will just invade their liberties and substance, and the people should rely instead on God to provide the occasional prophet or shophet as the situation demands. So much for our own situation since 9/11 being unprecedented.

  5. Clearly there's a "story behind the story" of Samuel annointing Saul, and we can only speculate what might have really transpired. One of the most entertaining speculations about this period and topic is Stefan Heym's novel "The King David Report," which lays out some plausible competing hidden agendas that might explain the contradictions and inconsistencies in the II Samuel accounts of David.

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