Hebrew In Israel | Saul: Judge or King? – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | Saul: Judge or King? – Learn Torah

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One of the problems facing historians is the transition from one era of history to another.  The seam between points in time creates in some cases hybrid points which become a point of contention between historians over the definition of things.  

 An interesting case is the position of King Saul.  Did he belong to the time of the kings, or was he in the time of the judges?  I know that many will say “but he was KING Saul”, however, a close examination of what he did will show that there are some interesting elements about him that many of us overlook.

King Saul’s character is a complex one to analyze in regards to the status and function as a king.  On the one hand, Saul is seen as Israel’s first king, but on the other hand the detailed description of the actions and reign paint him more as a judge and not as a king.  I will argue that Saul was in fact a king, and will stress that we must remember that monarchy was a new concept in Israel; it did not have at this stage the key features that we may seek in a monarchy.  He did not command a large army or have chariots, and had a very loose way of governing.  But still he must be seen as a king, and that he was the seam between eras.

Saul as a judge

Maybe one of the most important parts of Saul being a judge was his military action and the tactics of war used by him.  The first battle Saul had to fight as king was the battle against Amon.  Unlike most kings, Saul is presented as a simple man who stands for his people at a time of crisis.  This motif is repeated several times in the book of Judges (Gideon, Samson),and is being used by the writer to link Saul to the judges.  In times of crisis the spirit of YHWH rested on the judge and the judge organized the people around himself.  Another imitation of the book of Judges is the reenactment of the story in Gibeah.  Saul kills and dismembers a yoke of oxen, and sends it to all the camp of Israel, an act done by the son of Levi to his concubine.  On top of that, Saul repeats an old war tactic used by the Judges of dividing people into three heads, a tactic used in its war against the Midianites by Gideon (Judges 7:16).

Another judge-like behavior was the decision not to defeat his enemies to the end, but rather chose only to defeat them on the battlefield.  He chose to not subjugate them or go out on a conquest of royal cities or towns and villages.  Such actions are a clear sign of the judges in which salvation is only for a short time rather than removing the root problem.  Saul fought against the Ammonites, but he did not conquer them, and only fought against their army till they scattered (I Sam 11:11).  The tendency not to fight to the end is repeated in the war of Saul against Amalek (I Sam 15).  Not complying even with a divine commandment shows the inability of Saul to fulfill his role as king.  Saul was not aware of the needs of the people and conducted himself in a very “sloppy” way by forcing the people not to eat until the evening (I Sam 14:24).  In addition, Saul is hesitant at first to fight the Philistines to a point where the people dispersed from him, and he needed to rally them back (I Sam 13:6).

Behaving as a king

Unlike the above points, we find that Saul did in fact behave as a king.  Saul led battles against the Philistines who blocked the passage between northern and southern tribes.  Saul was the first to bind the people against the common enemy who wanted to settle in all parts of the country.  The Philistines came to Canaan to conquer and create a new homeland.  These actions of the Philistines brought them not only to the coast of Canaan, but also to the inland and remote regions from the coast.  At one point, the Philistines had blocked the northern tribes in the middle, forming a barrier between them and the southern tribes.  Saul led a fierce struggle with the Philistines during all of his reign as king, and led Israel to a decisive battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa.  The aim of the battle was to score the territory controlled by the Philistines, to open the way to the north and unite all the tribes into one sequential territory.

Though Saul was defeated in this battle and killed, the act indicates that Saul had begun to understand his role as king.  Saul must have realized that without Israelite control over the territories he will never be able to rule the country.  Saul did not have time to extend his kingdom due to the struggles, and first of all had to salvage the land from the enemy.  This attempt to go north might indicate that Saul was interested in expanding his power, but it is not clear how much, and Saul was killed before he could develop this idea.

It is also possible that Saul was trying to increase his power to an international level by controlling an important trade road in the Jezreel Valley.  The Philistines ruled this region with the Canaanites who managed to stand against the tribes of Israel.  If Saul was able to conquer this region, he would have had control of an international vein of goods, which would have given him access to money and power.

What is the answer?

Despite the fact that Saul had a blend of characteristics of both a judge and a king, we must admit that he was a king.  He was the first to unite the tribes around him, lead them and was able to initiate an offensive strike and not just defensive tactics when needed.  We find that unlike the Levite who created separation in the people; Saul brought the people around to defend Israel.  His tactics at war, though used in the days of the judges, are not necessarily a sign of Saul being a judge.  Other armies at the time used this method of three heads, which shows us that he was learning how to become king and a tactician (I Sam 13:17).

Saul did not manage to establish himself as king because he had to deal with many problems at home and abroad.  Saul’s inability to reach the status of a full monarchy is not evidence that he was not a king.  Saul is named King and Messiah, something which was not done before.  Saul was able to create for himself a small standing army that could be the beginning of a large organized army.  He was able to gather around him a royal court, and although it was mainly made up of family and tribesmen, it is a preliminary indication of an organized monarchy.

Despite the flaws in the organization of the kingdom, and in particular the lack of leadership at war, it should be remembered that people had no prior experience or training on how to conduct an army.  His mistakes were not due to inability to lead an army, but rather from a lack of knowledge and experience.  Saul and the people were not used to defeating the enemy and did not have the knowledge of how to reach such a victory.



Photo Attribution: Mount Gilboa: Beivushtang at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons


Originally Published:  16 November 2015

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