Home Featured

The Birth of King Saul

The Birth of King Saul

It is thought the Book of Samuel was constructed from various disparate sources. This is most evident in the infamously self-contradictory story of David’s battle with Goliath, but the use of pre-existing, unrelated material is found throughout the rest of the narrative. Some of the generally recognized sources include the ark of the covenant (parts of 1 Sam 2, 4–7), a small story about Samuel’s early career as a prophet (parts of 1 Sam 2–4, 7–8), a small cycle of tales about Saul (parts of 9–11, 13, 14), and the legend of David’s elevation on the political stage (most of 1 Sam 16–2 Sam 5).

One of the most interesting theories here concerns the birth of Samuel in 1 Sam 1. The structure of this story was apparently built on top of the nearly invisible foundation of another story, namely, the story of Samuel’s birth was originally the story of Saul’s birth. The Saul cycle has a much more folkish tone than may first appear given its presence in a grand epic spanning Genesis through 2 Kings. Small hints betray a later attempt to integrate Saul into a narrative and denigrate him in favor of David’s dynasty.

When the text turns to follow Saul in chapter 9, his family’s donkeys are lost. The young, handsome Saul wanders through five regions of Israelite territory to find them. Desperate, Saul agrees to ask a local diviner for direction on what to do. This person is repeatedly called a ‘man of God’ (9.6, 7, 8, 10) and a ‘seer’ (9.11, 18, 19), but is suddenly revealed to be Samuel (9.15). Before the term ‘seer’ is even introduced, the narrator abruptly decides to explain that the word was replaced with ‘prophet’ (9.9). The only time the word ‘prophet’ has been used up to this point was the much earlier declaration that ‘Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of Yhwh’ (3.20). We might have rather expected the narrator omit ‘seer’ as confusing and superfluous in favor of simply ‘prophet’. This leads to a number of redundancies where Samuel and Saul’s stories overlap, such as Saul being selected twice to become king (10.1; 10.17–25). It seems likely the seer was originally anonymous as would be expected in such a fairy tale-like setup. In the book’s editing stage, the unnamed seer was changed to be Samuel, and the equation of ‘seer’ and ‘prophet’ was inserted to prepare the reader for his intrusion into Saul’s story.

Parsing through the Saul cycle, we find a broadly positive depiction of his life. When Samuel the seer anoints Saul (10.1), he tells the young man that a spirit from Yhwh will possess him (6). When this happens, Saul falls ‘into a prophetic frenzy’ (10). This leads to Saul taking the first step to becoming king over Israel: when he learns that a foreign tribe is attacking the Israelites, he is again possessed by a spirit from God (11.6), which enables him to rescue Israel as its military leader, resulting in him being proclaimed king. While lacking the more fantastical elements, Saul’s rise to power is reminiscent of Samson’s from the Book of Judges. The introduction to their two stories (Judges 13.2; 1 Sam 9.1) is phrased similarly, as is the birth story in chapter 1.

Judges 13.2

1 Samuel 9.1

1 Samuel 1.1

There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children.

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth.

There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.

It is occasionally said of favored individuals that ‘a spirit of Yhwh came upon him’ (ותהי עליו רוח יהוה; Judges 3.10; 6.34; 11.29; 13.25). But for Samson and Saul, it is uniquely said that ‘a spirit of Yhwh/God rushed upon him’ (ותצלח עליו רוח יהוה/אלהים; Judges 14.6, 19; 15.15; 1 Sam 10.6, 10; 11.6). Later, the pro-David, anti-Saul editor uniting the book’s sources together appropriated the language for David at Saul’s expense (1 Sam 16.13–14).

Given these verbal and thematic similarities between Saul and Samson, we turn back to Samuel’s birth story in 1 Sam 1 and notice some peculiarities. According to the Torah, the Nazirite vow included abstinence from alcohol, touching corpses, and cutting their hair (Num 6.1-21). The only two figures in the Hebrew Bible identified as Nazirites are Samuel (1.11) and Samson (Judges 13.5, 7; 16.17). The vow is never brought up again in the Book of Samuel, so its only purpose here seems to force a comparison between Samuel and Samson, but the similarities between them are sparse beyond this one point. If, however, this birth narrative was originally about Saul instead of Samuel, it becomes one of several parallels between the two men.

This brings us to the most suggestive point for the theory. Several stories in the more legendary and mythological passages of the Hebrew Bible draw attention to the symbolic meaning of a figure’s name, often based around wordplay. In Gen 2.7, the ‘man’ (ʾāḏām) is made from the ‘ground’ (ʾăḏāmāh). In Gen 4.1, Eve ‘got’ (qānîṯî) her son ‘Cain’ (qayin). Here, in 1 Sam 1, we find a series of wordplay around when the son receives his name.

1 Samuel 1.17–28

Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the god of Israel grant the petition (šlṯḵ) you have asked (šʾlt) of him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. They rose early in the morning and worshipped before Yhwh; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and Yhwh remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him (šʾltîw) of Yhwh.’ The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to Yhwh the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, ‘As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of Yhwh, and remain there for ever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.’ Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may Yhwh establish his word.’ So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of Yhwh at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to Yhwh. For this child I prayed; and Yhwh has granted me the petition (šʾlṯî) that I asked of him (šʾl). Therefore I have lent him to Yhwh; as long as he lives, he is given (šʾl) to Yhwh.’

The wordplay revolves around the sound šʾl, the Hebrew spelling of Saul’s name. This culminates in the final sentence above, when his mother says ‘he is [Saul] to Yhwh’.

The evidence, while not conclusive, points to the Saul cycle comprising folklore comparable in shape to the more elaborate legends about the judges: Saul’s birth story anticipating his importance, his chance encounter with an unnamed seer who predicts his royal destiny, and his military victory over the Ammonite tribe which secures his elevation as king. Saul’s story was expanded over time to include his son Jonathan. As Saul’s story was brought into a larger narrative about the foundation of David’s kingdom, it was edited further to put an overwhelmingly negative spin on his character. Pieces of Saul’s infancy narrative were incorporated into a younger legend about Samuel instead, perhaps to minimize Saul’s long-term importance by separating him from his providential birth.

No comments:

Post a Comment