by Timothy S. Wilkinson
Saul is something of an archetypal character in that his existence can be summed up in a single characteristic: the pursuit of knowledge of the future. “Saul’s entire story, until the night of his death on the battlefield, is a story about the futile quest for knowledge of an inveterately ignorant man,” writes Robert Alter. Samuel may have wanted to illustrate with Saul’s life the importance of having knowledge—especially for one who ruled over others. In any case, Saul’s quest for knowledge and his descent into madness provide a fascinating character study from both a literary and a spiritual perspective.
Saul’s name in Hebrew is sha’al. Throughout the account, Samuel uses this as a pun by playing with the word for “asked”—sha’ul. The similarity also emphasizes Saul’s constant “asking” for information to figure out what to do.
Saul is introduced to us in Chapter 9 of the book of 1 Samuel in search (of knowledge) of his father’s lost asses. He and his traveling companion seek their knowledge from a “seer”—Samuel the prophet. In the verses that follow, almost all of Saul’s words are questions.
In Chapter 10 and verse 11 the origin of a proverb is given: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” It is noteworthy that this saying (which is apparently a way of expressing incredulity) also links Saul with his inability to get the knowledge he seeks.
Some time into Saul’s kingship he finds himself at the new capital city of the kingdom—Gibeah, known thereafter as Gibeah of Saul. When his son and crown prince Jonathan leads a surprise attack against a nearby garrison of Philistines, Saul’s reaction is predictable: he seeks knowledge. In Chapter 14 and verses 17 through 20 Saul wants the priest Ahijah to cast the sacred lots to inquire of Jehovah as to what the king should do. (The Masoretic Text says that the “Ark of God” was with them, but the Septuagint says “ephod.” The latter seems the more likely translation since the priest wore the ephod—a sort of jeweled breastplate which (according to Jewish tradition) had a pouch that contained the Urim and Thummim—sacred lots used to make a direct inquiry to God).
A little later, but during the same conflict, Saul again attempts to inquire of Jehovah. In Chapter 14 verses 36 through 37 the priest encourages Saul to go to God for direction before making any decision. Saul does so, but (in harmony with the pattern of his life) does not get the knowledge he seeks: “And [Jehovah] did not answer him on that day.”
After Saul’s successful campaign against Amalek in Chapter 15, Samuel denounces the king for failing to obey Jehovah’s command not to take spoil from the enemy. In his condemnation Samuel speaks in poetry and compares Saul’s offense to divination—a method of seeking knowledge of the future.
Following David’s valiant conquest of Goliath in Chapter 17, one episode of the tale of Saul comes to an end. In the final verses we find Saul once again in a state of ignorance, repeatedly asking questions about David’s identity.
The pattern continues. In Chapter 19 verse 22 Saul (sha’ul) has to ask (sha’al) where Samuel and David are; in Chapter 20 verse 27 he asks why David does not show up for a feast; in Chapter 22 verse 8 he complains that knowledge has been denied him by his friends. In that same instance Doeg the Edomite falsely claims that Priest Ahimelech inquired of Jehovah for David. This enrages Saul, whose efforts to ascertain divine guidance have repeatedly met with failure.
King Saul’s life comes to an end as it began: in a futile attempt to acquire hidden knowledge. In Chapter 28 and verse 6 we find that Jehovah will not speak to Saul “by dreams nor by the Urim nor by prophets.” Desperate, he seeks out a spirit medium, the Witch of Endor. She claims to raise the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, but once again Saul needs her help to gain access to “Samuel’s” knowledge: in verse 13, he asks “What did you see?”
Her answer and the words of “Samuel” do not provide Saul with the knowledge he is looking for: some way to attain victory in the upcoming battle against the Philistines. The next day Saul and his sons are killed at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. We cannot help but imagine the hapless king in his last desperate moments looking around and asking the final question: How could this have happened to me?