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Getting out the Pagan Within Part 4: The Sanctimonious Serenades of Saul—A Biblical Theology of I Samuel 15:27-31

1 Samuel 15 4 smallSo far, we have considered 1 Samuel 15 from a different angles. We have discovered how serious Saul’s sin is. A sin akin to defiling the Ark of the Covenant and stealing the golden lampstand for good measure. We have examined the meaning of Saul’s grasp of Samuel’s hem as an act of manipulation to force the Prophet’s hand… an perhaps some else’s as well.

Today, I’d like to consider Saul’s in relationship to the ironic inclusion of his scene of YHWH worship on the day of his cursing. It is ironic, because Saul’s thinking seems saturated with pagan notions about the divine. Indeed, 1 Samuel 15:31 is the only reference to Saul worshiping YHWH in the entire text of Scripture.

Let’s consider some facts about the life of Saul:

  1. Saul is the divine answer to a cursed demand for a king in 1 Samuel 8:6ff.
  2. The משפט custom/way of this king is spelled out for the people in terms of oppression, royal extravagance, taxes, conscription of children, servants, produce and property (1 Samuel 8:9-17) leaving them crying out for a deliverance they will not get. (1 Samuel 8:18)
  3. When Samuel first meets Saul, YHWH’s word to him is, “He it is who shall עצר restrain/hinder/dominate/oppress my people.” (1 Samuel 9:17) עצר is not a happy term.
  4. Saul’s hides from the commission of YHWH in the baggage of those come to his coronation. (1 Samuel 10:21-23) The essence of this should be compared with David’s opposite reaction to Goliath, when again, Saul is terrified and hiding from the giant, looking for a champion to go fight him on his behalf. (1 Samuel 17:10-11ff)
  5. While Samuel holds out hope for Israel and Saul after his coronation, he rallies a condemning prophetic oracle against them, validated by a cursed rain from God, given, it seems on the day of Saul’s coronation. (cf 1 Samuel 12:1ff and 1 Samuel 11:15)
  6. Saul is used by God to deliver Israel, but he abuses his authority, making sacrifices reserved for Samuel; thus, the first warning that his rule is doomed. (1 Samuel 13:8‑13)
  7. Saul’s exuberance for victory causes him to make a foolish, selfish and arrogant vow that threatens to destroy his heir, and hinders the armies of Israel from delivering themselves from their enemies. (1 Samuel 14:1ff)
  8. Saul names one son after YHWH, Jonathan, and another after Baal, Isbosheth… real name Eshbaal Man of Baal. Bosheth shame is, according to some, exchanged by ancient Rabbis out of embarrassment.  (Cf. 2 Samuel 2:8; 1 Chronicles 8:33; 1 Chronicles 9:39)
  9. I find #8 interesting in light of Saul’s actions in regard to Carmel in 1 Samuel 15:12. This Carmel,[1] is not Mount Carmel, sacred to Baal, whose insignia he gave to his son, (1 Kings 18:20) but the connection might be questioned. Why did Saul go here of all places? At best, according to the Hebrew rendering, Saul set up a monument “to him” as in “to himself,” sharing credit for YHWH’s victory… a rather pagan way of doing things. At worst, Saul set up a monument “to him” as in Baal, long associated with Mount Carmel… and, per chance, the village?
  10. After the prediction of “the neighbor” the one who is better than Saul (1 Samuel 15:28), Saul, being convinced that David is the neighbor, a fact Samuel’s ghost will later confirm (1 Samuel 28:17), Saul spends the rest of his life trying to kill him.
  11. Saul’s palace is filled with idols. After David’s marriage to his daughter, Saul seeks to kill David, but Saul’s daughter takes a teraphim, slaps a goat skin wig on it and tricks Saul’s soldiers into thinking David is tucked in for the night, as he flees. (1 Samuel 19:13)
  12. The Holy Spirit, that empowering force from God to aid him as ruler and deliverer, is taken from Saul and replaced by an evil Spirit from God who torments Saul and drives him into lunatic fits. (1 Samuel 16:14) In 1 Samuel 18:10, these fits are described with the same נבא “prophesied” language used to depict the crazy behavior that led to the common jest, “Is Saul also among the prophets.” (1 Samuel 10:11)
  13. Saul’s failure to conduct a proper herem slaughter against the Amalekites does not, oddly enough, prevent him from conducting a right proper herem slaughter against the priests of YHWH at Nob. The events there, mimic the commands of herem slaughter. (1 Samuel 22:19)
  14. Saul, who could not pull off a slaughter of YHWH’s enemies, does pull off a slaughter of the Gibeonites, whose covenant protections under YHWH with Israel made them untouchable. (cf. 2 Samuel 21:1ff; Joshua 9:15ff)
  15. Saul’s penultimate moment of shame, was, in the face of true abandonment by YHWH (1 Samuel 28:6) Saul seeking out the help of a medium. He eats a covenant meal with her, taking her into his protection. (1 Samuel 28:21ff)
  16. Saul, finishes his days with suicide. (1 Samuel 31:4) This is a fate shared only by Judas who betrayed Christ. His body is dismembered and desecrated by the Philistines, a sign of divine curse. (1 Samuel 31:9ff)

Saul viewed prophets, priests, warriors, worship and rituals as tools in his own designs to harness the power of the divine, and the people’s own faith, to accomplish his own ends—the essence of paganism. He is THE apostate king. Saul was, in his heart, a pagan, and his clutching of the hem of Samuel, was simply one more example of his attempt to employ pagan notions about YHWH to get his own way.

It is this pagan goal that establishes the true meaning of Samuel’s diatribe in 1 Samuel 15:27-31.


[1] The name Carmel, may not be any type of religious association. Carmel means fruitful and the town was once associated with rich vineyards. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Karmil

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