What are we to make of Saul? Chosen by God, anointed by Samuel, yet died abandoned my both. Saul tried to seek God, even using a “medium” to consult Samuel, to no avail. God refused to help Saul.
In reading the Old Testament, we often run into images like these. Sure, Saul disobeyed God, but so did everyone else in the Bible, except Jesus. David committed murder, but God did not turn from him.
It is things like this that turn people off, but, mostly because we do not understand what was going on in the minds of the ancient authors. The two books of Samuel—originally one book—are written in the form of great Hebrew literature. Samuel is not meant to be a history book, even though it contains history. It explains how God works through people. God chose Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David. Each had a part to play in life.
Saul turned out to be the proof of God’s words regarding earthly kings: they were not very good. Look at the long list of kings who ruled over the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). No northern king made the “good” list and only a handful of Southerners. (I hate to break it to you, but, of our 45 Presidents, we have had more Sauls than Davids.)
Today’s reading brings an end to the Saul story. He once again faced the Philistines and feared them. His three oldest sons were killed, and his army was routed. Knowing that he would be captured and tortured, he chose to commit suicide.
There is no word in the Bible for suicide. 1 Samuel 31:4 has it, Saul grasped the sword and fell upon it. JSB The author is saying, he killed himself. Also, the Bible neither condemns nor encourages suicide. The Bible does teach that every human life is important to God; from that, we have traditionally rejected suicide.
The account in 2 Samuel has Saul asking an Amalekite to kill him, which the man does. Here the Bible contradicts itself. Many people have a hard time with such passages, and detractors love them. One simple explanation is that Saul’s armor bearer was mistaken when he saw Saul dead. Saul revived and saw the Amalekite.
More likely: there were two versions handed down and the author of Samuel (obviously not Samuel, at least at this point) chose to include both. Remember that Samuel was one book until the Greek translation—the Septuagint—when it was too large for one scroll. The Hebrew scrolls continued to have it as one book until the 15th century.
The Hebrew Bible is based on the Masoretic Text, the result of several centuries of eliminating most errors. The oldest copy is from the Tenth Century. Today, there are older copies available, but they mostly agree with the Masoretic version.
What we have is the result of centuries of rabbis studying the text and agreeing that it is the Word of God. It is not the Bible we Twenty-first Century believers might have written. We would have insisted on putting dates on everything. We would have told one story in the proper historical time frame followed by the next story in the next time frame. We would not have even hinted that God turned his back on Saul. And don’t get started on “God made a mistake.”
The Bible is messy because we humans are messy. It is messy because it records thousands of years of God/human interaction. It is messy because most of the stories were told around campfires for centuries before they were written down. It was messy because different people, villages, tribes remembered different versions.
It is still God’s Word. We simply need to place ourselves near one of those campfires and try to feel the story the way they did.
Here is a link to Dr. Claude Mariottini’s comments on Saul’s suicide.
Be righteous and do good.