The first king of Israel went looking for donkeys

By | January 18, 2014

King Saul did not start out seeking a crown for himself

We have just marked Epiphany, when we remember three wise men, who may have been kings.

Now that we have left the Christmas season, we turn to the story of three other kings. These three ruled the unified kingdom of Israel: Saul, David and Solomon. All three appear in the daily readings from mid-January into the middle of February.

We know about David and his son, Solomon. But most of us only know Saul as sort of a “bad guy.” After all, he tried to kill David several times, was increasingly paranoid, had fits of depression, disobeyed God and died in battle. Then, there was the witch of Endor.

But what good things do we know about the man whom God first chose to rule Israel? Saul did have several good traits that recommended him for king.

First, we should remember that Saul did not seek a crown. After all, the Hebrew people were supposed to have only God as king. In the book of Judges, when Gideon is offered the crown, he replies, “I will not rule over you, … The Lord must rule over you” (8:22-23).

But the people insisted, many times, that they wanted a king like the great military powers such as Egypt and the Philistines. This displeased both God and the last great judge of Israel: Samuel. Still, the Lord gave Israel what they wanted: a king.

So how was Saul chosen? Certainly by God, but it happened almost comically. In the first book of Samuel, we hear of Saul wandering around, looking for the lost asses of his father. Finally, in despair, he entered a town to ask a local seer for help. Saul was directed to a man who is, in fact, Samuel. Saul doesn’t recognize him and asks Samuel’s help in finding the lost animals. Instead, directed by God, Samuel anoints Saul and tells him, “The Lord has anointed you commander over his heritage.” This makes Saul king.

So, what did Saul do? Found his father’s asses and went home, back to his usual life. This is counted, in most Jewish traditions, as a sign of Saul’s humility. Later, Samuel comes to town and, in front of the people, chooses Saul by lot to be king. And still Saul does nothing. Some accounts even say he hid to avoid leadership.

Then, however, Nahash the Ammonite besieged a local town, Jabesh Gilead. The people there appealed to Saul and, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” he freed the city and drove off the invaders (1 Sm 11:6).

Finally everyone, Saul and the people, realized that they have a king.

Saul became a fine military ruler and led his armies against the Moabites, Ammonties, Philistines, Edomites and the kings of Zobah. However, he also revealed his fatal flaw: he didn’t completely trust God. This shows up first when he led his army against the Philistines. After his son, Jonathan, had successfully attacked their garrison in Gibeah, the Philistine army retaliated and marched against Saul at Gilgal. They had an overwhelming force and some of Saul’s men fled into the hills. Samuel had promised to come and offer sacrifice to aid them. But he delayed, so Saul finally took it upon himself to offer sacrifice — something he was not allowed do since he was not a priest.

Samuel arrived almost immediately, dismayed and enraged. Speaking for God, he told Saul “your kingdom will not endure” and that God had chosen another king “because you broke the Lord’s command” (1 Sm 13:14).

For a while, though, things got better. Jonathan routed the Philistines and Saul won many battles. “Wherever he turned, he was successful and fought bravely” (1 Sm 14: 47).

However, Saul again disobeyed God. When he conquered the Amalekites, God ordered that every man, woman and child, as well as all the animals, be killed. Saul was also to kill Agag, one of the Amalekite kings.

Saul won the battle, but did not kill the king. Also, he kept the best animals alive for himself and his troops.

That was the beginning of the end for Saul. The Lord told Samuel, “I regret having made Saul king, for he has turned from me” (1 Sam 15:11). Saul repented and had Agag killed. But it was too late and Samuel was sent by God to Bethlehem, where he anointed David.

Saul went downhill from there. The Bible speaks of his increasing melancholy. This was how David, as a harper, came to his attention: David’s music lifted Saul’s spirits. But after David slew Goliath, Saul grew jealous and eventually sought David’s life.

Saul’s son, Jonathan, and his daughter, Michal, did their best to protect David. God even delivered Saul into David’s hand, not once, but twice. However, David refused to kill God’s anointed king and Saul, learning of his loyalty, was torn between remorse and increasing jealousy.

Saul’s life ended in battle against the Philistines. He and his sons, including Jonathan, were slain. Before the battle, Saul went to the witch of Endor and asked her to summon the spirit of the now-dead Samuel. Samuel’s spirit told Saul that he would die.

Saul didn’t run away, but went to his fate. Accounts vary about whether he was wounded and committed suicide rather than be captured or was slain by a passing opportunist. Whichever the case, Saul died in despair. His enemies beheaded him and nailed his body to the city wall of Bathshan. (The grateful people of Jabesh Gilead rescued the body, burnt it and buried the ashes.)

Saul’s only surviving son, Ishbaal, became king — but not of a united Israel; the tribe of Judah sided with David. After Ishbaal was murdered, David had the assassins killed. Only then did all the tribes come to Hebron to proclaim David, “a man after God’s own heart,” as their king. Solomon, the wise king, followed David. But Solomon’s sons did not rule over a united Israel. That role — as well as ruling all creation — was saved for the eternal king from God’s own heart: Jesus.


Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Catholic News Agency;;; and

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