The first king of Israel, Saul (reigned ca. 1020-1000 B.C.) was a man of valor who brought the virtues of modesty and generosity to his office.
The youngest son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin, Saul was a modest shepherd boy, a resident of Gibeah, when the prophet Samuel, after a chance meeting, secretly chose and anointed him king of Israel. It was a period of national humiliation, for the Philistines had defeated the Israelites at Shiloh and captured the Ark of the Covenant, which symbolized the presence of God in their midst. This calamity convinced the Israelites that they must either strive for national unity with a king as leader or face complete and permanent subjugation.
Saul succeeded in freeing Israel of its enemies and extending its boundaries. He fought successfully against the Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Arameans, and Amalekites. He also succeeded in drawing the tribes of Israel into a closer unity.
Saul's initial conflict with Samuel occurred after Saul offered a sacrifice to God, thereby assuming Samuel's office. Samuel rebuked Saul and proclaimed that Saul's dynasty would not be continued on the throne of Israel. Their second disagreement took place after Saul retained the war booty of the defeated Amalekites, Israel's traditional enemy, and spared the life of their king, Agag. Samuel publicly pronounced Saul's deposition from the throne. Saul fell into a state of melancholia that developed into an emotional disorder.
Saul's fits of depression and his moody, suspicious temperament caused him to attack the lad David, who had been brought into his household to soothe him by playing music. Jealous of David, Saul persecuted him, attacked him, sent him on perilous expeditions, and finally made him into an outlaw.
The Philistines then renewed their attack on Israel. Without David's support and depressed by the feeling that God had deserted him, Saul consulted a witch of Endor, seeking to recall the spirit of the dead Samuel. He was reproached and advised of his impending doom. In a battle against the Philistines Saul fought valiantly but vainly. His forces routed and his three sons slain, Saul died by his own hand. The tragic tale is told by David in an exquisite elegy lamenting the death of Saul and Jonathan. It is one of the most beautiful poems in the Bible.
The affection in which Saul was held is reflected in the action of the men of Yabesh-gilead, whose city he had saved in his first act as monarch. They risked their lives to rescue his body from the Philistines and gave it an honorable burial.
Although there is no single authoritative biography of Saul, there are numerous volumes of fiction, making it difficult to distinguish between historical and legendary accounts. An excellent short essay on him is in Rudolph Kittel, Great Men and Movements in Israel (trans. 1929). For historical background the following works are recommended: William Foxwell Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940; 2d ed. with new introduction, 1957); Max I. Magolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People (1944); Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. 1 (2d ed. 1952; 2d rev. ed. 1969); and Martin Noth, The History of Israel (trans. 1958; 2d ed. 1960).