Thinking Out Loud

June 11, 2016

When King Saul Went AWOL

What Christianity 201 readers won’t know when this posts at 5:30 PM (EST) today, is that the whole thing started with a scrap of paper. It was a page from my mother’s church bulletin. There was no date on the section which had been ripped out, just a selection of verses.

It was the second part of verse 22 (below) that got to me. I mentioned it to a couple of family members. One person said it best, “I’ve never heard that verse preached on.” Yet, when I started running the rabbit trail online and with commentaries I own, all the following happened!
1 Samuel 10 22

NIV 1 Samuel 10:17 Samuel summoned the people of Israel to the Lord at Mizpah 18 and said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I brought Israel up out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the power of Egypt and all the kingdoms that oppressed you.’ 19 But you have now rejected your God, who saves you out of all your disasters and calamities. And you have said, ‘No, appoint a king over us.’ So now present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes and clans.”

20 When Samuel had all Israel come forward by tribes, the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. 21 Then he brought forward the tribe of Benjamin, clan by clan, and Matri’s clan was taken. Finally Saul son of Kish was taken. But when they looked for him, he was not to be found. 22 So they inquired further of the Lord, “Has the man come here yet?”

And the Lord said, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the supplies.”

23 They ran and brought him out, and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others. 24 Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.”

Then the people shouted, “Long live the king!”

The entire narrative in 1 Samuel 10 contains a number of things that would, each on their own, make for interesting study today. But the second half of verse 22 had somehow eluded me until this week.

Therefore they inquired further of the Lord, “Has the man come here yet?” So the Lord said, “Behold, he is hiding himself by the baggage.” (NASB)

Israel is about to get the king they’ve always wanted. The surrounding nations had kings, but they had the King of Kings. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t stand up to federal peer pressure. In our world, Saul would make for good optics on the international circuit. The story begins in chapter 9 where we learn,

9:2 Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.

But there was more to it:

9:17 When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.”

In chapter 10, Saul is formally anointed king, and then there’s an interesting contact with a group of prophets which, as I said, will have to wait for another day. To get us to today’s key verse, here’s a transitional section which appears in The Voice Bible:

Why is Saul chosen as the first king? He is from the tiny tribe of Benjamin, so he seems to be outside the mainstream of political power. But he is a handsome and tall young man, meaning he is appealing in appearance and able to inspire confidence in warriors. At this first appearance, it even seems as if his inner qualities might match his outer qualities—God transforms him and gives him the power to prophesy—but as the story goes on, his insecurities and his jealousy of David are his undoing. (emphasis added)

So Saul, what are you doing in the baggage caravan?

  • This he might do, because he either had, or at least would be thought to have, a modest sense of his own unworthiness, which was a likely way to commend him to the people.(Matthew Poole commentary)
  • … Saul hid himself, hoping that if he was not found they would proceed to another choice, so free from ambition was he, and such was his modesty; nor does this seem to be affected and dissembled, but real; though afterwards, when he was settled in the kingdom, he did not care to part with it, and sought to kill David, whom he looked upon as his rival… (John Gill commentary)
  • …he understood, by what Samuel had said, that the people had sinned in asking for a king. (Matthew Henry)
  • …Because the affairs of Israel were at the time in a bad position [militarily]; the Philistines were strong, the Ammonites threatening; he must be bold indeed who will set sail in a storm (Matthew Henry)

At Chandler Vinson’s blog A Trivial Devotion, a longer explanation which includes consultation with some very detailed writers. This is an exhaustive study of this verse, and I commend the research here to you. You may not finish reading all of this, but it gives insights into one of the Hebrew Bible’s most interesting characters:

Saul’s hiding place is a good one as the Israelites cannot find him without divine intervention.

A more pertinent question than where Saul is hiding is why the nation’s potential leader is lurking among its supplies. Some have speculated that with time to contemplate this life changing event, the future king is getting cold feet. Timidity would be a natural response to such responsibility. A Targum reference claims that Saul slips out for prayer and Bible Study. Most, however, interpret Saul’s absence in one of two polarizing ways: commendable modesty or a flaw in character.

Some have viewed Saul’s action as evidence that he possesses the necessary modesty to be Israel’s king (I Samuel 9:21). Prominent rabbis Rashi (1040-1105) and Radaq (1160-1235) support this theory. Saul’s absence is not necessarily incriminating as David, Israel’s model king and Saul’s successor, will also initially be absent when being chosen (I Samuel 16:10-12). Even so, given the tragic way Saul’s life will unfold, it is difficult for many to see his truancy as a sign of the king’s goodness.

Many have viewed Saul’s concealment as unwillingness to lead. From this perspective, it is Saul’s personal baggage that leads the leader into the nation’s baggage. Reluctant to take the position, Saul’s physical position screams, “Not me!”

If this is the case, Richard D. Phillips (b. 1960) understands Saul’s trepidation:

The context strongly suggests fear instead of humility as the reason that Saul hid himself. And who can blame him, since he was being called to step into God’s place! Perhaps Saul could see that God was angry and that his selection was God’s judgment on the nation. Given the difficulty of the task, we can hardly blame him for trying to get away. Nonetheless, Saul’s selfish neglect of duty foreshadows a pattern that will be repeated during his kingship. The people of Israel had desired a king who would give them the leadership edge enjoyed by the worldly nations, no longer willing to rely simply on God’s saving power. Here, then, is the kind of self-serving cowardice that they will have to get used to under human kings! (Phillips, 1 Samuel (Reformed Expository Commentary),163)

Robert Alter (b. 1935) critiques:

This detail is virtually a parody of the recurring motif of the prophet-leader’s unwillingness to accept his mission. Saul the diffident farm boy had expressed a sense of unworthiness for the high office Samuel conferred on him. Now, confronted by the assembled tribes and “trapped” by the process of lot drawing, he tries to flee the onus of kingship, farcically hiding in the baggage. (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 48)

From this perspective, Saul lacks true humility which would include depending on God. This stance is supported as fear fits the paranoia that will characterize Saul’s life. Though his action is highly irregular, it is typical of Saul.

Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) explains that this inauspicious start is fitting:

Saul’s actions, however off, were consistent with the portrayal of Saul to this point; previously the king-designate had shut out both his servant (I Samuel 9:27) and his uncle (I Samuel 10:16) from any knowledge of his destiny. Saul’s vacancy at his own coronation suitably foreshadows a reign that would vacate responsibilities associated with the exercise of godly rule and perhaps suggest the lack of wisdom of those who preferred such a king to Yahweh. At the same time, divine assistance in the search for Saul reinforced the conclusion that Saul was indeed the Lord’s answer to Israel’s demand for a king “like the other nations.” (Bergen, , 2 Samuel (New American Commentary), 132)

Clinical psychologist David A. Stoop (b. 1937) concurs, characterizing:

Saul’s fearful posture toward life is…seen in his response to being publicly anointed as king. He simply wants to avoid the whole process. The way he attempts to avoid being anointed king in front of all Israel is to hide. (Stoop, What’s He So Angry About?, 80)

Whatever his motives for hiding, when discovered, Saul assumes the crown. Saul’s reluctance is completely ignored and the people accept him as king (I Samuel 10:23-24). On cue, they chant, “Long live the king!” (I Samuel 10:24, NASB).

Despite his awkward discovery, Saul’s impressive stature makes an even more immediate first impression. The only descriptor mentioned is that he stands a head taller than any of his peers: Saul is tall (I Samuel 9:2, 10:23). This detail adds to the story’s humor as the nation’s tallest man is theoretically the most difficult to hide, comparable to 7’6″ Yao Ming attempting to hide in a Chinese national assembly. Aside from Saul, impressive height is a quality reserved for non-covenant people and Saul’s more ideal successor, David, will not share this trait (I Samuel 16:7). In picking Saul, the Israelites receive what they ask for – a king like all the nations (I Samuel 8:5) and his selection foreshadows the typical lack of godly commitment exhibited by most of Israel’s monarchs.

What motivates Saul’s hiding, modesty or timidity? Who is he hiding from? If Saul does not want the position, why does he attend the convention at all? Why would God select a king that did not want the responsibility? Have you ever known anyone to turn down a promotion? Have you ever gotten a position that you didn’t want? Would you follow a leader who did not want her position? Would you want to be a monarch? Are you currently hiding from anything?

Whatever Saul’s reasons, his concealment has a significant consequence: it provides another opportunity for God to demonstrate divine involvement in his selection. It is God, not the Israelites, who finds Saul (I Samuel 10:22). Despite one of the implicit desires in asking for a monarch being independence, once again, the Israelites are reliant upon God. And they have enough access to God to use divine assistance to find the ruler they have chosen instead of God.

Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) comments:

Once chosen, Saul is nowhere to be found! He has gone into hiding. Did that last sermon by Samuel put the fear of God in him? Did he have a premonition that despite all the signs of God’s Spirit in his choosing, the kingship was flawed from the start by the people’s God-rejecting ambitions, and it was going to be a rocky road ahead? The story does not provide us with Saul’s motives for hiding. What it makes quite clear, though, is that this whole king business was going to be a mixed bag, involving both God’s mercy and God’s judgment…And here is a telling detail: They are now forced to pray to God to help them find the king they have just chosen with God’s help, but against God’s will (I Samuel 10:22). God graciously condescends to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. (Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion), 66)

If the Israelites are close enough to God to find the concealed candidate, why do they seek a king? Is your trust in God’s leadership or in human rulers? …

…so all this we get from one verse! But what an interesting study of the reluctant leader who becomes Israel’s first king.

 

 

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