Was King Saul a Mad Man?

On many occasions, Saul’s strange behavior was attributed to his madness. Was Saul really a mad man or can we say that Saul had many good reasons for his seemingly irrational behavior. Analysis of the Biblical scriptures shows that Saul was not naive and understood David’s intentions very well from the start.

See Also: Gods First King: The Story of Saul (Wipf & Stock Pub, 2013)

By Shaul Bar
Director and Professor, Bornblum Judaic Studies
University of Memphis
January 2014

Saul, Son of Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin, was the first king of Israel (1029–1005 BCE). His life was full of drama and misfortunes, and ended tragically. The books of Samuels and Chronicles are the main sources of information about Saul. The biblical prophetic books and Psalms barely mention him. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible portrays him as a man who chases demons; a man obsessed with the pursuit of David, and a paranoid man. Thus, he struggles constantly with his own family members as well as his circle of friends. He feuds with the prophet Samuel. He is ruthless and merciless. He kills the priests of Nob and massacres the Gibeonites.1 A similar description is also found in the writings of Josephus who describes Saul in unflattering ways. His description of Saul is similar to the ruthless kings from the Greek and Roman empires.2

Is this portrayal of Saul reflecting the true personality of Saul that emerges from the book of Samuel? On many occasions, Saul’s strange behavior was attributed to his madness. Was Saul really a mad man or can we say that Saul had many good reasons for his seemingly irrational behavior. Analysis of the Biblical scriptures shows that Saul was not naive and understood David’s intentions very well from the start.

Jonathan, Saul’s son, is one of the main characters in the book of Samuel, nevertheless, he does not appear alone. Jonathan is always mentioned with his father Saul or with David. From the start, tension exists between Saul and his son Jonathan. This tension will intensify with David’s arrival at Saul’s court .On one occasion; at a sacrificial meal Saul even tried to kill him. Saul is very angry with Jonathan since he sided with his enemy. He united with David, an act that casts a shadow on him and his mother who gave birth to him. What emerges from the stories about Jonathan are his idealized characteristics in contrast to those of Saul, whom God had rejected as king. Jonathan is portrayed as a military hero who fought for freedom from the Philistine oppression. In the second part of the stories, Jonathan becomes a loyal friend to David, the man who becomes king instead of him. In spite of this, Jonathan is not envious of David, but remains friends with him. The stories that stress Jonathan’s heroism belong to sources that were written by the supporters of the house of Saul. On the other hand, supporters of David wrote the stories that describe the friendship between Jonathan and David. The pact between David and Jonathan aided David. The question is: Why didn’t Jonathan have any ambition to become king of Israel following his father? Moreover, according to the biblical narrative, Jonathan regarded David as Saul’s natural successor (1 Sam 20:13–17). Evidently this description of Jonathan siding with David appears to be unrealistic. We have to remember that despite all the feuds between Saul and Jonathan with all that it negatively portrayed, in a moment of truth, Jonathan did not desert his father. In the final battle on Mount Gilboa, he went and fought with his father against the Philistines, where he and two of his brothers, died with him.

Saul also mistrusted his courtiers. A conversation that Saul had with his courtiers (1 Sam 22:6–8) provides a glimpse into the relationship between them. This exchange reveals his suspicions and his mistrust of them. He discovers that some of them had a vague knowledge of David’s whereabouts. By not divulging this information, he thought they were conspiring against him. Saul rebuked his courtiers, the Benjaminites from his own tribe. By mentioning that they are Benjaminites, he was appealing to their feelings as his tribesmen. In another words, he tells them that it was their duty and obligation to assist him against David, but instead they are traitors who unite with a man from a foreign clan. His question to his courtiers is full of sarcasm: “Will the son of Jesse give fields and vineyards to every one of you? And will he make all of you captains of thousands or captains of hundreds? (1 Sam 22:7). Does the narrator provide an accurate picture? It is unlikely that Saul’s own tribesmen assisted David. We have to remember that Saul gave his tribesmen vineyards and fields, and they served in his army. What could David offer? He was a fugitive on the run. It seems that the author’s sympathies toward David have led him to portray dissension between Saul and his tribesmen. His aim was to describe a capricious king who does not trust his own people. Thus the author continued the theme “that all Israel loved David,” in order to show that David was the better man who deserved to replace King Saul.

To portray Saul in a harsher way, the narrator says that it was only Doeg the Edomite who supported Saul. Doeg that presided over Saul’s officials was an Edomite, an outsider who did not belong to Saul’s tribe. It is possible that Saul choose him because of his administrative skills that he acquired in his native land of Edom. Ironically, it is an outsider and not a man from his clan that spied for Saul. Doeg reported to Saul that he saw the son of Jesse in Nob with the priest Abimelech, son of Ahitub. It is not clear from the text if, indeed, Abimelech inquired of the Lord. It is believed that Doeg lied, and said this in order to disgrace him, to portray the priest as a traitor. It is also possible that the priest indeed inquired of the Lord, and Doeg brought this incriminating evidence to Saul. The guards disobeyed Saul’s order to kill the priests of Nob. Only an outsider carries out the king’s orders. Saul ordered Doeg to kill the priest. As before, Doeg does not disappoint the king, and does what he is commanded to do. According to the biblical account, Doeg murdered eighty-five priests (the LXX mentions 305 while Josephus records 385).3 Josephus specifies that Saul slew not only priests but prophets as well, but the Bible does not mention prophets. The city of Nob was completely destroyed, it was put under a total ban: “men and women, children and infants, oxen, asses, and sheep-[all] to the sword”(1 Sam 22:19). This description is similar to the orders that Saul received to destroy Amalek: “but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”(15:3). By murdering the priests of Nob and destroying their city, Saul wanted to send a clear message that he was king. Any resistance would not be tolerated and would face harsh consequences. This message was understood. We read subsequently that the people of Keilah and the Ziphites feared Saul. They did not assist David, but helped Saul. They tried to deliver David into Saul’s hands.

Saul used his daughters as a pawns in his feud with David. Before the battle against Goliath (1 Sam 17:25), King Saul promised the victor his daughter, in addition to riches. Accordingly, Saul offered David his eldest daughter, Merab, as a wife for the promised reward. However, Saul was dishonest and deceitful, adding a new condition for David to marry his daughter; he would have to perform heroic deeds against the enemies of God. Saul was hoping that David would die at the hand of the Philistines. Saul did not have any intention to give his daughter to David, since he was planning to kill him, and Merab was only bait. Saul used his daughter to advance his own ambitions. Saul’s double-dealing and trickery is again obvious when we read that Merab had already been given to Adriel, the Meholathite. Merab was only a pawn in Saul’s plan, and he was willing to use her to achieve his goals.

Like her sister Merab, Michal, Saul’s second daughter was also a pawn in the feuds between King Saul and David, each side tried to use her for his own advantage. At first glance, it seems odd for Saul to offer his daughters to his adversary. But as the text suggests, this was only a ploy, thinking that the Philistines would kill David. David was also dishonest and used Michal. He married her because he wanted to gain admission to Saul’s court. David’s power and support was based mainly in the south, and he needed to expand his base of power. The marriage to Michal solidified and attracted support from the Benjamanites, and established a stronger claim to the throne. Michal is the only woman in the Bible that states that she loved a man. She loved David but his behavior and deeds do not demonstrate that he loved her. When David left Jonathan they kissed each other and cried. When Michal helped David escape, no kissing or crying is mentioned. More so, David found various times to meet with Jonathan, but not with Michal. When Michal was given to another man, he neither protested nor raised any objections. Michal is mentioned for the last time in 2 Sam 6:16–23, when the ark was brought into Jerusalem. When Michal, looked and saw David dancing before the ark, she despised him (v. 16). She criticized David for his behavior, and referred to him as riffraff. At this point, we can see that she did not love him anymore. She probably realized that David used her to advance his political ambitions. The fact that she was David’s wife is not mentioned here; she is referred to solely as Michal, the daughter of Saul.

The feud between Saul and Samuel started during the conflict with the Philistines that is described in chapter 13. Saul is described in an unflattering way. He is under pressure because Samuel did not arrive on time, meanwhile the people started to leave him. Saul is frightened, indecisive, does not act, and is afraid of the Philistines that come to capture him. As a result, he disobeys Samuel; he did not wait for the prophet and offered a sacrifice by himself. He did not have the authority to sacrifice, which was Samuel’s duty, since he was also a priest. Actually, Saul waited seven days for Samuel. Ironically, Samuel arrived just when Saul was finishing his sacrifice. Thus it seems that Samuel trapped Saul, pushing Saul to his breaking point. More so, Saul did what was permissible. Saul was afraid; he was left with no option but to turn to God. Indeed, sacrifices were offered before a holy war (1Sam 7:9). In this story and in the following chapters, Saul is portrayed as disobedient, impatient, and lacking in faith. The clash between Saul and Samuel was the first between a prophet and a king; it was the beginning of many feuds between kings and prophets. The second quarrel between Saul and Samuel took place following Saul’s failure to carry a total ban against Amalek. Saul spared king Agag and the best of his livestock. The story of Saul’s failure to destroy the Amalekites is based on Deut. 25:17–19, a seventh century B.C.E. text. If this is correct, the story of the ḥerem is a much later effort, to explain Saul’s replacement by David. Therefore, Saul is the historical destroyer of Amalek, and he stood behind Moses, the allegorical scourge of Amalek. It was writers sympathetic to David and his Dynasty that distorted our story.4

Overall, it appears that there is exaggeration in these unflattering descriptions of Saul. As mentioned above Jonathan, in spite of his quarrels with his father, went and fought with his father in the last battle on Mount Gilboa and never deserted him. What is not clear is why he gave his royal rights to David. Michal betrayed her father for David’s sake because her love for him was true. Her character is tragic. David, like Saul, used Michal in order to advance his political ambitions; he married her because he craved admission to the royal family. It is unlikely that Saul’s courtiers aided David because they did not gain anything from this. The clashes between Samuel and Saul foretell later clashes between the kings of Israel and the prophets. The question at the center is the prophetic authority verses royal authority. Saul had many good reasons for his seemingly irrational behavior. Saul was not naive and understood David’s intentions very well. He realized that David’s primary goal was to become king. Therefore, not surprisingly, he was angry with his son Jonathan, who easily gave up the throne. Saul wanted his son Jonathan to succeed him. It was the hand of a sympathetic author from the Davidic circle that was responsible for the negative view of Saul. The aim was to portray an unstable king who failed in his relationships with his inner circle, while David had all Israel and Judah that loved him.


1 For extensive study on the story of King Saul see: Shaul Bar, Gods First King: the Story of Saul. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2013; S. Brooks, Saul and the Monarchy: A New Look. Society for Old Testament Study Series. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

2 Josephus, Ant. 6.12.7.

3 Ibid.6.12.6.

4 David Sperling, Original Torah, The Political Intent of the Bible’s Writers (New York: New York University Press, 1998),p.128

Comments (2)

This all assumes that the biblical stories give an accurate picture of the early monarchy, which I believe is in doubt.

#1 - Edward Mills - 01/22/2014 - 14:41

Professor Bar assumes, I think, not so much that the picture is accurate but that it can be corrected by a rational process. The starting point is that the narrative, the Deuteronomic History, contrasts Saul and David as the primitive and developed forms of the same institution. Saul, though he has merits, indulges passions rather too much - sign of a comparatively bad ruler. David is in many respects more rational - he knows when to draw back, not stretching out his hand against the Lord's anointed, pulling back to a more secure location in the face of the Philistines and of Absalom, reserving his final plans for a purge until he's on his death bed. Where Saul's strength lies in his military prowess almost alone, David has the strength of one whom everyone loves, hence his (presumably adopted) name. I think (I am but a cat looking at a king here) Professor Bar underplays the main evidence of Saul's madness, ie his ecstatic dancing 'among the prophets'. To my mind, this means that part of his split with Samuel is his actual attempt to usurp Samuel's role, whereas David, having committed a crime that arises from his being so easily loved, at least allows Nathan to monopolise the status and position of a prophet. So David is not only more lovable personally, he has a better understanding of his role: the monarchy develops and matures.
This is a very powerful theological/historical narrative. Is there any reason to think that we can reconstruct a plain historical narrative - the Historical Saul - without the theology? There must be doubt, I think, just as there is with the more famous Historical Jesus. Did the Deutero Historian himself have records giving an account of political life all those centuries before? I must say that I doubt that any records beyond the rather dry chronicle style of the ancient Middle East existed. Families would perhaps have preserved interesting traditions, but (everyone says that) Saul's family had been wiped out long since. If DH didn't have the materials of political and personal history, can we?

#2 - Martin - 01/25/2014 - 14:47

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