Heroic Bodies in Ancient Israel: The Case of Saul’s Height

As it turns out, the vast majority of these kings have no body as far as the text is concerned. Solomon has no body of significance.  The great rulers of the northern kingdom, such as Jeroboam, Omri, and Ahab, are not attractive or tall or ugly or physically strong—or physically anything. The righteous reformer Hezekiah possesses no beauty that would attract us to him and has no particular appearance at all (though he does get sick at one point; 2 Kgs 20:1–11). Josiah is a complete ghost. These figures loom large in the tradition—why is it, then, that only Saul and David receive physical descriptions, and indeed, by biblical standards, elaborate descriptions at that?

See Also: Heroic Bodies in Ancient Israel (Oxford University Press 2019).

By Brian R. Doak
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
George Fox University
January 2020

Bodies Speak

          The bodies of people encode and retell the story of their families, cities, and nations—a fact no less true for the ancient world than it is today. Whether we tear up bodies and throw them away, groom them to subtle or extreme effects, or idealize some bodies and present them as icons for all to see, we gaze upon bodies and read them according to the codes of our language, our visual index, and the psychology of our cultures. Bodies speak.[1]

          Numerous bodies populate the pages of the Hebrew Bible with thousands of possible images available for analysis—divine bodies; gendered bodies; conceptual bodies; individual and corporate bodies; young and old bodies; eyes, ears, hands, feet, heads, blood, and bone. Because of my own fascination with heroic literature in the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds, I’ve chosen to narrow my focus in this study to the explicitly described bodies of heroic figures in the Hebrew Bible—specifically defining the “hero” as one dwelling at the intersection of warrior activity and leadership (e.g., kings, tribal leaders, and founding figures). Under this definition, these heroes are often males (Jacob, most of the Judges, Saul, and David), but not always. Jael engages in particularly gritty bodily-heroic action in Judges 4–5, and the alluring and dangerous beauty of the matriarchs in Genesis must also be considered. However, my focus on the male body joins a growing list of work in biblical studies examining male bodies in terms of their construction and complication.

Why Not Describe Bodies More?

          One immediate obstacle facing us involves the reticence of ancient authors to describe the physical bodies of characters in anything like the detail contemporary readers might expect or desire. A parade example of this from the ancient world in the Christian Bible is Jesus of Nazareth—the most famous human in history and the one most frequently depicted artistically from the medieval period through today. He received not one shred of physical narrative description in any of the Gospels (and no contemporary visual renderings) despite the fact that contemporary ancient biographies (e.g., the Roman “Lives” genre or Greek “Bioi”) did utilize physical character descriptions in what most contemporary readers would consider “normal” ways. The most prominent literary products of the archaic Greek world, the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, utilized stock body images repeated at various points—heroes are “shining,” “powerful,” and “huge”; women are “white-armed,” “lovely-haired,” and so on. These images are not stunningly detailed, but they are present. In Mesopotamia, the (standard version) Gilgamesh Epic describes the hero’s body before any of the main narrative action begins in Tablet 1. The hero has a “superb physique,” he is “tall” and “handsome,” and he has huge triple-cubit feet and giant strides. Enkidu is “matted with hair,” and after his sexual learning experience with the woman Šamḫat, his body is “diminished” and “defiled.”[2] However, these descriptions are still quite generic.

          One simple reason for this descriptive lacuna in ancient literature involves the economy of writing: ancient authors are not known to have produced “art for art’s sake” or to have lavished the reader with ornate physical descriptions of anything beyond what is required to advance the plot or provide essential information.[3] In the case of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, to know of Gilgamesh’s beauty and strength and size is to know of his status as an exemplary hero and king; to know that Enkidu was a wild man but transformed into the shining equal of Gilgamesh is to know enough to see their fight, reconciliation, and journey as meaningful. The bodies have to work together for the characters to work together.

          Still, merely acknowledging the seemingly utilitarian feature of ancient character description does not answer why ancient authors wrote like this. Material considerations could play a role. Writing instruments and skilled scribes were relatively rare and expensive. In the cuneiform literatures broadly, we tend not to find lengthy digressions into the details of landscape, psychological motivation, history, and so on (though at moments such digressions were certainly possible). Even in texts written in the more user-friendly script systems (i.e., the Canaanite-type alphabets), only the Hebrew Bible approaches anything resembling “gratuitous” detail for characters or situations, and even here, ornate descriptions are not exactly the rule. Moreover, we should not mistake our contemporary image obsession as a transhistorical principle. Mirrors were not common before the seventeenth or eighteenth century of the Common Era, and their emergence ushered in a host of psychological and personal consequences; mobile phones with cameras pointing not only outward toward beautiful beach scenes or trendy breakfast plates but backward, toward our own faces, and the whole host of bodies on the Internet and in print media have, to say the least, made one’s appearance a more ubiquitous thing in recent times.

          Having said all of this, sparse description can be an effective artistic technique in the ancient world or today. Adele Berlin discusses the shadowy physicality of the Bible’s protagonists in terms of minimal suggestion: only through hints at a situation does the narrator invite the audience into a world of imaginative projection.[4] “Minimal representation can give maximum illusion,” and descriptions of “one outstanding trait” can be “that magic line of suggestion around which the reader fills in the picture.”[5] This comports with Erich Auerbach’s famous essay in Mimesis, where he described the biblical style as “fraught with background,” leaving readers to wonder what bodies look like, what voices sound like, what characters were doing before they appear in their scenes, and so on.[6] Although we are currently at a loss to say whether Iron Age storytellers intentionally cultivated this type of style, we do see it frequently enough to suspect that it was at least an implied standard for communicating in the narrative genre broadly.

Where Are the Bodies of Israel’s Kings?

          Prominent bodies in Genesis, such as that of Jacob, as well as many examples in Judges, show us how the existence of the nation can be carried in a single body (Jacob) or torn apart through the torn bodies of its people (in Judges). Given the prominence of the body of the king for political theology in so many languages and literatures, biblical descriptions of Israel’s kings should all be a prime location for exploring the bodies of the famous men who rule over first the “united monarchy” and then in the divided kingdom. As the locus of national desire and stability, the king is a primary “heroic” figure, one whose bodily features, success, and skill would propel the nation to righteousness and victory.

          As it turns out, the vast majority of these kings have no body as far as the text is concerned. Solomon has no body of significance.[7] The great rulers of the northern kingdom, such as Jeroboam, Omri, and Ahab, are not attractive or tall or ugly or physically strong—or physically anything. The righteous reformer Hezekiah possesses no beauty that would attract us to him and has no particular appearance at all (though he does get sick at one point; 2 Kgs 20:1–11). Josiah is a complete ghost. These figures loom large in the tradition—why is it, then, that only Saul and David receive physical descriptions, and indeed, by biblical standards, elaborate descriptions at that? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the framing of their stories, particularly in the introduction where we get acquainted with the characters: by the time the narration turns toward the later kings, or even Solomon, the storytellers are through with the kind of narrative build-ups that feature bodily descriptions. In 1–2 Samuel, the narrator seems to have all the time in the world for such things, providing details that seem to be of only antiquarian interest, relics of bygone political maneuvering.  

          The lack of specific bodily description does not preclude the presence of a “conceptual body” of a different kind, a presumed body that conveys a host of values.[8] Clearly, at any rate, there are frames of reference for bodily analysis beyond specific literary descriptions of bodies, so the point here is not to exclude those frames. Indeed, they are quite significant for understanding the specific literary descriptions. Consider Isa 6:1 as a brief case in point. In the year of King Uzziah’s death: a final bodily failure of a powerful figure who reigned for decades in relative prosperity, thus signaling entry into a time of uncertainty and change. I saw the Lord seated upon a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple: the prophet now sees the divine body, contrasted to the tiny body of the frail king, in a cosmically dominant position, towering so high that the mere hem of his robe fills the entire temple space. Concepts of actual bodies (a gesture toward Uzziah’s corpse, the Lord as a looming giant) interact with emotional and political registers to create an elaborate display of bodies.


Tall Saul

          Outside of Saul and David, however, in the broader landscape of Samuel-Kings, precious few bodies take center stage, truly positioning Saul head and shoulders above the crowd and David as the ideal monarchic body. In many instances, throughout Samuel-Kings generally, it is not merely the case that bodies are not described—often shadowy characters emerge out of a complete void, say or do things, and then disappear. Almost no physical details of any kind appear. Thus, the more ornate bodily descriptions for Saul and David in these texts mark them with a specific kind of attention. Though only briefly mentioned in our first introduction to him, Saul’s notable height plays a crucial role for our understanding of his ultimately ambiguous status as a leader and strikes resonant, simultaneous themes indicating both chosenness for leadership in a long ancient Near Eastern tradition and also, perhaps distinctively for ancient Israel in its environment: themes of arrogance and opposition to the deity.

Now there was a man from Benjamin, and his name was Qish, son of Ariel son of Zeror son of Bechorat son of Aphiach, a Benjamite man, a valorous warrior                        (gibbor chayil). He had a son, his name Saul, strapping (bachur) and tov, and there was no one more tov than him among all the Israelites. From his shoulders upward, he was taller than all the people. (1 Sam 9:1–2).

The use of a generic term, tov (“good, pleasant, right”), to describe Saul twice in the passage does not clearly demarcate him as “physically attractive” or “handsome,” as most translations have it. I render the word bachur, “young man,” here as “strapping” in order to capture something of both the sense that he is young, perhaps on the cusp of marriageable age (compare with Isa 65:2) or even just old enough to fight in battle (Jer 50:30, 51:3)—not still a mere child, but not yet a full-grown “man.” Paired with tov, bachur indicates something of Saul’s heartiness and vigor in a positive sense.

          Though Kyle McCarter justifiably compares Saul to a list of Israelite heroes identified by their good looks, such as Joseph (Gen 39:6), David (1 Sam 16:12), Esther (Esth 2:7), and Moses (Exod 2:2),[9] more elaborate terms pertain to these other heroes. Joseph is “handsome in form and appearance,” David is “ruddy (admoni), with shapely eyes and a good (tov) appearance,” Esther is “beautiful in form and a good (tov) appearance.” Although tov appears commonly paired with yapheh (“beautiful, handsome”) and other markers of physical beauty in these cases, yapheh clearly stands on its own as a physical descriptor (most frequently not paired with or qualified by tov). Moses alone in this list compares directly to Saul regarding the isolated use of tov: “The woman bore a son, and she saw him, that he was tov, so she hid him…” (Exod 2:2). In this context for Moses, translators more commonly render tov somewhat ambiguously as “fine” (e.g., NRSV), leaving open the possibility that we do not see the baby as “physically attractive” but rather that he embodies some quality as “good”—perhaps mystically perceived by his mother, perhaps by some physical sign. Thus, in 1 Sam 9:2, we would better understand tov as something like “fine” or (quite awkwardly, in English) “notable in a positive sense.” Both translations are appropriately more ambiguous than smoothing the matter over with the very specific and probably more satisfying adjective “handsome.” Saul is, in any case, the tovest of all Israelites. It is difficult to imagine him as unattractive, though the text does not specify any of this necessarily.[10]

          Saul’s physicality takes a more enigmatic turn, however, with the final feature of his body: “From his shoulders upward, he was taller than all the people.” The main interpretive trajectory here reads height in a basically unqualified sense: He is a strong warrior, in line with his father the gibbor hayil, and his height marks him as the clear heroic body for Israel to choose. There is much to recommend this interpretation. On a basic level, nothing in the immediate context suggests anything problematic about the height. His status head and shoulders above others coheres with the valor of his father and the qualifiers bachur and tov. Indeed, one presumably so young towering above others to that extent—and we are talking about no small height difference here—must be marked for some kind of greatness—or other kinds of towering. Key examples from the iconography of kingship in Egypt and Mesopotamia suggest that superior height signals the king’s prominence. Scenes representing the Pharaoh have him rising to heights two or three times as tall as his foes, while depictions of Naram-Sin and others also feature unnaturally large height as a quality not only of dominant rulers but also of deities.[11] Irene Winter documents several examples in which we find the exhortation to “see” the ruler, including an account of subjects literally looking to the king for perfection at every level, including height: “the people of the land stared at his tall, perfect…, princely body.”[12]

          The fact that Saul alone receives this height characterization among the Bible’s many leaders, however, haunts any easy assumption about a straightforward positive assessment of his physical status.[13] In biblical terms, height is dangerous and polyvalent. Considered one way, we have the clear and perhaps even natural associations with height and leadership prowess. However, if unchecked, large bodies become grotesque, embodiments of arrogance, overreach, and even cosmic monstrosity and all that the “monster” could entail in its body. These over-large bodies—we could call them “giants”—are also cultural bodies, ever signaling other bodies and socio-cultural realities in their context.[14] The Hebrew Bible contains numerous engagements with giant bodies and height metaphors more broadly, all of which offer a consistent message about these bodies—and it is not positive. Ancient Israelite authors did not like tall things.[15] Already in Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, as Robert Polzin translates it, Hannah cries out (2:3), “Do not multiply your words, ‘Tall! Tall!’” (gebohah gebohah),[16] and vv. 6–8 of her song resound with height and descent metaphors. Given the fact that Saul’s career ends in tragedy, shot through with repeated stories berating him for disobedience, spiritual or psychological problems, mania, religious infractions, and all sorts of other instability, his height must be considered holistically as a premonition, a signal of his downfall. This signal embodies a trap since, as mentioned above in the usual assessment, a tall body is a leader’s body, a warrior’s body, and successful.

          In fact, Saul’s heroic status as a warrior comes across strong enough, initially. In his first show of military strength (1 Sam 11:1–13), Saul rises up to crush the Ammonites, rallying the new nation to victory. However, the story introduces strong echoes of an earlier story and its Gileadite geography in Judges 19–20, where the acts of cutting up a body, sending its pieces throughout the land, and the subsequent threat of division characterize a nation in the throes of complete anarchy and leaderless chaos. The invocation of Saul’s Benjamite lineage in 1 Sam 9:1—indeed, possibly a twofold identification, one of which might be superfluous—draws us again back to Judges and its drama of Benjamites and left-handers, suggesting an intentional set of connections meant to draw Saul’s violent victory into (negative) comparison with the violence in Judges.[17] In 1 Sam 14:47–48, we learn that Saul “did valiantly (chayil),” following in the tradition of his father the gibbor chayil, defeating all surrounding enemies. Even this description, though, comes at an odd place, sandwiched between accounts of his failures, making the victory seem anticlimactic, awkward, or at the very least, complicated.

          The sheer fact that the narrator does physically describe Saul as part of our introduction to him bears considerable weight as an interpretive feature of the story. In this introduction, particularly relating to Saul’s height, our narrator offers us a subtle variation on the ancient Near Eastern genre of physiognomy—a pseudo-scientific “reading” of bodies (often animal body parts, but sometimes behavior and human bodies) in search of information about future events. Such traditions were explicitly adopted in early Judaism, where we find the Qumran community engaging in physiognomic and zodiacal traditions.[18] As Zainab Bahrani argues, reading bodies constitutes a “complex, multilayered hermeneutics,” a pervasive type of mantic thinking in the ancient world.[19] What we see in the Hebrew Bible on this front, when we see bodily features drawn into inextricable relationship with a character’s fate, flaws, or achievements, is a type of narrative physiognomy. In his body, already, we find that Saul’s heroic identity comes pre-packaged in attractive format—but with soon-to-be-revealed traps for the unwary viewer, perhaps thus simultaneously, along with its gesture toward physiognomy, offering an anti-physiognomic critique in the same stroke.


[1] For a more detailed and expanded analysis of the materials here in this summary article, see Heroic Bodies in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Andrew George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[3] Jeremy Schipper, “Plotting Bodies in Biblical Narrative,” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative, ed. Danna Nola Fewell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 389–97, here 390–95; and “Body; II. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,” in The Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, vol. 4, ed. Hans-Josef Klauck et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 269–74.

[4] Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 137–39.

[5] Berlin, Poetics, 137.

[6] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Thought, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003; first published in 1946 by Francke Ltd. Co.), “Odysseus’ Scar,” 3–23.


[7] Cf. Jonathan Kaplan, My Perfect One: Typology and Early Rabbinic Interpretation of Song of Songs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 135–53.

[8] E.g., Mark W. Hamilton, The Body Royal: The Social Poetics of Kingship in Ancient Israel (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

[9] P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., I Samuel (Garden City: The Anchor Bible Doubleday, 1980), 173.

[10] Compare with Marcel V. Măcelaru, “Saul in the Company of Men: (De)Constructing Masculinity in 1 Samuel 9–31,” in Biblical Masculinities Foregrounded, eds. Ovidiu Creangă and Peter-Ben Smit (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), 51–68, here 57–58; Stuart Macwilliam, “Ideologies of Male Beauty and the Hebrew Bible,” Biblical Interpretation 17.3 (2009): 265–87, here 277–78; and Stephen M. Wilson, Making Men: The Male Coming-of-Age Theme in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 34–35.

[11] Brian R. Doak, The Last of the Rephaim: Conquest and Cataclysm in the Heroic Ages of Ancient Israel (Boston: Ilex Foundation, 2012), 13–16 for other examples.

[12] Irene J. Winter, “Sex, Rhetoric, and the Public Monument: The Alluring Body of Naram-Sîn of Agade,” in On Art in the Ancient Near East, Volume II, From the Third Millennium B.C.E. (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 85–107, here 97.

[13] Măcelaru, “Saul,” 57–58.

[14] Jeffrey J. Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Gothic Horror: A Guide for Students and Readers, ed. Clive Bloom, 2nd edition (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 198–216, here 198–99.

[15] Brian R. Doak, “The Giant in a Thousand Years: Tracing Narratives of Gigantism in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond,” in Ancient Tales of Giants from Qumran and Turfan: Contexts, Traditions, and Influences, eds. Matthew Goff, Loren Stuckenbruck, and Enrico Morano (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 13–32.  

[16] Robert Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist. A Literary Study of the Deuteronomistic History. Part Two. 1 Samuel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 34.

[17] Suzie Park, “Left-Handed Benjamites and the Shadow of Saul,” JBL 134.4 (2015): 701–20.

[18] Mladen Popović, Reading the Human Body: Physiognomics and Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic–Early Roman Period Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

[19] Zainab Bahrani, Rituals of War: The Body and Violence in Mesopotamia (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 91–99.

Article Comments

Submitted by Gary Greenberg on Tue, 02/04/2020 - 13:32


One possibility is that only Saul and David were actually military warriors and heroes. Also, they are part of the same literary epic, separately written about from the other kings. In line with that, Absalomwho may be technically (having chased David from Jerusdalem), if briefly, king of Israel, is described as having a large head of hair. Large hair appears to have been a warrior characteristic.

Yes--love the idea about the hair! I have long sections in the full version of the book from which this article is adapted, Heroic Bodies in Ancient Israel, on heroic hair (examining iconography and also Absalom in this regard). Susan Niditch has a great book that is totally devoted to the hair issue (My Brother Esau...).

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