I Samuel 9, Meeting Saul
Saul will be chosen by God to lead the people of Israel as their first king, but it will not be a choice that either God or Samuel really desires. This reluctance is discussed in I Sam. 8 but is never communicated to the first holder of office, Saul. You wonder if withholding this information makes God a little less committed to the institution than is needed in order to make it “work” at first. Should God have disclosed this divine reluctance to Saul? I think so. It would have given Saul even greater reason to ponder, and perhaps not accept, the kingship. Whenever such a dramatic change happens among the people, it should be done with full support of the one who initiates the change. God (and Samuel) seemed to be reluctant partners in this new venture. Thus, we might tend to look at Saul as the unwitting victim of this reluctance.
Getting to the Story
But all that is in the future, and is not really evident in I Sam 9. The narrative opens in an effective way not by taking us deeper into the divine counsel or the divine discussion with Samuel but to a little place in a little tribe (Benjamin) where Saul’s family lives. We get somewhat conflicting pictures about the family. On the one hand we have the patriarch of the family, Kish, presented as a “powerful” (δυνατός) man (I Sam. 9:1) but later, when Saul is called to this task, he tries to beg off because of the insignificance of his family.
This powerful man has a distinguished son, and he is described in unforgettable language. He is a “huge” guy (εὐμεγέθης is the winsome word) who is also a good man. Twice in eight words the word αγαθός describes him. He is a “good man” and in Israel there isn’t a better man. Verse 2 concludes with greater specificity in his physical description. No one is as tall as he is from the shoulder up. Tall guy, good guy, good candidate for the office God is creating.
Verse 3 describes the problem that moves our narrative. Kish has lost some donkeys and he deputes his son Saul, along with a servant boy, to find them. Three simple but powerful imperatives capture the resolve of Kish: ἀνάστητε, πορεύθητε, ζητήσατε: “Rise up, go, seek.” That says it all. Verse 4 is a literary mirror image of verse 3, for it describes three places where they then went/passed through, without finding the donkeys. A pleasant three-fold structure is presented.
Well, as might be expected, they don’t find the donkeys. Saul then expresses a thought that will be repeated in more difficult language in I Sam. 10. Saul says that they should return home because his father would now be more worried about them than about the donkeys. The verb used for “worry” here is the simple φροντίζω, “to think about,” in contrast to the very difficult word in I Sam 10:2 (see that essay). As it happens, they don’t go home because the servant boy has another suggestion. There is a man of God nearby, a man who is greatly honored/highly respected (ἔνδοξος). Everything he says comes true. Then, in somewhat cryptic language (verse 6), he says that this man of God will tell them the road on which they ought to go.
Saul is excited with this suggestion and asks what they should bring along as a gift for the man of God. You wonder if the man of God in the town was a sort of alluring figure, partly feared but greatly honored, and was a person to whom one went for guidance in life, and not simply for finding the lost donkeys. Our two visitors realize they need to bring him a gift—he doesn’t prophesy or give you guidance for free, ya know. Saul mentions that their bread is “exhausted” (ἐκλελοίπασιν) but the servant boy saves the day by saying that he has a small amount of money (verse 8).
The text then drops in an interesting verse (verse 9) that gives us an insight into the evolution of prophetic terminology in Ancient Israel. Formerly the guy was called a “seer” (βλέπω is the LXX word); but now (that is from the perspective of the editor of the text) the person is a prophet. Interesting, though it is hard to develop a theory of the evolution of the institution from this verse alone.
It happens that they encounter some women coming out to draw water, who give them instructions on how to find the man of God. This man just happens to be straight ahead of them (verse 12). A big meal is planned, and no one will eat until the seer arrives. Big day. Lucky day. The author really doesn’t stress the divine planning of all these events, but it appears that more is at work than simple chance. Then, as the narrative proceeds we have mention about how God has already prepared Samuel for the meeting with Saul (verse 16). Samuel is informed about the role that Saul will play in delivering the people of Israel.
Tension builds slightly as the narrative concludes, though it isn’t filled with prophetic words or dramatic gestures. Saul meets Samuel, and Samuel says that he will send him off in the morning and, “I will announce to you all that is in your heart.” Lots of emphasis on new roads and new life, on hearts opened, and on this momentous meeting between Samuel and Saul. After Samuel informs Saul that his donkeys have been found, he utters the dramatic words of verse 20, “And to whom is the beauty of Israel except your house and the house of your father?” Saul protests lightly in verse 21, but the translator seemed to have some difficulty differentiating the crucial terms σκήπτρου φυλῆς. These words are meant to describe two levels of specificity in clan identification, but they literally mean a “scepter” and a “tribe.” Saul is protesting his low status, which never has been an obstacle for God.
Nevertheless, we get the impression, as certainly Saul does, that he is chosen now for a special responsibility, though nothing is mentioned about kingship. He attends the festal celebration with Samuel, and stays with the seer. Then, the next morning, Samuel performs the first-ever anointing of a King for Israel.