David Ben-Gurion on Saul as a Tragic King—by Matia Kam

King Saul Rembrandt van Rijn 17th century
King Saul
Rembrandt van Rijn
17th century

Ben-Gurion found King Saul particularly touching because of the contradiction between Saul’s significant achievements described in the first chapters in the Book of Samuel, and the king’s tragic end. Two verses are used by Ben-Gurion to demonstrate Saul’s skillful victories, “Saul consolidated the kingdom over Israel. He waged war against all his enemies all around-with Moab and the descendants of Ammon and with Edom and with the kings of Zobah and with the Philistines…and he rescued Israel from all its oppressors.”*

Following the biblical narrative, Ben-Gurion** outlined Saul’s specific personal qualities “as exceptional person” and “non surpassing his goodness,” a person of great humility who did not seek attention and was silent when people ridiculed and rejected him. After his victory over the Ammonites, his supporters called death to those who earlier diminished Saul, but the king refused, “Let no man be put to death this day, for today God has brought victory to Israel.” Saul was reluctant to take credit for the victory that he attributed to God. At the same time he was a fierce and courageous warrior who did not hesitate to come to the aid of Gilead. Saul was a brave warrior in all the wars of his times; the courage he displayed on the battlefield earned him finally respect and admiration of all the Israelites. Ben-Gurion believed that Saul was no less humane than David and probably more compassionate, yet he lacked King David’s emotional stability and his political wisdom.

Ben-Gurion found support for his estimation of Saul among the sages. He quoted Rav Yehuda and Rav Shmuel who said, “Saul did not have heirs, or continuity because his kingdom was without fault.” Rav Yohanan elaborated on the logic of it, “The people don’t put a man in high position without some flaws in his reputation, since if that man takes advantage it is easy to remind him of his misdeeds.” Rav Yehuda regarded the king’s humility as excessive, a fault, “Saul was punished because he did not insist on being given the proper courtesy.” As the narrative in the Book of Samuel highlighted, vile people “plotted against Saul and mocked the possibility that he would bring victory and refused to bring him tribute, but he remained silent.”

However, Ben-Gurion concluded that Saul’s determination and skills did not stand the test of time; when he needed to lead the transition period from tribal rule to national regime, from temporary judges, to an organized system of inherited kingdom, he failed to do so. Given the difficulty of political transitions, the prophet Samuel’s opposition to the idea of royalty and his impossible expectations that every message of his would be carried out by Saul with utmost respect was detrimental for the king. Tragically, there were clearly sharp personal differences and leadership clashes between the prophet and the king to such a degree that Samuel shunned Saul and refused to meet with him for the rest of his life.

Ben-Gurion saw Saul’s years of reigning as a double tragedy of radical social/political change and powerful opposition. Saul had the misfortune of being the first king with no previous role models or guidelines and he faced unrelenting opposition from a strong spiritual leader, the prophet (and judge) Samuel.

*Quotes in the article are from Samuel 1 chapters 9-14.
** Ben-Gurion, “Saul and David” in Biblical Reflections, Am Oved, 1969.

Translated from the Hebrew by Ayala Emmett