Was King Saul’s reign really a tragedy?

By Robert Segal, December 10, 2012

The story of Saul, the first king of Israel, begins with a demand by the Israelites — led until then by judges, the last one being Samuel: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel… Yet his sons did not follow in his ways… Then all the elders gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him… Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” (I Samuel 8.1-5).

Israel had been led by an array of figures, starting with the patriarchs, followed by enslavement in Egypt, and then liberation under Moses. The Israelites entered the Promised Land under his successor, Joshua.

After that, the first kind of permanent office was that of the judges, but the biggest change came with the establishment of the office of king, which constituted the most powerful form of leadership. It was hereditary, continuous, and it granted the incumbent almost absolute power.

Much of the Bible consists of the juxtaposition or intertwining of several versions of the same story. There are, for example, successive stories of creation and an intertwined story of the Garden of Eden. The life of King Saul is an intertwined story, which runs through much of the first book of Samuel (from which I quote in this piece).

In one strand, as mentioned, the people demand a king, doing so in defiance of God, who had in effect been their king. God therefore takes the demand as a repudiation of Him leading to the eventually fatal opposition between God and Saul. In the other strand, God himself initiates kingship. While here, too, Saul loses the confidence of God, his fall is not fated.

The scheme is a mere twist on the father killing his son to prevent marriage within the family

In both strands, Saul eventually fails and loses the support of his subjects and God. He suffers from lack of confidence, from rivals, and from overwhelming enemy forces. He sees enemies everywhere, including David, who becomes his successor, and his own son, Jonathan. He becomes paranoid and ends up committing assisted suicide in a failed battle. He is a tragic figure.

In my work, I look at the Bible not as history but as myth. But by “myth” I emphatically do not mean a false belief or story. I mean a belief or story that can be true but one that, true or not, has a grip that goes far beyond that of any ordinary conviction.

I sidestep the historical issue: whether Saul actually lived and did the things that Samuel reports. Maybe he did, and maybe he did not. I would call his life mythic even if everything written of him in the Bible turned out to be true.

I apply to his case two theories: that of the Viennese psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who died in 1939, and that of the English folklorist Lord Raglan, who died in 1964. Rank later broke with Sigmund Freud but, in 1909, when he wrote the first edition of The Myth of the Birth of the Hero he was a Freudian apostle. Raglan wrote The Hero, in 1936, as a follower of the pioneering Scottish anthropologist James Frazer.

Taken straightforwardly, the life of Saul tells the story of his selection as king and of his career. Taken psychoanalytically, his life is not history but fantasy — a wish on Saul’s part, or even on David’s. It is not what Saul or David actually does. It is what each of them wishes to do: kill the other.

Taken straightforwardly, the life of Saul is about a nation. Saul’s troubled personality is noteworthy only because of his position. Taken psychoanalytically, his life is about a family. Taken straightforwardly, the conflicts in his life are with Samuel, David, Jonathan, and God. Taken psychoanalytically, his main conflicts are with his father and, even more, with his sons — both his literal son Jonathan, and his symbolic son David. Taken straightforwardly, the conflicts are hard to avoid. Taken psychoanalytically, they are unavoidable.

The conflict between Saul and David begins with David’s slaying of Goliath. Jealous of David’s success not only over Goliath but also subsequently — the women sing “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” — Saul nearly kills him himself but, instead, as David does to Bathsheba’s husband, plots to send David to the front to be killed by the Philistines.

Saul is “afraid” of David, recognising that the spirit of God now resides in David: “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward”. The attempt to have David killed is a preventive act: he fears being killed himself.

The love quadrangle among Samuel, Saul, David, and Jonathan evinces the conflict at work. Samuel loves Saul as an adopted son and bemoans his downfall. Yet he also fears being killed by Saul. In turn, Saul feels abandoned by the father-like Samuel. Saul loves David as a son yet fears being killed by him, his own adopted son, as well as by his own son, Jonathan.

David loves Saul as a father yet likewise fears being killed by him. Saul’s “adoption” of David parallels the adoption of the king as “son” by God. God feels betrayed, even if not threatened, by Saul. Saul in turn feels abandoned by God as well as by Samuel, as the departing of God’s spirit from him attests.

Seemingly, Saul’s fate is determined by God. It is God who chooses Saul, even if in one strand through a lottery, and it is God who abandons Saul for David. Seemingly, the story is about the divinely determined rise and fall of Saul. Seemingly, there is nothing unconscious at work. Saul is all too conscious of his ambivalent feelings towards David.

Looked at psychoanalytically, the life of Saul is rooted not in circumstance but in biology, in the natural relationship between a father and a son. At one end, the relationship is that between the father Samuel/God and his son Saul. At the other, it is between the father Saul and his “son” David. The fight is to the death, and it is fated, not by God or by a character flaw but by sexual instinct.

Read psychoanalytically, the life of Saul is the disguised, symbolic, fantasised fulfilment of a son’s wish to kill his father. The wish is on the part of each new generation of sons: Saul against Samuel and God, and David as well as Jonathan against Saul — followed by Absalom against David. The hero is the son, not the father, and toppling from power symbolises parricide.

But the source of the conflict is not power. The conflict is not over kingship. Read psychoanalytically, the conflict is within the family. The source of the conflict is the famous Oedipus complex: the father blocks the son from having sex with his mother. But is there even a hint of sexuality in the conflict between Saul and David-— something akin to Isaac’s closeness to his mother and his marrying a mother substitute?

The hint is Saul’s offer of two of his daughters to David in marriage. Because Saul calculates that David’s marriage to either daughter will lead to David’s death, marriage within the family is the means by which Saul kills his adopted son. The scheme is a mere twist on the father killing his son to prevent marriage within the family. A further sexual aspect of the conflict between David and Saul is that women repeatedly side with David against Saul.

When Rank’s Freudian theory is applied, Saul remains a sad case. But he is not God’s victim. He has not failed. He has not sinned, or brought his end upon himself. Rather, he is the “victim” of David’s Oedipus complex. And that complex is universal, though it is by no means always acted out. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, Saul suffers the fate to which all fathers are subject. Saul’s real leadership is not that over his nation but that over his family. Kingship is merely the sphere in which a quintessential family feud is played out.

For Raglan, myth is not about a family. It is about power, and the throne. But there is no fate here either. Kingship lies not in the hands of God but in the hands of any prospective king. A prospective king must earn the throne, must defeat a worthy foe. Their accomplishments once in office are insignificant — what counts is that the king is driven from the throne, and “meets with a mysterious death”. Fittingly for Raglan, Saul no sooner becomes king than is threatened — by the loss of the favour of both God and the people. Saul does lead Israel to victory over its enemies, but his accomplishments are downplayed, while the multiple reasons for his loss of favour are played up.

For Raglan, the cry of the people in the anti-Saul strand for a “king to govern us like all the [other] nations” is natural, as is the complaint that Samuel, Saul’s predecessor as leader, is “old”. Leaders, to be successful, must be vigorous. Saul is not being singled out. He is being held to account for the job that he has done.

Read without benefit of Raglan, Saul sins and so loses God’s support. He deserves to be abandoned, as do Samuel’s sons, who had hoped to succeed their father as judges. Read à la Raglan, sin is an “added-on” explanation. The real reason that Samuel and his sons, and in turn Saul and his sons, lose their places is that they have become weak — physically, not morally. Samuel is old, and Saul is unstable. They are ineffective, failing as they do to defeat Israel’s enemies.

But Samuel and Saul do not fail as leaders because God deserts them. God is weak because of them. The strength of God depends on the strength of him in whom God resides. For Raglan, following Frazer, kingship is divine. Samuel, having anointed Saul, tells him to expect to meet “a band of prophets,” at which point “the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man”. So transformed is Saul that it is asked: “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” This infusion of God in Saul even certifies Saul as king. Whenever God is with Saul, the spirit of God “comes mightily upon him”. God’s abandonment of Saul means the departure of God’s spirit from Saul.

Resigned to abandonment, Saul meets the Philistines “head on”. Wounded, he dies by suicide. Three of his sons, including Jonathan, are killed by the Philistines. Read straightforwardly, the departure of the spirit of God from Saul into David signifies God’s rejection of Saul for David, and the cause is Saul’s sinning. Read from Raglan’s perspective, the departure is merely the effect of the decision to replace Saul with David, just as the earlier entrance of the spirit of God into Saul is not the cause but the effect of the decision to replace Samuel. It is the people, not God, who have decided to replace Saul, and the reason is not that he has sinned but that he has failed to defeat the Philistines.

For Raglan, Saul dies heroically: he refuses to retreat and gives his life for the sake of his people. He does what kings are supposed to do. Saul has been called a “tragic hero” by many commentators, but they assume this because he fails as king and dies. Raglan would maintain that death is the main “job spec” and Saul is a success. Yes, he fails as military leader. But he then does what he is supposed to do: fall on his sword, metaphorically or literally. The myth of Saul is intended to inspire successors to sacrifice themselves for their subjects.

Looked at as myth, Saul illustrates varying approaches to leadership. In one approach, Saul is the victim of biology. He is not a tragic figure, for he has done nothing to warrant his demise. Rank’s Freudian approach focuses on the childhood of the future leader, the seeds of whose demise are already present. Psychoanalytic biographies of George Bush have rooted his invasion of Iraq in bitter rivalry with his presidential father.

In the other approach, Saul is also not a tragic figure — he is a success. Once he fails to defeat his people’s enemies, he must be replaced. All reigns end badly, but self-sacrifice is noble — the highest form of leadership.

Raglan’s Frazerian approach concentrates on the almost inevitable failure of political careers. As Enoch Powell declared: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” But Raglan turns political failure into selflessness and thereby into success. The life of Saul; something for today’s leaders to study?

Professor Robert Segal has a chair in Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen. He will speak on this subject on December 13 as part of the UCL Institute of Jewish Studies lecture series

Last updated: 10:45am, December 10 2012