Before we dig into Saul’s calling and falling, let us for a moment to get the wider historical context. Israel did not always have a king. In fact, God’s originally stated intent was that He should be their only king – that he would rule over them through the written words of His Law and through the leadership of priests and Judges. But by 1 Samuel 8, as still a relatively young nation, we see Israel demanding a king.
To understand why, we’ll need to take a closer look at Israel and the Levant region during the Iron Age.
The time of the Judges
During the time of the judges, Israel was less a unified nation and more a loose-knit confederacy of tribes, much like the United States under the original Articles of Confederation. Although they faced invasion and enslavement by a number of hostile forces (nomads like the Midianites, or rulers of unconquered Canaanite city-states), Israel had seldom come together as a people since the time of Joshua.
During the years between Joshua and Saul, Israel was lead by a number of local spiritual and military leaders called Judges. These men and women – people like Samson, Deborak, Ehud, and Shamgar – led the various tribes in their respective regions and were in many cases contemporaries. The prophet Samuel is the last of the judges, and he is one of the few to lead the unified nation of Israel against a common enemy: the Philistines.
During the latter years of the Judges, the entire nation of Israel was threatened by an unfamiliar and unprecedented new enemy in the form of the Philistines. Although today very little of their society remains archeologically or linguistically, they eventually lent their name to the region of Palestine.
“Philistine” is also a term we use for someone who is a bit of a rube (that is, culturally or intellectually stunted). In reality, though, nothing could be further from the truth. What we do know about the Philistines suggest that they were a highly-advanced seafaring people, with roots in the Aegean Sea. They were one of the infamously warlike “Sea Peoples” who troubled the New Kingdom period of Egypt. Eventually, they settled in the coastal plains of Canaan in five city-states collectively known as the “Pentapolis.”
The Philistines rose to power in the Levant and, despite a defeat by Samuel and the Israelites at Mizpah (1 Samuel 7), exerted a kind of hegemony over the region. In addition to demanding tribute from the other nations (including Israel) they managed to technologically repress the rest of the Levant.
Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.” But every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle, and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. (1Sa 13:19-21)
But the Philistines weren’t the only national threat that Israel found itself facing at the end of the time of the Judges. To the northeast, they were threatened by the growing presence of Nahash, king of the Ammonites.
Nahash – the serpent
An early villain in Saul’s kingship, Nahash’s name literally means “serpent” in Hebrew. We’ll get to him later in this series, but for now it’s enough to know that the looming threat of the Ammonites was a key factor in Israel’s demand for a king.
And the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Barak and Jephthah and Samuel and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and you lived in safety. And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the LORD your God was your king. (1Sa 12:11-12)
In our next post, we’ll look more at Israel’s demand for a king and how God treated it, used it, and judged it.