The Tragic Flaw of Saul

    In 1 Samuel, there are many chapters about the failures of King Saul. He seems to be driven by madness much of the time. He also fails to have proper piety. In addition, there is a large question mark over the whole institution of kingship—he is Israel’s first king, and it isn’t clear that God wanted Israel to have any king except God alone. (Although it also seems clear that the book of Judges, which immediately precedes the books of Samuel in theme and chronology, is constructed as a dramatic arc whose point is the impossibility of Israel living without a human king.)
    Saul’s tragic flaw is manifested supremely in his obsession with David. He is utterly consumed with a desire to eliminate David.
    In 1 Samuel 23:19-28, the biblical author lays it out vividly. Some Ziphites go to Saul with information about David’s hideout. Saul gives thanks to the Lord for showing “pity” on him with this opportunity. He tells the Ziphites to make sure of David’s location, make note of his various possible alternative hideouts, and bring the information back. This is done. Saul goes out with his men to seek David. David, however, gets the news and moves to another place; Saul pursues him there. At the end Saul is shown executing a pincer move around a mountain to capture David. All this has taken eight verses—lots of words, lots of detail.
    Then we read two short verses: “Just then a messenger came to Saul, saying, ‘Hurry, and go, for the Philistines have invaded the land!’ And Saul turned back from pursuing David and went to meet the Philistines” (1 Sam. 23:27-28).
    What the biblical author leaves unsaid—it is the brilliance of biblical narrative to let the reader figure this out—is that the Philistines were the real enemy of Israel, and that as king it was Saul’s duty to protect the people from them. But instead of being a true king, Saul is consumed with a personal vendetta. And the people suffer.
    It is a tragic flaw in a leader to elevate the personal over his concern for the people. In this we see how Jesus revealed he truly was (and of course, continues to be) a king. He laid aside all his divine prerogatives in order to effect the salvation of his people.
    Analogously, we too can share in Jesus’ royal office, when we so rule over ourselves that we are at his service, capable and ready to live our lives for others.
    May I encourage you, particularly if you are an Episcopalian? We have a great gift (an Anglican distinctive, actually) in the Daily Office structured in Morning and Evening Prayer. At the least, let us strive to read the appointed Scriptures. For the past month or so, the readings have been taking us through Samuel. I have been reading from (and quoted above) the translation by Robert Alter in The David Story. It’s interesting, particularly for Alter’s literary insights as a Hebrew scholar.
    You can find the Daily Office readings here: (refresh the page if necessary to get the current day’s readings).
    Out & About. Sunday, August 6, I will be preaching at St. John’s Church in Woodward, Oklahoma.

The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: