King Saul in the Historiography of Judah (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 121)

Written by Diana Vikander Edelman Reviewed By Philip Satterthwaite

The author tells us (p. 11) that she had planned to write a historical investigation of Israel under King Saul. However, what was intended as an introductory chapter evaluating the literary evidence for Saul’s reign grew to become an independent study of 1 Samuel 8–2 Samuel 1. Hence the present book. The author accepts (with some hesitation) a form of M. Noth’s theory of a Deuteronomistic History extending from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings, and regards the account of Saul as a distinct, though not wholly separate, part of that larger history. While holding that these chapters stem from more than one source, she believes that they were edited into their present form in the late seventh century by a member of the Jerusalem court, and were intended for members of the court and, perhaps by means of public readings at religious festivals, for Judahite citizens in general. She aims to ‘put myself in the shoes of a member of the intended audience so that I can understand the author’s allusions, structuring techniques, and idioms’ (p. 11). Questions of historicity and of source history have been temporarily shelved, and we are presented with an interpretation of these chapters as they now stand.

Edelman’s interpretation follows the general style of many recent literary ‘readings’ of these chapters: she sees thematic significance in recurring words such as ‘heart’ and ‘eye’; she notes that the narrator can make a character’s motives seem unclear by not telling us what s/he was thinking (e.g. David in 1 Sa. 18); she accepts that narrative incidents may be deliberately patterned so as to suggest links with other incidents. All these, she argues, were literary techniques which a seventh-century audience would have understood. The author constantly adopts the viewpoint of this audience, giving a ‘sequential’ reading in which knowledge of what follows is not assumed: uncertainties, suspicions, doubts as to what will happen next are allowed to stand until the subsequent narrative (perhaps) resolves them. Saul emerges from this interpretation as ‘a man who was chosen in good faith by Yahweh’ but who ‘failed because … he eventually failed to rely on inward, divinely inspired perception and trusted instead in his own perception’ (p. 321). At crucial points he disobeys Yahweh or fails to restrain the people from disobeying Yahweh (1 Sa. 13:8–15; 15:24), and as a result his kingdom is not established: he and many Israelites are ‘swept away’ in the battle of Gilboa (1 Sa. 31), in fulfilment of Samuel’s words at 1 Samuel 12:24–25.

This is a clearly written and suggestive study which interacts with much recent scholarship on these chapters. I did not agree with every feature of Edelman’s interpretation (e.g. that when Jonathan is ‘taken’ by lot in 1 Sa. 14:42, this amounts to his rejection by Yahweh as Saul’s possible successor; or that already in 1 Sa. 16 Saul knows that David is to succeed him); but her clarity makes it possible to identify points of disagreement precisely. However, there is too much discussion of literary features which lend only slight support to a case already established. In particular, the author’s ‘sequential’ approach, though it often draws attention to important aspects of the text (e.g. that Samuel’s motives are opaque at points in 1 Sa. 8–15), also leads to much unnecessary ruminating over what the audience is ‘left to wonder about’ or ‘suspects’ at various points. Surely it would have been better to have left the main lines of the interpretation less cluttered.

The author appears to find the account of Saul coherent. In 1 Samuel 10–12, which some scholars have seen as a conflation of pro- and anti-monarchical sources, she finds a single, three-stage process of king-making (‘designation’ in ch. 10, ‘testing’ in ch. 11, ‘coronation’ in ch. 12). At other points where scholars have seen redactional seams (e.g. 1 Sa. 16 and 17) or duplicate accounts (e.g. 1 Sa. 24 and 26), she offers a unitary interpretation which seems to render such explanations unnecessary. However, as she has deliberately postponed to a subsequent volume discussion of possible underlying sources (p. 17), it remains to be seen how her present interpretation affects her discussion of these questions. The author generally prefers MT to lxx. Curiously, textual issues do not feature in her treatment of 1 Samuel 17 (where lxx is significantly shorter than MT).

This book is a serious attempt to do justice to the OT account of King Saul. In view of its considerable detail it is, perhaps, more suited to the needs of postgraduates than undergraduates.


Philip Satterthwaite

Biblical Graduate School of Theology, Singapore