Every week or so, we’ll highlight one of the sites we’ll visit on our upcoming Israel tours for pastors or for everyone. The stories of these people and places in the Bible have the power to form us, first as humans made in the image of God, but also as servant leaders who have been called to join the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. Read more about how you can be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Holy Land that will Renew your Faith, Refresh your Ministry, and help you to Realize the Story. This week: Tel Beit Shean and King Saul.
We sometimes treat the word tragedy too lightly. Getting regular fries when you ordered sweet potato fries isn’t a tragedy. Getting stuck at that really long stoplight on your way home after a long day isn’t a tragedy. A tragedy is the story of Oedipus, the story of Macbeth, and the story of King Saul.
From a literary perspective, tragedies center on a tragic hero, someone with the capacity for greatness but who also possess a tragic flaw, what Aristotle calls hamartia. This is the same word the New Testament writers use to describe sin, “missing the mark.” In the case of the tragic hero, it isn’t easy-to-judge moral depravity that brings them down; instead, it’s more an error in judgement exposed in the hero by some unexpected misfortune that leads to avalanching catastrophes.
Could Have Been…
Northrop Frye calls Saul “the one great tragic hero of the Bible.” He is a “doomed man” from the start—he inherits Israel’s rejection of God and their desire to be like “all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5,20). And yet God still anointed him, “gave him another heart”, and Samuel presented him to Israel as the ideal king, “taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 10:9,23). He could have been great, could have been the king Israel needed, could have been…
Saul’s first mistake (in 1 Samuel 13) seems minor, even understandable. After all, Samuel was late to arrive and provide the sacrifice before the battle, his people were huddled in caves, threatening to disperse. And, as he explained to Samuel, he was only seeking the favor of the Lord. He just didn’t know what to do. Yet for this, his kingdom is taken from him.
We can convince ourselves for a moment that Saul was just the victim of circumstance, that it was bad luck. But this flaw in Saul—this hamartia—which seemed small at first begins to spiral. Increasingly, we see that when things aren’t clear, when things don’t go according to plan, Saul is left wringing his hands, not knowing what to do. This is true when his army faces Goliath and when he is terrified before the Philistines once again in 1 Samuel 28. Here we have the culmination of Saul’s tragic flaw as, paralyzed by his indecision and his lack of direction, he consults a medium, the witch of Endor.
“The Wall of Beth-Shan”
As with every tragedy, the hero is given a moment of realization—for a moment they see clearly just where they’ve gone wrong, how far they’ve fallen from what could have been. For Saul, his realization comes bathed in irony: he asks the medium to violate the law he himself had set in place and bring up Samuel, hoping for someone—anyone
—who could tell him what he should do (1 Samuel 28:15). Instead, Samuel pronounces to him the sad truth: there is nothing left for Saul to do. His actions have trapped him completely, and his kingdom will pass to David.
On our pastor trip to Israel in January, we will visit Tel Beit Shean, and you can see for yourself the place where Saul met his tragic end. The Philistines overwhelm Saul and his sons, and, trapped again, Saul begs his servant to run him through with his sword. When his servant refuses, Saul’s final act is to act on his own, and he kills himself. The Philistines “fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan” (1 Samuel 31:10).
Pity and Fear…
A tragedy, says Aristotle, should evoke pity and fear. Pity, because we understand all the greatness that might have been. Fear, because we understand the hero is as human as any of us.
King David had his own flaws, committed his own egregious sins before the Lord, and yet he was known as a man after God’s own heart. David knew God’s heart, knew the direction of God’s purposes, and—though he strayed—desired to follow after him. In contrast, Saul viewed God’s will as advice to be sought, input to be considered, before a decision was made.
For church leaders, Saul’s story should evoke pity and fear. Who among us hasn’t stood at the crossroads, bearing the weight of an important decision, and heard nothing from God? Who among us has not felt, as Edwin Good said of Saul, the disparities between the demands put on us and our own capacity to meet them? Who among us hasn’t experienced a crisis in ministry only to realize in hindsight that our arrival in this place was the result of a course we set long before?
Come with us to Israel and look at the walls of Beth-shan. Come realize the story of the man who could have been. Come see for yourself the tragic history of Saul, Israel’s first king.