The article of the month

Is That in the Bible? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Saul and the Case of the Missing Donkeys

In 1 Samuel 8, the desire of Israel to have a king set over them in order to be like the other nations is depicted as an act of open rebellion against the Lord. Samuel himself tries to warn the headstrong people with arguments about what a disaster this will be, but they are stubbornly intent on their determined course.

Into this scene steps the unwitting and tragic hero, Saul, destined to play the role of Israel’s initial and doomed royal regent. He strides onto the stage in a curious way, chasing after the lost donkeys of his father, Kish. Is there anything more to this clumsy entrance than the simple reflection of a humble agrarian society, whose leaders are drawn from among the stable boys? Is the folksy twist turned Sunday-school lesson in fact the point of the story: searching for his father’s donkeys, Saul finds a kingdom?

The donkey is a creature famously stupid and difficult to control. The Bible certainly knows about this and found there a metaphorical moral application. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle (Ps 32:9). An easy allegory thus presents itself to help unlock the story of Saul. Israel’s stiff-necked determination not to do God their master’s will puts Saul in a rather hopeless situation, quite like chasing after his father’s runaway mules. Israel’s first king’s royal job, in fact, is described in Hebrew as being to “restrain” the people (1 Sm 9:17): a strange but consummately fitting way to characterize his unwieldy task as king. It is frankly like being a mule-handler.

In contrast to this we find the person and call of David, who is drawn from shepherding the sheep. The contrast in animal psychology is immediately evident, even to those with little experience of life on a farm, and it hints at the very different destiny of Saul’s royal replacement. David’s reign will be one of peace and good order. The metaphor of a king as the shepherd of his people (2 Sm 5:2) is, of course, a hoary idea in the ancient Near East and not at all restricted to the Bible. It appears already from the Epic of Gilgamesh on. Even Homer’s Agamemnon is a shepherd of the Greeks. In this light, David’s elevation is not so much a rags-to-riches story as a presentation of what an ancient monarch was expected to be. And this standard idealization of kingship stands in open contrast with David’s predecessor. The striking novelty that the Bible offers, in other words, is precisely in presenting Saul as something other than a shepherd.

When David and Saul confront one another in the story of Goliath, David’s credentials as shepherd, experienced in defending his flock, are precisely what enable him to accomplish what Saul himself is unable to do. Two different tasks of the monarchy thus emerge. While Saul corresponds to a needed regimen of harsh discipline in fighting Israel’s foes, David embodies the shepherding arts that lead the people to peace.

The prophetic character of this diptych takes on further clear eschatological force from the Christian perspective. Saul represents the entire period of the Old Testament monarchy, which ends in the chastisement of exile; David is the image of the new reign of the Prince of Peace. The Lord’s first anointed is himself finally ready to give up on the donkeys altogether (1 Sm 9:5); but the failure of this future monarch to ever find and bring his donkeys home is beautifully resolved with a mysterious statement. The donkeys you went to seek are found (1 Sm 10:2): found by that same good shepherd who left the ninety-nine to seek the sheep that was lost.

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.