Saul’s three sins (1 Samuel 13-15) correspond to the sins of Adam, Cain, and the sons of God (Genesis 1-6). Like Adam, Saul breaks a command from God; like Cain, he attacks a “brother”; like the sons of God, he allies with an enemy. At each point, there is a variation. Saul doesn’t eat forbidden fruit, but offers a prohibited sacrifice (1 Samuel 13). He doesn’t intermarry with Gentiles but refuses to kill one, Agag, king of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15).

The most interesting variation is the second: Saul nearly kills his son Jonathan, though Jonathan is the hero of the day’s battle against Philistia (1 Samuel 14). There are two main differences from Genesis 4: First, the army intervenes to save Jonathan; his blood doesn’t stain the ground like Abel’s. Second, the conflict isn’t a uni-generational brother-brother conflict but an inter-generational father-son conflict.

That difference fits 1 Samuel, which is centrally concerned with fathers and sons—Samuel and his sons, Samuel and Saul, Saul and Jonathan. Saul’s abortive attack on Jonathan anticipates the main plotline, his later assaults on his son-in-law, David.

In their recent study of the politics of Samuel, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes observe that Saul enters the story as a preternaturally unambitious, sensitive young man. He scours the country for his father’s lost donkeys, and eventually heads home because he doesn’t want his father to worry about him. He hides among the baggage at his own coronation. Even after he’s publicly acclaimed as king, he goes back to his plow. As Halbertal and Holmes nicely put it, Saul is “the diametrical opposite of a political schemer consumed by naked ambition.”

Something flips a switch. Halbertal and Holmes say it’s Saul’s victory over the Ammonites, which gives him his first taste of power. 1 Samuel locates the switch later, when Saul, impatient and fearful, makes an offering without waiting for Samuel. The prophet warns him that his kingdom is doomed since “Yahweh has sought out for himself a man after his own heart” to replace Saul (1 Samuel 13:14). In the next chapter, Saul nearly kills his own son, perhaps vaguely suspicious that Jonathan is the “man after God’s own heart.”

Saul’s anxiety focuses on David. He cannot abide the fact that David is praised more highly than he: “Saul has killed his thousands, David his ten thousands.” In fact, David’s success is Saul’s success, but Saul can’t see it. He resents David’s apparently effortless triumphs, evidence of Yahweh’s favor. Maddened by an evil spirit of paranoia and scapegoating, Saul tries to kill David twice, and concocts schemes to place David in mortal danger.

Saul’s dread of his younger rival transforms Saul into a power-grasping tyrant. Ignoring the Philistine threat, he wastes time, energy, military resources, and public trust chasing David around the countryside. He slaughters the priests at Nob because they assist David, even though the priests are innocent. Saul tries, again, to kill Jonathan, because of his friendship with David.

More subtly, as Halbertal and Holmes point out, maintaining power becomes the end of Saul’s reign. Power is supposed to be a means to the substantive ends of justice, harmony, and good order, but Saul inverts means and ends. Everything that should be an end becomes a tool for holding the throne. Saul is even willing to use his daughter Michal’s love for David to trap David: “Whatever paternal affection he may have had for his female child was as nothing compared to his desire to maintain power for himself and his male descendants.” Halberthal and Holmes read 1 Samuel as a penetrating exploration of the perennial danger that “the supremely powerful … begin to worship themselves.”

In an inversion of Freud, Saul replays Cain’s fratricide not as patricide but as attempted filicide. His is the paranoia of the old toward the young, the pathetic, inverted ambition of those who have arrived and don’t want others to catch up. Teachers experience it, as they watch former protégées surpass them in productivity and acclaim. Parents become Sauls, and pastors are notorious for keeping a death-grip on their pulpits long after they have passed their use-by dates. It’s a virulent form of envy, when the old resent rather than rejoice in the success of the young.

Call it the “Saul Complex,” and watch for it, for it’s very common.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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