Academic journal article Shofar

The Conceptual Transfer of Human Agency to the Divine in the Second Temple Period: The Case of Saul's Suicide

Academic journal article Shofar

The Conceptual Transfer of Human Agency to the Divine in the Second Temple Period: The Case of Saul's Suicide

Article excerpt

Shofar is pleased to join with the Midwest Jewish Studies Association in encouraging graduate work in Jewish Studies by publishing the paper chosen at the annual Midwest Jewish Studies Conference to receive the Graduate Student Paper Award.

In the books of Samuel and Chronicles, the relationship between human and divine agency is often a matter of degree. Though at times both books show direct divine interaction in the world,1 divine pronouncements often reach fruition through an inseparable combination of divine action and human agency.2 Both are intertwined in a way that does not allow distinct separation. However, one may detect emphasis in certain episodes. In the case of Saul's battlefield suicide, 1 Samuel places divine agency in the background, with human agency in the foreground. 1 Chronicles, conversely, places human agency in the background, with divine agency in the foreground.3

Undoubtedly, Saul is understood in both accounts as a sacrilegious king, a ruler who offends his deity through impiety. At the same time, both Saul's offense and punishment differ in each account. By focusing on Saul's offenses, which elicit divine chastisement, and by analyzing how that divine punishment is carried out, I will demonstrate how each text underscores the relation of divine and human agency in each corpus as it pertains to Saul, and how human agency is transferred to the divine realm in the Chronicler's account.


A number of studies acknowledge the tragic nature of Saul's portrayal in 1 Samuel, with different degrees of emphasis on divine and human responsibility.4 One extreme stresses Saul's innocence and understands Saul as a victim of fate,5 while another argues that Saul was not such an innocent victim.6 At the core of such discrepancies seems to be how textual details that stand in tension with one another are addressed. The root difficulty is the modern interpreter's propensity to fit them into diametrically opposed categories, which are in their very essence completely incompatible to the modern mind. However, while the ancient authors could perceive these same oppositions, I contend that they did not necessarily consider them to be incompatible.

I maintain the ancients' ability to hold such tensions together, especially with regard to the concept of a "victim" of divine action in the books of Samuel. The books of Samuel do not permit a king (Saul or David) who faces seemingly unfair odds to be labeled a victim. One has to look no further than 2 Samuel 24:1, where the Lord, angry at Israel (not David), incites David to conduct a census.7 Though incited by the Lord, David is still held fully accountable as a perpetrator.8 Divine causation and human responsibility are taken together, but do not allow David to be labeled a "victim," but only a "perpetrator."9 In other words, the divine action works in tandem with David's volition, but does not exonerate David of full responsibility. The divine-human dynamics succinctly displayed in 2 Samuel 24 are a diagnostic for the circumstances surrounding Saul.

Related to the divine-human dynamics is the fact that Saul and David are kings, and thus held to a higher standard of responsibility, which brings with it greater ramifications for disobedience.10 An act of sacrilege committed by a king in the ancient Near East could bring consequences that reached far beyond that king's own person.11 Kings of Israel and Judah were no exception to this principle, and its consequences appear in the life of Saul (and David).12 These divine-human dynamics and the consequences of a king's impiety underlie the account of Saul in 1 Samuel. They allow one to view Saul through the ancient perspective of 1 Samuel, a perspective quite different from that of modern interpreters.

In 1 Samuel, divine endorsement of Saul's rule (1 Samuel 9:15-16) quickly expires, though Saul's physical rule endures significantly longer. …

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