TO MR KEVIN FLAHERTY, EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES
CREDO FOR 18TH FEBRUARY 2001,
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
The Bible is God’s catechetics programme, full of life and energy. The Catechism is the Church’s synthesis of Revelation, full of wisdom and order.
Upon the pages of Scripture, Saul does not shine out as an attractive character. He is Israel’s first ever king (c.1030-1010 B.C.). He begins with great hopes, but ends tragically. He appears as a dark foil to the brilliance of his successor King David.
The life of Saul started with high promise. “Of all the Israelites there was no one more handsome than he. He stood head and shoulders taller than the rest of the people.” (1 Sam. 8) Saul marks the transition from the age of the judges to that of the monarchy. We first hear of him as a Benjaminite, son of Abiel, searching for his father’s lost she-donkeys. He goes to consult Samuel “the man of God” for help, and is invited to a banquet.
The next morning the prophet Samuel makes known the word of God to Saul. He pours a phial of oil over Saul’s head, saying: “Has not Yahweh anointed you prince over his people Israel?”
Later, as Samuel had promised, Saul meets the prophets of Gibeah and goes into ecstasy with them: “The Spirit of Yahweh will seize on you, and you will go into an ecstasy with them, and be changed into another man.”
Later the prophet Samuel summons an assembly of all the tribes of Israel. Saul is chosen king by lot, for the people have avowed that they want to have a king like other nations do. God would have ruled them by wise judges endowed with prophetic spirit, but the Jews want to stand comparison with their monarchical neighbours.
King Saul leads the people in battle, and is victorious against the Philistines and the Ammonites. In the war against the Amalekites, however, he disobeys Yahweh. He fails to carry out the divine command to kill King Agag and all the enemy’s herds. The army kill only the weak and the sick animals, but keep the rest alive for sacrifice to Yahweh. They can then feast on the animals of the herd, slaughtered for the communion sacrifices.
Saul acts in good faith, but he thinks he knows better than God. Instead of absolute obedience to the divine command, he chooses his own individual way of honouring the Lord, with a view to his own popularity – a common temptation for political and religious leaders. He tries to compromise between Yahweh who has appointed him king, and what will most please the people.
Yahweh tells Samuel: “I regret having made Saul king, for he has turned away from me and has not carried out my orders.” Samuel reproves Saul: “Is the pleasure of Yahweh in holocausts and sacrifices, or in obedience to the voice of Yahweh?” Yahweh has rejected him. The kingdom will be taken away from him and given to a better man.
Consequently, Samuel seeks out and anoints David as successor to Saul, who falls into deep depression: “Now the Spirit of Yahweh had left Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh filled him with terror.” Does God send evil spirits to torment the wicked? Certainly he allows it to happen. And what God wills, even the devils are forced to obey. It is only David’s harp-playing which drives away the demon, and allows Saul some peace and rest.
David goes on to marry Michal, Saul’s daughter, and becomes the closest of friends with his son Jonathan. He becomes part of the royal family, but this, as we know, is an uncertain enterprise.
For after David has killed Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the jubilant crowds welcome him with cries of “Saul has killed his thousands, David his tens of thousands.” Saul is attacked by an evil spirit of jealousy against David. This root of envy sprouts and festers in Saul’s heart. He becomes erratic and moody, even murderously violent. “An evil spirit from Yahweh came on Saul while he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. David was playing the harp. Saul tried to pin David to the wall with the spear . . “ David has to flee for his life.
Is it not possible that those who break faith with God, those who think that they know better than God’s Holy Church, who choose to honour God in their own way rather than His way, end up tormented by wicked spirits? One thinks of Henry VIII’s paranoid suspicion of his wives and ministers whom he executed one after another. Or of Martin Luther’s increasingly virulent outbursts: “Against the murdering thieving hordes of peasants”, against Jews, against the Anabaptists, again the Papacy in the vilest lavatory language. So many independent, freelance charismatic figures come to grief – in our day the U.S. TV evangelists Swaggart and Backer, David Koresh at Waco, the Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s witnesses and Joseph Smith of the Mormons. If it is not a spirit of violence which comes upon them, it is the spirit of lust.
Many powerful men seem to be plagued with this jealousy and insecurity which Saul typifies: look at our own Cabinet ministers. Stalin eliminated every one of his possible rivals – all 40 of the original communist politburo were exiled or exterminated one by one. The communist version of brotherly love is the ice-axe through the skull, as Trotsky discovered.
Beset by suspicious paranoia, Saul sets out in vicious pursuit of David to murder him for no good cause. David for all his later faults, shows us the kindlier face of brotherly love: he returns good for evil. Somehow he anticipates the teaching of Jesus in today’s gospel: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”
Twice David spares Saul’s life – once in the cave in the wilderness of Engedi, where David’s men are in hiding, and Saul, unsuspecting, comes in to relieve himself. Secondly, in this weekend’s first reading, where David and Abishai penetrate Saul’s camp at night in the wilderness of Ziph. David finds Saul asleep, and has the chance to kill him with the king’s own spear.
But David refuses, saying to Abishai:: “Do not kill him, for who can lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed and not bear guilt?” Saul will die when Yahweh chooses, not when David chooses. It is that gift of the Holy Spirit, “fear of the Lord”, which holds David back from revenge and bloodshed – murdering the one who would murder him. It is only by returning good for evil that the world’s downward spiral of bloodshed and violence can be reversed.
There follows a temporary reconciliation between David and Saul. However, David must flee again and, disguised, takes refuge among the Philistines.
Saul commits the grave sin of consulting the witch of Endor to summon up the prophet Samuel from the dead. He wants to consult him about the future of his Kingdom. For this act of sorcery, putting trust in witches and necromancers rather than in Yahweh, Samuel predicts Saul’s defeat and forfeiture of his crown: “Yahweh will deliver Israel and you too, into the power of the Philistines. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and Israel’s army too . . “
Mediums and clairvoyants bring only a curse upon those who consult them. The prophecy comes to pass: Saul is defeated at Gilboa. Wounded, he falls upon his own sword. It is an ignominious end for one who could have been a great king, but chose to seek human popularity rather than obedience to Yahweh.