An Atheist Reads The 1st Book Of Samuel: The Fall Of Saul And The Rise Of David

While the first half of the 1st Book of Samuel was about the rise of Samuel and how Saul became king, the second half is about Saul’s decline and fall, and the rise of David. However, this doesn’t happen in a straight forward way, instead the way is littered with massacres, murder and betrayal. The main characters act more like mafia dons than divinely blessed heroes.

All of a sudden, Samuel remembers how the Amalekites attacked the Israelites during the Exodus and declares that they must be devoted to destruction as punishment. This is daft because that war occurred hundreds of years earlier so it is strange that Samuel suddenly declares that now is the time for revenge. Especially because the Israelites already had their revenge by previously exterminating the Amalekites. So Saul is ordered by God to kill every man, woman and child for something they didn’t do. This Saul does and he spares nothing but the cattle which the Israelites take as loot.

Samuel (who has no problem with the genocide of innocents that just occurred) is furious that Saul didn’t also slaughter the cattle (despite the fact that he never told Saul to do that). Saul rightly protests that he was never told to do so and apologises. Samuel declares that Saul has rejected God (because he didn’t slaughter animals like people) and that God regretted making Saul King (can God change his mind? Did he not know this was going to happen?). Samuel is outraged that not enough blood was shed and for some reason the animals also had to be part of the genocide. He declares that nothing Saul does will make up for this and God will never forgive him.

The scene ends with Saul meeting the captured Agag, King of the Amalekites. Despite the fact that his people have been exterminated, he comes “cheerfully”, believing that “the bitterness of death is past”. In a vicious scene, worthy of a mafia film, Saul hacks him to pieces before the Lord.

Samuel now searches for a new King, preferably one who will be more thorough in his genocides. He declares he won’t appoint a new King based on their looks (like last time), and chooses David, a young boy who was herding sheep when Samuel meets him (again I like the salt of the Earth approach, but picking completely inexperienced people didn’t work too well last time). However, literally the only thing we know about David is that he is handsome, so Samuel doesn’t seem to be following his own advice. Why is the Bible so caught up on people’s looks? Does God believe that good people are good looking?

Since the spirit of God has now left Saul, it is replaced by a harmful spirit which causes him to fly into a rage. Why does literally everything have to be caused by God? Couldn’t they just say that Saul had anger problems instead of having a divine cause? Making God responsible causes a problem now because the Bible says that the harmful spirit could be overcome by the playing of a lyre. How can a musical instrument be more powerful than God? How can you defeat the will of God with a song? In an extremely improbable coincidence, it turns out that David is the person Saul selects to play the lyre for him. Why a poor sheep herder should be the first choice for a King is not explained.

Thankfully we now reach the only genuine interesting story in the book of Samuel so far, David versus Goliath. Goliath was a ferocious warrior who was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span tall (either 6 feet 6 inches or 9 feet 9 inches). Either way he was tall (and people were shorter back then) but not an actual giant as I remember hearing as a child. All the men of Israel feared him and none had the courage to fight him. For not entirely clear reasons David, who wasn’t a solider but was just bringing supplies to his brothers, was chosen to fight Goliath. David claimed he defeated a lion or bear (there’s a big difference between the two) that stole his sheep as proof of his fighting skill. Armed with nothing but his slingshot (and God I suppose) David defeated Goliath by striking him with a stone and then cutting off Goliath’s head with his own sword (that part was left out of the story I heard as a child).

David was successful in everything he did. He won so many battles and was so popular that Saul become jealous of him. A harmful spirit came over Saul and he threw his spear at David twice, but he dodged both times. But if the harmful spirit came from God, does that mean God wanted Saul to kill David? Or did the jealousy and hate come from God? Either way, you would think nearly killing someone would cause some problems in their relationship, but to the contrary, Saul and David continue on as if nothing happened (there are a quite few continuity errors in the Bible).


So ignoring the fact that he just tried to kill David, Saul proposes that David marry his daughter. His only requirement is that David must collect 100 Philistine foreskins. This is really disgusting. Saul’s intention is that David would have to kill 100 Philistines and be killed in the process, but surely there was a less nasty way of doing so? Could David have interpreted this in a less violent way? Could the Philistines be left alive? Maybe Saul wanted him to convert 100 people to Judaism? In any case, David not only meets his quota, but he exceeds it by killing and taking the foreskins of 200 Philistines. It’s not said how he managed to do this, which I think is for the best.

This only makes David more popular and Saul even more jealous, so he tries to kill him again. However, David is warned by Saul’s son Jonathan. David and Jonathan are extremely close and it is said that their souls were knit together and Jonathan loved David more than himself. There’s lots of kissing between them and David even declares that Jonathan’s love is better than that of a woman, which means they were either a homosexual couple or extremely good friends. When Saul finds out that Jonathan has been helping David, he flies into a rage and declares that Jonathan has chosen David to his shame and the shame of his “mother’s nakedness”, a term used previously in the Bible for sexual acts.  Saul even throws a spear at his own son.

David is forced to go on the run from Saul and gathers a group of 400 men who were in distress, debt and “bitter in soul” around him. He basically becomes commander of a guerrilla/bandit group that goes rogue. Along the way there is a bizarre scene where Saul is hunting David but the spirit of God fell on him and he tore off his clothes, prophesised and “lay naked all day and all that night.” The Bible skims over this as if it was a completely normal thing for a king to do and hardly worth commenting on.

Saul finds out that a priest helped David and decides to punish him even though the priest didn’t know David was now Saul’s enemy. This being the Bible, Saul couldn’t possibly be proportionate in his punishment so he not only kills the priest, but also every other priest he could find (85 people in total). He then massacres the entire town of Nob, the city of priests, killing every man, woman, child and animal.

While Saul is butchering his own people like a crazed dictator, David rescues the town of Keliah from the Philistines. Saul sees this as a chance to trap and capture David, but he escapes. Saul chases him for a while until he rests one night in a cave where David is also hiding. David could kill him but decides not to, instead only cutting a corner from his cloak. The next day, he approaches Saul, showing that he could have killed him but didn’t and asks for a reconciliation. Saul recognises the evil he’s done and declares that David will one day be king, asking only that his descendants not be wiped out.

Biblical Scene

David comes across a farmer and asks for food for his band of 600 outlaws. The farmer naturally declares that he won’t give away all his food to 600 strangers and I can’t blame him. David however flies into a rage and believes that the farmer should have been grateful David didn’t rob him. As punishment for not giving away his food, David prepares to attack the farm and kill all the men that work there. However, he is stopped at the last moment when the farmer’s wife appears with food and begs for mercy. Ten days later the farmer is killed by God and David takes the widow as his wife (he doesn’t ask her, he takes her). He marries two other women, giving him 4 wives in total. What is striking about the story is that David isn’t acting like a freedom fighter but rather a Mafioso or warlord extorting the local farmers.

In chapter 26, David sneaks up on Saul and considers killing him in his sleep, which is strange because in chapter 24 they forgave each other and were no longer enemies. This is another continuity error and makes it obvious that this book was put together from a jumble of sources. God puts Saul’s soldiers to sleep and David could kill Saul, but instead only steals his spear. The next day is a repeat of last time and they forgive each other again.

However, this double reconciliation clearly isn’t enough because David still thinks Saul is going to kill him. So he does something completely inexplicable and joins the Philistines. The previous chapters had shown that the Philistines were the main enemies of the Israelites and David had continuously beaten them in battle, so this defection should have been unforgivable. There is no reason why the Philistines would have accepted one of their greatest enemies as an ally. Yet according to the Bible, he is accepted without question and no one seems to pass any remark. David even launches raids on behalf of the Philistines where he massacres the entire population so that no one knows he was there. Saul may be a murdering despot who has lost the support of God, but replacing him with David is no better. If anything David acts worse.

God refuses to answer Saul so he goes to a medium who brings up the spirit of Samuel. This poses theological problems as it implies that it is possible to speak to the dead and that there are sources other than God of supernatural powers. As soon as he appears, Samuel starts giving out to Saul for using a medium to summon him (which is amusingly ironic) and not listening to God (although the problem was that God refused to speak to Saul). He tells Saul that as punishment for his incomplete genocide, the Philistines would defeat him in battle. This is what happens, the Israelites are defeated and Saul is wounded in battle, so he kills himself to deny the Philistines the honour.

While this is happening, David is getting ready to attack his own people as part of the Philistine army, apparently without any qualms. However, luckily for him, the Philistine commanders don’t trust him (why would they?) and have him sent away. David is supposed to be one of the great Israelites heroes, yet here he is fighting for their enemy and on the verge of attacking the people he would be king of. Perhaps he even did attack them, but the story was later edited. Either way, it is at this point that the 1st Book of Samuel ends, with the final fall of Saul and the way clear for the rise of David.

See here for the rest of An Atheist Reads The Bible

8 thoughts on “An Atheist Reads The 1st Book Of Samuel: The Fall Of Saul And The Rise Of David”

  1. You didn’t mention that Goliath was dressed in garb that wouldn’t be invented for several centuries after the supposed event. Like medieval artists dressing Biblical characters in medieval dress, the authors of Samuel weren’t knowledgeable enough to dress Goliath in period appropriate garb.

    But of course, scripture is flawless.

  2. A couple of typos in this one, sorry – feel free to delete my comment later (I hate being caught out myself). “Ten days later the farmer’s wife is killed” which should be the farmer. And “the commanders don’t trust” should be followed by ‘him’.
    Sorry for nitpicking- my mother was an English teacher and newspaper editor and I can’t help it.
    I really enjoy these, and love to see new posts. Thank you!

  3. I really love this series! It’s so funny because you’re reading the scriptures and letting it speak for itself. I can’t wait til you get to Job! That book is a mess! Thanks for posting.

  4. I’ve been enjoying reading this series of blog posts, and I’ve been occasionally taking a look for myself at the stories you discuss. That being said, I’m not sure where this part of this particular post came from – “Samuel (who has no problem with the genocide of innocents that just occurred) is furious that Saul didn’t also slaughter the cattle (despite the fact that he never told Saul to do that). Saul rightly protests that he was never told to do so and apologises.”

    As 1 Samuel 15:3 says, “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

    followed by verse 15:9 saying “Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.”
    Saul doesn’t seem to protest never being told, either – considering he *was*.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: