Did God Kill King Saul?
When we approach Scripture with the assumption that it is all God-breathed for the purpose of bearing witness to Christ, even the most trivial contradictions in Scripture can acquire theological significance. This is what I argue in Cross Vision. Here I want to illustrate this by briefly discussing the theological significance of a curious discrepancy in one of the biblical accounts of King Saul’s death.
In 1 Chronicles, we read that after Saul was gravely wounded in a battle with the Philistines, he implored his armor-bearer to kill him so he would not be captured and tortured to death by his enemies. The armor-bearer could not bring himself to do this, however, so Saul decided to take his own life (10:3-4). Interestingly enough, the author goes on to explain that Saul died because he “did not keep the word of the LORD” and did not “inquire of the LORD,” but instead “consulted a medium for guidance.” For this reason, the author concludes, “the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David …” (vss. 13-4, emphasis added). The obvious question is, how can this author claim that Saul killed himself while also claiming that the Lord killed him?
One could of course explain this conflict by proposing that this author/redactor spliced together different authoritative traditions that contained conflicting accounts of Saul’s death. Alternatively, one could account for the discrepancy by appealing to any number of exegetical considerations.
But the discrepancy acquires a much more profound significance when we reflect on it in a crucicentric way. As a judgment of Saul’s rebellion, Yahweh had withdrawn his protection of Saul, thus allowing spirits to torment him. He also had allowed Saul to sink deeper and deeper into his self-chosen sin as he consulted a medium at Endor (1 Sam 28; cf., Deut 18:9-14) and foolishly headed into battle without Yahweh’s instruction to do so and without his protection. Yet, while Yahweh was not responsible for Saul’s sinful decisions or for the self-destructive consequences of these decisions that resulted in his suicide, Yahweh nevertheless assumed responsibility for them by allowing himself to be depicted as doing what he merely allowed. In this way, the portrait of the Lord putting Saul to death can be understood as a literary crucifixion, pointing to the crucified God who takes responsibility for the sin of the world.