Saul, from the small tribe of Benjamin and the clan of Matri and the first king of Israel, is a biblical story of tragedy reminiscent of Shakespeare or the Greeks. He rose from nothing, not seeking glory or fame, to be exalted to kingship. He then suffered torment deeply, was eclipsed by another, and fell on the field of battle. The torment Saul faced during his kingship showed many indicators of combat trauma. He exhibited signs of mood swings, apathy and depression, violent temper, paranoia, and a distinct change in personality after extensive combat experiences. Understanding many of King Saul’s actions and decisions, especially with regard to his interactions with his rival David, through analysis of combat trauma resulting from his extensive close combat experience provides a new means of interpretation.

The current study does not intend to be a historical-based, clinical diagnosis of King Saul’s mental disorder. Rather, it is an interpretation of his actions through the lens of combat trauma influence. Lacking medical qualifications or specialization to make such a determination, coupled with the difficulty of making any clinical assertions from only scant literary historical record, this article instead relies upon a military history and combat experienced-based analysis. This study follows a similar analysis as Dr. Jonathan Shay’s books about the Greek epics the Iliad and Odyssey, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. In Achilles in Vietnam, Shay artfully demonstrates the impact of combat trauma on the Greek hero Achilles, who falls from grace from the preeminent, idolized Greek warrior to a broken, raging perpetrator of war crimes against Hector of Troy after the death of Patroclus, his dearest friend—Achilles’ combat traumatic “undoing of character.” In Odysseus in America, Shay compassionately reveals the re-integration struggles Odysseus endures on his journey and return home after combat trauma. King Saul’s story is a blending of the two: combat trauma dramatically alters his character while his attempts to re-integrate fail, resulting in a cycle of torment. Following those examples, an examination of King Saul’s adult life can lead to new interpretations of his actions and decisions and, while not providing justification, possibly prompt a larger degree of empathy and reserved judgement.

The life before kingship was simple for Saul. He came from the smallest tribe, Benjamin, and the smallest clan, Matri, within a small people, the Israelites. When the tribes gathered, and even after the prophet Samuel pre-told that Saul was God’s chosen to be king, Saul hid among the baggage to avoid the kingship. Though Samuel told him ahead of time, Saul did not tell his family the news prior to the public announcement at the gathering of the tribes. Saul did not ask for or want the kingship. Despite the public anointment and blessing from God, many Israelites did not accept Saul as king, indicating his initial reception was not positive. An uncertain welcome and his personal aversion to the kingship did not bode well for his mental and psychological preparation for what he would soon face. Within these circumstances, King Saul set off on a life that radically changed from one of simple herding to one of constant and extensive close combat and its resulting effects on him.

King Saul’s Thousands

“All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines.” – 1 Samuel 14:52, NIV

King Saul’s military experience and background was largely unconventional in nature: guerilla warfare of a small group fighting a larger force, namely the Philistines. Jonathan, Saul’s favorite son and his trusted subordinate leader, typified this in a raid when Jonathan climbed a mountainside and was within shouting distance of the Philistine camp when he and his armor bearer attacked the camp. Saul, upon hearing the confusion in the Philistine camp, joined the other Israelites and defeated the Philistine army near Beth Aven. In the Bronze Age, this involved close and violent combat. Archery was the most standoff weapon, but the majority of battles were fought hand-to-hand with swords and spears, largely on foot by masses of grouped men. This sort of combat pressured soldiers’ psychology in its inherent personal nature. The warrior could see the enemy’s humanity in his eyes as he pierced him, and watch death occur. Up close and intimately, he saw the gruesome wounding and deaths of those he cared about and loved, his companions around him. There is a natural aversion found in man killing man, so professional, modern militaries go to great lengths through drilling and conditioning to improve their solders’ ability to kill.[i] There is also an evidently strong avoidance and resulting psychological impact on man’s psyche while killing with edged weapons in an “intimate brutality.”[ii] This type of fighting defined King Saul’s battlefield experience.

Saul’s first action as king, even before all the tribes accepted him, was breaking the Ammonite siege of Jabesh. In a night attack during chaotic close fighting, Saul and his men slaughtered the Ammonites from darkness “until the heat of the day.” The victorious Israelites then rejoiced and accepted Saul as their king, with some urging him to purge those who refused him as king before. As an example of his early nature, Saul instead spared the Israelites who rallied against him. Saul’s merciful nature would slowly fade after his exposure to continued violence.

After the siege of Jabesh, Saul embarked on a kingship full of war. He fought against Israel’s enemies his entire reign “on every side, against Moab, against the people of Ammon, against Edom, against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines.” According to 1 Samuel 14:48, “Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them. He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.” When Saul wiped out the Amalekites, he showed mercy to the Kenites who were kind to Israel before, by asking them to leave before he ambushed the Amalekites. This would be his final act of mercy;  from this point on, his violence against enemies was complete.

In summarizing Saul’s history of violence, a song sung by the women of Israel reoccurred throughout Saul’s story. While dancing, they sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”

Although the song revealed Saul’s jealousy and suspicion of David, who later became king, it also indicated just how much exposure to combat Saul received. As the rest of Saul’s story unfolded, his “thousands” affected his character deeply.

King Saul, the “Evil Spirit,” and Indications of Trauma

“If a soldier is always using up his capital he may from time to time add to it. There is a paying in as well as paying out… Men wear out like clothes.”[iii] – Lord Moran

King Saul and the Evil Spirit: Personality Change and Combat Trauma
“David and Saul,” by Ernst Josephson, 1878. Nationalmuseum (Stockholm), via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1 Samuel 18:10-11, the Lord sent a spirit onto Saul—an “evil spirit” in the New International Version, or a “distressing spirit” in the New King James Version. The spirit came as David played the harp to ease the king’s mind, and Saul raged and threw his spear at David, seeking to pin him to the wall. This “evil” or “distressing” spirit and resultant mood swing occurred multiple times in the story of Saul and David. It revealed Saul’s apathy, depression, raging temper, changed personality, and paranoia after his exposure to intense combat. The king was an almost completely different man than the humble, soft-spoken one prior to battle.

Lord Moran in his classic work about men and the effects of combat The Anatomy of Courage, writes about British First World War trench warfare veterans:

Apathy…was a wall of defense set up by nature to meet the violence of the hour. It kept at arm’s length the habit of introspection, which was the sure and certain herald of individual defeat. It was an insurance which men took out against the unhinging of their minds.[iv]

Lord Moran’s experience as a psychiatrist in the trenches of the First World War showed him how the response of these soldiers’ apathy was an attempt to cope by not thinking of the trauma and threat. “When we did think, we lived in the past… We could only cheat our present distress by a flight into other times.”[v] However, for Saul, the past was a simple life the unwanted kingship denied him, and the present was an unending “bitter war with the Philistines.” Saul held a constant paranoia of David eclipsing him, making even his apathy no insurance against the unhinging of his mind. Even David’s harp playing, a soothing melodic attempt to bring peace to Saul’s distressed mind, failed. Similarly, Lord Moran records, “Men who had been voracious readers said they could not settle to read.”[vi] Saul’s unhinged mind went from listening to David’s soothing music to trying to pin the harpist to the wall.

Saul, in jealousy and suspicion of David, later tried to have David killed on many occasions. Once after a conversation with his son Jonathan, Saul radically changed his mind, ordering his men and son to stop trying to kill David: “As the Lord lives, [David] shall not be killed.” But later the evil spirit came on Saul again, and he threw his spear at David again as he played the harp for the king. Even when Jonathan later defended David, asking why his father was trying so hard to kill him, Saul raged and hurled his spear at his own son.

Such rage and temper, not previously shown in Saul’s more humble and merciful origins before combat, are indicators of combat trauma’s “undoing of character,” as Shay might label it. In The Anatomy of Courage, Lord Moran comments, “There were many feeling men who walked in purgatory in the [First World War], who yet contrived a mask so that they were accepted as imperturbable… When their self-control wore thin they were prone to moods, which were the language in which they spoke to us of their distress.”[vii] Lord Moran adds, “Without a key to those moods the reader of war books stumbles on without a chart.”[viii]

Even more dynamic than the temper flares and spear hurling, Saul’s manhunts for David reflected his equivocation and vacillating moods. Twice while Saul hunted in paranoia for him, David spared Saul’s life. First, while the king relieved himself in a cave, David refrained from killing him. After they reconciled and returned home, David again came to Saul’s court, only to be chased out again. The second time he spared Saul’s life, David crept into Saul’s camp in the night. After both incidents, David confronted Saul the following day and begged him to explain his behavior. Then Saul broke down and changed his mind in a fierce show of religiosity, calling on God and making emotional statements.

During the first confrontation in En Geth, David cried out, “Now understand and recognize that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life.” To which Saul responded, “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. You have just now told me of the good you did to me… When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today.”

The second time, when David snuck into the camp, he only stole Saul’s spear and water jug by the sleeping king’s head. The following day David questioned why Saul changed his mind and hunted him down. Again, Saul changed completely: “I have sinned. Come back, David my son. Because you considered my life precious today, I will not try to harm you again. Surely I have acted like a fool and have erred greatly… You will do great things and surely triumph.”

Much like the back and forth over the harp playing and the spear hurling, even King Saul’s pursuits of David demonstrated his extreme mood swings as well as his case of extreme paranoia. Some may associate this with other mental disorders. As Shay notes, many combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder early on received diagnoses as paranoid schizophrenia in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s, combat veterans who sought medical treatment were labelled as manic-depressive or schizoaffective. Combat veterans seeking medical help did not receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder until the mid-1980s.[ix] The delay occurred because combat trauma is complex and daunting, and it exhibits characteristics of several mental conditions.

Dave Grossman in his work On Killing, writes of character disorders:

Character disorders include obsessional traits in which the soldier becomes fixated on certain actions or things; paranoid trends accompanied by irascibility, depression, and anxiety, often taking on the tone of threat to his safety; schizoid trends leading to hypersensitivity and isolation; epileptoid character reactions accompanied by periodic rages; the development of extreme dramatic religiosity; and finally degeneration into a psychotic personality. What has happened to the soldier is an altering of his fundamental personality.[x]

King Saul’s exhibited characteristics strongly suggest combat trauma after the onset of the “evil” or “distressing” spirit. His personality changed from being humble and merciful to raging against both David and Jonathan. He had a strong sense of apathy and depression, as demonstrated by his attempts to find peace of mind through music and his failure to do so, resulting in uncontrollable rage, or “unhinging of the mind.” His wide mood swings and drastic changing of mind show a troubled and uncertain psyche. Another indicator of combat trauma, his duels with David highlight an extensive paranoia, even as David repeatedly demonstrated and proved his innocence.

The Tragedy of Saul

In many ways, Saul followed a tragic arc of the “hero’s journey,” as outlined by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He came from humble beginnings, answered a call to greatness, rose to the peak of success, and faced calamity. But instead of redemption and triumph in the end, Saul’s arc ended in tragedy on a mountain surrounded by his lifelong enemies. Saul’s death came on Mount Gilboa fighting the Philistines with his sons. With his sons killed, the Israelite army fleeing, and the Philistines surging forward, Saul received a mortal wound from an archer. Saul asked his armor bearer, the only one with him still, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.” With his aide refusing to strike him down, Saul fell on his own sword, committing suicide. Seeing the death of his charge and the suicide of his king, the armor bearer followed suit.

The Philistines took Mount Gilboa, cut off Saul’s head, hung his and his sons’ bodies on the walls of Beth Shan, and placed his stripped armor in the temple of Ashtoreth, the Philistine deity. Upon hearing of this outrage against their king, even in defeat, “all the valiant men” of Jabesh, the town where Saul first won renown as king by lifting the city’s siege, went to Beth Shan. The men recovered the bodies of their fallen king and his sons, took them to Jabesh, burned them, and buried their bones under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh.

Lord Moran writes, “Fortitude in war has its roots in morality; that selection is a search for character, and that war itself is but one more test—the supreme and final test if you will—of character.”[xi] He adds, “Courage is a moral quality; it is not a chance gift of nature like an aptitude for games. It is a cold choice between two alternatives, the fixed resolve not to quit; an act of renunciation, which must be made not once but many times by the power of the will. Courage is will power.”[xii]

Certainly, King Saul had battlefield courage; he liberated his people then protected them to the point of dying on a mountaintop. However, Saul struggled deeply, often losing the inner fight with the evil or distressing spirit. To understand Saul and his actions, even if not to support or defend them, one must see them through the struggle and anguish of this internal fight with those spirits. The battle for many warriors rages on long after the battlefield, and the casualties do not always stop when the survivors leave the field.

The Lament of the Bow (sang by David concerning Saul and Jonathan)

“The beauty of Israel is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon—
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

“O mountains of Gilboa,
Let there be no dew nor rain upon you,
Nor fields of offerings.
For the shield of the mighty is cast away there!
The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
From the blood of the slain,
From the fat of the mighty,
The bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
And the sword of Saul did not return empty.

“Saul and Jonathan were beloved and pleasant in their lives,
And in their death they were not divided;
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions.

“O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in scarlet, with luxury;
Who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.

“How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan was slain in your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
You have been very pleasant to me;
Your love to me was wonderful,
Surpassing the love of women.

“How the mighty have fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!”

[i] Dave Grossman, On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Little Brown and Company, New York: 1995, 29-39.

[ii] Grossman, On Killing, 120-133.

[iii] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York: 2007 edition, 70).

[iv] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, 151).

[v] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, 152.

[vi] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, 151-152.

[vii] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, 42.

[viii] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, 42.

[ix] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Scribner: New York, 1994, 169.

[x] Grossman, On Killing, 48.

[xi] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, 169-170.

[xii] Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage, 67.