An Old Testament Messiah Struck Down by God

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by Neil Godfrey

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A modern reader will be excused for not seeing at first glance any connection between King Saul as an anointed one (i.e. “messiah”) and the concept of messiah as it applies to Jesus. But Thomas L. Thompson has brought out some interesting concepts in common.

Saul was a messiah of Israel, and as a messiah he was struck down by God. David’s lament over this event is rich in messianic themes. One finds the same themes repeated in the Gospels in connection with the death of the messiah Jesus. I am closely following Thompson’s arguments here in pointing out the messianic motifs that we find in common in Old and New Testaments.

Saul is described metaphorically as the anointed (messianic) shield of Israel:

O mountains of Gilboa,
Let not dew or rain be on you, nor fields of offerings;

For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
(2 Samuel 1:21 New American Standard)

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil. (2 Samuel 1:21 King James)

For the interlinear Hebrew, transliteration and translation see http://biblehub.com/interlinear/2_samuel/1-21.htm:

מָגֵן שִׁאוּל בְּלִי מָשִׁיהַ בַּשָּׁמֶן
mgn shaul bli mshich b·shmn
shield-of Saul without being-anointed in·the·oil

I quote Thompson’s discussion in his 2001 SJOT article (repeated in The Messiah Myth), while indicating my own additions in italics. I’ll then point out what I see as similar thoughts on the messiah as applied to Jesus.

It is astonishing that the passage of 2 Sam 1,21 is often raised as a singular exception to the use of משׁיה as an epithet for a person, and therefore irrelevant for understanding the messiah epithet in the Hebrew Bible. This is one of the few passages in which the metaphorical description of the king as anointed carries interpretive weight. It is Saul who is identified with the phrase: מגן שאל בלי משיה בשמן; he is the shield, which, unlike Yahweh, is itself without protection and gives none to those who seek refuge in him. The metaphor of shield is central to the understanding of the anointing, through which Yahweh gives protection to his messiah. Yahweh is the messiah’s shield, his כבוד (=glory, honour) (Gen 15,1, as in Pss 3,4; 18,3; 28,8; 84,12; 144,2-3),

the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield

But thou, O LORD, art a shield for me

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer;
My God, my strength, in whom I will trust;
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

The LORD is my strength and my shield

For the LORD God is a sun and shield

Blessed be the LORD my Rock,
Who trains my hands for war,
And my fingers for battle—
My lovingkindness and my fortress,
My high tower and my deliverer,
My shield and
the One in whom I take refuge

which enables him to be in turn the shield of those who, in piety, identify with the messiah by seeking their refuge in Yahweh alone (so, precisely, Pss 5,13; 18,31; 84,10; 91,4).

For You, O LORD, will bless the righteous;
With favor You will surround him as
with a shield.

As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the LORD is proven;
is a shield to all who trust in Him.

O God, behold our shield,
And look upon the face of Your anointed.

He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth
shall be your shield and buckler.

That David’s lament over Saul’s death deals in messianic themes is also confirmed by other imagery of the song (2 Sam 1,19-27).

19 “The beauty of Israel is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!

20 Tell it not in Gath,
it not in the streets of Ashkelon—
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

21 “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.

22 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.

23 “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.

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

25 “How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!
was slain in your high places.

26 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.

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

Saul is “the hero who has fallen.” As with Samaria’s destruction, rejoicing at Saul’s fall must be rejected. Gilboa has become a desert, for Israel’s כבוד is fallen (2 Sam 1,19 = Mic 2,9).

The beauty of Israel is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!

(compare Micah’s lament over Samaria’s destruction) . . . =

You have taken away My glory forever.

No “happy day” of a new world here; for in Saul’s death, as in Samaria’s disaster, the singer also prophesies Jerusalem’s undoing (Mic 1,8-16).

Therefore I will wail and howl,
I will go stripped and naked;
I will make a wailing like the jackals
And a mourning like the ostriches,
9 For her wounds are incurable.
For it has come to Judah;
It has come to the gate of My people—
To Jerusalem.
10 Tell it not in Gath,
Weep not at all;
In Beth Aphrah
Roll yourself in the dust.
11 Pass by in naked shame, you inhabitant of Shaphir;
The inhabitant of Zaanan does not go out.
Beth Ezel mourns;
Its place to stand is taken away from you.
12 For the inhabitant of Maroth pined for good,
But disaster came down from the LORD
To the gate of Jerusalem.
13 O inhabitant of Lachish,
Harness the chariot to the swift steeds
was the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion),
For the transgressions of Israel were found in you.
14 Therefore you shall give presents to Moresheth Gath;
The houses of Achzib
shall be a lie to the kings of Israel.
15 I will yet bring an heir to you, O inhabitant of Mareshah;
The glory of Israel shall come to Adullam.
16 Make yourself bald and cut off your hair,
Because of your precious children;
Enlarge your baldness like an eagle,
For they shall go from you into captivity.

This is not a time of שלךם (= peace), but a time of evil (Micah 2,3);

Therefore thus says the LORD:
Behold, against this family I am devising disaster,
From which you cannot remove your necks;
Nor shall you walk haughtily,
For this is an evil time.

it is not the messianic time, but a foreshadowing of the exile to come: a prelude to the messiah.

Thus Thompson.

I suspect it is superfluous for me to point out the connection with the New Testament concept of messiah to most who read this blog.

We have in Saul a mighty king of Israel who fell out of favour with Yahweh. The anointed one (messiah/christ) of the New Testament is not said to have sinned as Saul did, but this latter messiah did nonetheless “become sin” for us:

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

As sin, Jesus, the messiah, was forsaken by God:

My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? (Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22:1)

I showed in a recent post that the messiah concept could certainly allow for a death of the beholder of that “title”, and not only a death, but a death that liberated one from unintentional sin.

But note also that the deaths of both the messiah Saul and the messiah Jesus are directly linked with the destruction of Jerusalem. Thompson points out (above) the metaphorical associations between the death of the anointed/messianic one, Saul, and the destruction of Jerusalem, even of all Israel. The destruction of Jerusalem is similarly tied to the crucifixion of Jesus in the three synoptic gospels:

Luke 19:41

41As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Matthew 23:37-39

37O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

38Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

39For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

Mark 13: 1-2

1And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!

2And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Dennis MacDonald also observes that in both the Homeric epic, Iliad, and the Gospels, the death of the hero (Hector, Jesus) is linked with the destruction of a city, Troy and Jerusalem.

I have barely touched the surface here of the biblical concept of the “messiah/anointed one”. This post represents just one small nugget that should rightfully be added to a gold mine.

I do not see any explicit reference to links between Saul’s and Jesus’ deaths. New Testament epistles inform us that the concept of messiah’s/christ’s death with atoning and salvific significance was understood many years before the Gospel narratives. The above passage from 2 Samuel informs us that the messiah is also such a one whose death is necessarily associated with the removal of protection from his nation, and his nation’s destruction. And that death, of course, must also be the consequence of sin.

What is easier to imagine?

  1. That a failed prophet’s criminal-style death be reinterpreted through scriptures over time in such a way as to persuade thousands of Jews and gentiles that such a figure (who happened to bear the personal name of “Saviour”) was to be worshiped alongside God himself as the creator of all and gateway to God?
  2. Or that a constellation of associations with the messianic concept be drawn from scriptures, and that these concepts at some later time be portrayed in an allegorical or parabolic narrative in a figure given the personal name of “Saviour Messiah”?

That choice might be a little confusing to one unacquainted with the philosophical currents of the time. But if they were to be informed of the Middle Platonic ethos that was mindful of a Logos through whom an ultimate Deity communicated with the world, and that even among Second Temple Jews themselves there were notions of an exalted deity being closely accompanied by a mediating angelic being that could well be related to Daniel’s Son of Man and a golden Messianic age . . . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “An Old Testament Messiah Struck Down by God”

  1. I personally don’t see how options (1) and (2) are mutually exclusive. It’s certainly possible that one of the hundreds of Jews (or even Samaritans) executed prior to the 1st Jewish-Roman war had a cult of personality that was imported to non-Jews or Greeks where he was almost immediately deified. It’s also possible that non-Jews or Greeks got ahold of the LXX, apocrypha, and Hellenistic-Jewish exegesis (like Philo) and it snowballed into [Catholic] Christianity wherein the fictional back story was given more meat as time went on.

    Considering that the culture of the religion that produced the New Testament was a culture of interpolation, redaction, and rewrites (hence the existence of Matt, Luke, gPeter, gHebrews, gMarkion, etc. instead of just Mark), I can see how option (2) might be more likely. But at the same time this means that the data that we have is corrupted many times over and I don’t think we can draw any hard and fast conclusions about things like the historicists assert.

    It does seem that a religion like Christianity was bound to happen at the nexus of Jewish and Greek thought though, regardless of a human figure behind the curtain.

    1. Do you know of any instances where a martyr of any race was deified in a way comparable to Jesus? In cases where we know people were deified, such as Roman emperors, what happens is of a quite different nature from the Christian claims.

      There is certainly much missing in the record, and there are many indications of redactions in the gospels and epistles. But at the same time I wonder if we take the evidence we have and study it for what it tells us about its authors and their world and interests (as opposed to gratuitously assuming their narrative content is itself historical), then maybe we have a lot more evidence for Christian origins than we ever realized. Much of the so-called missing evidence is only missing if we are looking for evidence of the historical reality of the Gospel-Acts narrative. Leave that aside and see what the evidence we do have tells us about its authors etc, and a different picture emerges that I think leaves no room for any historical Jesus.

  2. Why did Yahweh ultimately bring Saul down? Because he didn’t kill all the Amalakites. According to the text, of course, he only saved one of them (the king) but isn’t it more likely that he actually had some sort of moral epiphany and realized that murdering entire tribes to please Yahweh is insane? Perhaps the same sort of epiphany Jesus had when he reversed an eye for an eye into turn to the other cheek? If Jesus was a Messiah of Yahweh (an absurd idea in my view) then clearly he was crushed by Yahweh not as atonement for sin, but like Saul for having the audacity to question Yahweh’s immoral warmongering commands.

  3. What about the connection of the question “Is Saul among the prophets?” when Saul is singing and dancing and prophesying in the streets, to the Is Saul really a disciple? is Saul among the apostles? concept in the book of Acts.

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