Research Associate Peter King suggests that we might look at King Saul in a new light, finding new insights in his story for preaching and pastoral care.
What comes to mind when you hear the story of King Saul ?
For some commentators, Saul’s life is marked by an enduring trust in himself rather than in God, and stands as a stark contrast to that of his successor David. For one writer: “Saul was not a great king, nor was he even a good man” (Bible Project). For others, however, Saul is more appropriately characterised as a tragic figure. David Gunn quotes Scottish minister Adam Welch, who described Saul as “a man wrestling with fate and with the dark powers which hem in every man’s destiny, which limit him at every point in his effort to reach the thing he has set before him” (David Gunn, The Fate of King Saul, JSOT Press 1989, p. 19)
One recent book has sought to present Saul in yet another light. In his book The Bible & Moral Injury (Abingdon, 2020), Brad E Kelle suggests that Saul might be understood as suffering from what is referred to as “moral injury”.
Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.Moral injury project
Arising from a military context, but with much wider application, the term moral injury has most recently been used to describe the situation faced by many healthcare workers during the Covid 19 pandemic:
Health-care workers continue to work in contexts of moral conflict where witnessing or being forced to participate in [patient] dehumanisation have become unavoidable, and it’s taking a toll.Washington Post
Or, as it is put in a recent novel (albeit not actually setting out to describe the term), moral injury describes a situation where one is no longer “living in a place that mirrors your internal reality” (Jean McNeil, Day for Night, ECW Press, 2021)
It seems to me that Kelle’s suggestion is helpful for those preaching and teaching on Saul for two reasons. Firstly, it sheds new light on the story of Saul, and what it means for him to be seen as a tragic figure. Secondly, viewing Saul in the light of what we now know as moral injury helps us to understand those in our churches and communities who may also be morally injured.
Kelle identifies a fundamental ambiguity in the story of Saul as to whether it is right that Israel have a king, and he sees this as at the root of Saul’s moral injury. For in Samuel’s speech in Chapter 12
Saul now learns that by his very act of being king he has, even if unwittingly, violated part of his own moral character and identity as part of Yhwh’s covenant people and served as the means for the community to do so as well.”(Kelle, p. 50 / 22 % Kindle)
And so throughout Saul’s life he experiences what seem to be mixed messages from God:
All in all, Saul betrayed the trust place in him by Yhwh and the prophet; yet he also experienced a sense of the betrayal of trust by his prophetic and divine authorities, as they issued ambiguous commands, prejudged his guilt regardless of his motives, and interpreted his actions in the most uncharitable ways possible.(Kelle, p. 54 / 23 % Kindle)
It may be that preaching more empathetically on Saul, in light of what we now know of moral injury, might help us to look more charitably on this Old Testament character and better understand how he might be seen as a tragic figure.
It may also be that looking at Saul in this way might enable those in our congregations whose experiences of God and the world are similarly ambiguous to articulate their own experience. There will be those whose faith in God has been betrayed by clergy abuse or challenged by Biblical violence, and the story of Saul is a way into their stories, demonstrating that even Biblical characters experienced similar feelings, and helping them to put their experience into words.
And it isn’t just the story of Saul which can serve as a way into an exploration of moral injury. Many of the psalms reflect a similar ambiguity about God and the world and a sense that the world is no longer the reliable, consistent place their writers were brought up to believe that it was.
We live in a world where God is frequently hidden, and often appears absent. Yet it is a world where, we are taught, Jesus is Lord. It is in the gulf between those two realities that we experience moral injury. But we are not the first, for even in the Bible itself we read of those who were similarly perplexed and confused, and it is through reflecting on their lives and words that we can begin to articulate and address our own experience. Aa Kelle concludes:
Biblical stories like that of King Saul can provide models and language to help morally injured persons name their experiences, tell their stories, and gain honest insight into the effects that come from them.(Kelle, p. 64 / 27 % Kindle)