Saul Searches for His Donkeys

1 Samuel 9-10

Despite the generous supply of geographical references surrounding the story of Saul searching for his father’s donkeys, the narrative has led to much confusion regarding exactly where Saul went. Most of the locations mentioned in the story, including Shalishah, Shaalim, Zuph, Zelzah, and Gibeah-elohim, have had multiple suggestions offered as the places intended. A careful study of the context of the story and other passages of Scripture, however, offers some helpful clues regarding what was likely the path taken by Saul. The story, which demonstrates God’s selection of Saul as king, opens with Saul’s father Kish sending Saul from their home in Gibeah to look for some lost donkeys. The first place Saul passes through is the hill country of Ephraim, suggesting that he headed northwest, since heading northeast would have required him to pass through a significant portion of Benjamin first, but this is not mentioned. It also notes that he passed through Shalishah, which must have been near the Gilgal of Elisha’s time (see 2 Kings 4:42 and the surrounding passage). Then Saul passes through Shaalim (meaning “foxes”), which must be identical with the land of Shual (meaning “fox”) near Ophrah (1 Samuel 13:17). Then he reaches the area of Zuph, which may have been near Bethel and Ramah, and Samuel is visiting a town nearby. Saul meets Samuel there, and Samuel anoints Saul to be Israel’s king. To confirm to Saul that he is indeed chosen by God to be Israel’s king, Samuel tells Saul that he will encounter two men near Rachel’s tomb at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin, and they will tell him that Saul’s donkeys have been found. This author has identified Khirbet al-‘Ashi as a good candidate for Zelzah, because it is appropriately located along the border of Benjamin, and it is probably the same as the town of Elasa in 1 Maccabees 9:5, which is a name that conceivably could have evolved from Zelzah. Then near the great tree at Tabor (an uncertain location) Saul will encounter three men on their way to Bethel who will offer him food. After this Saul will go to Gibeah-elohim, which is probably best understood as the High Place of Gibeah at an-Nebi Samwil, shown here, and not as the Gibeah where Saul lived, because later it is noted that the Philistines had an outpost at Gibeah-elohim (1 Samuel 10:5), and this would almost certainly not have been Saul’s hometown. Samuel then says that at Gibeah-elohim Saul will be enabled by the Spirit of God to prophesy. Then Saul is to go “down” to Gilgal (likely the one near the Jordan River) and wait for Samuel there. Saul then leaves Samuel, and all these things happen just as Samuel has foretold. After Saul prophesies at the High Place of Gibeah, Samuel assembles all the Israelites at Mizpah, and there they select the new king by lot, which singles out Saul as the new king. Then Saul returns to his home in Gibeah.

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