I have seen “Gibeah of Saul” (aka Tell el-Ful) many times. Typically I spy it from the roof of Nebi Samwil, the mosque-and-synagogue marking the traditional tomb of the prophet Samuel, crowning a high peak of unknown ancient name and equally obscure biblical connection, from which the visitor can survey the environs of the Benjaminite plateau, vitally strategic ground anytime, but especially in the early centuries of Israel’s tenuous hold on the promised-but-not-entirely-delivered land.
Gibeah of Saul stands out not only because it so obviously dominates the landscape but also because of the strange, skeletal structure crowning its summit, the empty husk of a palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan but left incomplete due to the outbreak of the war of 1948.
At least, we think it’s Gibeah of Saul. Albright dug on the site before WW2 and found a square structure he took to be the corner tower of a four-sided fortress datable to the early Iron I era, which would likely make it Saul’s. Later Paul Lapp dug there and came up with about the same thing, though with not so much certainty. Others looking at the biblical text and sifting it a bit using the higher-critical methods du jour concluded Gibeah must be Geba, located on a hill topped by an arab village named Jaba‘. But generally folks think King Hussein got it right, not to mention Albright.
It’s a fixture of the landscape; everybody knows about it. The King of Jordan evidently still claimed his palace even after the Israeli’s took possession. The Israelis didn’t seem to want to aggravate the Jordanians, any further over it, so they haven’t done anything with it. The Palestinians don’t want to touch it either, so the site, with its spectral steel girders and concrete slabs looms over the ancient roadway connecting Jerusalem to the Benjaminite territory, known inelegantly today as “Highway 60” and offers it’s ghostly invitation to anyone with the time and interest to hike up there. Lots of folks do. I never had.
Yesterday I spent the day with a group of students and Professor Yigal Levin of Bar Ilan University visiting a series of sites generally in the region of Israel claimed by the ancient tribe of Benjamin. The intertwining theme was the story of Saul, the first divinely appointed king of Israel. I have always been drawn to the figure of Saul. My cartoon image of him as “the king who went bad” exploded upon reading not just the Bible, but also the classic treatments of his life by Fleming James and Adam Welch. Their portrayal of Saul as a real person and of Samuel as having his own limitations liberated Saul from the Sunday School flannel-graph of my imagination.
I was tempted to compare the incomplete, abortive kingship of Saul to this unfinished, abandoned palace of King Hussein. Both prompt, in different ways, the recollection of the NT verse “…this man began to build but was not able to finish.” Saul, for sure, had enormous potential that miscarried. We read that Saul sinned, but most of us can forgive his sin: mercy on an enemy! Most of us also can feel little sympathy for Samuel, who gives Saul mixed messages “…do whatever your hand finds to do, for Yahweh is with you” versus “…do nothing until I come to you at Gilgal.” Not wanting to engage the enemy without God’s blessing, and vexed that Samuel did not appear, Saul chose the risk of presumption in sacrifice to either going to battle without sacrificing, or sitting on his hands while his army fell apart. We take it on faith that Samuel knew what he was doing, but I sometimes sympathize with Saul and feel aggravated at Samuel. One of my students, having read the story in Hebrew, remarked “If I’d had Samuel as a mentor, I’d have fallen on my sword, too!” Others think Saul’s real problem was an insecurity complex or low self-esteem, which only illustrates how far down biblical interpretation has come since James and Welch! Karl Barth has perhaps the most provocative view, namely that Saul identified so deeply with Israel, and Israel with him, that he came to embody Israel’s abandonment of God in its craving for a king. Thus in Saul falling on his sword, we have a kind of reverse-image of Christ dying for the sins of the world, Saul embodying sin and death tragically, Jesus bearing sin and death redemptively. The fact is, the story of Saul, like life with its sins, missed opportunities and tragic identifications, is multi-layered. I like it that the Bible keeps all of that before us, even as it aligns against Saul and for Samuel…or does it?
But looking at King Hussein’s unfinished palace, I realized that the Hashemite monarch was nothing like Saul, except for being an extraordinarily gifted individual. King Hussein ruled for 47 years and died a natural death, surrounding by family and admirers. More effectively than any other Arab leader of his day, he enabled his nation to make the transition into the modern world without forgetting who they were and what they were about. From his near-miraculous survival of an assassination attempt when he was 15, when his grandfather was murdered, through his nearly half-a-century of rule, King Hussein built—and finished—much, fulfilled much of his potential, and managed to die at peace with all of his neighbors. Indeed, he made some decisions and undertook some actions that drew criticism, possibly legitimate. Still, who could not rule for half a century of very difficult times without making choices later found, by some, to be unwise or wrong? Overall, looking at the king’s unfinished palace, I found myself admiring the man and thinking that other than the palace, there was very little comparison between Saul and the Jordanian ruler. That palace might be about the only thing King Hussein didn’t finish.
Unlike Saul, who committed suicide after losing his last battle, King Hussein, dying of lymphatic cancer and urged to stay in England for more treatment, is said to have protested, “But I need very much to feel the warmth of my people around me, there is work to be done and I will get the strength from my people to finish the business.” It is said that well over 2 million people greeted the dying king on his arrival back home. No falling on his own sword in failure, Hussein faced his own death the way we hope a king always will: with grace, courage and embracing his people.
Saul’s headless body hung in shame on the wall of Beth Shean for days. King Hussein’s funeral was attended by almost a million Jordanians.
So…I’m happy to leave Tel el Ful in the hands, and in the memory, of the late King of Jordan. I hope I can always climb up there, stand among the girders and slabs, gaze across the landscape, take the measure of kingship and of manhood, and feel the breeze of history…and destiny.