Saul’s blame-shifting tactics are typical of abusers

When we consider the theme of non-apologies in the Bible, Saul’s blame-shifting tactics stand out. But one of the amazing things we see in his story is the difference between him and his son, Jonathan.

Jonathan is one of the most beautiful characters we get to meet in the stories of the lives of Saul and David. He is of special interest to us because he has an ethical code that seems quite untainted by his abusive environment. He was a decent human being. As we read his story, it’s not that Jonathan is never fooled by abusive tactics. He is.1 But what we do see is him being open to new data about his assumptions,2 testing his conclusions,3 and admitting when he’s wrong.4 That’s in stark contrast to King Saul, his father, whom we find preferring non-apologies and deception.

Jonathan can be a great role model for us as well as contribute to our understanding of the difference between sincere and non-apologies. It’s worth exploring his story.

It is interesting that David had a close friendship with this strong, ethical man, and commits his worst sins after Jonathan dies. It’s difficult to draw conclusions about what was behind David’s greatest sins. Another obvious change in David’s life was his coronation around the same time as Jonathan’s death, and David’s gross sins could have been more related to his power as king – power he abused. But I wonder if David would have avoided committing his crimes if he had retained Jonathan as a close friend, and perhaps mentor. When we first meet Jonathan, it’s as the perhaps very young leader of a thousand men in Saul’s army.5 Saul’s character is becoming clear, and it’s in this early phase of Jonathan’s story that God rejects Saul as king.

 

Saul’s blame-shifting tactics

When Saul was preparing for battle against the Philistines,6 we know he was supposed to wait for Samuel to turn up. And we know Saul was well aware of this requirement – not least because he used Samuel’s lateness as an excuse. The text tells us:

Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking with fear. He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul’s men began to scatter. So he said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.” And Saul offered up the burnt offering. Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him.

 

“What have you done?” asked Samuel.7

In what we come to find is quite typical behaviour for Saul, he turns things around to blame someone else. That is, he blame-shifts:

Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Mikmash, I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”8

Saul gives 3 reasons why he had no choice but to disobey:

  1. The men were scattering (not Saul’s fault),
  2. Samuel hadn’t arrived (not Saul’s fault), and
  3. The Philistines were assembling (not Saul’s fault)

On that basis, Saul said he felt compelled to make the offering. That is, in the face of these things that were not his fault he had no choice. Nothing is his fault. Saul’s blame-shifting tactics are typical of abusers and common in non-apologies.

Saul's blame-shifting tactics are typical of abusers and common in non-apologies. (1 Samuel 13:11-12) Click To Tweet

 

Saul’s denial

Saul said he needed to seek God’s favour. So on the surface, it might sound like actually, his intentions were good. That not only did he have no choice, but what he did wasn’t wrong anyway. How could seeking God’s favour possibly be wrong? And under such dire circumstances? But Samuel’s response cuts through – and it won’t be the last time we see Samuel refuse to buy into misdirection:

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

God had already made clear what he wanted, and what would gain his favour. It was waiting for Samuel, and that’s what Saul did not do.

 

Jonathan is so different from his abusive father

In contrast to Saul, we can see Jonathan’s strength of character. He inspires trust. Emerging out of the period of the Judges, which is so full of tales of abuse, and entering into the upcoming story of the lives of Saul and David and those around them, Jonathan seems free of taint. It’s as if his own sense of identity is deep enough that he is individuating, at perhaps a quite young age, from his manipulative, abusive father.

In a war against a terrifying enemy, while Saul and his troops were camping at Gibeah,9 Jonathan went up to the Philistine outpost. It’s interesting that he hid his behaviour from his father, and we don’t know what he was thinking. But if relating to Saul in this phase of his life is as complicated as we later see in Saul’s relationships with others, some avoidance of him would make sense. It is possible Jonathan had a sense of the right thing to do and didn’t want to be influenced away from it. Perhaps he had other motives. But his comment to his armour-bearer is in stark contrast with Saul’s earlier behaviour. Compared to Saul’s fear and lack of faith, Jonathan has courage and trust in God:

Jonathan said to his young armour-bearer,   “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”10

And just as Saul’s men matched his fear, Jonathan’s armour-bearer was on board with his courage:

“Do all that you have in mind,” his armour-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”11

 

Jonathan had ethical resilience

It seems clear from this passage that Jonathan expected God to communicate with him. This is so different from what we see in Saul.

Jonathan said, “Come on, then; we will cross over toward them and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.”

 

So both of them showed themselves to the Philistine outpost. “Look!” said the Philistines. “The Hebrews are crawling out of the holes they were hiding in.” The men of the outpost shouted to Jonathan and his armor-bearer, “Come up to us and we’ll teach you a lesson.”

 

So Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Climb up after me; the Lord has given them into the hand of Israel.”12

We know that Jonathan grew up with an abusive father. We don’t know enough about Jonathan’s journey to understand what gave him ethical resilience. Perhaps his relationship with God helped him to find different grounding points for his internal compass and identity. It can take a lot of work to quiet the dominating voice of an abuser. But we do see Jonathan refusing to buy into Saul’s narrative, and finding a different one.

Jonathan connected with God and those around him and cooperated with them. These things are not always easy tasks for an abuse victim to achieve, and whatever his pathway was, he did well.

 

Jonathan had conviction and humility

Jonathan makes a great example for us, and we will follow more of his story alongside Saul and David’s. We will see later he does get fooled by Saul at times – dangerously so. But here, early in his life, we can see the emerging contrast between Saul’s lies and misdirection and the way Jonathan inspires trust. Saul is well-practised in the arts of non-apologies and ducking responsibility for his behaviour. That’s in stark contrast to Jonathan’s pairing of clearly strong conviction with enough humility to check his facts and acknowledge when he was wrong. We will see more of that as his story unfolds.

Steve Wade

When we consider the theme of non-apologies in the Bible, Saul’s blame-shifting tactics stand out. But one of the amazing things we see in his story is the difference between him and his son, Jonathan. Click To Tweet
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Footnotes

  1. 1 Samuel 19:4-10; 20:2
  2. 1 Samuel 20:4
  3. 1 Samuel 20:12
  4. 1 Samuel 20:34-42
  5. 1 Samual 13:2
  6. 1 Samuel 13
  7. 1 Samuel 13:7-11
  8. 1 Samuel 13:11-12
  9. 1 Samuel 13:16
  10. 1 Samuel 14:6
  11. 1 Samuel 14:7
  12. 1 Samuel 14:8-10

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