Saul and the Restoration of Israel

In the Old Testament, Israel becomes divided long before the United Monarchy splits. At the end of Judges (chs. 19-21), a Levite takes a Judahite concubine and spends the night with her in Gibeah, a city which belonged to Benjamin. In a horrifying echo of Sodom and Gomorrah, the men of Benjamin come to rape the Levite, but he gives them his concubine instead. The Levite, who either kills her or finds her dead the next morning, cuts her up into twelve pieces and sends them throughout the land, presumably one piece to each tribe.

After the tribes assemble to decide what to do, they inquire of the LORD at Bethel, and he tells them to go up against Benjamin. Twice they ask, twice God tells them to go into battle against their brothers, and he also makes clear that Judah should be the tribe that leads the charge (20:18). When they ask a third time (reminiscent of Gideon’s obstinacy), God tells them that he has given Benjamin into their hand (Judges 20:28). This phrase, plus the fact that “the whole city [of Gibeah] went up in smoke into heaven” (v. 40), clues readers in on the fact that God has put the ban (herem) on Benjamin. While the Conquest began with a ban on Jericho (Joshua 6), it appears here to be ending with Judah putting the ban on Benjamin.

Of course, in chapter 21, Israel fails at the task given to them and goes back on their oath to refuse marriage of their women to Benjaminite men. As they failed at Ai and elsewhere in Joshua and Judges, so they fail here at the end of the Conquest narrative. The book ends with Israel fractured – seen especially in the division between Judah and Benjamin – and disobedient, because “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

The problem persists in 1 Samuel. A Benjaminite, Saul, is appointed as Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 9), because the people want “a king like the nations” (1 Sam. 8:19-20). Saul is by any account a miserable failure; he’s a bad shepherd, priest, prophet, and king. God revokes his kingship in 1 Samuel 15 and instead appoints his own king, David, son of Jesse, from the tribe of Judah. The rest of 1 Samuel consists of another war between Benjamin and Judah, this time with the Benjaminite, Saul, attempting to place the ban on the Judahite, David.

Israel is saved from this conflict in 2 Samuel, when David ascends to the throne over all Israel. Via his coronation by all Israel, whom he calls “his bone and flesh,” David the Judahite heals the division between Judah and Benjamin. His repeated acts of kindness to Saul’s Benjaminite family, seen most strikingly in his treatment of Mephibosheth, only serve to heighten the author’s pointed statement that it is through this king of Judah that Israel has become one nation again.

After David’s and his son Solomon’s death, though, Israel is once again divided. The Southern Kingdom is at odds with the Northern Kingdom. Judah is once again at war with Benjamin and his brothers. This time, the wound remains open. Israel is never again formally or fully one people. They functionally and spiritually remain in exile, lacking a king, a Temple, a land, a rest, and a unified nation.

It is in this context of longing for return from exile that Jesus enters as Israel’s Messiah. YHWH himself comes via the incarnation of God the Son to heal Israel. Jesus calls twelve disciples, reorients Israel’s feasts around himself, and claims authority over Israel’s institutions and places. In this broad sense, Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, heals Israel. The Davidic King has once again and finally restored the tribes of Jacob.

But the NT authors knew the history of Israel, and Luke specifically does not leave the restoration of Israel to that broad sense. In the book of Acts, Luke wants to communicate that Jesus came, died, rose, and sent his Spirit to heal Israel and thereby heal the world. The culmination of Israel’s healing comes in Saul’s conversion (Acts 9).

Saul is a leader of his Jewish people. Saul is a Benjaminite. Saul persecutes the son of David and his people. Saul wants to enact the ban on the Lion of Judah and his followers. Saul the Benjaminite is once again at war with the son of David, the Judahite.

On the Damascus Road, Judah and Benjamin meet one last time. Given the history of Israel, and given Saul’s own actions to this point, we might expect here for the Judahite king to enact the ban on Saul the Benjaminite. We might expect, in other words, for Jesus, the Lion of Judah, to destroy the Benjaminite who is tormenting true Israel. We might expect for the blinding light to consume Saul and send him up like smoke to heaven. Instead, righteousness and peace, as ever, kiss one another in the Messiah. Jesus, the Davidic king of Judah, conquers Saul the Benjaminite not through physical destruction but through spiritual conversion. Judah and Benjamin are now at peace, as Saul serves the Son of David. Now, because Israel is restored, the gospel can go forth to the Gentiles – which is the story the remainder of Acts tells.

The Damascus Road is a beautiful personal conversion story, to be sure. But it is on a larger scale the conversion and restoration of Israel, as Saul finally bows to David, and as  Benjamin and Judah finally are restored to one another.