Was King Talut the biblical Saul or Gideon?

Between Gideon (1250 BC), a Judge and Saul (1450 BC), the first Israeli King, there is the span of about 200 years. The Qur’an narrates an event that occurred in the time of King Talut, popularly believed to be Saul, which the Bible recorded in the lifetime of Gideon. Based on that event, a new school of Islamic thought is of the view that Talut was not Saul but Gideon. Let us read to find out how this baffling historical and theological question is best resolved.

Referring to the Quran we read: “The sign of his (Talut) sovereignty is that there shall be brought back to you the Ark of the covenant (Al-Tabut) where-in is tranquility from your Lord and remnants of what the family of Moses and the family of Aaron left behind – the angels carrying it. Surely, in this is a sign for you if you are believers” (Quran 2:249).

Tabut, according to Arabic lexicons, means a box or chest for keeping documents. Metaphorically it also signifies the heart which is enclosed in our chest and ribs. Al- Tabut means the Ark of the Covenant. From the above verse it becomes clear that the unique and singular divine sign whose fulfillment shall serve to identify king Talut was the return of the Ark.

Why the identification of Talut should be associated with the return of a literal Ark and not with a metaphorical heart of tranquility?

The reason is that throughout history up till now God, the All Knowing has always used external (physical) signs and not internal or spiritual (metaphorical) signs for identifying personalities and times.

This should be so since internal signs are not easy to detect, besides the fact that they are mostly subjective of interpretations. For instance in our own age signs for identifying the second advent of Christ are preponderantly physical signs such as the occurrence of earthquakes, shooting stars, eclipses etc – all of which are palpably felt signs and not metaphorical signs.

The Ark of the Covenant was specially constructed under divine instructions given by God to the Prophet Moses (Exodus 25:10-40, 37:1-29).

It was symbolic of the covenant contracted between God and the Israelites, namely that they should worship only One God and obey all his commandments in exchange for security, protection and prosperity.

The chequered and undulating history of Israel is only an expression of this covenant. Under Moses and Joshua, when the Israelites stuck to the letter and spirit of the covenant, they were spectacularly victorious over their enemies as well as prosperous.

However, any time they deviated from the covenant God handed them over to their enemies who dominated and oppressed them. It may be remarked in passing that the Ark played decisive miraculous roles in granting them victories whenever the Israelites obeyed God.

The tranquility inherent in the Ark was therefore conditional subject to whether the Israelites obeyed God or not. Gideon (1250 BC) was raised as a judge to reform and save the Israelites from Midian domination. Their moral and spiritual conditions at that time warranted their keeping the Ark despite the fact that they had deviated from the covenant.

In the time of the Prophet Samuel the Israelites had sunk so low that they were deprived altogether of the custodianship of the Ark, which rather fell into Palestinian hands. Militarily, economically, morally and spiritually weak the return of the Ark to the Israelites was mission impossible. Only divine intervention could save the situation.

It was therefore amidst those difficulties and challenges when the Prophet Samuel, according to the Qur’an, issued the above prophecy about the return of the Ark in the era of the sovereignty of the King they demanded for.

In Palestinian hands the Ark rather worked havoc, since they were not the rightful owners. First, it destroyed their greatest idol, Dagon (1 Samuel 5:7). Secondly, wherever they sent the Ark people were afflicted with tumors in their private parts in addition to the occurrence of innumerable deaths from Ashdod to Goth to Ekron. Finally they had to send it all the way from Ekron to Bethshemesh in Israel on a cart pulled by two milch cows (1 Samuel 6: 7-21).

Apart from the two cows who pulled the cart on which was loaded the Ark, no human being led the procession. Apart from invisible angels guiding the animals on such a long journey which they had never undertaken, who else could have guided them?

According to Commentators remnants (Baqiiya) of what the families of Moses and Aaron left behind in the Ark refer to the rod of Moses and the turban of Aaron. In short history testifies to the fact that the Ark for the first time ever was returned into Israeli hands prior to the sovereignty of Saul.

Even if we are to go for the metaphorical interpretation of a heart full of tranquility then that description best befits Saul. From the Bible we read: “And it was so, that when he had turned his back (Samuel) to go from Saul God gave him another heart and all those signs came to pass that day” (1 Samuel 10:9). A new heart means a heart full of tranquility, courage and steadfastness that enabled him to defeat their enemies.

Yet another undisputed evidence that it was no other than Saul comes form Qur’an 2:247 where the Israelites demanded for a king to rule over them: “Hast there not heard of the chiefs of the children of Israel after Moses when they said to a Prophet of theirs; ‘Appoint for us a king that we may fight in the way of Allah”.

It is an undisputed fact that the Israelites for the first time ever demanded for a king in the time of the Prophet Samuel who appointed them Saul: (1 Samuel 8:4-6). Gideon was never appointed as a king but a judge. After his defeat of the Midianites when his people requested him and his sons to rule over them as king he turned down that offer. “And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you ” (Judges 8:22).

On the criteria for selecting Saul as King says Allah: “Surely, Allah has chosen him (Talut) above you and has bestowed upon him abundant increase in knowledge and in strength of body” (Qur’an 2:248). In other words God appointed him as King for being the most knowledgeable, well-built and strongest. Above all the word Talut comes from the Arabic word ‘Talla’ meaning to be tall.

Concerning his unique physical structure says the Bible: “And they ran and brought him there: and when he stood among the people he was higher than any of the people from his shoulders and above” (1 Samuel10:23, 2 Samuel 9:2). The above two criteria were never used in the selection of Gideon who was rather selected by an angel and not by a Prophet (Judges 6:12).

Having been appointed as King, Talut decided to wage war against his enemies. From the Qur’an we read: “Surely, Allah will try you with a river. So he who drinks there from is not of me; and he who tastes it not is assuredly of me, save him who takes only a handful of water with his hand” (Qur’an 2:250).

The Bible says that the trial of drinking a small quantity from the river occurred during the time of Gideon, so a point goes in favour of Gideon that he was the Talut. Let us move to the next evidence, namely what occurred after the troops had been selected and had crossed the river to fight.

From the Quran we read: “And when they issued forth to encounter Jalut (Goliath) they said, ‘Oh our Lord, pour forth steadfastness upon us and make us firm and help us against the disbelieving people” (Quran 2:251)

Jalut is not a descriptive name but the Arabic equivalent of Goliath, which is the real name of the Palestinian giant who challenged the Israelites for a duel. This encounter took place in the time of King Saul, so that point goes over to Saul.

In the next verse we read about the result of the encounter: “So they (Israelites) routed them by the command of Allah, and David slew Jalut, and Allah gave him sovereignty and wisdom” (Quran 2: 252).

The encounter between David and Goliath, in which the former slew the latter, occurred in the reign of Saul (1 Samuel 17:4). In effect from Quran 2:250-252 Saul crossed a river with his troops to fight Goliath. David then slew him. Herein lies the contradiction between the Quran and the Bible concerning the trial using the river.

The Bible says that the event occurred in the time of Gideon about 200 years before Saul. The Quran says that it occurred in the time of Talut, identified as Saul. But then the fact that the same Talut and his forces after crossing the river following the trial went ahead to fight Goliath in which David slew the latter, clearly reveals that Talut was no other Saul, even if we concede that point from the trial to Gideon. Despite the fact that Biblical and Quranic narrations do corroborate, there exists contradictions.

All the emminent Qur’an commentators including Raazi, Zamakhshari, Tabari, Ibn Kathir and Jalaalail etc share the view that Talut was no other than King Saul.

A distribution of the major signs and criteria stated in the Bible and the Qur’an give 83.3% to Saul and 17.7% to Gideon. So Saul is the Talut and not Gideon. Naree Takbir . Allahu Akbar!

 By Khalid Ahmad

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