On page 355 of Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Meir Sternberg says the following about King Saul:
“‘Saul’—the traditional rendering goes—‘was a handsome [tov] young man. There was not a man among the children of Israel more handsome [tov] than he; from his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people’ (1 Sam 9:2). Not only does he enjoy royal appearance; he may well have the character to go with it. For the key epithet tov, translated in automatic fashion as ‘handsome,’ originally means ‘good’ and only by extention ‘good-looking.’ So the two readings of the character are prefigured in miniature by the two-faced epithet. Does Saul owe his election to his being the best of the best looking of the Israelites?…All the character traits [the narrative] brings out in episode after dramatic episode—modesty, self-restraint, inspired leadership in the war against Ammon—count heavily and unequivocally in Saul’s favor.”
People of faith have interpreted the character of Saul in different ways. Josephus and rabbinic literature say positive things about Saul. An evangelical friend of mine once hearkened back to the zeal that Saul had for God and for justice in his early years. Others, by contrast, have argued that the roots of Saul’s later downfall were actually in place during his early years. Sternberg praises Saul’s modesty, but there are religious interpreters who have mocked Saul’s hiding among the baggage when he was being selected as king, as if that foreshadowed his later fear of the people and sense of inadequacy, when he lighted the sacrifice before Samuel arrived and spared the animals and the king of Amalek. Then there was Saul’s rashness in barring Israelite soldiers from eating in the heat of battle, and Saul even went so far as to be willing to execute his own son, Jonathan, for eating honey. For many interpreters, that’s not a good example of leadership.
Interpreters who are negative about Saul also comment on Saul’s appearance. They argue that Saul may have looked good, but his heart was not right. When Samuel went to Jesse to anoint a replacement for Saul, Samuel was impressed by Eliab’s stature, but God told Samuel not to look at the outward appearance, for God looks at the heart.
In my opinion, it should be remembered that God chose Saul to be king. Does that mean that God saw something there that was positive? Or was God deliberately choosing someone who would fail, thereby preparing the stage for David, who was prophesied to be king years earlier, in Genesis 49. Many historical-critics may say that I shouldn’t jumble together sources—that there is a pro-Saul source, an anti-Saul source, and sources that emerged during or after the time of the Davidic monarchy, in order to legitimize it.