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SECTION 2. The Rise and Fall of Saul. Saul Having Been Anointed As King, The Reasons For His Downfall Are Now Described, Along With His First Major Defeat Of The Philistines And His Defeat Of The Amalekites. This Is Accompanied By A Brief Reference To His Wider Successes (13.1-15.35).
This section opens and close with examples of how as Saul becomes established he becomes lax in respect of his obedience towards YHWH, resulting first in the loss of his dynasty (13.1-18), and then in the loss of his kingship (15.1-35). In between these two incidents are a record of his victories (13.19-14.23a; 14.47-52) and indications of Saul’s increasing spiritual failure. We can analyse this section as follows:
This chapter begins with the regular statement concerning the age of the king on his accession, and the length of time that he reigned, which will become a pattern on through Samuel and Kings (compare for example 2 Samuel 5.4; 1 Kings 14.21; etc) although in Kings in a more formal way, including the name of the queen mother. It thus indicates the commencement of a new section of Samuel. This section will the go on to deal with a number of aspects of Saul’s reign, and will especially emphasise the basic reason for the failure of his kingship. It would, however, be a mistake to see what follows as being ‘a history of Saul’. The writer is in fact not really interested in Saul’s achievements accomplished during the first part of his reign (which he briefly summarises in 14.47-52), but rather in his subsequent downward fall following on from those achievements. This occurs in two stages:
Chapters 13-14 in fact bring out that he has separated himself from Samuel’s prophetic influence in a number of ways:
He is thus depicted as having failed to fulfil the exhortations made by Samuel in 12.20-25, compare 13.13, and as a result, as being unworthy of kingship. We must, however, question very strongly whether we are intended to see these incidents as occurring immediately following Saul’s accession, even though at first sight it might appear so simply because of the cursory way in which Saul’s early achievements are dealt with. Those achievements are dealt with in 14.47 and suggest that his reign commenced well, with Saul being victorious over many of Israel’s enemies (14.47). It is however, clear from 13.19-23 that the one enemy that he was finding it difficult to cope with was the Philistines, for it appears that during the early part of his reign they had occupied the Israelite lowlands and had even placed garrisons in the hill country (13.3), with the result that they were able to keep a good part of Israel in subservience. That being so chapter 13 would appear to be describing events which occurred some years into his reign when he considered that the time had come to make a bid for freedom. Prior to that it would seem that he had simply been conducting a rearguard action in order to prevent their further advancement.
The Timing Of Chapters 13-14.
The fact that Jonathan, Saul’s son, is of an age to take control of a military unit in 13.2 is one indication that what is being described in detail in these chapters did not take place at the commencement of Saul’s reign. Had it been so it would mean that Saul was around forty when he met Samuel and was anointed (to allow for him having a son aged over twenty, the age of military call-up), and thus nearly eighty when he died (Acts 13.21 confirms that he reigned about forty years). Neither age fits in with the picture that we have in chapters 9-10 and 31. That being so the main purpose of chapter 13 is seemingly in order to indicate when Saul took his first major step downwards as a result of failing strictly to fulfil YHWH’s requirements, simply because he had by then become too filled with a sense of his own importance. This is confirmed, as we have seen, by the fact that there must have been quite a period preceding these events during which he had tried and failed to succeed against the Philistine threat, for it is clear that some parts of Israel were at this time so subject to Philistine oppression that it resulted in their not being allowed to have their own smiths in order to fashion and sharpen their own tools (13.19-23). It is unlikely that this latter period refers to the time of Samuel’s judgeship because we have already been informed that the Philistines came no more within the borders of Israel during that period (7.13), and we have no real reason to doubt the truth of that statement. The writer would hardly have included that statement and then have contradicted it. Thus it points to the fact that what is described in 13.19-23 refers to the situation applying during the early part of Saul’s reign, with the consequence that the main part of chapter 13 comes some years into Saul’s reign. This is also confirmed by what we know of the length of Saul’s reign.
So for example:
Reigning for ‘two years’ would on the same basis suggest that he did not reach the ‘third age’, which would probably be 60 (Leviticus 27.3). This practise of thinking of three ‘ages’ for man continued throughout the ages so that even in the last century anthropologists cite the case (among others) of an old man in Malacca who when asked his age proudly stated that he was ‘three years old’. What he meant was that he was in the third stage of life.
The reason why the writer used this ancient method of representing age was no doubt because in Saul’s rustic court there was no recorder. Thus no records were available from which to obtain accurate figures and he did not want to invent them. But he did know sufficient to be able to indicate the general situation.
5). The dealings with the Philistines in chapters 13-14 occur after a considerable period of subservience to the Philistines (13.19-23). As Samuel’s period of Judgeship kept the Philistines out of Israel (7.13) we must almost certainly see this as having occurred in the first few years of Saul’s reign.
6). The general impression that we have is that Saul’s reign started off well. And this ties in with the further impression given of his success in 14.47-48. There we have the picture of someone who is successful. It seems very unlikely therefore that his reign should have come to grief as early as chapters 13-14 would suggest if we date them at the commencement of his reign. The placing of chapters 13-14 seems rather to put what he did in deliberate contrast to the original promise that he showed earlier, in order to emphasise that in the end he did not continue to follow out what Samuel had said in 12.20-25. The writer is not interested in Saul’s life per se. What he concentrates on is why he proved to be such a failure, and his later attempts to destroy the one who would become Israel’s ‘ideal king’.
There is in the text no indication as to when the events in chapter 13 took place, although there is certainly a gap between 13.2 and 13.3, for in 13.2 the ‘host of Israel’ is sent home, leaving Saul with his standing ‘army’. And in 13.3 the ‘host of Israel’ are called together again. This requires a good gap in between.
But as we have already seen it is clear that this latter followed a period of severe Philistine oppression (13.19-23). This would confirm that the calling out of the host of Israel in verse 3 occurred some time into Saul’s reign. It is indeed quite possible that the writer had no specific information available to him about the first few years of Saul’s reign, for Saul’s court was primitive with the result that there was no court recorder, and he would constantly have been involved in fighting, possibly in the case of the Philistines even in guerilla warfare. Nor was Samuel closely involved in it all, for the people were now in process of learning what was involved in trusting in a king rather than in YHWH, although he would presumably become involved when the host of Israel were called together and YHWH’s instructions had to be obtained (10.8, 17; 11.14; 13.8).
The Philistine oppression (coming from the west) would probably not have affected the tribes in Transjordan or the northernmost tribes, although in the latter case it possible that it did so to some degree, because there is no doubt that the Philistine tentacles did reach far and wide. But the main tribes affected would be those in the centre and south who were directly vulnerable to the Philistines because of where the major Philistine cities were situated.
We must continually remember as we read it that the book of Samuel was not strictly intended to be a history of Israel. It was intended to be a description of God’s special dealings with Israel, which was to lead from the special birth of Samuel to David’s glorious reign, a period which is depicted as being spoiled, and almost wrecked, by the introduction of Saul. Thus the writer, while briefly mentioning it, was not interested in going into the details of his reign (indeed he may not have had any history of Saul’s early reign to go on), and, while he therefore did put in a brief note of commendation (14.47-48), his real interest was not in Saul as such. His view may well have been that Saul was actually a blot on the page before the arrival of David, someone only worthy of notice because he failed as king and proved Samuel to be right, and because of his insane opposition to David. That he had to some extent forfeited his right to expect the assistance of the Spirit of YHWH even before his flagrant disobedience comes out in the Philistines had been able to previously occupy the land, something that they had been unable to do under Samuel. This would explain why, at the time at which the description in chapter 13 opened, he was conducting a rearguard action against the Philistines using a small guerilla force.
Furthermore it seems unlikely that the Saul depicted in chapters 10-11 would, within such a comparatively short time, have taken to himself the prerogative of acting as a king-priest, or even have acted against Samuel. These incidents would rather suggest a time when he had begun to be more aware of his own status, and to feel that he had a right to act independently in his own right because of who he was. Such an act from someone of his timidity (10.22) fits far better into the middle of his reign when he had grown to maturity, than into its commencement.
Note that in ‘a’ Saul’s ‘army’ is spread in three places in the heights, and in the parallel the Philistine spoilers go out to three places to obtain spoil. In ‘b’ Jonathan captures Geba, and the call goes out to the tribes, and in the parallel Saul and Jonathans abide in Geba. In ‘c’ the Philistines are numbered and are a powerful force, and in the parallel Saul’s small army is numbered. In ‘d’ Saul comes to Gilgal and because Samuel does not arrive ‘to time’ disobediently offers the burnt offering, and in the parallel Samuel leaves Gilgal and Saul. In ‘e’ Samuel asks Saul what he has done, and in the parallel announces YHWH’s verdict on his action. Centrally in ‘f’ Saul with many excuses admits his disobedience.
Chronological Details Of Saul’s Reign (13.1).
13.1 ‘Saul was one year old when he began to reign, he reigned two years over Israel.’
There can be no real doubt that the above is how the Hebrew should be translated, for all other suggestions are bad Hebrew and are with a view to avoiding the obvious difficulty of the verse. And furthermore it is consistent with the later pattern used for introducing the reigns of Israel’s kings. But if we take into account the ancient use of numbers it actually presents us with no difficulty at all. It would appear that the original source did not have any reliable information about Saul’s statistics and thus used a convention which all would have recognised at the time. Life was regularly seen as being in three stages, initially the growth to maturity which was stage one, then the period of maturity which was stage two, and finally the period of old age which was stage three, and this was especially so when no note was being kept by a recorder of the passage of time. In the first period a person would be described as being ‘one year old’. In the second period he would be described as being ‘two years old’. In the third period he would be described as being ‘three years old’. This may seem strange to us but many examples of this very practise have been discovered by anthropologists among primitive tribes today (as witness the case of the Malaccan above). Thus here the writer is simply saying that Saul was not yet twenty (see Leviticus 27.3) when he began to reign, and that he reigned into middle age but did not reach either sixty (Leviticus 27.3) or possibly fifty (Numbers 4.3ff). Twenty years old was the age at which a man in Israel became of age to be drafted into the army. Alternatives may be that maturity commenced at twenty five (Numbers 8.24-26) or even thirty (Numbers 4.3 ff).
But what was important to the writer was that he indicate that he died before he reached ‘the third age’ because that demonstrated that God had cut short his life prematurely, thus demonstrating His displeasure.
Preparation For Revolt Against The Philistines (13.2-6).
The general summary nature of these verses is indicated by the fact that at the end of verse 2 Saul disbands the army, retaining only his own special fighting force, while in verse 3 he summons all Israel together again. In the light of 13.19-23 this in itself suggests that verse 2 points to a period of general guerilla warfare in which Saul and his small army probed at the Philistines while Israel as a whole was not called on to fight in what was seen as a hopeless cause. This would point to the fact that at some stage the Philistines had established themselves firmly in the parts of Israel that bordered on their own territory and probably even wider afield, even penetrating with their garrisons into the hills. It meant that the Israelites were now discovering what life without YHWH as their King meant.
13.2 ‘Saul chose for himself three military units of men of Israel, of which two units were with Saul in Michmash and in the mount of Beth-el, and one unit were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin, and the remainder of the people he sent every man to his tent.’
The phrase ‘sent every man to his tent’ usually means that they were sent home, being based on a technical phrase which had first been established when all did live in tents (compare 4.10; Judges 7.8). This would seem therefore to indicate that from the beginning of his reign Saul regularly operated only with his standing army, having sent the main body of the people home, or it may alternatively suggest that at some stage he and the army of Israel had suffered such a heavy defeat by the Philistines, that the result was that all the people had been sent home apart from this small guerilla force. Whichever way it was the host could not be kept together over an indefinite period for they had to be fed, (they could not pillage their own people), and there were also fields to be looked after and vineyards and oliveyards to be tended at home. These three military units were then probably stationed outside Philistine held territory in the hills in order to prevent further Philistine advance, and await an opportunity for retaliation. (The Philistines did not like fighting in the mountains where their chariots were useless, and the Israelites were ‘at home’).
Now, however, it appears that they had been brought to Michmash, the mount of Bethel and Gibeah (Saul’s home town) ready at last for an attack on the Philistine occupiers which would act as the beginning of a new campaign for freedom. No doubt one unit was stationed in each of the vantage points, one on the heights of Michmash, one on the Mount of Bethel and one on the heights at Gibeah.
So we may see here the writer as initially indicating very briefly the general situation with regard to Saul’s forces, a situation which had gone on over a lengthy period, that the host of Israel remained at home while Saul and his three units held back further expansion. It is, however, describing it in terms of the situation when the actions that followed took place, at which point his son Jonathan had come to maturity and had been given command of a unit. Michmash and the mount of Bethel (between Bethel and Michmash) were two high points where the small guerilla army could be safely garrisoned and remain relatively hidden, while Gibeah itself mean ‘high place’ and was clearly similar.
We note the advent of Jo-nathan (gift of YHWH). This would help to confirm that a good number of years had passed since Saul became king. That Jonathan was a good man is clearly revealed by his behaviour towards David, but what is also made clear in the narrative that follows is that he was a man of faith and a mighty warrior.
Saul’s First Major Transgression (13.3-14).
In this passage we learn of Saul’s first major transgression against YHWH. While theoretically it could have happened at the beginning of his reign, it seems far more likely that it is describing the situation some years on when he had grown in self-esteem to such an extent that he was not too punctilious about his dealings with YHWH and His prophet. As we have seen already, most facts do seem to point to the majority of chapter 13 occurring well into Saul’s reign.
Initial Action Against The Philistines (13.3-6).
13.3 ‘And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines which was in Geba: and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.” ’
At the time of this verse there was clearly a Philistine garrison stationed at Geba, which was a high point on the opposite side of a steep ravine from Michmash. Saul may well have been at Michmash precisely in order to keep it under observation because of the intended attack (or vice versa). Then, no doubt following a fixed plan which he had agreed with his father, while the smallish Philistine garrison were watching Saul on Michmash, Jonathan brought his own unit from Gibeah and attacked and destroyed the unsuspecting Philistine garrison on the height of Geba. This was clearly intended to be a first strike in a bid for freedom from occupation. The aim of destroying the outpost may well have been in order to delay any information getting back to the Philistines when the Israelites started to mobilise. Alternatively it might simply have been Saul’s plan to have a small success that he could present to the people, a success which would also put pressure on his fellow-tribesmen as they recognised that the die had now been cast. However that may be, it was inevitable that at some point it would reach the ears of the Philistine rulers, so meanwhile Saul had taken the next step of ‘blowing the ram’s horn throughout the land’ (compare Judges 3.27), with heralds going out in order to mobilise all the tribes of Israel far and wide in accordance with their treaty obligations.
‘Let the Hebrews hear.’ ‘Hebrews’ was a description of Israel usually used by foreigners, so we must ask ourselves why we find it on the lips of Saul. The probable answer is that it was Saul’s sarcastic repetition of dismissive taunts of the Philistines about the cowardly ‘Hebrews’ who would not want to hear (compare 14.11). He is simply saying, ‘Well, let us show them that we are not ‘cowardly Hebrews’. ‘The Hebrews’ would then prove otherwise by responding. Or it is possible, but less likely, that ‘let the Hebrews hear’ is a call to groups of Habiru mercenaries who had been hired in readiness for the occasion (compare 14.21 where the Philistines had such mercenaries) and had been spread throughout Israel. ‘Habiru’ regularly refers to any group of stateless and landless people, which may have been why Israelites were seen as ‘Hebrews’ by outsiders. This explanation would help to explain verse 7 but might be seen as failing to take into account ‘all Israel’ in verse 4 which seems to result from this call. If ‘let the Hebrews hear’ referred to other than the tribes we might then expect it to say ‘let the Hebrews hear as well’. However, ancient Hebrew was not always precise so that it is possible that we were intended to read that in.
13.4 ‘And all Israel heard it said that Saul had smitten the garrison of the Philistines, and also that Israel were had in abomination with the Philistines. And the people were gathered together after Saul to Gilgal.’
The news that Saul had smitten the garrison of the Philistines, and had thus guaranteed retaliation by them, accompanied the summons, and the people therefore gathered together with Saul at Gilgal, knowing that ‘Israel were had in abomination by the Philistines’. They knew that repercussions would undoubtedly follow, so that all would know that it was better to get their strike in first. The fact that Saul and his units then moved to Gilgal supports the idea that his being in Michmash, in the mount of Bethel and in Gibeah has only been a temporary expedient. If this Gilgal was the Gilgal in the Jordan valley it was beyond the line of the usual Philistine activity and therefore ‘safe’, at least for the time being. The Philistines did not like fighting in the hill country where their chariots and horsemen were useless. The gathering at Gilgal was in order to engage in seven days of freewill offerings which would act as a plea for help, prior to Samuel’s appearance in order to make a final burnt offering and give final instructions from YHWH, in accordance with the normal procedure when the tribes were called together that he had arranged with Saul (10.8).
13.5 ‘And the Philistines assembled themselves together to fight with Israel, thirty units of chariots, and six units of horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude, and they came up, and encamped in Michmash, eastward of Beth-aven.’
Meanwhile the Philistines gathered their forces. The Israelite scouts reported that they had thirty units of chariots (these units would be a great deal smaller numerically than the units of horsemen, possibly even as low as three chariots per unit), six large units of horsemen, and so many infantry that they could not easily be assessed. These came and encamped in Michmash, east of Bethaven. Bethaven was near Bethel and Ai, thus the Philistines may have been watching the pass that led up from Jericho and Gilgal through which the Israelite army would have to come. Note that the Hebrew word for ‘thousands’ had also come to mean ‘military units’. (It could also be used of ‘clans’ and ‘wider families’).
13.6 ‘When the men of Israel saw that they were in a fix (for the people were distressed), then the people hid themselves in caves, and in thickets, and in rocks, and in holds and in pits.’
When the men of Israel saw the problem that this gave them, (they either could not now use the pass, or had tried and failed), they were filled with distress, and feared the worst, so they dispersed themselves in hiding places in the mountains by Gilgal, probably because they recognised that they were trapped and if they stayed together the Philistines could stream down on them at any time and take them by surprise, while in the mountains it would be a different story.
Saul Offends YHWH (13.7-14).
It would appear from what follows that the offering of sacrifices at Gilgal for seven days, followed by a special offerings made by Samuel on the seventh day, was seen as necessary whenever the tribal muster came together, in order that they might receive instructions from YHWH as their Divine War-Leader. This was in accordance with the practise laid down by Samuel in 10.8. Thus it was necessary to wait at Gilgal, with the host partly in hiding, until Samuel arrived to perform the necessary sacrifices. This would suggest that there was still no official High Priest to do the honours, and that ordinary priests were simply not seen as sufficient. Verse 8 must not be seen as simply a fulfilment of 10.8. It is far too disconnected from it for that, (a gathering at Michmash, a time spent by Saul on his farm, a foray against the Ammonites, and a time at Gilgal), especially as there had been visits to Gilgal in between.
13.7 ‘Now (the) Hebrews had gone over the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead, but as for Saul, he was yet in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.’
This reference to the dispersal of ‘the Hebrews’ would fit in with the idea that it has in mind Habiru mercenaries who had retreated to safety across the Jordan to Gad and Gilead, leaving the people in general with Saul, while they on their part awaited the call to return. On the other hand ‘all the people’ may simply indicate ‘all those who were still with him’, and the definite article on ‘the Hebrews’ may be intended to be redundant so that we read simply as ‘Hebrews’ (the definite article in Hebrew often simply means ‘the ones we are talking about’ and nothing more). Thus it may simply be indicating that some of the Transjordanian tribes slipped back home, while the remainder remained at Gilgal in a sad state of funk (hidden among the rocks). The main importance of the statement, however, is that Saul and his levy had remained in Gilgal with the bravest of the people, even though many of them were in a blue funk.
13.8 ‘And he waited seven days, according to the set time that Samuel expected, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattered from him.’
Comparison with 10.8 suggests that whenever Saul came to Gilgal in order to prepare ritually for what YHWH might want him to do, seven days of sacrifices offered by ordinary priests were seen as essential preparation before the final burnt offering and peace offerings that Samuel would offer as substitute High Priest which would enable him then to show Saul what YHWH wanted him to do. (It is not likely that Saul and the people would be expected to wait at the Sanctuary for seven days and not offer sacrifices. They would be an expression of confidence in YHWH). However, when the seventh day came Samuel had not arrived at the time when Saul was expecting him, and meanwhile many of the people were slipping away, or were scattering in the hills in hiding. This was causing Saul to panic.
‘The set time that Samuel expected/had fixed as a regular practise.’ In the Hebrew there is no verb and we thus have to read in what we consider that the writer is trying to say.
13.9 ‘And Saul said, “Bring here the burnt-offering to me, and the peace-offerings.” And he offered the burnt-offering.’
So when Samuel did not arrive at what he saw as the expected time the impatient Saul felt that he could wait no longer, and ordered that the burnt offering and peace offerings should be brought. ‘And he offered the burnt offering.’ This may mean that he called on the ordinary priests to offer it, and that his sin was in not waiting on YHWH’s timing. Alternately, many consider that it indicates that he himself offered it in the guise of a king-priest. Most local kings were king-priests, and the idea then is that he went beyond his station because he saw himself as ‘a king like all the nations’. Either way he was committing a gross sin, for the whole point of Israel’s unique relationship with YHWH was that they took their orders from Him.
13.10 ‘And it came about that, as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt-offering, behold, Samuel came, and Saul went out to meet him, so that he might salute him.’
But the impatient Saul had acted too soon, for as soon as the offering of the burnt-offering had been finalised, Samuel arrived in time to fulfil his duty. And Saul went out to greet him so as to welcome him. It appears that he did not feel that what he had done was really so bad after all, which demonstrated how much he was spiritually lacking. He saw what he had done as a military necessity, not as disobedience to his Commander-in-Chief, simply because his trust was in the big battalions rather than in YHWH. What he should have recognised of course was that YHWH could save by many or by few, so that what was important was keeping YHWH on side.
13.11-12 ‘And Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the fixed amount of days, and that the Philistines assembled themselves together at Michmash, therefore I said, “Now will the Philistines come down on me to Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favour of YHWH’ I forced myself therefore, and offered the burnt-offering.” ’
But Samuel was aghast. To him what Saul had done indicated a total lack of faith in YHWH. It was rebellion of the highest order. ‘What have you done?’ he cried. This may have been because he saw Saul as having broken the levitical law concerning the limiting of the offering of sacrifices to the Aaronic priesthood, or because he saw him as not having waited for YHWH’s instructions, and thus as having interfered in the process laid down by YHWH by which Samuel received his guidance and direction from God and ensured YHWH’s blessing. Either way it was disobedience and sacrilege.
Saul replied that he had done what he did because:
Thus he had forced himself to offer the burnt offering. What he had failed to see was that it was more important to obey YHWH than to offer a burnt offering in disobedience. Doing the latter was not the way to obtain the favour of YHWH.
13.13 ‘And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of YHWH your God, which he commanded you. For now would YHWH have established your kingship on Israel for ever.” ’
Samuel now told him that he had behaved very foolishly, because he had not kept the word that YHWH his God had commanded him. If only he had done so, and had demonstrated his faith in YHWH and had continued to be faithful, YHWH would have established his dynasty for ever. His descendants after him would have been kings over Israel.
Note that Samuel speaks of ‘YHWH your God’. He wants Saul to recognise his own direct responsibility to YHWH.
(If we consider this to be a little unfair we should note that in fact Saul’s dynasty did partly continue, but failed because it was no match for David. That is why Judah initially chose David as their king. It is probable that Ishbosheth’s (Abner’s) aim was to force Judah to rejoin Israel, but even with a larger ‘host’ it did not prove strong enough to cope with David’s military ability. The writer knew why. It was because David was possessed by the Spirit of YHWH).
13.14 “But now your kingship will not continue. YHWH has sought for himself a man after his own heart, and YHWH has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what YHWH commanded you.”
But now he learned that because he had not been obedient, while his kingship would continue, it would not continue beyond his own lifetime. For the fact was that YHWH has now looked elsewhere and found a man after His own heart, a man who would have waited, a man who would seek to do only His will, and He has already in His own mind appointed him to be the future war-leader of Israel. And all this because Saul had not fulfilled what YHWH had commanded him.
We should note that at this point Saul was not totally rejected by YHWH as a result of what he had done in not obeying Him. It was simply that the blessings that he would receive would be limited, and he would receive no directions from YHWH for this particular situation. But he would still continue as king. His final rejection would come later. We note here that he suffers the same judgment as Eli who was also not himself rejected, but whose dynasty was to be replaced by one more fitting to YHWH.
So one result of his failure was that Samuel now had no instruction for him from YHWH, and he was thus left to manage things on his own. YHWH, however, had not totally deserted His people for He would in the event enable him, along with his son Jonathan, eventually to defeat the Philistines and drive them back. But this would not be because of Saul, but because of Jonathan’s faith in Him. This was a tragedy for Saul because if Samuel had been guiding him perhaps he would not have committed the folly of making a rash vow, and the victory would have been all the greater (14.24, 30, 46).
Events Subsequent To Saul’s Disobedience (13.15-18).
We should note that God in His mercy did not desert Israel. He would at this time still give them the means of driving out the Philistines for the time being, but in the event it would only be to a limited extent because of the failures of Saul. Here we have described for us the initial movements towards that end.
13.15 ‘And Samuel arose, and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin. And Saul numbered the people that were present with him, about six hundred men.’
The impression we have is that Samuel has now left Saul on his own. He has left Gilgal and made for Gibeah of Benjamin, and is no more heard of in chapters 13-14. However, his being in Gibeah does indicate that he is still available as a last resort, for Gibeah is Saul’s home town, not Samuel’s. It is in clear contrast with 15.34 where Samuel returns to Ramah and sees Saul’s face no more. So while Saul is now left to see to his own affairs there is still a chink of light for him. He is not totally deserted. (If only he had known how to repent like David did all might have been made well. But that was foreign to Saul, and he chose rather to trust in ‘the Priest’ - 14.3).
Meanwhile Saul has counted up what was left of his army and it has come to six hundred men. This may indicate that even many of his standing army (verse 2) had deserted him and were hiding in the hills, or it may simply mean that the three ‘units’ of verse 2 are to be seen as consisting of two hundred men per unit.
13.16 ‘And Saul, and Jonathan his son, and the people who were present with them, abode in Geba of Benjamin, but the Philistines encamped in Michmash.’
With his six hundred men Saul, along with Jonathan, made camp in Geba because the Philistines were in Michmash. This meant that the position in verses 2-3 was now reversed. The two sites were separated by a deep ravine and each was observable by the other, although neither could easily reach the other. Saul had to be constantly on the move in this way because his army was not strong enough to meet the Philistines face to face.
13.17-18 ‘And the spoilers came out of the camp of the Philistines in three companies: one company turned to the way that leads to Ophrah, to the land of Shual; and another company turned to the way to Beth-horon; and another company turned to the way of the border which looks down on the valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness.’
Meanwhile the Philistines went out looking for spoil, but Saul’s force was not strong enough to be able to do anything about it, and thus all he and his men could do was watch while time and again spoilers came out of their camp and went in three directions seeking booty. One marauding party would regularly take the road that led to Ophrah and the land of Shual. One would take the road to Beth-horon. And the third would take the route to the border road between Judah and Benjamin which looked down on Zeboim. Israel were thus being despoiled. The Philistines’ hope was presumably that by doing this they would draw Saul out of his strong position on Geba. But he knew that such a move would have been folly. While his men were in their strong position at Geba the Philistines could not touch them. Let them be seen to leave their position and they would be lucky if any survived. He had little trust in his ‘host’ hidden in the hills.
YHWH Delivers Israel From The Philistines (13.19-14.23a).
The passage that now follows commences with a description of the hopeless situation of Israel in the first part of Saul’s reign, and concludes with the declaration ‘so YHWH saved Israel that day’. All was thus seen as due to YHWH. The Philistines had rendered Israel as a whole powerless by preventing them from making weapons, and especially iron weapons, for the Philistines had a monopoly on the way to smelt iron. No doubt some of the tribes not affected by the Philistine occupation and control were able to make bronze weapons, but even these were seemingly not available to Saul’s own small army. Only Saul and Jonathan as the recognised leaders were properly armed.
But the whole point of the narrative is in fact to bring out that with YHWH as their Saviour they did not need proper weapons, because YHWH fought for them. It commenced by Him inspiring Jonathan and his associated armourbearer to slaughter a small Philistine garrison, and then by His using the news of that fact, possibly combined with an earthquake, to put the Philistines themselves in a quake so that they felt that they had no alternative but to flee back to their own country. Meanwhile Saul was playing around with his new found ‘toys’ and was left as a mere spectator until the final chase. Thus there is a great contrast between Jonathan the man of faith, and the favoured of YHWH, and Saul the malingerer, who was totally lacking in faith.
Note that in ‘a’ ‘the Hebrews’ were bereft of swords and spears by the Philistines, and thus rendered unable to save themselves, while in the parallel they were able to spoil the Philistines because YHWH saved them. In ‘b’ Israel had no swords and spears, and in the parallel YHWH made the Philistines destroy each other with their own swords. In ‘c’ Ahitub was with Saul and with all who were gathered with him, but they were doing nothing under the pomegranate tree, (while at the same time Jonathan went out to make a stir among the Philistines garrison), and in the parallel while Saul was talking to Ahitub he noted the increase of the tumult among the Philistines. In ‘d’ the people did not know that Jonathan had gone, and in the parallel they number the army in order to discover who has gone. In ‘e’ Jonathan asserts his faith that YHWH can work for them, working by many or by few, and in the parallel YHWH does work for them and the amassed army of the Philistines melted away. In ‘f’ Jonathan and his armourbearer prepare for the possibility of going up among the Philistine garrison, and in the parallel they go among the Philistine garrison and slaughter them. In ‘g’ the test of whether they should go up will be that they are invited up, and in the parallel they are invited up. Centrally in ‘h’ when they disclosed themselves to the Philistines, the foolish Philistines jeered at the two brave men as cowards, something that they were soon to regret.
The Parlous Situation Of Israel’s Fighters (13.19-22).
We might wonder why Israel were not being more positive at this stage, but the reason for this is now explained to us. It was because of a careful and well thought out strategy of the Philistine overlords by which Saul’s men were left in a parlous position in that none of them (apart from Saul and Jonathan) had proper weapons. This had been ensured by the previous confiscation of their weapons, and by the Philistines then not allowing them to have metal smiths in their land. It is the first real indication that we have of the iron control that the invaders had maintained for some years over a good part of Israel. Combined with the Philistine’s monopoly in iron smelting, it meant that Israel could be no match for them in battle.
The consequence of this was that Saul’s men had been unable to make proper swords or spears for themselves, and thus had to make do with clubs, axes and farm instruments, or home-made weapons. It is no wonder then that the general host of ‘all Israel’, who were on the whole in the same situation, did not like the thought of meeting up with the well armed Philistines. The only ones, in fact, of the three units of Saul’s standing army, who had proper swords and spears, were Saul and Jonathan. It would be natural that the leaders would have first choice of any weapons that became available, but this lack of weapons serves to demonstrate that they had not killed any Philistines recently.
13.19-21 ‘Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears,” but all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock, (yet they did have a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes), and to set the goads.’
The Philistine strategy is described. They had allowed no smiths in Israel, and the result was that if the farmers wished to sharpen their tools properly, and to point their goads, they had to go to a Philistine smith. In between times they had to make do with using a file, which was of limited use. (A coulter is a cutting blade for a ploughshare). The aim in this was in order to make it impossible for Israel to produce swords and spears.
13.22 ‘So it came about in the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan, but only with Saul and with Jonathan his son was there found such a weapon.’
And that was the reason why Saul’s soldiers had no spears and swords. Such sophisticated weapons as there were, were only possessed by Saul and Jonathan themselves. The remainder had primitive ones. This serves to bring out the courage of Saul’s men. In spite of their lack they were still present with Saul with whatever sharp instruments or effective clubbing instruments they had been able to lay their hands on.
13.23 ‘And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the pass of Michmash.’
Meanwhile the Philistines, aware of Saul’s small guerilla force, sent a smallish garrison to a peak on the pass of Michmash so as to keep watch over the camp of the Israel contingent, and over the general countryside. They were no doubt also well aware that there was an army of unknown size hidden in the hills. But it would seem that they had little fear about what that army could do to them. To them it had become a standing joke (14.11).
We must not overlook the bravery both of Saul and of his small army. They had come from the relative security of Gilgal, leaving their ‘army’ cowering among the hills, and, lacking in suitable weapons, had come out in order to keep an eye on the activities of the Philistines, even though it must have seemed that they could not do much about them. Their only available tactic seemed to be to wait and keep the Philistines from venturing further into the mountain country, while at the same time hoping that God would do something that would enable them to gain an advantage over the Philistines. Should that happen they could act and call in some of their reserves. But the situation did not look promising. And so with their primitive ‘weapons’ they waited in their mountain stronghold, helplessly watching the Philistine activities, and thinking ‘if only YHWH would do something’. (Which is in fact precisely what He was planning to do. For there was still one man who was attentive to His voice).
YHWH Commences The Work Of Deliverance Through Jonathan (14.1-14).
Jonathan, Saul’s son, and a man of great faith, clearly found it a hard and trying experience to watch the marauders going about their oppressive work, while he, and Saul and his men, moved around the mountains keeping out of the way, and his restless spirit longed to do something more positive. Surely, he thought, YHWH would want them to act in some way to help His downtrodden people? Thus the sight of the small unit of Philistines who were watching out for them from the crags seems especially to have irked him, and in the end he decided that here at least was something that he could do something about on his own (this indiscipline in itself suggests that he was still only a young man with a young man’s faith in himself and disregard for discipline).
So he called his ‘armourbearer’ and explained to him his purpose. His intention was to attack the detachment of Philistines who were stationed in the hills watching for any sign of Saul’s men. His armourbearer, who was no doubt unswervingly loyal to him, fell in line with him. He informed him that he was willing to go with him wherever he went, and was willing to follow him in whatever he attempted to do. The final result of Jonathan’s faith would be that the nest of Philistines were rooted out and mainly killed, something which would then result in panic in the Philistine camp.
It should be noted that this chapter presents us with a deliberate contrast between Jonathan, the man whose firm faith in YHWH brings about the victory, and who eschews folly, and a Saul who, without Samuel’s help, appears to be lost and not sure what to do. First he waits under the pomegranate tree, and then he dithers in his camp talking to the Priest. And when he finally does belatedly act he commits a gross folly. So Jonathan is seen as positive and unhesitating, firm in his faith and confident in YHWH, while Saul is seen as equivocating, as attaching to himself the new High Priest from the failed house that had previously caused the glory to depart from Israel, as making foolish oaths, and initially as not feeling that he can go forward without a talisman like the Ark, until he is finally forced to do so by the circumstances. While deeply religious, for he consults the High Priest, makes unthinking oaths and deprecates the eating of blood, his is revealed as a religion tied to symbols rather than to obedience. His lack of closeness to YHWH, already reflected at Gilgal, continues to be revealed. It is made very apparent by this that he no longer has Samuel with him, and that he lacks ‘the Spirit of YHWH’.
14.1 ‘Now it fell on a certain day, that Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who bore his armour, “Come, and let us go over to the Philistines’ garrison, that is on that side over there.” But he did not tell his father.’
Jonathan now calls on his armourbearer to accompany him in an assault on the Philistines. An ‘armourbearer’ (literally ‘bearer of stuff’) was not strictly just there in order to carry weapons. It was more a position of trust and honour. Such a man was basically a faithful servant, in this case also a soldier and probably a seasoned veteran, who carried out his superior’s wishes in any way that he desired. In many cases he might have nothing to do with armour, or even go to the battlefield. He could be a household servant with special attachment.
But, as we have suggested, in this case he was probably a seasoned soldier who was allocated to Jonathan in order to act as his right hand man, and stay with him when danger was around, with a special responsibility to watch his back. They were comrades-in-arms.
That is why Jonathan called on him to join him in a secret foray against the Philistine contingent who were watching out for them from the crags. He did not want his father to know, presumably because he knew that his father would forbid it. And the worst that could happen was that the two of them might die together.
14.2-3a ‘And Saul abode in the uttermost part of Gibeah under the pomegranate-tree which is in Migron, and the people who were with him were about six hundred men, and Ahijah, the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eli, the priest of YHWH in Shiloh, wearing an ephod.’
Meanwhile Saul with his men had moved from Geba to a precipice (migron) on the borders of the land around Gibeah, where there was a prominent and well known pomegranate tree. With them also was Ahijah, who was presumably the High Priest (he was wearing the ephod), having now reached the age at which he could serve.
‘Ahi-yah’ could be another name for ‘Ahi-melech’, with Yah and Melech (king) interchangeable, or Ahimelech (21.1; 22.9) may have been his brother or son. We are reminded that he was the son of Ahitub who was Ichabod’s elder brother, and, as we know, Ichabod (4.21) was the son of Phinehas, who was the son of Eli. Eli had been the priest of YHWH in Shiloh. Thus Ahijah was of Eli’s line and was not in YHWH’s favour, as the reference to Ichabod (‘the glory has departed’) emphasises. It is probable that Ahitub had either died comparatively young, or was for some reason disqualified from the High Priesthood as a result of some defect, which would explain why Samuel had had to act as High Priest until Ahijah came of age. Now, however, Ahijah had taken up his position (he was wearing the ephod, a special sleeveless jacket worn by the High Priest - compare 2.28 - although the term here probably indicates the wearing of all the special garments of the High Priest) and was presumably with Saul in order to provide him with divine guidance. Had Ahitub still been alive he would have been around Samuel’s age. The phrase ‘The priest of YHWH in Shiloh’ probably refers to Eli. Shiloh has probably by this time dropped out of the picture as a Sanctuary. Ahijah is mentioned again in verse 18.
The mention of Ahijah here is significant, and especially his connection with Ichabod - ‘the glory has departed’ (see 4.21-22). The prophetic wisdom and inspiration of Samuel has been replaced by the ritualistic activities of an uninspired Priest from a rejected line. Saul still had enough of his religion in him to want YHWH’s guidance, but he had lost the source of his true contact with YHWH and was now making do with very much second best. This comes out all through the passage in his hankering after the Ark of God (verse 18), in his foolish oath made on his own behalf (verse 24), in the near execution of Jonathan (verses 44-45) because the Priest could get no answer from YHWH, and in the inability to take advantage of the situation to defeat the Philistines once and for all (verse 46).
14.3b ‘And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone.’
Meanwhile Jonathan was on his way, and no one knew that he had gone. He had simply slipped away unnoticed. He had not wanted anyone to prevent him from going.
14.4-5 ‘And between the passes, by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistines’ garrison, there was a rocky crag on the one side, and a rocky crag on the other side, and the name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. The one crag rose up on the north in front of Michmash, and the other on the south in front of Geba.’
The actual scenery of the road that Jonathan took to reach the Philistines is described. It presents us with a picture of mountain grandeur. As he proceeded along the mountain passes with his companion he saw a rocky crag on each side rising up like a tooth. One was called Bozez which means ‘shining’. This was because the sun shone directly on it causing its white chalk to blaze with light. The other was named Seneh which means ‘acacia’, probably because of its acacia trees, which are still to be found in the associated valley.
14.6 ‘And Jonathan said to the young man who bore his armour, “Come, and let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised people. It may be that YHWH will work for us, for there is no restraint to YHWH to save by many or by few.” ’
As they progressed Jonathan explained his intentions. They would continue to make their way towards the Philistine outpost, trusting in YHWH to work for them. For as he pointed out, YHWH was able to save by many or by few (compare Judges 7.4, 7). Jonathan is thus seen as a man of great faith, which was why he could not see how YHWH could possibly let the ‘uncircumcised Philistines’ triumph in the end. The Philistines were looked down on by their neighbours because unlike most people in Canaan they were uncircumcised. They were thus often derogatorily known as ‘the uncircumcised Philistines’.
We note that Jonathan had learned the lesson that had been forgotten by a failing Saul, that ‘YHWH could save by many or by few’. Jonathan knew that what mattered was not the number in the army, but that YHWH was working for them. If that were the case were irrelevant. Had Saul remembered that lesson, a lesson especially brought home by the story of Gideon (Judges 7.6-7 - Saul had twice as many men as Gideon, also divided into three companies) he would never have offered the sacrifices before Samuel came.
14.7 ‘And his armourbearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Turn yourself, for see, I am with you according to what your heart desires.” ’
Jonathan’s faithful attendant was willing to follow wherever he led. Whatever Jonathan wanted was good enough for him. So he told him to ‘carry on’. It should be noted that this faithful follower was essential to his plan. We must never forget the importance of a faithful assistant. ‘Turn yourself’ may suggest that Jonathan had stopped and turned round to speak to him. Now, says his attendant, he can turn round again and go forward.
14.8-10 ‘Then said Jonathan, “Look, we will pass over to the men, and we will disclose ourselves to them. If they say thus to us, ‘Wait until we come to you,’ then we will stand still in our place, and will not go up to them. But if they say thus, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for YHWH has delivered them into our hand, and this will be the sign to us.” ’
Jonathan then laid out his plan of action. They would cross over to the crag where the Philistine outpost was stationed and allow them to see them. Once they had done that their actions would be determined by how the Philistines responded. If they said, ‘wait there until we come to you’, that is what they would do. They could then be ready to defend themselves, or even slip away among the rocks. If, however, they said, ‘Come up to us’, then they would go up, and that would be a sign that YHWH was going to deliver the Philistine garrison into their hands.
14.11 ‘And both of them disclosed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines, and the Philistines said, “Behold, the Hebrews come forth out of the holes where they had hid themselves.” ’
Acting accordingly, they made their presence known to the Philistines, with the result that they were greeted with jeers. So the cowardly Hebrews had come out of the holes where they had hidden themselves, had they?
14.12 ‘And the men of the garrison answered Jonathan and his armourbearer, and said, “Come up to us, and we will show you something.” And Jonathan said to his armourbearer, “Come up after me, for YHWH has delivered them into the hand of Israel.”
Then the Philistines jeeringly called on them to come up so that they could ‘learn something from them’, at which Jonathan turned to his companion and declared, “Come up after me, for YHWH has delivered them into the hand of Israel.” He had received the sign that he wanted. Now he had no doubt that YHWH was with them. The Philistines may have been uncertain about how many Israelites were with Jonathan, hidden among the rocks, so we can understand their wariness. And they knew what good mountain fighters the Israelites were. But what they probably did not expect was that Jonathan would actually do what they asked. They probably thought that he had stumbled on them by accident and would now curry away.
14.13 ‘And Jonathan climbed up on his hands and on his feet, and his armourbearer after him, and they fell before Jonathan; and his armourbearer slew them after him.’
Instead the two men scrambled up the sides of the hill. They had been mountain men all their lives and it presented no difficulty to them. And arriving at the summit, and probably taking everyone by surprise, they attacked the Philistines boldly. Although the Philistines well outnumbered them they probably could not all get at the two at the same time because of the terrain. They may well also have been looking round warily for other Israelites trying to creep up on them. But the result was that Jonathan and his companion, filled with zeal for YHWH, was able to slay them all one by one.
14.14 ‘And that first slaughter, which Jonathan and his armourbearer made, was about twenty men, within as it were half a furrow’s length in an acre of land.’
There were apparently just over twenty men in the outpost of whom most were killed, although it may well be that there were a few more and that one or two escaped to take the news back to the main camp of a ‘ferocious and victorious attack’ by the Israelites. And this all took place in an area which was a mere ‘half a furrow’s length in a yoke of land’. The size of a yoke of land would be determined by what could be ploughed in a certain time by a yoke of oxen.
YHWH Brings About The Defeat Of The Philistines (14.15-23).
We must not underestimate the beliefs of ancient peoples in omens. This comes out in that regularly battles were decided by champions being selected from both sides, with the winner reducing the other side to pure terror as they recognised that the gods were against them. We have an example of this later in the case of Goliath in chapter 17. Thus this defeat of the outpost by Jonathan and his armourbearer would be seen by the Philistines generally as an omen. In those days that could well be enough to paralyse them with fear and make them tremble. It may, however, be that we are intended to see that YHWH also introduced an earthquake in order to shake things up.
14.15 ‘And there was a trembling in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison, and the spoilers, they also trembled, and the earth quaked, so there was an exceeding great trembling.’
It is difficult to be sure here whether the trembling in question indicates an earthquake, or whether it is simply caused by the impression made on the Philistines by the news that a number of Israelites (additional to those that they were watching) had first challenged and then routed their outpost. This news resulted in a panic which we are no doubt to see as brought on by YHWH (compare 2 Kings 7.6; Exodus 15.14), and the result was that the Philistines were soon in turmoil, making the ground tremble. For such panic among the superstitious Philistines compare 17.31. They appear to have laid great store by omens. Once they received what appeared to be a bad omen the Philistines appear to have lost all heart. Furthermore the story of what YHWH had done among them when they had captured the Ark, no doubt considerably magnified, was probably still remembered among them as a folk tale.
14.16 ‘And the watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked, and, behold, the host of men melted away, and they went hither and thither.’
The result was that before the astonished eyes of Saul’s watchmen in Gibeah the Philistine army ‘melted away’ and ‘went on beating down’ or ‘went hither and thither’. They were in total panic. ‘Went on beating down’ may suggest that in their panic the Philistines were striking each other down (compare verse 20).
14.17 ‘Then Saul said to the people who were with him, “Muster now, and see who has gone from us.” And when they had mustered, behold, Jonathan and his armourbearer were not there.”
When Saul heard the news of the Philistine panic he recognised something of what must have happened (he had been fighting Philistines for years) and he called for a muster in order to discover which of his men were no longer there. The result of the muster was that they discovered that Jonathan and his armourbearer were missing. As we know from verse 1, no one knew that they had gone.
14.18 ‘And Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring here the ark of God.” For the ark of God was at that time with the children of Israel.’
In his excitement Saul then called to Ahijah to bring there the ark of God. His aim was probably in order for it to lead them into battle (compare 4.4-5; Numbers 10.35-36; Joshua 3.3), so as to increase the panic among the Philistines. He would know that it had led Israel through the wilderness, and in his present state he wanted a talisman on his side. Probably not realising it he was, by this, linking himself with the defeated army in chapter 4. It may well be that he was not aware that it was no longer in the Tabernacle, for his relationship with Ahijah appears to be a new one, and only the priests may have been sure where it was. Or, being desperate to spur YHWH to act for him he may have had in mind that it be brought from its quiet backwater. But it is quite likely that he did not know the full details of the situation, probably simply knowing that it was ‘somewhere’ and assuming that Ahijah could lay his hands on it. The writer then explains that it was in fact at that time with the children of Israel, but by that he was probably simply reminding his readers that it had been returned by the Philistines.
There is something very ominous about this call for the Ark, for we have heard it before, when it was by a God-rejected Israel (4.3). It is thus being made clear to us that there is in the heart of Saul something of the foolishness of those earlier people.
LXX changes ‘Ark’ to ‘ephod’ but the Hebrew texts and most of the other versions do not support the change. The view of LXX was that Saul was wanting to consult YHWH through the ephod. But it is quite possible that someone who had been busy fighting all his life and had previously depended on Samuel as a kind of talisman, should look for an equally powerful replacement and saw it in terms of the Ark, on which he expected his new priest to be able to lay his hands. (And Kiriath-yearim was not all that far from Michmash). The point is that without Samuel’s guidance and help Saul was almost as superstitious as the Philistines.
14.19 ‘And it came about, while Saul talked to the priest, that the tumult that was in the camp of the Philistines went on and increased, and Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.”
In the end, however, he did not proceed with his request, because as he spoke with the priest the tumult among the Philistines grew more apparent and Saul therefore recognised the necessity of seizing the opportunity. The result was that he told Ahijah not to go ahead with what he had requested, and himself prepared to mobilise his troops. It is probable that he also sent swift messengers to the Israelites hiding in the hills. Even this hesitation is probably designed to bring out his present inadequacy. Without YHWH’s help and guidance he was nothing.
14.20 ‘And Saul and all the people who were with him were gathered together, and came to the battle, and, behold, every man’s sword was against his fellow, and there was a very great discomfiture.’
Gathering his troops ready for battle Saul advanced on the enemy and came ‘to the battle’ where it was immediately apparent that they were busy fighting each other. For there he found huge ‘discomfiture and turmoil’ (compare for the idea Judges 7.22; 2 Chronicles 20.23). As so often in Israel’s history YHWH had defeated them almost on His own (with the assistance of a man of faith).
14.21 ‘Now the Hebrews who were with the Philistines as previously, and that went up with them into the camp, from the country round about, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan.’
‘The Hebrews.’ This may refer to Habiru mercenaries hired by the Philistines (compare David later), or to renegade Israelites who had joined up with the Philistines for political advantage, or to forced levies taken from the occupied territories who had had no choice about the matter. But whichever they were they could not resist turning to help the Israelites, whom they no doubt saw as more like themselves. The arrogance of the Philistines towards them may well have already disaffected them, and anyway, the advantage clearly now lay with the Israelites.
14.22 ‘In the same way all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill-country of Ephraim, when they heard that the Philistines fled, even they also followed hard after them in the battle.’
The news of the Philistine panic also reached the ears of the general Israelite army which had taken refuge in the hills, presumably through messengers from Saul. And when they learned that the Philistines were in flight they too joined in and chased hard after any of the Philistines who were still in the hill country. Everyone in Israel had suddenly become a Jonathan.
14.23a ‘So YHWH saved Israel that day.’
The result was that YHWH saved Israel that day, and the Philistines were driven back in the direction of Beth-aven. From there they would flee down the pass of Beth-horon to Aijalon and thence down to Philistia. So the account which began with the parlous state of a helpless Israel ends with the Philistines in full flight leaving Israel, at least for the time being, a free country. And it was all because of YHWH. YHWH had again saved His people.
It should, of course, be noted that the description that we have of what happened is very truncated so that we only get the gist of something that actually took place over many hours, and at the heart of it from now on will be Saul and his six hundred. It is thus they who will immediately now be involved and will be affected by Saul’s rash oath. How far ‘the Hebrews’ joined in the actual pursuit (if at all) we do not know. The remainder of the Israelites would clearly come in at the tail end, and would probably deal with stragglers and some who had taken refuge in the hills. From their own point of view they would enjoy some of the credit, but the main chase would be by Saul’s men. All would, however, recognise that they owed it all to YHWH. All they had done was follow up on His working.
Saul’s Men Are Hindered By A Rash Oath Made By Saul, While Jonathan Who Knew Nothing Of It Breaks The Oath (14.23b-31a).
The contrast between the spiritually dead ritualist and the true man of faith continues. Jonathan the man of faith has enabled YHWH to act on behalf of His people. Now we discover that Saul, the spiritually dead ritualist, has put a curse on anyone who eats any food before he, Saul, has been avenged on his enemies, thus bringing Jonathan, the man of faith, who has been concerned for YHWH’s honour and as YHWH’s instrument in defeating the Philistines, into unconscious error. Not only was this unfair on Jonathan but it was also something which would prevent the victory from being the great success that it should have been, and would even put Jonathan’s life at risk. And all because of Saul’s folly.
Note that in ‘a’ the course of the battle is described, and in the parallel the continuing course of the battle. In ‘b’ we are informed of the people’s distress as a result of Saul’s oath, and that its purpose was in order to gain vengeance for him on the Philistines, and in the parallel that the people were faint because of that oath, with the result that there was no great slaughter among the Philistines. In ‘c’ no man ate of the honey for fear of the oath, and in the parallel why they have not eaten is explained to Jonathan. Centrally in ‘d’ the hero of faith whose trust really was in YHWH breaks the oath unwittingly and is benefited by it.
14.23b-24 ‘And the battle passed over by Beth-aven.’
The course of the battle is now described and taken up again in verse 31a. Bethaven was near Bethel and Ai, and was on course for the pass that would lead down to Aijalon, from where the Philistines could make their way home.
14.24 ‘And the men of Israel were distressed that day, for Saul had adjured the people, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats any food until evening comes, and I be avenged on my enemies.” So none of the people tasted food.’
Meanwhile the men who should have been rested and invigorated, to say nothing of being exultant, were instead distressed. Note especially the contrast of ‘that day’ with the reference to ‘that day’ in the previous verse. In verse 23 it was a victorious ‘that day’. It was YHWH’s day of salvation. Here it is a distressed ‘that day’. And it is all due to Saul’s foolishness. It is because he has put a curse on any of his band who partake in food until the Philistines have been utterly routed and he himself has gained his own personal vengeance. Note that his thought was not on the good of his faithful followers, but on his own personal aggrandisement and satisfaction, regardless of the effects on them. It was, of course, an act of desperation. Feeling that YHWH was not with him he was trying every desperate means of altering the situation by religious manoeuvring. First he would place this curse, and then later he would consider calling on the Ark of God in order that it might lead them forward. But if only he had realised it there was only one sensible option open to him and that was full repentance, for Scripture constantly makes clear that full and genuine repentance regularly alters such a situation (compare 2 Chronicles 33.11-13; Jonah 3.5-10). But such repentance does not go along with a craving for personal vengeance. If we feel sorry for Saul we should recognise that he had no sorrow for sin, but simply a desire to come out of affairs looking good and feeling satisfied.
Saul’s purpose in his curse would seem to have been twofold. Firstly it was because he believed that religious fasting would somehow gain him the extra support of YHWH, and secondly it was in order to ensure that his hungry troops concentrated solely on killing the Philistines rather than on turning aside to food to satisfy their hunger. But while it actually made no difference to the most important events of the day, its actual effect would be to render his men inefficient and unable to pursue the enemy to the end, on the long chase back to Philistia. So we discover that Saul had moved from following the living prophetic beliefs of Samuel, to the dead ideas of the religious ascetics who made much of such ritual, and Israel would suffer for it. We can compare Isaiah 58 which depicts similar attitudes towards fasting. It is being made clear that he was following dead ritual because he was no longer spiritually attuned and obedient, and that the reason for it was because Samuel was no longer with him because of his disobedience. The writer has already indicated the same thing in his attitude to the Ark of God (verse 18). Having lost his contact with YHWH he has to resort to religious gimmicks.
It will be noted again that his curse is not said to be in order to further YHWH’s purposes. It is rather so as to enable Saul to get what he wants, personal vengeance on his enemies. It indicates how far he has fallen from his true calling. Here is a man who has lost his way.
14.25-26 ‘And all the people came into the forest, and there was honey on the ground, and when the people had come to the forest, behold, the honey dropped, but no man put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath.’
The result of the curse was that when, on passing through the forest while on the chase, his men found energy giving food readily available, they were unable to take advantage of it because of their fear of the oath.
Canaan is elsewhere described as a ‘land of milk and honey’. At this time there were wild bees in abundance in the forests, and they would make their nests in the trees and some of the honeycombs would hang down from the trees full of honey, and would seemingly even drip honey. Travellers have described seeing such things in hot countries.
14.27 ‘But Jonathan did not hear when his father charged the people with the oath, which was the reason why he put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand, and dipped it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes were enlightened.’
Jonathan, however, had not been there when the oath was made, and knew nothing about it, and so he did take advantage of the honey, and was, as a result, physically strengthened. The last point is important. The writer does not see Jonathan as culpable.
14.28 ‘Then answered one of the people, and said, “Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food this day.” And the people were faint.’
Seeing Jonathan’s action one of Saul’s men pointed out to him that he was breaking his father’s oath. And the writer then takes the opportunity to draw out the fact that because of that oath the people were faint. He is stressing Saul’s folly, not Jonathan’s.
14.29-30 ‘Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. See, I pray you, how my eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey. How much more, if it had been that the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found? For now has there been no great slaughter among the Philistines.”
Jonathan also draws out the fact of Saul’s folly. He points out how his strength has been restored by eating the honey, while the failure to do so by Saul’s men has resulted in the chase not being as effective as it should have been. Had they only been able to restore themselves by eating the honey, and by taking advantage of provisions that the fleeing Philistines had dropped, they would have been fighting fit. But now they were weak and faint. So the writer wants us to recognise that Saul’s break with Samuel and resultant folly has brought failure in the midst of triumph.
14.31a ‘And they smote of the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon.’
The detail of the battle is again taken up. From Michmash to Aijalon, a journey of over twenty miles, partly down a fairly steep pass, there was a continual slaughtering of the fleeing Philistines. If possible they had to be persuaded not to return. It would at least keep them at bay for a time.
The People Sin By Eating The Blood Of Slain Beasts, And Saul Erects A Primitive Place For Slaughter (14.31b-35).
A further consequence of Saul’s rash vow is now seen. Having been deprived of food Saul’s men now sin against YHWH by eating animals with their blood. This was something strictly forbidden by the Law (Leviticus 17.10-11), and Saul therefore arranges for a primitive slaughter stone to be set up so that the animals may be slain properly, and the blood be allowed to pour out on the ground as an offering to YHWH (see Deuteronomy 12.15-16). If only he had been so keen on obeying YHWH’s instructions previously, what a difference it would have made. The writer then, in our view sarcastically, declares that this was the first altar that Saul built to YHWH, for up to this point Samuel has always been responsible for such activity. We gain a distinct impression here that what Saul does is being presented by the writer in such a way that it depicts him as a parody of Samuel, so that Saul, who is in fact responsible for the fiasco in the first place, is being depicted as playing the great prophet in the place of Samuel. Note that it is sandwiched between two questions asking ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ in 10.12; 19.24, the first of which was at a time of hope when he had just commenced his responsibilities, the other was when he had demonstrated just what he had become, a vindictive executioner. Here we get the answer. He might try to make it appear so, but really he is a ‘no, no’.
Note that in ‘a’ the people slew the animals on the ground , and ate them with the blood, and in the parallel they slew the animals on the ‘altar’ that Saul built (thus not eating them with the blood). In ‘b’ Saul was told that the people were eating with the blood, and in the parallel he warns them not to eat with the blood and thus sin against YHWH. Centrally in ‘c’ he rebukes the people for their misbehaviour (in what is almost like an echo of Samuel) and calls on them to roll a stone into place on which the animals can be slain.
14.31b-32 ‘And the people were very faint, and the people flew on the spoil, and took sheep, and oxen, and calves, and slew them on the ground, and the people ate them with the blood.’
Such was the panic among the Philistines who were in headlong flight, that Saul’s men, in spite of their weakened state, were still able to continue the chase and slaughter the stragglers all the way from Michmash to Aijalon, a distance of nearly twenty miles over rough ground. This is an indication of the quality of Saul’s men (see 14.52). They would by now have been able to arm themselves with proper weapons dropped by the enemy.
But they were naturally very weak after their exertions without food, and thus as soon as the day ended at sunset, (with the result that the curse ceased to be active), they were so hungry that they threw themselves eagerly on the spoils left behind by the Philistines, slew their sheep, oxen and calves, and ate them raw without being concerned about eating the blood. This was, of course, contrary to the strict regulations of the Law which forbade the eating of the blood (see Genesis 9.4; Leviticus 17.10-14; Deuteronomy 12.16).
14.33 ‘Then they told Saul, saying, “Behold, the people sin against YHWH, in that they eat with the blood.” And he said, “You have dealt treacherously. Roll a great stone to me this day.” ’
The news of their misdemeanour reached Saul’s ears. ‘The people are sinning against YHWH by eating blood.’ And his response was immediate. He declared that a primitive altar must be set up by rolling a large stone into place on which the animals could be properly slain and the blood allowed to pour out on the ground (see Deuteronomy 12.15-16). This was not for the offering of sacrifices, but in order that the beasts might be properly slain.
14.34 ‘And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people, and say to them, ‘Bring me here every man his ox, and every man his sheep, and slay them here, and eat, and sin not against YHWH in eating with the blood.” And all the people brought every man his ox with him that night, and slew them there.’
Then Saul commanded that instructions be given to all the people that they bring their animals to the stone and slay them there in the right manner so as to avoid directly eating the blood. The people immediately responded. Note the reference to ‘that night’. The day was now over. (The Israelite day ceased at sunset when a new ‘day’ began).
14.35 ‘And Saul built an altar to YHWH, the same was the first altar that he built to YHWH.’
The writer then adds a note to the effect that this was the first ‘altar’ that Saul had built to YHWH. The implication is that hitherto he had had Samuel to see to such things. Now he was on his own. It was not strictly an ‘altar’ in the fullest sense of the word. The purpose was not in order to offer offerings and sacrifices, but so that the animals could be slaughtered in the right manner before eating. It followed the directions in Deuteronomy 12.15-16. But the writer sees it as very significant. It signified that Samuel was no longer with him.
However genuine Saul might have been the writer was probably being deliberately sarcastic. In his view it was not Saul’s responsibility to build altars. His point is therefore so as to emphasise Samuel’s absence. It is Saul’s first altar because previously he had been able to leave such things to someone else. It is all of a piece with what has gone before. Saul had called for the Ark, and had made use of a religious oath. Now he has erected a kind of altar. This will be followed by a vain consultation of the oracle. They are all acts which mark him as a religious man. But it was a religion that was all on the outside. It was based solely on ritual. In the end there was nothing underneath, for what was lacking was the responsive obedience without which all the rest was useless.
Continuation Of The Defeat Of The Philistines By Raiding Their Territory Is Aborted And Jonathan Is Nearly Executed, And All Due To Saul’s Foolish Curse (14.36-46).
This passage (14.1-46) began with the depiction of Jonathan, the man of faith, bringing about the defeat of the Philistines (14.1-15), and it now ends with Jonathan, the man of faith, almost being executed because of Saul’s foolish oath. The whole section is designed to demonstrate Saul’s downward slide and folly. The writer clearly has little interest in Saul from any positive viewpoint (although he will shortly very briefly list his attainments), but is concentrating on how by his foolishness and disobedience he had begun to lose his hold on the kingship and was proving YHWH’s warning about the dangers of the appointment of a king to be correct. And as we have seen all this was shown to be the result of his attitude towards Samuel.
Note that in ‘a’ Saul aims to follow after the Philistines, and in the parallel he ceases from following the Philistines as a result of his own folly. In ‘b’ the people say that Saul may do what seems good to him and the priest suggests consulting God, and in the parallel the people refuse to let Saul do what he wants, for they believe that YHWH is on Jonathan’s side because he has ‘wrought with God’. In ‘c’ Saul says that even if the marked man is Jonathan he will surely die, and in the parallel Saul tells Jonathan that he will surely die. In ‘d’ Saul begins to seek the culprit, and says to God, ‘show the right’, and in the parallel, believing that the right has been shown, Saul asks Jonathan what it is that he has done. Centrally in ‘e’ Jonathan is selected out.
14.36 ‘And Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night, and take spoil among them until the morning light, and let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” Then said the priest, “Let us draw near here to God.” ’
A great victory having been achieved Saul was now eager to follow it up by a night raid on the fleeing Philistines in order to obtain further spoils and destroy their army. It was, of course, describing an unachievable ideal in the exultancy of the moment, but war fever had taken hold of him and at least the spoils might be achievable. The people, equally excited, were prepared to do whatever he asked. To them he had achieved a great victory. The Priest, however, was more cautious and suggested rather that they should draw near to God and seek His guidance. Had he been with Saul Samuel would not have needed to have hesitated like this. He would have known the mind of YHWH.
14.37 ‘And Saul asked counsel of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you deliver them into the hand of Israel?” But he did not answer him that day.’
So Saul sought counsel from God, and asked whether they should continue the chase into Philistine territory. The question was, would God deliver them into their hands? This question was probably put to God by means of the Urim and Thummim which could probably give the answers ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘no answer’ (we are not sure precisely how it worked, but there are indications to this end). In this particular case he received the response, ‘no answer’.
It is thought that possibly the Urim and Thummim would be tossed down and if they both ended the same way up the answer was seen as ‘no reply’, while ‘yes’ and ‘no’ would be indicated by which lay one way and which the other.
Note Saul’s assumption that someone must be at fault. He will not believe that God will not answer him. (A similar situation arises near the end of his reign (28.6) which may suggest that here the fault did not really lie with Jonathan in God’s eyes.
14.38 ‘And Saul said, “Draw nigh here, all you chieftains of the people; and know and see in what this sin has been this day.” ’
Saul did not consider the possibility that this failure to obtain an answer might lie at his door and immediately assumed that it must be because of sin in the camp. His mind no doubt went back to the incident of Achan (Joshua 7). So he called all his chieftains together and demanded of them whether they knew of any reason why God was not answering. What sin had been committed among them that day that had resulted in this situation?
14.39 “For, as YHWH lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he will surely die.” But there was not a man among all the people who answered him.’
And he swore that whoever had so sinned would die, even if it should be Jonathan his own son. Note his words, ‘as YHWH lives who saves Israel’. He still recognised that their victory was due to YHWH, and still swore by His Name. The problem was that his life did not live up to his words. However, later the people will use a similar oath about Jonathan not dying. The writer probably intends us to see that the people were right.
No one answered Saul. They were feeling that this was not quite right, and no one was prepared to give Jonathan away. Or perhaps those who were there did not know what Jonathan had done.
14.40 ‘Then he said to all Israel, “You be on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.” And the people said to Saul, “Do what seems good to you.”
Recognising that the failure of the leadership would be the main thing likely to have an effect on God’s response, Saul decided first of all that he would eliminate himself and his son. So he called on the people (no doubt represented by their leaders) and declared that the first lot would determine whether the guilt lay with himself and Jonathan or whether it lay with the people. The reply of the people was that he must do what seemed right to him. Compare verse 36 where they had said a similar thing. But what follows suggest that this time the words were wrung out of them with reluctance, for in the last analysis they did not let him do what seemed good to him.
14.41 ‘Therefore Saul said to YHWH, the God of Israel, “Show the right.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.’
Then Saul called on ‘YHWH, the God of Israel’ (indicating the seriousness of the process) to ‘show the right’. In other words to indicate whether they were innocent or guilty. And when the lot was cast, to Saul’s surprise, and no doubt horror, the use of the lot indicated that it was either he or his son. The people were shown to be free from blame.
14.42 ‘And Saul said, “Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son.” And Jonathan was taken.’
Then Saul called for the lot to be cast between him and Jonathan. And the result was that Jonathan was indicated. This was what we have been waiting for, because we have known all along what Jonathan has done. But as we know Jonathan was the hero of the day. And in view of how it had happened (Jonathan had not known about the vow) it is clear that there is something wrong here.
14.43 ‘Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, and said, “I certainly tasted a little honey with the end of the rod which was in my hand, and, lo, I must die.” ’
Meanwhile Saul demanded that Jonathan tell him what he had done, and Jonathan, now knowing of the oath, admitted that he had eaten a little honey from the end of the staff that he was carrying, and recognised that as a result he must die. No one seems to have queried the circumstances. A rash oath may have been uttered by the king, but the consequences had to follow. Such was the power and responsibility of kings. We are, however, probably justified in thinking that to YHWH the culprit was not Jonathan but Saul.
14.44 ‘And Saul said, “God do so and more also, for you shall surely die, Jonathan.” ’
At his words Saul confirmed the death sentence. He declared that before God Jonathan must assuredly die. As far as he was concerned there was no alternative. It was the king’s oath. This was the extreme to which his religious activity had taken him. The death of his own son for something that had not been done with sin in the heart.
The writer wants us to know that Saul’s arrogance had reached such a stage that the thought of his oath being violated was seen by him as sufficient to warrant a death sentence being passed even on his own son. It was the arrogance of the absolute monarch. (We should note in this regard that there is no hint that any enquiry was made into the circumstances, nor had God been consulted as to the verdict. Saul just assumed that he was right).
14.45 ‘And the people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has wrought this great salvation in Israel? Far from it. As YHWH lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has wrought with God this day.” So the people rescued Jonathan, with the result that he died not.’
The people, however, were not prepared for this to happen. Was it not Jonathan whom YHWH had used to bring about His great deliverance? How then could he be put to death on the day of that victory? Thus they would not allow it and declared equally strongly in YHWH’s Name that as God’s champion not a hair of his head would be allowed to fall to the ground. And the consequence was that he was delivered from death.
The writer clearly sees the people as in the right and Saul as in the wrong, and sees YHWH’s response to Saul’s questions as His attempt also to prove Saul in the wrong. The people similarly saw it in the same way, for they swore by YHWH’s life. Thus in the writer’s view they recognised the heart of God better than Saul. What Saul was proposing therefore was not YHWH’s will. His exposure as no longer knowing the mind of God was complete.
Note the contrast with 11.13. The magnanimous Saul has now become the callous Saul. He no longer sees YHWH’s victory as a cause for forgiveness. His heart has become rigid in its religious inflexibility. It is a further indication of his downward slide.
14.46 ‘Then Saul went up from following the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place.’
The final result was that Saul ceased the pursuit of the Philistines, and they were allowed to return home and reorganise themselves. It was recognised that it was an opportunity lost, and all due to Saul’s folly.
A Summary Of Saul’s Earlier Reign And Its Successes And Of His Close Family (14.47-52).
Having demonstrated both Saul’s partial success, mainly through the faith of Jonathan, and his partial failure as a result of his own distorted religious ideas, the writer looks back and summarises his reign from when he took over the kingship. It will be noted that he could not have said what he did about the Philistines, firstly of Israel’s subjection to them, and then of their triumph over them, had he not previously described the situation above. These had not occurred at the commencement of his reign. But now the Philistines too could be listed among the defeated nations, and thus a complete list of victories can be given. This explains why these words come after the incident above. The order is intended to be topical, not chronological.
Even then, however, the writer will not let all the credit go to Saul and he therefore introduces another figure, Saul’s uncle, whose name is Abner, who is the commander-in-chief of the armies of Saul. It is almost as though he was saying, ‘Remember that Saul did not do it on his own’.
Note that in ‘a’ we are informed of the victories of Saul, while in the parallel we learn that in the case of the Philistines the warfare continued throughout the days of Saul with the result that he had always to be on the look out for good warriors so that he could maintain a standing army and as a result keep them in check. In ‘b’ he delivered Israel out of the hands of those who despoiled them, while in the parallel it is emphasised that he had in this the assistance of his uncle, the mighty Abner, commander-in-chief of his forces. Centrally in ‘c’ we have described the family of Saul.
14.47 ‘Now when Saul had taken the kingship over Israel, he fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, and against the children of Ammon, and against Edom, and against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines: and wherever he turned himself, he put them to the worse.’
Note the reference back to ‘when he had taken over the kingship’. What we learn here indicates how little we know about Saul’s genuine early achievements, for it is made quite clear that he had been kept constantly busy, especially in Transjordan against the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites, and against threats from the north from the Aramean kingdom of Zobah. But he had defeated them all. Only against the Philistines had he been unable to achieve victory, and now that too had been accomplished.
14.48 ‘And he did valiantly, and smote the Amalekites, and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who despoiled them.’
The separate reference here to the smiting of the Amalekites may refer to chapter 15, or it may have in mind earlier attempts by the Amalekites to invade Israel. The Amalekites were ferocious, wandering desert tribes (similar to the Bedouin) who would constantly swoop down on any nation that they found to be in a weak condition in order to kill simply for the pleasure of it, and in order to obtain tribute and booty, often in alliance with others (compare Judges 3.13; 6.3). They were unholy predators. That was why in the end they had to be utterly destroyed.
Up to this point then Saul’s reign could be said to have been reasonably successful, for while he had had to wait for success against the Philistines, he had succeeded admirably against others. And now at last even the defeat of the Philistines had been achieved.
However, as the writer has already indicated throughout chapters 13-14, Saul has also begun to go downhill, and this will be brought home in the chapters that follow where it will be demonstrated how the last part of Saul’s reign reveals his continuing disobedience, his consequent rejection by YHWH, his subsequent illness, his sense of absolute monarchy, the murderous nature of his own inclinations, his opposition to David, the man of God’s choice, and his own rapidly deteriorating spiritual state.
Further Details About Saul And His Leading General Who Was Related To Him (14.49-52).
Saul’s ancestry was given in 9.1. Now we are given his family details, after which we are also given the details of his commander in chief’s family, partly because they were related to Saul, and partly because of Abner’s loyal support, both in Saul’s own battles, and as preparing the way for what Abner would later seek to do for Saul’s son, Ishbaal (Ishbosheth). See 2 Samuel 2.8 ff.
14.49-50a ‘Now the sons of Saul were Jonathan, and Ishvi, and Malchi-shua; and the names of his two daughters were these: the name of the first-born Merab, and the name of the younger Michal, and the name of Saul’s wife was Ahinoam the daughter of Ahimaaz.’
At this stage Saul had at least three sons. Jonathan (gift of YHWH) was the firstborn. Then came Ishvi. This could be another name for Abinadab (see 31.2), for it was not uncommon for a man to have two names. Alternately Ish-vi is possibly another way of expressing Ish-yah, ‘man of YHWH’, which could well then have been expressed as Ish-baal/Esh-baal (man of the Lord) in order to avoid using the name of Yah, being later expressed by writers as Ish-bosheth (2 Samuel 2.8) because bosheth means ‘shame’. The reason for this last was in order to express shame at the use of Baal’s name, although when Saul used the word it did not have the same connotation, and even Hosea could think of God as ‘baali’ (Hosea 2.16). We know nothing of Malchi-shua, except that he fell fighting alongside Saul, but the names of the two daughters will occur later in relation to David. 1 Chronicles 8.33; 9.39 list Saul’s sons as Jonathan, Malchi-shua, Abinadab and Esh-baal.
14.50b-51 ‘And the name of the captain of his host was Abner the son of Ner, Saul’s uncle. And Kish was the father of Saul, and Ner the father of Abner was the son of Abiel.’
We now learn that Abner was the commander in chief of Saul’s army. He was on the whole a loyal and good man. His details are recorded here both because he was a relative of the king, and in order to demonstrate that Saul did not achieve what he did on his own. He had solid support from his family. It is also preparing the way for his later activities in supporting Ishbaal (Ishbosheth) against David.
14.52 ‘And there was fierce war against the Philistines all the days of Saul, and when Saul saw any mighty man, or any valiant man, he took him to him.’
In order to make sure that we are not deceived by what has been said earlier we now learn that the Philistines were the one foe that Saul never finally quelled, for although sometimes defeated they soon came back again and occupied at least part of Israel. As a result Saul had continually to maintain a small standing army, both in readiness to deal with their forays, and in order, when they became something more serious, to prevent them taking over Israel completely. That is why we learn here that, with that in mind, he was always on the look out for good recruits. Thus whenever he came across a mighty man or a valiant man he attached him to his standing army.
Saul’s Victory Over The Amalekites And His Subsequent Tragic Failure To Honour YHWH’s Commands (15.1-35).
In this chapter Saul reveals that he has become so filled with a sense of his own importance that he now feels that he can ignore God’s clear commandment simply for his own benefit, however heinous his actions might be. He considers that he has a right to put YHWH right. The result is that God rejects him from being king over Israel, and Samuel leaves him never to return. The further effects of this rejection on Saul will be that he will go into clinical depression, and become schizophrenic, thus being ‘two men’ at the same time and being plagued with paranoia and delusion. Had he been obedient to YHWH this illness may never have happened.
There is no indication as to when this incident in chapter 15 occurred but it has been suggested that it may well have been some years after the incidents described in chapters 13-14 in order for Saul’s arrogance and disobedience to have grown sufficiently to account for his behaviour here. On the other hand we might consider that his behaviour in the previous chapter has already demonstrated that he was quite capable of exactly this at any time. The stress in this passage is on obedience, and the whole is designed so as to bring out Saul’s total disobedience, in accordance with the tendency that we have observed previously (13.13). It is describing the final stage in his downfall. To us his crime might appear small, and even reasonable. But it would not have been seen like that in his day. It would have been looked on with horror by the independent observer. For to take for oneself what had been ‘devoted to YHWH’ was sacrilege of the most heinous kind (compare Joshua 7).
It is, however, interesting that Samuel is again involved with Saul here. It demonstrates that, while their relationship was no longer as close, Saul was still being given an opportunity to at least partially redeem himself. He was still seen as being ‘YHWH’s anointed.’
Note that in ‘a’ Saul treats Saul as the anointed of YHWH, ready to do His bidding, and in the parallel Saul is no longer seen by Samuel as the anointed of YHWH. In ‘b’ Saul is to slaughter the Amalekites (including Agag the king) and devote them to YHWH and in the parallel Samuel ensures the final completion of that task. In ‘c’ Saul spares Agag and in the parallel Agag is brought before Samuel for sentence. In ‘d’ Saul is declared to have ‘turned back’ from following YHWH, and Samuel cries to YHWH concerning it all night, and in the parallel Samuel ‘turns again’ to Saul, and Saul worships YHWH. In ‘e’ Saul builds a monument in honour of his victory and claims to have obeyed YHWH, and in the parallel he admits that he has not obeyed YHWH and asks that Samuel will still honour him before the elders and the people. In ‘f’ Samuel draws attention to Saul’s disobedience and Saul tries to excuse it, and in the parallel Samuel tells him that as a result of his disobedience YHWH has torn his kingship from him and will not change His mind. In ‘g’ Samuel asks Saul why he has not obeyed the voice of YHWH, and in the parallel declares that he has thus rejected the word of YHWH and done evil in His sight with the result that YHWH has rejected him from being king over Israel. In ‘h’ the people took of the prime items from among the devoted things to sacrifice to YHWH (something specifically forbidden), and in the parallel Saul admits that he has sinned by listening to the people. Centrally in ‘h’ Samuel indicates that obedience is better than sacrifice, and listening to and doing what YHWH requires is better than the fat of rams.
YHWH Commands His Anointed To Slay The Amalekites As A Divine Judgment On Them (15.1-3).
It is important to recognise in this passage that Saul is specifically instructed as ‘the anointed of YHWH’ and is called on to act as His instrument of justice on the Amalekites. He is to ‘devote’ the Amalekites and all their possessions to YHWH. This involved total annihilation and destruction of something which all recognised that YHWH had specifically made His own. It was all thus sacred to Him and non-negotiable. No exception was allowed. We can compare the story of Achan who also sought to keep for himself what had been devoted to YHWH and was visited with swift judgment (Joshua 7).
15.1 ‘And Samuel said to Saul, “YHWH sent me to anoint you to be king over his people, over Israel, now therefore listen to the voice of the words of YHWH,” ’
Samuel now comes to Saul emphasising that he is the anointed of YHWH. That means that he is dedicated to doing YHWH’s will. In view of that he is now to listen to the words of YHWH which will instruct him in what YHWH requires of him.
15.2-3 “Thus says YHWH of hosts, I have marked what Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
What in fact YHWH requires of him is that he ‘devote’ Amalek to YHWH. That will involve destroying the Amalekites and all connected with them. The idea of ‘devoting’ a people in this way was that they were consecrated to God in judgment and must be offered to Him in their totality. Those who performed this work were seen to be acting as God’s instruments of justice. For that reason they must take no benefit of it for themselves, for everything involved was ‘devoted’ to and belonged to YHWH. We can compare how Jericho was also previously devoted to YHWH and how Achan was executed because he kept for himself certain ‘devoted things’ (Joshua 6-7). Thus what Saul was being called on to do was a most sacred task, and as he knew perfectly well, not to carry it out to the letter would be sacrilege. This was not unique to Israel. Similar ideas were also found among surrounding countries such as Moab (it is referred to on the Moabite Stone), while evidence of it is also found at Mari.
The basis of it in this case was stated to be because the Amalekites were the first to attack the people of Israel as they came out of Egypt, when they were especially vulnerable in the wilderness (Exodus 17). The Amalekites had mercilessly swooped down on them, decimating their lines in order to obtain booty, and probably having also the aim of preventing them from passing through what they saw as Amalekite territory. These Amalekites were wandering tribespeople like the Bedouin today, and in those days they obtained much of their wealth by preying on others. They were a part of the alliance of tribes that caused such misery to the new nation of Israel in Judges 3.13; 6.3-6, and they would think nothing of wiping out any whom they saw as intruding on their wide-ranging territory. They made an exception of small tribes like the Kenites whom they saw as also being genuine desert-dwellers. Some may well eventually have settled down to semi-nomadic living. But like the Canaanites/Amorites earlier, YHWH now saw them as having filled up their sins to the full (compare Genesis 15.16).
We should note that 14.48 suggests that they had recently been despoiling the Israelites so that this was not just something out of the blue concerning things long past, but was a means of preventing further injury to the people of Israel. Total destruction was necessary because if such a people were not totally destroyed they would re-gather, associate with other tribespeople and subsequently take their revenge. The security of the people of Israel security thus demanded their annihilation. Nevertheless it was also to be seen as fulfilling God’s curse on Amalek because of what they had previously done (Exodus 17.16; Numbers 24.20; Deuteronomy 25.17-19).
(We should note how long the Amalekites had had to repent of and change their ways. YHWH had not brought His curse into effect immediately. It was rather exacted as a result of further infringements.
The slaughter of all their cattle was seen as similar to offering up sacrifices to YHWH with the difference that it was done at once, without an altar and without any participation in the meat. All had been devoted to Him and was now being offered to Him. They would be slaughtered and then burned to ashes.
We should recognise that the whole point of The Ban (the devoting of people and things to YHWH) was that none would benefit from the slaughter. It was intended to be solemnly treated as an act of YHWH’s judgment. We who live in less violent days, who do not sit in our houses and work in our fields wondering when the Amalekites will next sweep down on us and murder us all, cringe at the thought of this total destruction of a people, but we should remember that for people in those days there would have been no better news for them than that of their final deliverance from the threat of the depredations of the murderous Amalekites. To them it would have been like us locking up all the criminals at once.
Saul’s Campaign Against The Amalekites And His Sacrilege With Regard To The Devoted Things (15.4-9).
15.4 ‘And Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred military units of footmen, and ten military units of men of Judah.’
In obedience to YHWH’s command Saul sent out the call to the tribes, and when they were gathered in Telaim assessed their strength. (Telaim was a town in the Negeb. Compare possibly Joshua 15.24). From the central and northern tribes had come two hundred units of infantry. From Judah in the south had come ten military units. We can compare this with 11.8 where there had been three hundred units and thirty units respectively. This decrease may have been because both the central tribes and Judah needed to retain many of their troops to keep back the Philistines who would inevitably take any opportunity to invade an unprotected territory, or alternatively it may simply be that the units were larger. Another possible alternative is that war and disease had reduced their numbers considerably.
15.5 ‘And Saul came to the city of Amalek, and laid wait in the valley.’
The ‘city’ of Amalek may have been a large tent encampment (compare Numbers 13.19), or some may have settled down in a small city called Ir-Amalek (city of Amalek). We do not know where it was, but it would either have been in the Negeb or in the wilderness. Whatever it was it was seemingly on a hill, and Saul and his troops settled down in ambush in the valley, partially surrounding the hill.
15.6 ‘And Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them, for you showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.’
A group of Kenites were with the Amalekites, or in their own encampment close by. They were seen by the Amalekites as ‘brother nomads’. The Kenites had, however, unlike the fierce Amalekites, assisted Israel in its journey through the wilderness and one of their number had acted as Israel’s guide (Numbers 10.29-32 with Judges 1.16). They had long lived with Israel in friendly fashion. Saul thus sent them a message inviting them to leave the mount for a place of safety so that they would not be destroyed with the Amalekites. He may well also have communicated to them the fact of the Ban (the devotion of the Amalekites to YHWH) which would have indicated the seriousness of the conflict that was approaching. The Kenites, no doubt deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, ‘departed from the Amalekites’. It was not their fight, and they had no animosity towards Israel. Nor did they want to be destroyed.
15.7 ‘And Saul smote the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is before Egypt.’
Saul and his army then smote the Amalekites, first in their main encampment and then all the Amalekites who were in their territory ‘from Havilah to Shur’ (compare Genesis 25.18). Shur was near the border of Egypt. In Genesis 10 two Havilahs are mentioned, one connected with Cush and possibly in Arabia, and one connected with Joktan. It was clearly a popular name. It simply means ‘circle’ or ‘district’. The exact area of the Havilah mentioned here is unknown. The description may simply indicate the extent of the territory in which the Amalekites roamed which was emptied of them.
15.8 ‘And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.’
Saul’s first act of disobedience was to allow Agag to live. If YHWH’s instructions had been followed Agag would not have been taken alive. Saul may have spared him out of fellow regard for a fellow-king, or because he wanted to parade him and have him as his servant in order to emphasise his victory or it may have been in the hope of a ransom from the wider Amalekite community. But whichever way it was he had disobeyed God. The fact was that Agag was not his to dispose of. He was ‘devoted’ to YHWH. He should therefore have been put to death on the spot. For the name Agag compare Numbers 24.7. Agag was probably an hereditary title like ‘Pharaoh’ and ‘Abimelech’ (Genesis 20.2; 26.1; Psalm 34 heading re a Philistine king).
‘Utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.’ That is, all those whom they caught. Some would have escaped and joined up with other Amalekites to cause problems later (27.8; 30.1; 2 Samuel 8.12).
15.9 ‘But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the second oxen (or ‘fatlings’), and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them, but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.’
Here the people are brought into Saul’s sin as well. They also knew that everything should have been devoted to God, and it was theirs as well as Saul’s responsibility to ensure that it was. So in sparing these prized animals all are guilty. Their aim may have been to keep some of the cattle and sheep for themselves after making what they saw as ‘appropriate’ offerings to YHWH. Alternately the idea might have been that by offering these animals as sacrifices they would be able to feast on them (thus committing the sacrilege of partaking of meat that had been devoted to YHWH) and not be required to offer so many of their own. But what they were in fact doing was stinting God, and forgetting that these animals were YHWH’s already. By eating of them they would be eating of ‘holy things’, and even worse, of ‘devoted things’.
‘Second oxen’ (compare Judges 6.25). The Hebrew word means ‘of the second sort, of the second birth, second in order, rank or age’ (oxen is inferred). It therefore indicates the second rank of oxen, or even the most prized oxen because of its second birth. Many would, however, add a Hebrew consonant and translate as ‘fatlings’ which would parallel the ‘lambs’. This is, in fact, how it is translated in some versions (LXX has ‘of the fruits and of the vineyards’). But the translation ‘second’ makes good sense in view of Judges 6.25, and the translator may well have taken the easier option.
YHWH’s Response To Their Actions (15.10-11).
YHWH’s response was to reject Saul from being king on the grounds of sacrilege and high treason, that is, because by his actions he had rejected his Overlord’s commands, and had committed sacrilege against what belonged wholly to YHWH.
15.10 ‘Then came the word of YHWH to Samuel, saying,’
The word of YHWH came to Samuel. He alone represented the true voice of YHWH. He was still very much YHWH’s representative, with his authority still acknowledged by Saul.
15.11 “It repents me that I have set up Saul to be king, for he is turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to YHWH all night.’
YHWH declared to Samuel that He regretted setting up Saul as king because he had turned from following Him and had not obeyed His commandments. ‘Repent’ is an anthropomorphism indicating what it looked like from a human point of view. It simply indicated that as a result of Saul’s disobedience YHWH would now see him and act towards him differently. For the one thing above all others that He required in His ‘anointed one’ (verse 1) was obedience.
To Samuel what he learned was devastating, for he recognised what it demonstrated, that Saul could no longer be trusted to do what YHWH required, even in the most serious of matters. His kingship had gone to his head. The result was that he was furious with Saul, and spent the night mourning because Israel’s king, whom he had appointed, had been a total failure. And perhaps at the same time he was praying for God to show him what he should now do to prevent catastrophe for Israel.
Samuel Seeks Saul Out In Order To Give Him A Stern Rebuke And Declare That YHWH Has Withdrawn From Him His Support (15.12-31).
We do not know for sure where Samuel was at this time although the last that we heard of him he was in Gibeah (13.15). However much had happened since that time and this may have been years later. Perhaps he was in fact in or near Carmel awaiting news of the raid.
15.12 ‘And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning, and it was told Samuel, saying, “Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a monument, and turned, and passed on, and went down to Gilgal.”
Next morning Samuel rose early and went to meet Saul. Carmel was in the mountains of Judah, about seven miles south-south-east of Hebron, and was on Saul’s expected route from the Negeb. And on arrival there he learned that Saul had already set up a monument in Carmel and had moved on to Gilgal. The monument was probably a token of victory. Why he had set it up in Carmel we do not know, unless it was because it was the first large town through which he had passed on re-entering Israel, but in view of what we are shortly to learn it was hardly appropriate. Saul, like Samuel, should have been mourning because of his own failure.
Gilgal was probably the place where the Tabernacle now was, or alternately was simply seen as the Central Sanctuary in lieu of the Tabernacle. As we have seen it was regularly the place for offering offerings and sacrifices on important occasions (10.8; 11.15; 13.4, 8). Saul had clearly gone there in order to offer thanks for his victory to YHWH and presumably thought that YHWH would be pleased. He had become so blase that he had not yet realised how great a sin he had committed, one that was in fact worse than that of Achan (Joshua 7).
15.13 ‘And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of YHWH, I have performed the commandment of YHWH.” ’
When Samuel arrived Saul greeted him warmly and declared that he had done what YHWH had commanded. He was feeling pleased with himself. He had largely destroyed the Amalekites in the southern area of Israel, and in the wilderness beyond, and had returned with great booty.
15.14 ‘And Samuel said, “What means then this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” ’
But Samuel was not to be taken in. He knew what Saul had done, and so he asked, ‘What then means this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen?’ He wanted to face Saul up to his sin. It is probably difficult for us to realise how great a sin Saul’s was. It was the kind of sin that would even have horrified Israel’s neighbours. It was a sin against the ‘most holy of things’. It is evidence of the arrogance and careless attitude that Saul now had towards YHWH that he did not realise it. He was beginning to think that he could do what he liked.
15.15 ‘And Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to YHWH your God, and the remainder we have utterly destroyed.” ’
Saul began to make excuses and tried to assure Samuel that they had brought these animals from the Amalekite encampment and had kept the best in order to present them to YHWH, having destroyed everything else as YHWH had commanded. He did not seem to realise that for them to eat them as peace and thanksgiving offerings would be to transgress against what was most holy, against what had already been devoted to YHWH. He should have known that if they were to offer peace and thank offerings they should have taken them from their own resources, not from these. These were already YHWH’s.
15.16 ‘Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stay, and I will tell you what YHWH has said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Say on.” ’
15.17 ‘And Samuel said, “Though you were little in your own sight, were you not made the head of the tribes of Israel? And YHWH anointed you king over Israel,” ’
Samuel reminds Saul of what YHWH had done for him. When he was but little in his own sight, God had shown him great favour. He had made him the head of the tribes of Israel. He had anointed him as king over Israel. There is a reference back here to Saul’s own words in 9.21.
15.18 “And YHWH sent you on a journey, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed’.”
And it was this same YHWH Who had sent him on this expedition and had said to him, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites.’ Note the emphasis on their sinfulness. These were no ordinary enemy, they were ‘the sinners’. They had been particularly evil. And that was why they had been ‘devoted to YHWH’ so as to remove this evil from the earth for the good of all. And that was why YHWH had told him to fight against them until all were consumed.
15.19 “For what reason then did you not obey the voice of YHWH, but flew on the spoil, and did what was evil in the sight of YHWH?”
The question then was, why had he not obeyed YHWH when He had spoken to him so clearly? Why had he flown like a great vulture on the spoil in order to keep it for himself, thereby doing evil in the sight of YHWH?
15.20 ‘And Saul said to Samuel, “Yes, I have obeyed the voice of YHWH, and have gone the way which YHWH sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites.”
Saul’s reply was that he had done what YHWH had said. He had obeyed the voice of YHWH. He had gone the way in which YHWH had sent him. But then he convicted himself out of his own mouth, for while he claimed to have ‘devoted to YHWH’ the whole of the Amalekites, he admitted that he had actually not done so, because here was Agag, the king of Amalek, the one who above all represented Amalek, still alive. So Saul was admitting that he had failed to ‘devote’ all Amalek to YHWH. He had ‘devoted’ only what was right in his own eyes. He had kept back part of the spoil. He had appropriated what was YHWH’s for himself.
15.21 “But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things, to sacrifice to YHWH your God in Gilgal.”
And then he took the age-old path of sinners. While admitting that some of the sheep and cattle, the very ‘chief of the devoted things’, had not been slain, he put the blame on the people. It was not his fault, he claimed, it was theirs. It was they who had taken the best of the spoil in order to bring it to Gilgal and offer it to YHWH. But what he knew perfectly well in his heart was that what already belonged to YHWH because it had been devoted to Him, could not be offered as an offering. What had been devoted to Him was ‘holy to YHWH’ and had to be put to death, not sacrificed (Leviticus 27.28-29; Deuteronomy 13.15-17). And it had been his solemn responsibility as YHWH’s anointed to ensure that that was done. God would not accept half-measures.
Note Saul’s emphasis on ‘YOUR God’. He wanted Samuel to recognise that this great offering was to be to Samuel’s own God. It was He Who was to be honoured. But he was prevaricating, for in his heart he knew the clear regulation that what was ‘devoted’ could not be offered, and this especially so as they would also partake of it. For what was ‘devoted’ was already totally set apart as His.
15.22 ‘And Samuel said, “Has YHWH as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of YHWH? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” ’
Samuel’s reply, which would be regularly echoed by later prophets, was that while offerings and sacrifices might delight YHWH when they were evidence of, and came from, an obedient and loving heart, without that they were meaningless. It was not offering and sacrifice and ritual that lay at the heart of religion, but faithfulness and obedience. The former only had meaning if they resulted from the latter. Obedience to God and listening to His commands were what was at the heart of true religion.
This in fact was the difference between Yahwism and all the religions round about. In all the other religions what mattered was to carry out the ritual correctly, while the way in which men lived was of secondary importance. Their gods were seen as having to be pacified and fed and bribed and persuaded by religious manipulation. In contrast what God required was a faithful and obedient heart, a continual response to His covenant. The whole purpose of the ritual in Yahwism was as an expression of love and faithfulness. See Psalm 40.6-8; 50.8 ff; 51.16-17; Isaiah 1.11-15; Jeremiah 6.20; Hosea 6.6; Amos 5.21-24; Micah 6.6-8; Matthew 9.17; 12.7.
15.23 “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because you have rejected the word of YHWH, he has also rejected you from being king.”
Samuel then brings home the seriousness of disobedience. It is rebellion against God. It is thus as bad as using witchcraft and manipulating evil spirits, something for which men and women should be put to death (Exodus 22.18;, Leviticus 19.26, 31; 20.27; Deuteronomy 18.10-12. And the same is true of stubbornness in the face of God’s commandment. It is as bad as idolatry and resorting to the teraphim (superstitious images). For both disobedience and stubbornness exalt the self above God.
And then Samuel delivered the final blow. Because by his flagrant disobedience to a most sacred command of God Saul had rejected the word of YHWH, so now had YHWH rejected him from being king over Israel. In YHWH’s eyes he was king no longer. He might still bear the trappings, but that was all. YHWH might still assist His people, but it would not be through Saul or because of Saul. Saul was a reject.
15.24 ‘And Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of YHWH, and your words, because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.”
Saul’s resistance now collapsed. He acknowledged that all his excuses had simply been hypocrisy. He admitted that he had disobeyed YHWH’s strict commandment, and the words of Samuel, because he had been swayed by the people and had done what they had said. He was still seeking to shift the blame onto the people. But we should note that his great concern was concerning what he had lost by it, not about how much he had sinned against God. David in a similar situation would have fallen on his face and cried, ‘Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight’ (Psalm 51.4), expressing his deep regret that he had offended against the God Whom he loved. That above all was what mattered to him. But Saul’s concern was more about the fact that he had lost status and position.
15.25 “Now therefore, I pray you, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship YHWH.”
We should note Saul’s approach here. Rather than being down on his face before God in utter despair over how he had grieved Him, he was more concerned about his sin against Samuel, and looked for Samuel’s intervention with God. His faith was not direct, it was second hand. His concern was to be accepted back cultically, so that he might be seen to be worshipping YHWH correctly, not on how his behaviour had broken his own personal relationship with God.
15.26 ‘And Samuel said unto Saul, “I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of YHWH, and YHWH has rejected you from being king over Israel.” ’
But Samuel would have none of it. He would not return with him to the Sanctuary at Gilgal, because he had rejected the word of YHWH, and thus YHWH had rejected him from being king over Israel. He would thus no longer acknowledge him before the people. As far as he was concerned as the prophet of YHWH he had no further responsibility towards Saul.
15.27 ‘And as Samuel turned about to go away, Saul laid hold on the hem of his robe, and it tore.’
Saul was desperate. He was afraid that without Samuel’s support his whole status and acceptability might collapse. So in his desperation he reached out to grab the robe of the departing prophet in order to prevent him from leaving. But all that he managed to lay hands on was the very hem of the robe which spoke of the commandments of YHWH, and on which were the tassels that depicted the commandments of YHWH (Numbers 15.38-40). And the hem tore. This might suggest that in fact one of the tassels was torn loose, symbolic of his own breach of the commandments, but even if not it was symbolic of his breach of the commandments.
15.28 ‘And Samuel said to him, “YHWH has torn the kingship of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbour of yours who is better than you.”
Then Samuel basically said to him, ‘Just as that hem has been torn, so has YHWH torn from you the kingship of Israel this day.’ Both recognised the significance of the torn hem. Disobedience and breach of YHWH’s commandments had brought separation from God, and in Saul’s case that included the matter of the kingship. And inevitably, as his family’s succession had already been ruled out (13.14), that involved another Israelite replacing him, someone who was better than he was.
This is the second time that Samuel has indicated that YHWH now has his replacement in mind. In 13.14 he had said, ‘YHWH has sought a man after His own heart, and YHWH has commanded him to be war-leader over His people’. Here it is to ‘one of your neighbours -- someone who is better than you’. Samuel did not yet know who it was. But he did know that YHWH had someone in mind. We note here that Saul’s punishment now exceeds Eli’s. Rather than lifting Israel higher, Saul has brought them even lower.
15.29 “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent, for he is not a man, that he should repent.”
Samuel then stresses the finality of YHWH’s verdict. YHWH is the very foundation and strength of Israel, its very backbone, the unchanging One, the eternal One, God and not man. He is totally steadfast and sure. In a word used elsewhere He is their Rock (2.2). And because His desire is for the very best for His people, nothing less than the best for them can finally satisfy Him. Thus once YHWH has determined on something which He knows is for their benefit it will come about, and nothing will change His mind or make Him regret it, because it will have been purposed for the very best. And all this because He is the Unchanging One (compare James 1.17).
This is not a contradiction of what is said in verse 11. The appointment of Saul there had not been ‘within the eternal will of God’. It had not been purposed from the beginning. It had not been for the very best. Indeed He had warned the people from the very start that to have a king would be very much second best. It had not been something that He had wanted for them. It had simply been something that He had allowed because He was ready to give the people what, of their own free will, they wanted so that they might learn by it. But once He had felt that the consequences were becoming too grave He was ready to alter them. He was ready to go back on what He had allowed. While He had allowed it because of the persistence of their demands He did not now want them to suffer too much from it. And so He altered course. But that was not to change in regard to something that He had purposed because it was for the very best. That was simply the alteration of a course that had been set by men because it had proved unsuitable.
So Saul can be sure now that YHWH will not change His mind about what He has determined. He can be sure that He will not withdraw from His rejection of Saul. It should be noted that this did not necessarily mean that he had lost the ability to find personal forgiveness. It was indicating his loss of privilege, not of his final salvation. That last would be determined by the true state of his heart. It is a reminder to us too that if we are not fully obedient we will lose the privileges that God wants to give us, possibly even irrevocably if it is in a case like this. We need to be aware that there comes a time when, if we keep saying ‘no’ we lose the opportunity to say ‘yes’.
15.30 ‘Then he said, “I have sinned. Yet honour me now, I pray you, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship YHWH your God.” ’
Saul’s defence now collapses. He ceases defending himself and acknowledges that he has sinned. Perhaps had he at this time flung himself down before God and repented as David repented in Psalm 51 God might have shown him more mercy. But he did not. That was not Saul’s way. He rather settled for what seemed to be the inevitable. His one desire now was not that he might be restored to YHWH’s favour as something that he could not bear to be without (which is what David would have wanted), but to be honoured before the people so that he might not lose their respect.
So he calls on Samuel to uphold his honour among the people and their leaders, by going with him to the Sanctuary at Gilgal so that they may together take part in the worship of YHWH. He knew at this point that, because Samuel was held in such high honour, if Samuel did not do so, his own position might well become unstable.
We note that Saul still wanted to worship YHWH ritually in the time honoured way. Indeed throughout his life he demonstrates his loyalty to Yahwism. But what he lacked was that personal sense of the need to be completely responsive to God. To him his religion was a useful crutch, and something that sustained him in a general kind of way. But it was not something intensely personal
15.31 ‘So Samuel turned again after Saul, and Saul worshipped YHWH.’
Samuel then revealed his compassion by following Saul to Gilgal and enabling him to worship YHWH. But it was the last thing that he would do for him. From then on Saul was on his own.
Samuel Completes What Saul Had Failed To Complete (15.32-35).
Samuel recognised that what had been devoted to YHWH must be given to him, and so he calls for Agag to be brought and executes him. And although it is not mentioned we would assume that Samuel also insisted on the ‘devoted’ animals being slaughtered and not offered as sacrifices. Then he leaves Saul for the last time and never sees him again.
15.32 ‘Then Samuel said, “Bring you here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him cheerfully. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” ’
Having completed their worship of YHWH Samuel demanded that Agag be called before him. He was determined to do what Saul had failed to do. Indeed it was his responsibility as a prophet of God.
If we translate as above Agag came ‘unsuspectingly’, and even ‘happily’, thinking that all was well and that he would be spared. But in fact the verb is neutral and simply indicates some form of emotion, or even apprehension. Thus LXX translates as ‘trembling’. We might therefore translate as ‘apprehensively’, indicating that he was not quite sure what to expect. That would then connect with next phrase put as an apprehensive question, ‘Is the bitterness of death indeed past?’ As a captor (and knowing what he would have done himself) he would know that his life hung by a thread. And he would have had cause to feel that with a prophet ‘you never knew’. He would know that what a prophet did could depend on the omens.
15.33 ‘And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before YHWH in Gilgal.’
He was soon to learn his fate. Samuel knew him as a man who could quite relentlessly slaughter others, and he sentenced him to the same fate. Indeed he had no option, for the man was ‘devoted to YHWH’ and therefore had to die. And so Samuel executed him (the word only occurs here and ‘hewed in pieces’ may not be strictly accurate. He presumably slew him as he would slaughter an animal), no doubt with a sword, ‘before YHWH’. YHWH’s requirement was being satisfied.
15.34 ‘Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house to Gibeah of Saul.’
Samuel and Saul then went their separate ways. This time there was no going to Gibeah for Samuel (contrast 13.15). He went home to Ramah, and Saul went back to his rustic fortress in Gibeah.
15.35 ‘And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death, for Samuel mourned for Saul, and YHWH repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.’
The final break is now signalled. The completeness of the break is stressed by the threefold description. He ‘came no more to see Saul’, he ‘mourned for Saul’, ‘YHWH repented that He had made Saul king’. Saul is now clearly rejected by YHWH, and we can therefore expect some indication of what YHWH will do next (which will come in the next chapter).
The clear implication of these last three chapters is that in spite of his successes Saul has been a failure. And yet Samuel was not unconcerned by the fact. Nor was he cynical, even though it had turned out as he had expected. Rather it was a great grief to him, a grief that had already begun in verse 11. He had hoped that Saul might turn out well in spite of his initial doubts. But now it was not to be. As for YHWH He also had withdrawn His support from Saul. As He had informed Samuel in verse 11, He was altering the planned course because the participant had proved unworthy. But He would not desert His people while Samuel was there to pray for them. He would now therefore choose a replacement for Saul.
Further free Bible articles and commentaries
Commentary on Samuel - Contents
1 Samuel 1.1-4.1a The Birth of Samuel And His Subsequent Career
1 Samuel 4.1b-8.22 The Movements of the Ark of God and the Judgeship of Samuel
1 Samuel 9.1-12.25 Saul Becomes King
1 Samuel 16.1-18.4 David Is Anointed And Slays Goliath
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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH--- ESTHER--- PSALMS 1-50--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS