The Word Made Fresh
1Saul was a young man when he began to rule over Israel. 2He chose three thousand men from Israel. Two thousand were with him at Michmash in the hill country near Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah in Benjamin. He sent the others home.
3Jonathan made an attack on the Philistine outpost at Geba, and word of it reached the Philistine leaders. Then Saul said, “The Hebrews should hear about this!” and sent trumpeters throughout the land and all of Israel to tell them, “Saul has defeated the Philistine outpost!” They were told that the Philistines were up in arms, and the people were called to join Saul at Gilgal.
5The Philistines had indeed summoned thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and foot soldiers as numerous as sand on the beach. They gathered at Michmash and camped east of Beth-haven. 6The Israelites were deeply worried when they saw it, and they hid in caves and thickets and in the rocks and in tombs and wells. 7Some of them even fled across the Jordan to Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and the people with him there were afraid.
8He waited there for seven days as Samuel had told him, but Samuel didn’t show up and his men began to slip away. 9Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering and the other offerings to me.” He himself then presided over the offering. 10No sooner had he finished presenting it when Samuel arrived. Saul went out to greet him. 11Samuel said, “What have you done?”
Saul said, “I saw that the people were slipping away, and when you didn’t come at the appointed time, and the Philistines were gathering at Michmash, 12I was afraid they would attack me here at Gilgal, and I had not asked the favor of the LORD, so I took it upon myself to offer the burnt offering.”
13Samuel replied, “You have done a foolish thing. You haven’t obeyed what the LORD your God commanded. The LORD would have been willing to establish your kingdom forever, 14but now it will not continue. Instead, the LORD has found another man who loves the LORD and has decided that he will be the next ruler of the people because you have not kept the LORD’s commandments.”
15Then Samuel left Gilgal and headed to Gibeah of Benjamin. Those remaining with Saul to form his army were about six hundred men. 16Saul was joined by his son Jonathan and Jonathan’s men at Gibeah.
The Philistines were encamped at Michmash. 17They sent out three raiding parties. One went toward Ophrah in the territory of Shual. 18The second was sent toward Beth-Horon, and the third toward the border facing the valley of Zeboiim above the wilderness.
19The Israelites had no blacksmiths because the Philistines would not allow it. They said, “The Hebrews must not be allowed to make swords or spears,” 20so they had to go to the Philistines to sharpen their plows, picks, axes and sickles; 21and they had to pay the Philistines with silver coins to have them sharpened. 22And that is why, on the day of their battle, Saul’s and Jonathan’s men had no swords or spears, although Saul and Jonathan did have them. 23Meanwhile, a detachment of the Philistine army had taken up a position at the Michmash pass.
There is a formula statement which signals the beginning of an account of an Israelite king’s reign. The general formula is 1) the name, 2) his age at the beginning of his reign, 3) the number of years that he reigned, 4) sometimes the name of the queen mother, 5) oftentimes the place where his throne was located, (usually Jerusalem or Samaria), and 6) a statement about whether he did what was right or what was evil. Saul is the first king, though, and the information here is truncated and cannot be restored. Literally the text says he was 1 year old when he began his reign and his reign was for 2 years; but in both cases the form of the number used indicates that something comes before it – perhaps he was 21 or 31, and reigned for 22 or 32 or 42 years, for example, but Saul’s age and the actual length of his reign can’t really be determined. And, since there was at the time no capital city, the place of his reign is not given either, only that he ruled “over Israel.”
2-4: After his victory over Nahash, Saul keeps a standing army of 3000, divided into two battalions. We meet his son Jonathan here for the first time, and learn that Jonathan is an adult and commands 1/3 of Saul’s troops. This is curious because Jonathan is not identified specifically as Saul’s son until chapter 14. So, it appears that quite some time has passed, and Saul must now be in his mid-to-late thirties. Jonathan takes the initiative in overthrowing the garrison of Philistines at Geba, and the existence of a Philistine garrison on Israelite territory tells us that an occupation is in place. The Philistines are informed of Jonathan’s exploits, and Saul summons his army to Gilgal, expecting a fight.
5-7: The Philistines amass an army at Michmash and refugees flee the territory to hide in the hills or cross the Jordan. Saul gathers troops at Gilgal, meanwhile. His cry, “The Hebrews should hear about this!” may be a reference to the Israelites (the Philistines call them Hebrews) who serve as mercenaries in the Philistine army (see 14:21).
8-14: Now we learn that Saul is waiting because Samuel has told him to wait for 7 days. Samuel gave those instructions at the time he anointed Saul (10:8), but it seemed out of place then. It is suspected that the verse somehow got misplaced earlier in the text, since clearly it is more appropriate at this point in the story. While Saul waits, his soldiers begin to go A.W.O.L. Saul is getting desperate, and when Samuel hasn’t arrived by the end of the week he decides to wait no longer. He himself acts as the priest and presides over the burnt offerings. Samuel, as luck would have it (or was it deliberate?) walks up just at that point. Saul explains that he fears the Philistines will attack and he needs to ask God’s help. Samuel is livid. Not only has Saul usurped his place as leader of the people, now he has even dared to usurp Samuel’s religious authority! Samuel says, “You have not kept the LORD’s commandment,” but really, isn’t it Samuel’s commandment that has been disobeyed? Samuel stomps off in a huff, declaring that “God” has rejected Saul and has already found Saul’s replacement! We think at this point he may be referring to Jonathan, but Jonathan is Saul’s son, and if he becomes king after Saul that would be a continuation of Saul’s line which Samuel was pretty clear wasn’t going to happen.
15-18: Saul’s 3000-man army has dwindled to 600. The Philistines begin their movements, a three-pronged attack clearly designed to divide the meager Israelite force even further.
19-23: Now we learn that the Philistines have been holding the Israelites under a rather severe submission. This catches us a bit by surprise because, aside from the battle with Nahash the Ammonite, the text has given us the impression to this point that the situation with the Philistines has been in a holding pattern. But no, the Philistines have subjected the Israelites to rather strict arms-reduction measures. Saul and Jonathan are the only soldiers in the entire Israelite army who have iron weapons!
We have seen and will see over and over that the enemies of God’s faithful people, no matter how numerous or powerful, are always at a disadvantage.