Saul functions in this story as the last of Israel’s judges. He has been anointed as a king, and acclaimed as one, but he has not yet been made a king. This fact alone means that at the beginning of his reign, there is faithfulness to the theocratic ideal. And, at the very beginning of his reign, Saul is sure-footed—valiant and merciful both. This appears to be a very good start indeed.
“Then Nahash the Ammonite came up, and encamped against Jabeshgilead: and all the men of Jabesh said unto Nahash, Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee . . .” (1 Sam. 11:1-15).
Summary of the Text
The city of Jabeshgilead comes under siege from the Ammonites (v. 1). The inhabitants of the city see no option but to surrender. The Ammonite king says that they may surrender, provided they all agree to be blinded in the right eye (v. 2). This had a military point, but it was also intended for humiliation. The elders of the city asked for a week to see if there was any help available from the rest of Israel (v. 3). Nahash apparently was quite willing to fight the rest of Israel, which would be the only reason why he would agree to something like this. Messengers from Jabeshgilead came to Saul’s town, and the reaction was one of great sorrow, but no action (v. 4). Saul was out in the field, and when he comes in, he hears the weeping and asks what is the reason for it (v. 5). When he heard the reason, the Spirit of God came upon him, and he was very angry (v. 6). He took a yoke of oxen, cut them up in pieces, and sent them around Israel. Anybody who does not follow Saul and Samuel will have the same thing done to his oxen (v. 7). The fear of the Lord came upon everyone, and they all turned out. 300,000 from Israel came, and 30,000 from Judah (v. 8). They told the messengers from the besieged city that they would have aid before the sun got hot the next day (v. 9). So the men of Jabesh returned, and told the Ammonites that they would “come out” on the next day (v. 10). So Saul divided his men into three companies, launched an early morning attack, and fought until the heat of the day (v. 11). The Ammonites were so scattered that no two of them could be found together. Certain men among the Israelites said to Samuel that those son of Belial who didn’t want Saul as king should be put to death (v. 12). But Saul intervened, and said that no one should be put to death on a day of salvation like this one was (v. 13). Samuel has the people go to Gilgal, in order to renew the kingdom there (v. 14). And this they do, making Saul king before the Lord (v. 15). They offered peace offerings, and there was great joy.
Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard
A bunch of this might seem random to us because we are not familiar with these names and places. But consider this. Gibeah, Saul’s hometown, was the place in Benjamin where that horrific rape had taken place, and the Levite’s concubine had been cut in pieces and shipped all over Israel as a summons to war (Judges 19-21). Same town, and Saul cuts oxen up and sent all over Israel as a summons to war. Jabeshgilead was right across the Jordan to the east, and was the one city that had refused to go to war against Benjamin. As a result they were sacked, and 400 of their virgins given to the tiny remnant left of Benjamin’s army (Judg. 21:8ff). Bezek, the place where Saul musters his army, is the place of the first military victory in the book of Judges (Judg. 1:5). Gilgal, where Samuel takes them afterwards to make Saul king, is the place where Joshua renewed covenant with God after they had crossed over the Jordan (Josh. 5:9)
The name Nahash means serpent (it is the same word that is used in the Genesis account of the Garden). Before Saul can receive the kingdom, he must fight and defeat the serpent. 30 is the number of a royal retinue, and Israel is mustered at 30 times 10,000. Judah comes in at 30 times 1,000. Saul divides his army into 3, just like Gideon did, before his attack.
Revolt Against Maturity
Samuel has been holding the people responsible for their request for a king like the other nations. He continues to do this. He takes them all to Gilgal, where the people “made Saul king before the Lord” (1 Sam. 11:15). Note this well. Samuel had already identified Saul as the one (1 Sam. 9:17). Samuel in his prophetic office had already anointed Saul as the one (1 Sam. 10:1). The lots cast by Samuel in the presence of all the people had pointed to Saul as the one (1 Sam. 10:22). The people had cheered him as the one (1 Sam. 10:24). And yet, with all this, he still was not the king until the people made him king. This meant that later, when the king began to mistreat them, they couldn’t treat him as an interloper. They had done it to themselves. In our republic, we are reminded of this reality every four years—who is the incompetent who keeps putting these people in charge? Who is the search committee that has given us this string of incredibly bad hires? Why . . . it’s us.
What does this mean? It means that we cannot shuffle off our responsibilities with regard to tyranny. Bad government doesn’t just happen to us, the way bad weather does. We get the government we deserve, and the way out is therefore the way of repentance. “Don’t blame me, I voted for the other guy” doesn’t work when you understand covenantal representation.
But the reason people like the “security” of tyranny is that, although the consequences are bad, they can just hunker down and take it, as though it were a stretch of bad weather. They would rather have hard times with minimal responsibility than good times with a lot of responsibility. But this is the mentality of the slave. This is the reason why the children of Israel complained in the wilderness— freedom in every direction, and lots of responsibility. Sure things were hard back in Egypt, but at least Pharaoh offered full employment.