We’re back to the story of Saul in 1 Samuel today, and let’s start off by remembering some of where we’ve been:
- Israel demanded a king in chapter 8
- And after a time, Saul was privately anointed as king by Samuel.
- At the end of this story of anointing, Saul hesitated to attack the Philistines as instructed, which was to have been how his selection was made public, through a military test.
- So in chapter 10, he is publicly chosen by lot.
- And today, in chapter 11 we have an alternate test of his ability to fight.
Now, after Saul was chosen by lot, there is a discordant note, which begins our story.
The deliverance of Jabesh-gilead
10:27But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.
Just before this some valiant men gathered around Saul. But these worthless ones call him into question, even though he was just chosen by God. They didn’t give a present, that is, a gift to honor Saul and to help fund the new monarchy.
And it’s true that there will always be some among the people of God who question leaders or who have a critical spirit and don’t support or honor them; and it’s no different here.
Can Saul really save us? This question sets up our story.
11:1Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead . . .
Jabesh-Gilead is on the eastern side of the Jordan river. This is where part of the tribe of Manasseh, the tribe of Gad and the tribe of Reuben settled. It is also next to the nation of Ammon. Jabesh-gilead is in Gad and is about 40 miles from Gibeah where Saul is.
We find out later that Nahash’s growing power is in part why the people wanted a king in the first place (1 Samuel 12:12)
Now some translations have extra verses at the end of chapter 10, which come from the Dead Sea scrolls, that are probably not original to the Hebrew Bible, but might be an ancient scribe’s attempt to give us some background. These verses say, “Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead. About a month later . . .” (NRSV)
So, some possible background information here on what’s going on.
Then picking up again with the rest of v. 1, Scripture says –
. . . and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” 2But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition (or by this means) I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.”
They ask for a treaty, which means they are willing to pay tribute to Nahash and to live under his rule, if there is peace.
There is a wordplay going on here. To make a treaty is literally “to cut a treaty,” because animals were sacrificed to ratify these. Here Nahash is saying that the cutting out of their eyes will be the way of ratifying the treaty (Tsumura). (And so, “on this condition” should be translated as “by this means.”)
This was an extreme measure, meant to provoke and shame them and all of Israel, if they allow this to happen to their kinsmen. Almost certainly cutting out their right eye was meant to impair their ability to be skilled warriors, since the right eye was used to aim. It was a way of keeping them under his rule.
3The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.”
They ask for time to see if anyone will help them.
Now, there is a background story to this one, found in Judges 19-21. It’s the gruesome story of when the men of Gibeah in Benjamin sought to rape a Levite visitor, but instead sexually assaulted and murdered his concubine. He then cut her body into 12 pieces and sent these parts all throughout Israel to call them to punish Benjamin for their crime. Well, Jabesh-gilead didn’t respond to this call. And so as they send out a call here, there is reason to question if any will come to their aid.
4When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud.
Again, there is background here from Judges 21. The other tribes fought against Benjamin and nearly wiped them out. But they didn’t want to lose a tribe, so they relented and sought wives for the remaining men. Since Jabesh-gilead didn’t respond to the call to punish Benjamin and the city of Gibeah, they were attacked and 400 young women from Jabesh-gilead were taken to give to the 600 men that were left of Benjamin. So there is a close kinship connection between Jabesh-gilead and Benjamin, and here specifically the city of Gibeah.
So it’s no surprise that the messengers come to Gibeah and to Saul hoping for a response. And it’s no surprise that there is such weeping.
5Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh.
Though anointed king and publicly selected, he is still a farmer for now, and as we will see below, Samuel still has a leadership role.
And so he comes in from the fields after work to hear the news.
6And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.
The Spirit comes to empower Saul to be king and deliverer. Specifically, the Spirit stirs up righteous anger about what Nahash is doing. Righteous anger is meant to stir us up to do the right thing.
And then in a move reminiscent of Judges 19-21,
7He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!”
(The phrase, “throughout all the territory of Israel” is also found in Judges 19:29.)
He is calling all of Israel to respond to Nahash and his outrageous behavior.
There must have surely been a temptation for people to want to stay home and do their farm work. But the threat is that if they don’t come their oxen, which today would be equivalent to their farm equipment, will be destroyed. Then they won’t be able to work for the foreseeable future.
(That he kills his own oxen might be a sign that he is not going to be a farmer anymore, but will now be king.)
Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man. 8When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand.
God worked through the message that Saul sent out and everyone responded.
9And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.’” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad. 10Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.”
The phrase, “we will give ourselves up to you” is more simply translated, “we will come out to you.” Which could mean to surrender or to march out for war. But the Ammonites take it that they will surrender, which instills complacency in them.
11And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
So Saul is strategic in dividing up his army and in attacking in the morning watch, sometime between 2 and 6 in the morning, when an already unsuspecting army is further off guard. And it was a complete victory.
(Notice that in the first past of the story that Nahash sought to cut out their eyes. But here the people of Jabesh-gilead say to them “do to us whatever seems good to you or in your eyes” and then the Ammonites are struck or “cut” down.) (The people of Jabesh-gilead were faithful to Saul when he died – 1 Samuel 31:11-13; 2 Samuel 2:4-7; 21:12)
12Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.” 13But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel.”
Remember, before “he held his peace” when they questioned him. And here Saul displays real character and grace, by counseling that no one be punished. And he gives full credit to God for the deliverance wrought through him.
This request “bring us the men (the worthless ones – 10:27) that we may put them to death” echoes Judges 20:13, “give up the men, (the worthless fellows of Gibeah) that we may put them to death.”
So Saul has passed the test! and the people are behind him. Next, we will see him being officially recognized as king and Samuel will give his farewell to the people.
Now let’s look at some –
Challenges for us
– from this story. One lesson is that 1. With the call comes the anointing. I have mentioned this before. God doesn’t call us to do things that he doesn’t empower us to accomplish.
- Saul was called to be king and we see here that God’s Spirit came upon him and enabled him to defeat the Ammonites.
- Saul is able, in the Lord, to overcome his fear; his core weakness, to do what God called him to do.
This was his finest hour. But this also shows us that when Saul fails in the coming chapters, it was because of his choices and giving in to his fears, not because he couldn’t do it with God’s help.
What does God want you to do? He will empower you to do it. Even if it goes against your core weakness. God’s power is made perfect in our human weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Saul is and example of this here.
2. God is able to save. This is a key theme in this story. The word for save/salvation (or deliverance) shows up 4 times in this story (10:27, 11:3, 9, 13) ending with Saul’s words, “today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel.”
This is one more in a long line of examples of how God is able to save his people, no matter what the situation is.
Now, this story can be read typologically, that is, it presents to us a foreshadowing of what is true today in the time of Christ.
Nahash’s name means serpent. The people of Jabesh-gilead are thus under the power of the evil one. Saul the deliverer represents the promised Messiah; God’s anointed one who saves.
And so the question is, what do you need delivered from? Sin and Satan are spoken of as powers that enslaves us.
- Jesus says in John 8:34, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” But he also says, “if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.”
- In Luke 11 Jesus speaks of us as captives of the strongman, Satan. But he says of himself, “when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him . . . he takes away his spoil,” that is, us.
What do you need to be delivered from? God will work through our king, Jesus to set you free! And not only that, he can begin to use us to help set others free, just as the Israelite army does in this story.
God is able to save. God saves us from Sin and the evil one. And God wants to use us to set other people free.