I Samuel 11 – Saul the Savior of Israel
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 18, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. This is the most beautiful time of year in my home town. Nearly every day I drive down Runnymeade Road just to see the azaleas. By the way, if you see Julie Atwood today, feel free to wish her a happy birthday. It was a busy week at Wake Forest. We began the week with Rev. Charles Adams preaching and ended it with Hillary Clinton campaigning. In between, we managed to teach a few classes. My students in Moravian theology are desperately trying to write their final papers. It’s been a great group of students.
This week we are continuing our study of I Samuel. We left off last week with Saul being selected by lot to be king of Israel at Mizpah. This week we have yet another story about the rise of Saul to kingship. In this story, Saul is depicted like one of the Judges who responds aggressively to a threat against Israel. He becomes king because he rises to the occasion, assumes leadership, and is victorious. There is no indication that Saul had already been chosen as king. This is one of the many examples in I Samuel of the incorporation of more than one source. The final author made some attempt to reconcile the different traditions by saying that the kingship will be renewed, but for the most part we have separate traditions combined. It is a reminder that the authors of the Old Testament were not as concerned with literalism than we are today.
Read: I’ll begin the reading with the end of ch. 10. I Samuel 10: 24-11:14
Worthless Fellows: Last week we talked about the selection of Saul by the lot and how gleeful Samuel was when he presented him to the people. He was tall, handsome, and virile. Samuel clearly thinks that God has made the right choice, but he also makes it clear that king will have to observe the laws of God and good government. Samuel writes a book on the monarchy and places it on the altar at Mizpah. That book has never been found, and some scholars think this statement in I Samuel expresses a pious desire than historical fact. I suspect that much of that book made its way into the history of the kings of Israel and it provided a standard by which the prophets could judge the kings. This story provided support for the idea of a constitutional monarchy, by the way.
The thing I want to bring to your attention this morning, though, is that not everyone was in favor of Saul as king. There were people who are described as “worthless fellows” who despised Saul. The word could be translated as trouble-makers, provocateurs, scapegraces, blackguards, scoundrels, or low-down homeboys disrespecting Saul. It all depends on your idiom. We don’t know anything about them other than the fact they despised Saul and refused to give him gifts. We don’t know if they were opposed to having a king in general or if they represented one of the tribes that were rivals to Benjamin. In other words, they may have been the type who despises a President because he or she is from the wrong party or wrong state. It is quite likely that there was a lot more politics involved in the selection of Saul, and one of these “worthless fellows” was denied the kingship.
Personally, I am inclined to believe that these guys were happy enough to have a king. It was Saul they had problems with. How could this guy we’ve never heard of lead us at this moment of national crisis? Look at him: he’s too young; he’s inexperienced; he’s untested. How do we know what his economic policy and military strategy will be? Shouldn’t our king be someone predictable; someone with gravitas? And what kind of name is Saul anyway? Shouldn’t we choose someone with a normal name like Joshua or Samuel or Gideon? And so, these worthless fellows hung back and refused to honor the new king. We’ll come back to them at the end of the story.
Nahash the Snake The scene shifts rather suddenly to Jabesh-Gilead. This was a town on the east side of the Jordan Valley neighboring Ammon. It had a strange connection to the tribe of Benjamin. According to Judges 21, the men of Jabesh-Gilead had refused to fight in a war against the tribe of Benjamin. In that war, Benjamin was nearly destroyed by the other tribes, and it was decreed that no Israelite women could be given as brides to the men of Benjamin. The Israelites decided to punish Jabesh-Gilead. Everyone was slaughtered except 400 virgins who were given to the men of Benjamin. Although this is probably a tale that grew taller in retelling, it does indicate that many of the people in Benjamin had family in Jabesh-Gilead. Remember, Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin.
Nahash was king of the Ammonites, and he expanded his realm into Gilead. His name sounds like the Hebrew word for snake. It is not clear if this was his given name or a title that the Israelites gave him. Translators could say “The Ammonite Snake” besieged Jabesh-Gilead. We aren’t told why he planned to attack the town. It was probably simply part of his subjugation of newly conquered territories, but it could be that the people had offended him in some way. Generally, this kind of thing happened when people refused to pay their taxes. In any case, Nahash wanted to crush the people of Jabesh-Gilead. The Dead Sea Scrolls have a longer version of this story, which the New Revised Standard Version has included for the first time in an English Bible. According to that Nahash was systematically mutilating all Israelites living east of the Jordan, but thousands had taken refuge in Jabesh-Gilead. The people tried to capitulate to the king, but he wanted to prove his power over them.
Eye Plucking Nahash was cruel and cunning. He did not want to kill all of the men that opposed him. A wise king knows that he cannot destroy the economic base of his nation simply in order to assert his power and authority. But Nahash wanted to make sure that his rebellious subjects were no military threat. So, his soldiers systematically gouged out the right eye of all the men. A one-eyed man can still work in the fields and carry heavy loads, but he has lost his depth perception. He will have a much harder time throwing spears or shooting arrows. He will not have good peripheral vision, which means he will not be effective in sword fighting either. Also, the right eye was considered the good eye for the Israelites. To lose the right eye was more shameful than losing the left one. You may remember Jesus’ statement about plucking out your right eye if it offends you. Nahash decided to pluck out the right eye of the people who offended him. They would be living testaments to his power, authority, and ruthless cruelty.
Nahash tells the people that he will spare their city if everyone agrees to give up their right eyes in tribute to him. It is not clear if he was referring just to the men, but it is possible this included even the children. This is one of those stories that reminds us how much more cruel the world used to be. In any case, the town elders get permission to wait seven days for the punishment. They send out messengers begging for help. Perhaps this fit Nahash’s plans. He was the type of ruler that wanted other kings to know how cruel he was. He assumed that as news spread of the fate of Jabesh-Gilead, the Israelites, Amalekites, Philistines, and so forth would cower. Tyranny is compelled to demonstrate its cruelty in order to inspire fear.
Saul in the Fields The messengers came to Gibeah where Saul’s family lived. It is a fairly long way to walk, and clearly the messengers had not had a positive response so far. They are weeping when they tell what is about to happen to their family and friends. Saul has been plowing with his oxen. That is not really what we expect a king to be doing. If we only had this story, we would assume that he is just an ordinary guy, trying to feed his family. There is something authentic about that picture of Saul, and it calls to mind the multitude of ordinary men and women who are called upon to leave their fields, their homes, their jobs, and careers in order to do what must be done. Some day take a look at the occupations of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. There was not a soldier among them. They were farmers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and preachers. They rose to meet the needs of the time.
Saul hears the horrifying news about the threat to the Israelites east of the Jordan. He does not hold a press conference or consult the oracles to see what he should do. The text says that the spirit of God came upon and he burned with anger. Again, we have a picture of Saul being like Samson or one of the other Judges. The spirit of God suddenly seizes him and gives him power and authority to face the challenges before him. This is the definition of a charismatic leader, by the way. Saul simply assumes leadership in the crisis, and he takes action when others are urging caution.
Anger Many of us are bothered by this scene. How could the Spirit of God be associated with burning anger? We Moravians emphasize that the gifts of the Spirit are gifts of gentleness, kindness, and self-control. But here it sounds like it is the Spirit that is making Saul angry. It would easy to dismiss this as an “Old” Testament view of God compared to a New Testament understanding of the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ. There is some truth to that, but we have to be cautious in dismissing parts of the Old Testament we do not like. The Old Testament is also Scripture for Christians, and teachings of Jesus rest on the foundation of the Old Testament. Is there any way in which Christians can make sense of the Spirit of God being connected to burning anger?
I think we need to keep in mind that God does exhibit anger. Throughout the Bible, God is angry at injustice, cruelty, and oppression. Much of the Biblical law is designed to keep the people of God from imitating the cruelty of their neighbors. The Israelites who wrote and read the Old Testament recognized the anger of God most clearly when God was angry at people who oppressed the Israelites, but we do not have to keep a nationalistic view of God. The important thing is not that the men of Jabesh-Gilead had been circumcised and were part of Israel. The important thing is that Nahash was threatening to do something monstrous and cruel to them. The anger of God that overcame Saul was the divine anger against everyone who uses their power to destroy and abuse. Saul was righteous enough to be angry, too, and this made him a willing conduit of the power of God. Saul knew in his heart that Nahash needed to be stopped. More importantly, he was willing to put his life at risk to stop him.
Divided Oxen Saul knew what to do in the moment of crisis. He took one of his oxen and cut it into pieces. He sent each piece as a message to the Israelites. This strikes us as bizarre today, but there are other references to this practice in the Bible. It was a traditional way of summoning the tribes together to face a common foe. Symbolically, each clan was to reassemble the ox so they would be strong. Unite or die is how this was expressed during our Revolution. When a piece of an ox arrived at the tent of the clan leader, he knew what it meant, and what he was supposed to do.
It took a while to muster the men from the scattered clans and tribes. Israel had no standing army at this time. Throughout the land, men left their teams of oxen and put on their armor. They assembled at a town on the west side of the Jordan. The text says that there were 300,000 from Israel and 30,000 from Judah. Most scholars see this as an exaggeration on the magnitude of ten or a hundred. Others scholars point out that the word for “thousand” often means “contingent” or company. So we could say that Israel sent 300 companies and Judah 30. It is intriguing that Judah is mentioned separately. Eventually Israel and Judah will be separate realms with different kings. It appears that Saul never fully asserts control over Judah.
We Will Come Out The people of Jabesh-Gilead get word that all of Israel is mustering and that they will be delivered. When Nahash gives his ultimatum, they tell him that the next morning they will come out to meet him. He assumes that they are surrendering, so he prepares his army for the grime task of removing eyes instead of preparing for battle. But there was a pun here. They will come out to meet Nahash on the field of battle. The Israelites under the command of Saul and the men of Jabesh-Gilead surprised the Ammonites. The slaughter continued until it got too hot to keep killing. Saul had proven himself capable of uniting the nation and defending the defenseless. This is what the people wanted in a king.
Perhaps it is unimportant that no mention is made of God once the battle began. The people do not praise God for having sent a savior to them. They do not proclaim that God has chosen Saul as king. This strikes me as very typical. We long for God to hear our prayers and rescue us from adversity, but when the dusk has settled, we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
King Saul After the victory, it is clear that the soldiers want Saul to be more than a judge. He will be king. At this point, we have a flashback to those worthless fellows from the previous chapter who had despised Saul. Now that Saul has shown that he has the Spirit of God, the people declare that his opponents should be killed. That is what kings do, which is why it is unwise to demonstrate lack of support for the king. In our day, Presidents merely fire generals who disagree with them. In those days, you killed your opponents. Had Saul lost the battle, those same worthless fellows might have been seen as heroes and prophets. In any case, the approved course of action in these situations is death. But Saul intervenes and grants them mercy. Saul acknowledges that God has rescued Israel from her enemies. It would bring shame if Israelites killed other Israelites, especially on this day. God has rescued all of Israel, not simply the faithful and righteous. Saul recognized that he was king of the whole nation, not simply king of his supporters. In showing mercy, Saul showed how great he truly was.
After this, the crowds go to the shrine at Gilgal, and finally Samuel officially proclaims Saul king. The Hebrew is clear that it was at Gilgal that the people made Saul king, and there was much rejoicing. In its final form, the long history of the appointment of the first king builds like a piece of music. First there is the private anointing by Samuel, then the public election by lot, and then crescendo of acclamation as the people respond to Saul’s charismatic leadership. He is the Lord’s anointed, the Savior of Israel! We will pause at this happy scene of feasting and dancing on the night of Saul’s coronation, and leave tomorrow’s troubles for tomorrow. Next week we will return to Samuel and his preaching.