I Samuel 13 – The Insurgency of Saul

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 4, 2008

Craig Atwood


Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. I hope it was a good week for you and those God has given you to love. My daughter Sarah is back from New York. She went with her class to the Big Apple and it sounds like they left only the core behind. It was a great trip and I want to give a shout out to her teachers for they grace and courage. In announcements, let me remind you that on Wednesday we are having a meeting of folks going on the Moravian Heritage tour this summer. We’ll walk where Hus and Comenius walked, and we’ll see the original Wachovia bank alongside the Danube River in Austria. Call Aladdin Travel for details. The meeting will be in CE 101 instead of the Club Room as previously advertised. The big news in the Atwood family is that my oldest daughter got engaged this week. Everyone in both families is very excited. Since they met as interpretative guides in Old Salem, he proposed to her in Old Salem. John McCain is coming to Wait Chapel on Tuesday. I wonder if he knows that we are in the midst of final exams. Maybe the Political Science department can cook up an exam for him. By the way, next week is Mothers’ Day, and we will have free bulletins for all mothers attending worship on Sunday.

How Old Was Saul?               Today we are continuing our study of I Samuel with an account of Saul’s first military action as king. One thing that makes chapter 13 interesting to biblical scholars is that there are so many problems with the text itself. There are several variations in ancient manuscripts and some of them simply do not make sense. All English translations represent reasonable guesses rather than scholarly consensus. The worst problems are in the very first verse, which is supposed to give the basic details about the length of Saul’s reign.

The chronicles of the kings and judges of Israel follow a pattern: so-and-so was so many years old when he began to reign and he reigned so many years over Israel. But something happened to the scroll recording the details of Saul’s reign. The Hebrew text literally says that Saul was a year old when he began to reign and he reigned for “and two years.” Almost all biblical scholars agree that something has been omitted or changed here. It is possible that one of the ancient scrolls was simply damaged and later scribes did not know what to put down. Scrolls are fragile and they do get tattered. Some scholars think is may be more likely that a descendent of King David ordered the royal scribes to change the record. No doubt the line of David would have wanted to diminish Saul’s importance. It could be that it was the author of I Samuel who reduced Saul’s reign, but it was rather clumsily done. We don’t know for sure what happened to this part of the book of I Samuel, but this is one of the clearest instances in the Bible that there is an error in the text that we have.

            It appears from the previous stories in I Samuel, Saul was relatively young and unmarried when he was made king, but by the time of the events in chapter 13, he has a son old enough to command troops in battle. In other words, the events narrated in chapters 13 and 14 apparently occurred at least sixteen years after Saul was made king. Some of the ancient Greek translations of the Old Testament (LXX) report that Saul was thirty years old when he was made king, but that may be doubtful. Based on the surrounding evidence, either he was made king as a young man or he was old enough to have a grown son. It all depends on whether this battle against the Philistines in ch. 13 was early in his reign or many years. In any case, it is clear that at this point in his reign, King Saul has not established much of a government.

I freely confess that all this is very confusing, and most versions of the Bible just leave a blank in the text. The main reason I am bringing this up is to let you know that preachers who claim that every word of the King James Bible is absolutely literally true overlook the fact that no one knows how old Saul was when he became king of Israel. Some scholars have proposed that the author of I Samuel simply did not know how old Saul was when he became king and left it blank.

How Long did Saul Reign                  The second problem with this text is how long did Saul reign. The Hebrew is generally translated as “two years,” but that is not quite right. The phrase used is not the one that would normally mean “two years;” it is a phrase that usually has a number before it. I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but Hebrew scholars for centuries have noticed that something is probably missing here. In our language, it would be like seeing the word two with a hyphen in front, as if the word “forty” had been deleted. Two thousand years ago the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Saul reigned for forty years, 18 before the death of Samuel and 22 after his death. Another ancient source said he reigned twenty years, and some have speculated that I Samuel originally had 42 or 22 years. It is interesting that Acts 13:21 says that the people asked God for a king and he gave them Saul, the Son of Kish, a man from the tribe of Benjamin for forty years.

            This would be a relatively minor issue of interest only to biblical scholars and historians except for the fact that so many preachers insist that there are no factual errors in the Bible. Clearly, the New Testament disagrees with the Old Testament here, and the simplest explanation is that the text of I Samuel was either damaged or changed. Fundamentalists may have creative ways of reconciling I Samuel and Acts, but the most literal reading of these verses indicates that there is a mistake somewhere. It is most likely that Saul was about 20 when he became king and reigned for 42 years. It is important to recognize that this kind of mistake in the Bible does not affect the most important things. As the Moravian theologian Schultze pointed out a century ago there is a “human element” in Scripture, and it “includes traces of human error in minor matters of historical detail.” Those errors should not distract us from believing in the Bible as “a trustworthy record of the great facts of divine revelation for the salvation of man, and a standard of religious truth, by which all Christian doctrine can be tested and measured.” (Augustus Schultze, Christian Doctrine, 19-20.) In other words, the Bible is trustworthy even if there are mistakes of fact.

Read: I Samuel 13:

Uprising                      Two weeks ago we discussed Saul’s first successful military campaign against Nahash the Ammonite. In our lesson this week Saul assumes the role that he has been chosen to fulfill. He will lead the insurgency against the Philistines. Remember they were foreigners who had established five cities in the coastal plains of Palestine. Since they were more technologically and politically advanced, they slowly exerted dominance over the tribes of Israel. They established garrisons in strategic locations and oppressed the people economically. The end of chapter 13 gives a picture of how the Philistines used technology to oppress Israel. They controlled iron and charged outlandish prices for sharpening tools. Almost no one in Israel had an iron spear or sword, which meant the Philistines had military superiority as well.

Philistine spokesmen would probably have said that the occupation of Israel was good for the Israelites. That’s what colonizers always do.  Perhaps the Philistines even called themselves liberators and told the crowds back in Ashdod that the Israelites would greet them with flowers and cheers. We don’t know how the Philistines justified their invasion, but they were probably like other invaders. All we know from the Bible is that the Israelites were tired of being under the thumb of the Philistines, and eventually they rebelled. Saul recruited 3000 men from the Israelite tribes. He took 2000 with him and Jonathan took 1000. Jonathan is identified only by his name here, but we assume this is the same Jonathan who later identified as Saul’s son. It was Jonathan who struck the first blow, defeating a garrison at Geba. That victory became the rallying cry for the insurgency. Once people saw that powerful Philistines could be defeated, they rallied to Saul’s cry.

Hebrews         This story is told in a very straightforward, historical style. There are no miracles, like in the Book of Judges. Jonathan simply defeats a garrison, and the Israelites rise in revolt. There is one very curious feature of the text. Most translations say that Saul blew a trumpet and called for the Hebrews to answer his call, but the Israelites almost never called themselves Hebrews. The word apiru or Hebrew was generally a term of derision, and in the Old Testament it is what outsiders called the Israelites. This has led many translators to conclude that it was the Philistines who shouted that the Hebrews have arisen. One of the oldest Greek translations of I Samuel uses the word “slaves” to describe those who had arisen. Whether it was Saul or the Philistines who was shouting about the Hebrew revolt, it is clear that the word “Hebrew” was used because an oppressed people were rising in revolt against the colonizers. The original readers of I Samuel would have certainly connected the revolt of the Hebrews against the Philistines with the rescue of the Hebrews who had been enslaved in Egypt in the days of Moses. So, we have here the story of a foreign invader trying to put down a well-organized revolt or insurgency in a Middle Eastern country. Sound familiar?

Shock and Awe           The Philistines responded to Jonathan’s assault by mustering an impressive military force of 3000 chariots and 6000 horsemen. The official Hebrew text reads 30,000 chariots, which is almost certainly a mistake that was corrected in ancient Greek translations. This was a large and well-prepared army that the Israelites could not match. The only two of the Israelites with swords and spears were Saul and Jonathan. The rest of the men were probably armed with slingshots and farm tools. This is what modern military people call an asymmetrical war: spears against clubs. Rather than risking certain defeat, the Israelite army scattered. Some hid in caves or in thickets of briars; some crossed the Jordan River and sought refuge in Gilead. It appears to be a great Philistine victory. Saul’s ragtag Hebrew army simply melted away like the morning fog. They drifted back into the local population, and the Philistine generals probably reported that the insurgency was in it last throes.

An Untimely Sacrifice                        The setting and tone of the story change dramatically in verse 8. It says that Saul waited in Gilgal for Samuel to arrive. This is a confusing shift in scene because the only time in the book that Samuel told Saul to wait for him was way back when he anointed him. Either this story about waiting in Gilgal was relocated from its original place in the story of the anointing or something has been lost in chapter 13. There is no way to be certain about this, and it is probably not very important, but it is confusing.

            What is important in the story is that Saul waited for Samuel for seven days, but Samuel did not come. We aren’t told why Saul waited or why Samuel was delayed. Seven days is a long time to wait, especially when your enemies are preparing to attack you. The rebel militia was getting restless and began to doubt Saul’s leadership. It was beginning to look like the rebellion was going to fail before it really got started. In other words, this scene looked a bit like Valley Forge without the snow. Would Saul be able to retain the loyalty of the farmers and herdsman who had answered his call?

We aren’t told if Samuel was to blame for being late or if Saul had acted prematurely. Perhaps no one was to blame for the delay. Things happen in times of war. In any case Saul took action. He had to do something to rally the men. Throughout ancient literature we see military commanders offering sacrifices before battle. This was a way to secure the blessing of the gods, but it was also a way to feed the men. Saul needed to kill the cattle, roast the meat, and feed the men before they could go into battle. It was a tense situation that grew more desperate every day that Samuel delayed. After seven days, Saul performed the sacrifice.

Samuel’s Anger          When Samuel arrived in the camp, he was very angry that Saul had taken priestly duties on himself. Saul offers a good defense of his actions. He claims says that it was something that he did not want to do, but it had to be done. The Philistines were mustering and the attack could come at any time. Delay was no longer an option, and so he did what a king must do. On the surface, it appears that Saul did the right thing, I am quite sympathetic to him. Some scholars have proposed that this story was originally told in praise of Saul for not being subject to the priest. But clearly, the author of I Samuel is telling us that Saul was wrong to offer the sacrifice. Saul violated one of the sacred rules of ancient Israel, and Samuel predicts that Saul will not be the head of a dynasty. His kingdom will pass into other hands.

            There are different ways of viewing this episode between Samuel and Saul. Some have seen it as evidence that there was a power struggle between Samuel and Saul. The last judge of Israel could not quite relinquish his power, and he was angry that his protégé proved too independent. In other words, we could see Samuel like Vladimir Putin or any number of American politicians who undermine their successors.

We could also read this like a Greek tragedy. The tragic hero has done what he truly believed was the right thing only to find that he had violated a sacred law. For the most part, Americans do not like such tragedies. We live by the philosophy that if you are sincere and take actions you believe are for the best, you should be rewarded even if you made a mistake. We like our villains to be punished and our heroes to be rewarded even if they do not follow the rules. Our national mythology embraces characters like the Lone Ranger who is outside the law but does the right thing. We like Jack Bauer on 24 who violates all of the laws of the nation in his zeal to protect the country. We don’t like the idea that someone like Saul could try to do the right thing for his nation, but make a mistake that brings down his family.

            We don’t like it, but such is life. We might think that what happened to Saul is unfair and unrealistic, but real life is filled with stories of men and women who make innocent mistakes that ultimately bring them down. Think of the employee who accidentally offends a boss or a client. Think of the errors we make in disciplining our children. Some of you have heard the cynical proverb that “no good deed goes unpunished.” It is cynical and untrue, and yet it speaks to the reality that sometimes we try to do the right thing and it all goes badly. We could interpret the story of Saul as a biblical affirmation that there is a note of tragedy in our world – as a cautionary tale against relying too heavily on good intentions.

Hubris The most typical way of reading this story, though, is that Saul was impatient and arrogant. It is implied that Samuel has instructed Saul to wait for a certain period of time, but Saul grew impatient. He is like the child who cannot wait until Christmas to open his presents, and is caught with tinsel around his feet. Interpreters have long argued that this impatience is evidence of Saul’s lack of faith. Luther and others have used this scene to discuss the tendency of every believer to lose confidence over time. We do not have the faith to “wait upon the Lord” and let salvation be worked out in God’s own time. We want to rush the process and take action because God seems too slow. From this point of view, Saul is like the child so eager to see her flower blossom that he pulls the petals apart only to destroy what she hoped to enjoy. Through the centuries there have been Christians who grew weary of waiting for the return of Christ and tried to speed up the apocalyptic clock, usually with catastrophic consequences.

Related to Saul’s impatience and lack of trust is his arrogance. When he grew weary of waiting for God’s prophet to act, he made the sacrifice on his own authority. Saul seized the things of God and placed himself in God’s place. What he did seems to be such a minor violation, but it was representative of a much greater flaw. His offering of the sacrifice was similar to Napoleon crowning himself emperor instead of humbling himself at the moment of his coronation. We can read this story as a retelling of Genesis 3. Saul exalted himself. For Luther and Barth, this is the true nature of Original Sin – we want to control God’s realm. We want to seize rather than to receive with gratitude. This could be a story of hubris, and Saul’s response to the priest merely compounds his error. Rather than acknowledging his sin and humbling himself before God, Saul arrogantly defends his actions.

Mixed Motives and Mixed Results             Which is the right reading of this little story? Perhaps all are partially right. When we honestly examine our actions, we usually find that none of us acts from purely innocent motives. It is possible to do the right thing and yet do so arrogantly. Like Saul, it is too easy for us to justify our impatience and our arrogance in terms of the needs of the moment. Reinhold Niebuhr warned Americans about our bumbling naivety and refusal to acknowledge the tragic realities of life. We have seen many times in history that our American can-do attitude can have tragic results. Wisdom tells us that there are times to act and times to wait. Over five years ago, we wanted to shock and awe the world by overthrowing a dictator, but we bumbled into a quagmire yet again because we could not wait for clear direction.

We have seen many times in the past century that governments can use the media to create a sense of danger so that the authorities can dispense with checks and balances. The justifications for circumventing human rights sound just like King Saul. When the White House sent out packets to tens of thousands of pastors in 2002 urging them to support the invasion of Iraq, there were sermon outlines about King David fighting for God. Perhaps the federal bureaucrats should have read I Samuel 13 and learned about the virtue of patience. We always want to be King David killing Goliath, but too often we are more like Saul. One of the reasons we continue to read this story three thousand years after the death of Samuel and Saul is because it reveals something to us about the nature of leadership in every age, every society. In this moment of history, as in every previous age, we see examples of how “pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The true tragedy of hubris, though, is that when leaders fall the people suffer.

Separation of Church and State        I’ll end our lesson this morning with one final point to be learned from this chapter. This is a good text to help us ponder the separation of church and state. In most ancient cultures the king was also a religious figure. He was a high priest. The crimes of the ancient empires were often greater than their achievements because the emperors claimed divine sanction for all of their actions. When the Nazis assumed power in Germany, they wanted the churches to sanction their crimes. One of the most famous moments of resistance was when hundreds of Protestant clergy signed the Barmen Declaration that proclaimed that the only Lord of the Church is Jesus Christ, and the only authority for the church is the Bible. This story of Samuel and Saul helped encourage the Confessing Church to oppose the Nazi regime. Our Moravian Church officially adopted the Barmen Declaration as a statement of faith in 1957. It was 20 years too late to stop the Nazis, but it may help us in the future as we try to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Perhaps in our day we need more Samuels to call on the Sauls of this world to repent.

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  • Joseph Smith  On October 9, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Enjoyed the wordng of your explanation of Sauls disobeience in a way that relates to a typical American that views virtuous actions as more substantial than clear obedience.

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