I Samuel 14:24-52 – Honey and Oaths
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 18, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It is a time of graduations. My daughter Emily graduated Thursday with her Associates Degree in Business, and we are proud of her. Wake Forest’s commencement service will be tomorrow morning, and then I’m flying to Bethlehem for a couple of days of meetings. Let me remind you that we will be having worship up at Laurel Ridge on June 2 and hope you can join us. We will have the Adult Bible Class that day but all other Sunday School classes are cancelled. We’ve completed our triennial review process at Home Church, and I want to thank all the people who said such nice things about my work here. It is a pleasure to serve here. I do want to give a shout out to Susan Weatherman, whose mother passed away recently after a long illness.
This week we are continuing our study of chapter 14 of I Samuel. In case you missed last week’s lesson, I’ll briefly recap the situation. The Israelites and Philistines were camped on opposite sides of a deep gulley, and Saul’s son Jonathan boldly attacked one of the garrisons with only a single companion. Since Jonathan’s assault went so well, Saul sent the rest of the army into battle, which spread all over the hill country of Benjamin. Last week the youngest member of the class had a very good insight. She proposed that one reason Saul was so cautious in this chapter was because he got into such trouble in the previous chapter when he acted on his own initiative instead of waiting for Samuel. This week we’ll look at what happened when Saul paid too much attention to priests and made a rash vow that nearly cost him his son. It is a long story, but it would lose some of the drama if I excerpt from it.
Read: I Samuel 14:24-44
The Oath: Saul declares that none of his soldiers will eat during the day of the battle. This is one of those ancient vows that strike us as more than a little odd today, but we know from ancient literature that this was not uncommon. In the Iliad Achilles, Odysseus, and Agamemnon argue over the wisdom of just such a vow. . A vow to fast during battle may seem irrational to us. We know men perform better when they have calories to burn, but it is the irrational aspect of this that makes it important.
Some believed that such a vow has a strong psychological impact on the troops and would inspire them to quick victory. Nothing should distract them from the task at hand – certainly not food. We see this kind of behavior on college campuses during final exams. Students give up things during exams. For some it is food or beer, for others it is shaving or bathing. As a professor, I heartily endorse giving up alcohol but encourage normal hygiene. In war, soldiers make similar vows. The desire is to separate the battle from normal life. It represents a desire to bring closure (and victory) as soon as possible.
Saul’s vow represents something beyond this normal pattern. What he was doing was dedicating his soldiers to God by making them observe a sacred fast during the battle. In other words, he is turning this military action against the Philistines into a holy war. What I am about to say will make many Americans uncomfortable, but the modern term for what Saul is doing here is waging a Jihad. His vow made his soldiers into Jihadists attacking the uncircumcised infidels. Saul’s men were not fighting like normal men; they were purified religious warriors assaulting the enemy. By the time of Saul, this was a well-established tradition in ancient Israel, and modern Christians and Jews should be aware that the origin of Jihad is found in our own sacred texts.
Jonathan breaks Haram Jonathan was not there when the ban on food was declared, and during the battle he ate some honey. This detail about the honey is an important bit of realism in the story. There is evidence that parts of Israel had large colonies of wild bees making honey in ancient days, much like parts of Mexico used to. Honey was not simply a sweetener, like we use it today. It was staple of the diet of the Israelites, much as it is for many tribal people in Central America. It is quite likely that the description of Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey was once true – at least for the honey. One of the great things about honeycomb is that it provides instant energy with minimal effort. So, when Jonathan and the troops came upon a large group of honeycomb, Jonathan viewed it literally as a godsend. He ate some honey and his vision grew clear, strength returned to his tired arms and legs, and his hunger was abated.
Little did he know that this godsend of honey in the midst of battle would alienate him from his father and king. The men told him of Saul’s ban on eating, and Jonathan spoke openly against his father. Today sons often criticize their fathers in public, and we think they are daring, but in the ancient world this was a great crime. It was an age when fathers ruled the household and kings ruled the land. Jonathan was committing a double crime by openly criticizing his father’s commandment instead of simply submitting. What is shocking about I Samuel 14 is that the text does not condemn Jonathan for speaking so. The author clearly agrees with Jonathan that Saul’s oath was rash and that it would have been wiser to let them men eat honey.
The issue could not be decided in the midst of battle, and we are not told what the men thought of Jonathan’s criticism of the king. Clearly they were loyal to the son of Saul, but were probably concerned about the events transpiring. This vignette portends worse conflict to come.
Eating Meat and Blood The story takes an interesting turn at this point. The soldiers keep Saul’s ban on eating until sundown when they can celebrate their temporary victory. They are so hungry that they take the animals they have captured and begin to eat them without properly killing them. Translations vary, and some imply that the men were eating blood with the meat, which is one of the strongest taboos for Jews to this day. The Hebrew text could mean that the men were so hungry that they did not take the time to properly drain the blood completely from the meat, but it appears more likely that the real problem was the blood of the animals was not properly consecrated to the LORD.
In other words, the animals were not slaughtered in a way that respected their life as the property of God. In ancient Israel, the blood was poured out for the LORD. This is why Saul had to order that a large stone to be set up so the animals could be properly slaughtered and the blood drained. This was not quite the same thing as a sacrifice by a priest, but it was similar. In modern Islam, the male head of household is still expected to ritually slaughter a goat at the end of the Ramadan fast, which is an echo of this ancient Israelite practice.
The significance of the story is that Saul’s men kept his foolish vow, but the result was that their hunger made them forget the more ancient laws about ritual slaughter. They were so famished and exhausted that they forgot to give the LORD his due, and so they sinned according to the laws and customs of the day. In other words, Saul’s extravagant attempt to sanctify his battle against the Philistines had the opposite effect. In the end, his soldiers forgot one of the basic laws of ritual purity simply because they were too hungry to care.
There is an important lesson in this for religious people today. Jesus warned us against Pharisees who tithe mint and dill but ignore the weightier matters of the law. Our headlines are full of sanctimonious public figures who make great shows of their piety but forget the most basic ethical and moral laws. We have church leaders who insist on acts of piety that defy human nature, such as requiring priests to be celibate, while condoning worse offenses. We have politicians who wrap themselves in cloaks of sanctity while condoning torture and dishonesty. Jonathan was right to criticize Saul’s judgment. Saul’s vow was vainglorious and dangerous, and in the end it led the men into sin.
Divination Clearly Saul is beginning to lose control of the situation. He does set up a stone and begin to slaughter the animals in the approved fashion, but the momentum of the battle has shifted. He knows that he should pursue the enemy while they are disorganized and frightened, but he decides that he needs to consult with his priest again. He has lost the confidence that was so evident in the first battle against Nahash when the spirit of God was upon him.
When the priest consults the sacred lot, the LORD gives no answer. There is no word of the LORD for Saul to follow, and he does not know what to do. The king who was chosen by divine election and who has been victorious against great odds suddenly finds there is silence when he needs answers. No matter what you feel about King Saul, I think we should pause here and contemplate this dark moment of divine silence. There is something poignant here in the king’s confusion and doubt at this moment of triumph. Shakespeare knew his Bible, and his portrayal of Macbeth and Lear owe a lot to Saul suffering from God’s silence.
In his confusion, Saul makes a vow that is more rash than the first. He decides that God will not speak because someone has sinned. It may have been the priest who put this idea in Saul’s head to explain why he could not get a clear oracle, but Saul’s response seems strange. He knows that many of the men were guilty of ritual sin in the slaughtering of the animals, but that is not enough for Saul. He is convinced there is something else going on. He vows that if any man has offended the LORD he should be put to death – even if it is the king or his son.
This may have been braggadocio and bluster. It is unlikely that Saul thought he or Jonathan had sinned that day, but a wise ruler knows that you should not make public pronouncements you cannot back up. People may hold you to your word. I know a lot of people who make the mistake of tendering their resignation as a way to negotiate with their employers. Never resign unless you mean it.
Wise leaders also learn from history and try to avoid the mistakes of past rulers. Saul clearly did not learn from the story of Jephthah, the Israelite judge who vowed to sacrifice the first living thing to come out of his house. His heart was broken when his oldest daughter was the one to rush out to greet the father she loved. Because of his rash vow, Jephthah murdered his own daughter for the sake of piety.
Jonathan Chosen Readers of the story in chapter 14 know what Saul did not. We know that Jonathan was the one who ate honey during the battle, and we know what the lot will say. We watch with horror, thinking that Jonathan will be sacrificed needlessly because of Saul’s foolish vow to God. As we read, we feel the tension as the lots are cast. First, the soldiers are found not guilty. The sin is with the house of Saul. Finally Jonathan is identified by the priest as the guilty party.
Saul is trapped by his own words. The tragedy of Saul is not that he was not religious or moral; it was that he was foolishly religious and moral. He could not break his word, even when his word was nonsense. He decrees that his son and putative heir to the throne will die.
And brave Jonathan submits to the will of his father and king. Jonathan risked his life for the salvation of Israel, and now he is willing to give up his life for the nation. In this crucial moment, he is not defiant. We need to let our imaginations soar as we look on this scene that is so briefly sketched in Scripture. Jonathan is like Socrates drinking the hemlock because he respects the laws of the state he has criticized. Jonathan is like Isaac letting himself be bound by his father to test God. Jonathan shows us that courage is more than the willingness to go into battle.
Reprieved But the people reject this decision. The people know that Jonathan is the hero of the day. The people see clearly that the LORD was with Jonathan in his bold assault on their enemies. The people see that Jonathan was wise where Saul was foolish, and they reject the judgment of the priest’s lot and the king’s vow. The people recognize that Jonathan was the agent of God’s salvation, and that is the true meaning of religion. Jonathan was representative of God’s action in the world in a way that the priest was not. They refused to let Saul murder his son to satisfy Saul’s stupid religious vow. Sometimes, the voice of the people is wiser than priests and kings, presidents and justices.
Denouement And so Jonathan’s life was spared. We are not told how this affected the relationship between Saul and his son, but this experience may have contributed to the later estrangement of the two. We are not told how Saul dealt with the confusing nature of revelation. Saul was left with the quandary we all face. How do you know the will of God if you cannot trust the religious authorities or the prescribed rituals? It is quite likely that this was the day that Saul’s mind began to come unhinged as he dealt with the terror of ambiguity and uncertainty. One thing we are told is that Saul could not continue the assault against the Philistines that day, and the enemy returned to their strongholds. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory because of the king’s misuse of religion.
At the end of the chapter we are told that Saul had a bloody reign as king. Part of the evidence that he ruled for more than two years is this list of people Saul defeated in battle. Since the list resembles a similar list of the people David defeated, some scholars think it has been misplaced, but that it seems unlikely that the author of I Samuel would give Saul more credit than he deserved. The picture we have of King Saul at the end of ch. 14 is that he was a successful warrior, much like Charlemagne, but he did not built a stable government. It is interesting that he made a point of gaining the loyalty of strong men, one of whom would become his nemesis.