We barely got into 1st Samuel chapter 13 last time, and we only read about ½ of the chapter, so in a moment we’ll read the entire chapter together.
First, let’s get our bearings. Saul was now the recognized and undisputed King of Israel; however, his primary support and loyalty came from the eight northern Israelite tribes and to some degree those three tribes to the east of the Jordan River.
The two southern tribes of Judah and Simeon were not open opponents of Saul, but they were rather ambivalent, and Saul must have recognized that fact and so his recruiting for his military came mainly from among the loyal group of 8 tribes.
As we pick up today we’re at a time just after Saul had neutralized the main (or least most immediate) foreign threat on Israel’s eastern front, the Ammonites as led by Nachash (we read about this in chapter 11).
But on the western front the Philistines had grown bolder and more aggressive and using the carrot and the stick, they had again established a significant presence upon Israelite land. The stick was their professional and well-trained army that they used to oppress and control and threaten; the carrot was that any of the Israelite clans and tribes who would not resist them would be considered either allies or non-combatants and thus generally left alone to continue ruling themselves and living peacefully.
Naturally, they had to do the Philistines’ bidding, provide some labor for various Philistine projects, occasionally fight alongside them if need be, and pay some tribute (taxes) to help support the Philistine cause.
There is no record of Saul taking vengeance at this point in his reign against these few Israelite tribes and clans who availed themselves of the Philistines’ offer of friendship in exchange for loyalty. A couple of reasons for this are that
- It was only the southern tribes and clans who did this because the Philistines were on their border and they were in the most danger.
- Is that Saul understood it was an arrangement of self-interest and self-protection, no so much a repudiation of Saul’s leadership or a desire to give up their Israelite identities?
And besides, King Saul still wasn’t quite at a point of sufficient political strength to convince the other tribes to punish the highly regarded and esteemed tribe of Judah for this transgression.
As it is in most societies while the leadership might be anxious to make war for one cause or another the people usually aren’t (even when they ought to be). There is no question that Saul was correct in his calculation that the Philistines had to be dealt with or Israel would simply become Greater Philistia, but convincing people who just wanted to farm and tend to their flocks and vineyards that armed conflict was needed is another matter.
We only have to look at the 20th century to see how great tyrants with world domination in mind were allowed to run amok before the more powerful nations could muster the political will to oppose them. And even then the people were reluctant, and all through the wars, vocal opposition continued.
As was also typical, Saul’s sons were his senior army officers. Jonathan was apparently the most prominent of the bunch. King Saul had begun a campaign to push the Philistines back to their seacoast nation, and so had troops stationed at Gibeah under Jonathan’s leadership and others strategically located at a significant place called Mikhmas.
The campaign had bogged down for the lack of interest of the Israelite people and because the Philistines had been somewhat careful not to get overly aggressive in hopes of not arousing too much Israelite passion that would boil over into open rebellion. What they didn’t count on was Saul’s impulsiveness and his personal need to find a cause to rally all Israel to loyalty to him.
Jonathon, being part of the royal family, shared his father’s ambitions and mindset. So he assassinated the Philistine governor of the city of Geba for no other purpose than to incite the Philistines to step up their aggression that would in turn force the up-to-now reluctant Israelite clan and tribal leaders to join with Saul to fight the Philistines. Let’s pause now and read all of 1st Samuel chapter 13.
Read 1 Samuel 13
Jonathan’s murder of the Philistine governor of Geba had its desired effect; the Philistines saw this as open rebellion NOT just as an act of a local group of malcontents but rather as a work of King Saul who represented the nation of Israel.
Therefore as the Philistines ratcheted up their pressure, the people of Israel realized they now had no choice but to resist, so they assembled at Gilgal to ready for battle. Why Gilgal, because it was typical of the Israelites to gather at their holiest place to ask for Yehoveh’s blessing and direction before engaging the enemy.
Verse 5 says that the Philistines brought 30,000 chariots to do battle; this is a copyist error. There weren’t 30,000 chariots in the entire known world combined at this point in history. And the number probably wasn’t 3,000 either because even that quantity of chariots is beyond the scope of a relatively small nation as Philistia to have in its arsenal, so it would be only speculation to say how big the chariot brigade might have been.
Nonetheless, it was formidable; there were many troops on horses (this was only slightly less terrifying than chariots) and some large but undefined number of foot soldiers as well.
Let me pause to say that whether regarding foreigners, Hebrews, or worshippers of God in general, when we see the Biblical phrase “as many as the grains of sand on the seashore,” this is but hyperbole. It is a Middle Eastern saying that means “a large number.” It doesn’t mean infinite or beyond the ability of our number system to count. It just is trying to communicate a vast but undefined or unknown quantity.
The Philistines set up their battle encampment at a place called Mikhmas, which was a bit east of Beit-Aven. Many Israelites were so terrified at this turn of events that they left their homes and villages and hid out in caves, in the crevices of large rocks, even in empty water cisterns. Others fled to the Trans-Jordan, undoubtedly many having relatives there willing to take them in.
But those men who came to fight for Saul remained strong and with resolve and so they stayed with Saul at Gilgal as they waited for Samuel to show up to bring God’s oracle to them before the start of what would be a significant and pivotal battle.
Apparently, Samuel told Saul that he would arrive at Gilgal within seven days. Seven being a number of divine completeness is a way of demonstrating that this looming war was seen as a holy endeavor. But from a practical matter, we must remember that Samuel lived in Ramah, and it took some time for him to travel to Gilgal.
Now before we go any further, let me explain that there is a lot of confusion between the two names of Geba and Gibeah. Some translators have taken them to be the same place, but that is decidedly not the case.
The problem is that they are both spelled the same in Hebrew (gimel-vet-ayin). Since ancient Hebrew does not have written vowel sounds, then this confusion is the case with many Hebrew words written the same, but pronounced slightly differently, thus meaning different things.
In this case what we in English say as Gibeah is pronounced “Gee-bah”; the other location that we pronounce as Gebah, the Hebrews say as “Geh-bah.” So we have Gee-bah and Geh-bah. Jonathon was in Geh-bah when he assassinated the Philistine governor.
Anyway, Saul grew impatient waiting for Samuel to arrive in Gilgal; the seven days came and went and no Samuel so King Saul took matters into his own hands. There were an altar and a sanctuary at Gilgal, so King Saul decided he would be the one to offer the sacrifices to the Lord. Without a doubt, there were priests at Gilgal because of its very holy status; but King Saul demonstrates here his casual disregard for God’s commandments and ritual protocols.
The ONLY Israelites legally allowed to offer sacrifices were the priests; not even the Levite workers were allowed to do this. Indeed, no king (the political leadership) was granted such a high privilege. But even more what we see if we correctly translate the original Hebrew is that Saul ordered that the ‘Olah and Shelamim offerings were brought to him so he could personally officiate.
The ‘Olah is the supreme offering, and it is to be offered up only by the High Priest. The Shelamim sacrifices were voluntary offerings that (while technically could only be officiated by priests) were regularly offered up by laymen as family oriented sacrifices (a kind of a holdover from the days long past when each family firstborn was the officiator of sacrifices, and each family had their altar).
And wouldn’t you know that King Saul offered the one sacrifice that ONLY the High Priest was to present to God: the ‘Olah. And, of course, no sooner does he do this that Samuel shows up and essentially says, “Just what in the heck do you think you’re doing?”
Saul’s answer (in verse 11) was that he was getting worried because many of his Israeli militia were packing up and going home right at the same time that the Philistines were building up their forces at Mikhmas and Samuel still hadn’t arrived.
And so he continues to explain to Samuel that he “forced himself” to perform the sacrifice to gain the necessary favor with God. Samuel has no patience for this; he reports that King Saul did a foolish thing by daring to go against Yehoveh’s Torah commandments only because he felt it was expedient.
But this indictment of Saul by Samuel now takes on the form of judgment. And the judgment is that “your kingship will not be established.” That does not mean that the Lord is immediately canceling Saul’s kingship; rather it means that Saul’s son will not succeed him. There will be no dynasty of Saul (and this was always paramount in a king’s mind that his family continues in power for generations).
There is a lot of disagreement by scholars over exactly what mitzvot (command) Sha’ul had foolishly broken. Literary critics, in particular, say the problem was that King Sha’ul was usurping Samuel’s role when he offered the sacrifice as a preface to holy war, and thus Samuel was jealous and upset.
Others say that it was because Saul had broken Samuel’s instructions to wait seven days for him. A few claim that the problem was that Saul didn’t adequately acknowledge the Prophet Samuel’s higher role as the divine messenger of God.
Frankly, these proposals are rather tortured ways of getting around the obvious just so a scholar can sound innovative. In verse 12 Saul admits that he offered the ‘Olah sacrifice. To which, (in verse 13) Samuel directly responds “You did a foolish thing, you didn’t observe the commands of Yehoveh….” It was Saul, a non-priest, presumptuously offering the greatest of all the sacrifices to the Lord that was the foolish thing. It was a very clear and precise Torah commandment that Saul was breaking that only priests could offer sacrifices and only the High Priest (and apparently Samuel as well) could provide the greatest sacrifice, the ‘Olah.
Further, while later we’ll see David, Solomon, and other kings speak about the “many sacrifices they offered” (as a means to prove their piety), we see that what they meant by that was that they provided the sacrificial animals or were personally present at the ceremony. Priests were always involved.
But here we see that Saul performed the ritual sacrifice himself without a priest when he said, “I forced my self and offered the burnt offering.” And the price for this rash and an unlawful act on King Saul’s part is severe.
It’s interesting that we find utterly no response from Saul to this devastating judgment against him. No remorse, no argument, nothing. Instead, the king just went about his business as usual. What are we to think of this? Well, I take it to mean that Saul just blew it all off. I take it to mean that Saul thought that basically, this was merely a personal feud between him and Samuel that would blow over in time.
But Samuel also told Saul that God has already decided on a replacement king, and it will be a man after his own heart (meaning after his mind, his thinking). It will be a man whose goals are God’s purposes and whose passions are God’s desires.
Once again we encounter a Hebrew term that translates into English as a prince, and that term is nagid. It’s an important word because we’ll see it later in the prophetic statements about the Messiah, calling him a prince, a nagid. And it means king in waiting. The designated future king, but not yet king
We know what happens in the coming chapters of 1st Samuel that the chosen future king is David. We also know from the New Testament that the designated future king that is also Messiah is Yeshua.
Later actions by Saul prove (I believe) my suggestion that Saul never took what Samuel said very seriously or perhaps he was simply so innately rebellious that he thought he had the power to thwart any attempt for another to take the throne from him.
Remember the comments from the last lesson that explained that the story of King Saul is essentially the story of the anti-king of Israel.
So as we later get to the narratives of King Saul’s desperate attempts to hang on to his throne and to kill God’s nagid David (knowing full well that this was God’s will because Samuel told him so). We see this parallel with the attempt of the ancient spiritual anti-king (Satan) to do all he can to destroy God’s holy nagid (the Messiah Yeshua) thinking he can thwart God’s plan.
But this kind of uneasy relationship between king and prophet would become the norm from here forward in Israel’s history, and it’s easy to understand why. The heavenly king has his agenda and the earthly king (who is merely a fallen man) his own. The Prophet presents the heavenly king’s divine plan to the human king, but the earthly king always prefers his agenda. The conflict between king and prophet is inevitable.
After this clash with the king, Samuel departs for Gibeah (Saul’s hometown). Saul took a count, and only about 600 men remained with him there at Gilgal. Remember that Saul had very little leverage over his army. And this was still a voluntary militia and if the men decided they didn’t want to fight, or they didn’t like the leadership, or they got scared, they simply went home.
Now various translations have Saul leaving with Jonathan and the 600 men for Gibeah (Gee-bah), the same place Samuel went. However other translations have Saul and his men going to Geba (we already talked about why this name confusion exists). Geba (Geh-bah) is correct. We know this because of what comes soon; but in a nutshell, Geba was only a mile or so from Mikhmas (where the Philistines set up camp), and where the coming battle would occur, but Gibeah was at least 5 miles away. Events will show that the Philistine camp had to be very close to where Saul was located (we’ll get there shortly).
The Philistines sent out three raiding parties. Their purpose was probably to project force by demonstrating control of the surrounding area such that they could march out anytime they wanted to. It was also to try and hunt down those troublemakers who opposed them too strongly. One group went north towards the Jordan River valley, another west (along with the road to the coastal plain), and the 3rd team went south towards the wilderness to see if any attack from that direction might be imminent.
Then verse 19 detours just a bit to explain a very detrimental situation for the Israelites; they had few to no metal edged weapons. The Philistines, on the other hand, were known for their high degree of metals technology and they used it to their advantage in their weaponry.
Now iron was relatively new to the region, and it was a significant advance over bronze, which was a much softer material. That meant that a soldier could break an enemy’s bronze sword with his much harder, sharper iron sword.
Therefore we see the high level of control the Philistines achieved over some areas of Canaan in that they were able to keep the Israelites from even possessing metal tool making equipment.
An iron edged plow (even bronze) was far better than wood, but for an Israelite to buy or sharpen or repair a metal edged farm implement he had no choice but to go to the Philistines since Hebrews were barred from this craft. And this enabled the Philistines to keep the Israelites from making metal weapons. So whatever the Israelite militia used in battle, it was quite inferior to the Philistine army equipment.
Whatever metal weapons Israel did have were given to the leaders; thus we read in verse 22 that King Saul and his son Jonathan had metal swords and spears.
The final verse of chapter 13 sets up the battle scene for chapter 14:
“A garrison of Philistines had gone out to the pass of Mikhmas.”
Let’s move on to chapter 14. Although we won’t get far, it’s best to read this chapter through so we get the whole story.
Read 1 Samuel 14
Look at the map.
Geba and Mikhmas were at opposite sides of a deep ravine. Running water over the eons had cut this ravine, but now it was only a wadi. A wadi is a dry riverbed that comes alive only occasionally after an intense rain. Often the water flows a few feet underground, and so a shallow well will access water. But most wadis are simply channels for water that comes temporarily from the seasonal rains or thunderstorms, and then they go dry again.
Israel’s military camp was on the south side of the ravine; the Philistines occupied the north side, about a mile (or a little less) apart. The ravine itself was of strategic importance because it wound its way all the way to the Jordan River Valley, but also provided an excellent pathway that connected to the road that led to the Mediterranean Sea coast. This wadi, this ravine, was a natural highway suitable for caravans or large groups of soldiers; so it was very strategically important to both sides.
Verse 1 says that “on that day” Jonathan made a daring proposal to his armor-bearer; they should (just the two of them) see what the Philistines were up to at Mikhmas.
A logical question is: WHAT particular day is this referring to? There are two parts to the answer; first, it’s referring back to chapter 13 (remember, breaking the Scriptures apart into chapters is a relatively modern invention) where it says, “A garrison of Philistines had gone out to the pass of Mikhmas.”
But the second part of the answer is that in the Bible, “on that day” or “in that day” doesn’t necessarily mean “this 24 hour period we call a day”. It’s more referring to the context of the particular situation.
So we could paraphrase this: “during the time that the Philistines had sent a garrison of soldiers and established a camp at Mikhmas.” It could have been the next day, or a few days later, but it all had to do with the occasion of the garrison of Philistines going to Mikhmas.
Here we are kind of formally introduced to Jonathan. And it is made clear that King Saul is his father, and equally clear that Jonathan was a chip off the ol’ block. He was as headstrong and impetuous as his father and so told his armor bearer that they ought to walk across the ravine and challenge the Philistines to come out and fight.
King Saul knew nothing about this foray as he was back with his 600 troops in Geba, where he was camping under a Pomegranate tree. It was usual that a recognizable tree was where the military or governmental authority would station itself because it was easier to describe to a large contingent of people where to find the leadership.
In other words in addition to it being a prime camping spot (always reserved for the leadership or the elite), a huge tree or in this case an exceptionally desirable tree (for its sweet fruit) was an excellent landmark.
Since this was a holy war, naturally Israel’s High Priest was present. And here we are told that the High Priest was Achiyah (Ahijah), the great-grandson of Eli. Eli was Samuel’s mentor from the time Samuel was a little boy. Although it doesn’t directly say that Achiyah (Ahijah) was the cohen (or better, cohen hagadol), the High Priest, it tells us that Ahijah was wearing the ephod. The ephod was that special ritual vest that was symbolic of the High Priest.
By the way: as of this time, there were competing High Priesthoods in existence. Eli’s line wasn’t of the proper lineage and exactly how it came to be that Eli (and now his grandson Ahijah) was the High Priest (at least for some of the tribes) is open to debate.
Now watch how this issue of the High Priest subtly plays out but at the same time has a pretty significant role in Israel’s history even though it goes unnoticed.
Eli and therefore his descendants were of the line of Ithamar (the youngest son of Aaron). Achiyah was of Eli’s (and therefore Ithamar’s) line, and therefore by the Law of Moses, he had no divine right to the High Priesthood. The High Priesthood was supposed to go to the descendants of another son of Aaron, Eleazar. Somewhere along the line, a power struggle took place, and Eli’s family won out.
So here we have two High Priests in existence, and King Saul has the opportunity to do what is right and put the proper High Priest back into power according to the Torah, but he doesn’t. King Saul instead decides that Achiyah was to continue as his government’s High Priest.
Here’s the reason Saul made this decision: Eli’s family was aligned with the eight tribes of the northern coalition. Since Saul’s tribe Benjamin was part of that same coalition; naturally, they recognized Achiyah as their High Priest and ignored the other one. And Saul wasn’t about to rock the boat because he was mostly concerned with gaining loyalty from the people.
But in a couple of chapters, when King Saul dies, and David becomes king, a new and different High Priest suddenly springs onto the scene: Zadok. And guess what; Zadok is of the line of Eleazar, the Torah authorized line of High Priests. Zadok was certainly around and operating during Saul’s day (in fact he was Achiyah’s competitor); however he was not recognized as High Priest by the northern tribes for political reasons.
But Zadok WAS identified by the two southern tribes (David’s tribe was the southern tribe of Judah), as the proper High Priest, so it is logical that when David became king, he set aside the northern coalition’s High Priest and installed Zadok as High Priest of his government.
Now on the one hand, while this was certainly the divinely right thing for David to do, on the contrary, these things don’t happen accidentally, and David made a political choice.
Although the Bible doesn’t explain the details about how some of these political and governmental changes came about, nonetheless, it helps for us to find out what was behind it because then we can see how God continuously moves hidden, unseen in His providence in the lives of men. Balancing things out, bringing about His will, advancing history towards redemption, eventually punishing the wicked and vindicating the righteous (even though none of this is of particular concern to most of the leaders and primary characters involved).
In my next blog post on Samuel, we’ll explore this daring exploit of Jonathan and his armor bearer as they confront the Philistines at Mikhmas.