Recall that at our Introduction to 1st Samuel I said that it was not a matter of IF Israel would have a king, but of who, when, and at the unction of whom. The Book of Judges was showing Israel (and us) that as humankind our nature requires that we need to be ruled by a king. However, the proper King for us to be governed by is God (and in the end, that is what will happen after we’ve gone full circle).
Since it is the people of Israel who want a visible, tangible, human king, this is the wrong circumstance. And since it’s people who want a human king they automatically want him for all the wrong reasons and look for all the bad attributes and long for all the wrong hopes.
Let’s Read 1 Samuel 13:1-15
The story of King Saul, then, is the story of the anti-king. And Saul is the record of a king (the 1st King of Israel) who does what is right in his mind. A king who hatches his doctrines and attributes them to God and then abides by these instead of God’s Word; a king who pays lip service to the Torah but otherwise trusts his own heart to God’s laws. Watch Saul in operation because many of his ways will be patterned into the Anti-Christ, who is also another anti-king.
Verse 1 reads quite differently depending on your translation or version. If you have a KJV, it will say something like, “Saul reigned one year, and when he had reigned two years over Israel…”
The New American Standard says, “Saul was 40 years old when he began to reign, and he reigned 32 years over Israel…”
Many other versions such as the Complete Jewish Bible just omit Saul’s age (even though his age naturally called for). What’s going on?
First the bottom-line; we don’t know how old Saul was when he first became king. We have no ancient source documents or manuscripts in which this number is provided. Certainly, this is some copyist error or omission, but it probably happened well before 250 B.C. because that is when the Greek Septuagint was written and even then it was omitted, presumably because whatever Hebrew document they were translating from also didn’t have it.
So if your Bible version has a number for either Saul’s age or the amount of time he reigned, it was inserted in modern times through a guess. That said he was probably around 40 years old because he had an adult son (Jonathan). It’s far more likely that if 40 isn’t close, he’s OLDER than 40 rather than younger. So we need to picture a man in early middle age.
And in verse 2 we see the setting for the first war Saul led as the recognized sitting King of Israel. I remind you that while Saul was king over all Israel, he and his tribe of Benjamin were part of the eighth tribe, the Northern confederation of Israelite tribes, so we’ll find that he operates almost exclusively north of the territory of Judah. Not only did a ridge of rugged mountains physically and geographically separate the north from the south, but also Judah never really warmed up to Saul as their king (mostly for political reasons).
So while as of this time Judah and Simeon (representing the Southern Confederation of Israelite tribes) weren’t openly opposing him, they certainly weren’t interested in propping him up either. Thus the 3000 men that were divided into a group of 1000, and another of 2000, were almost certainly troops formed from Benjamin and other northern tribes.
Now verse 3 is the real start of the story because it explains why Saul and 2000 of his men were in Michmash and another 1000 were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin (recall that Gibeah was Saul’s family’s hometown).
The situation is this: the Philistines were growing more powerful and had regained a foothold in Israel’s land holdings. Samuel had pushed them back and struck them down hard enough to put a crimp in their plans of expansion, some years earlier. But if the Philistines were going to expand their sphere of influence it was going to be to the east, because they were currently occupying a strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea Coast. That was nice; they were seafarers and sea merchants.
But to have something to export, and a place to sell what they could buy from the incoming ships, they needed land trade routes, and all the land was to the east: Canaan. That put Israel directly in the crosshairs.
The Philistines seem to have been pretty pragmatic folks, with wealth in mind and not so much empire building. They weren’t interested in adding Israel’s land holdings (Canaan) to what they currently occupied, but they did want to lord over many areas in Canaan, control the people, and have access to farm produce and labor, and the crisscrossing trade routes as a means to build their wealth.
Thus we find that early on in Saul’s kingship, the Philistines had established a fort in Saul’s hometown of Gibeah, and even had a governor or administrator stationed at a nearby place called Geva. Apparently, the Philistines had overreached and aroused too much hostility in Israel, and now that Saul was king he decided to try and push the Philistines back.
But, understand: King Saul still did not have a professional standing army. His army was a militia that served according to each tribal leader’s whim and benefit. Many of the tribes and clans cut their deals with the Philistines so that not being harmed was perhaps their primary interest. If a Hebrew soldier couldn’t see what was in it for him or his family or tribe he wasn’t very interested in putting his life on the line for King Saul.
As much as history changes, the ways of men never change. King Saul needed some crisis or national cause as an impetus to get (at least) some of the tribal leaders to encourage their members to go and fight for Saul to push back the Philistines. Saul’s son took it upon himself and went to Geva and assassinated the Philistine leader in charge of the area. And this infuriated the Philistines; just like throwing a stone into a relatively calm anthill, the wounded Philistines decided it was time to take off the gloves and come after Israel hard.
Now King Saul had his crisis; it would be hard for any tribal leader in the area to not send troops since the Philistines were coming for retribution and to try to stake out a little stronger foothold in the process.
We’ll continue the story next time.