In 1 Samuel 11, Israel is on the verge of war against the Ammonites, a surrounding enemy.
At the beginning of the passage, the Ammonite king – Nahash – has the Israelite city of Jabesh-Gilead surrounded. The Israelites seek out a treaty with the Ammonites. 1 Samuel 11:1 says: Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.”
In verse 2, the Ammonite king makes an audacious request:
But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.”
An immodest proposal
There are two reasons why Nahash would make such a demand. From the text, it says that it would bring disgrace upon them. I think that’s pretty obvious. A way to shame and humiliate the people by half-blinding the nation and also the pain which that would involve.
A second reason is also likely for such a request. If they just gouged out one eye, they could still farm and therefore serve the Ammonite conquers. But it would make it much harder for them to have any type of military resistance. It would affect depth perception.
Most people are right handed and so to have to carry a sword in your right hand when you couldn’t see in your right eye would also cause problems. Carrying a shield with the left hand could also potentially obstruct the view in the left eye, especially when marching in formations as was common in ancient warfare.
So there is strategy behind this, but given that Nahash wanted to bring disgrace upon Israel, we also see hatred and vengeance as motivations for why he wanted to defeat them.
Back in our passage. Verse 3, we see a request from the Israelites in Jabesh:
3 The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.”
They ask for a reprieve of seven days. They want to see if they have any options.
It’s obvious from the context of the passage that the Ammonite king agrees because messengers get sent out in the following verse.
Perhaps he’s overconfident or assumes that the Israelites couldn’t possibly mobilize a force in seven days.
We’ve seen Israel’s situation as they come under threat.
And we will see in this passage that it is ultimately a story about the Lord protecting his people.
The king and the battle
So the Israelites asked for a seven day reprieve. They send out messengers.
4 When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud.
We don’t know how many messengers are sent or how wide ranging these messengers were sent throughout Israel. But some messengers had made their way to Gibeah, the hometown of Saul, Israel’s new king.
There is one point worth making that helps us understand the connection between Saul’s hometown of Gibeah within the Benjaminite territory and Jabesh-Gilead which was the city under Ammonite siege.
A tale of two cities
As I keep mentioning, Saul was a Benjaminite and so he lived in the Benjaminite territory.
The Benjaminites had fought a war against other Israelite tribes. One area that did not participate in this war were the soldiers from Jabesh-Gilead. So Jabesh-Gilead is under attack in today’s passage. They go to a place that they had previously spared and ask for help.
So you have some good historical relations between these two cities. And that place just “happens to be” the home of the new king.
I say “happens to be” in quotes because it wasn’t just some random coincidence. Once again in this passage, we continue to see this theme in Samuel of the providence of God. And I want to reiterate the point I keep making. That this passage is about God’s faithfulness. Here, we see it through his providential actions.
Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh.
So it just happens to be these two cities who had this warm relationship with each other, and it just happens to be the hometown of Saul, and now Saul just happens to pass by.
People are weeping. We’re not sure if the messengers even know that there’s a king, or know that they’re in his hometown.
He’s just coming by with his livestock.
We continue to see God’s divine initiative in verse 6.
6 And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.
So we’ve seen the providence of God, now we see the equipping from God.
The Spirit rushed upon Saul.
This is something that we also see in the Book of Judges where the judges are endowed by the divine Spirit in times of crisis and then act.
The same thing happens to Saul and he goes to work.
7 He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.
If nothing else, Saul is a showman. Pretty gruesome.
Cutting up the oxen alludes back to events in Judges but it is also giving a stern warning to his people that they’re being called upon by their king to serve.
The verse ends with they came out as one man.
Saul’s action had its intended effect. And for one of the few times in the history of Ancient Israel, the people are united.
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