Israel defeats the Ammonites
In 1 Samuel 11, the Israelites face their first major military test under their new king, Saul. He has found out that the Ammonites have besieged the city of Jabesh-Gilead and so Saul assembles an Israelite force.
8 When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand.
Numbers can always be a little bit difficult in the Bible. Especially in the Old Testament. In English, our word for thousand always refers to a numerical value. The Hebrew word translated thousand can mean more than one thing. So it’s possible that it’s 300 thousand. It’s also possible it’s 300 military units, but not necessarily 300 thousand men.
It’s a large group in any event.
It’s also noteworthy that you have a split between Israel and Judah – north and south – just two generations later and even here, it’s listing the military numbers for these primary regions of the kingdom separately. The news of this army is shared with the besieged city of Jabesh-Gilead.
9 And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.’ ” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad.
And so they give their response to the Ammonite king:
10 Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.”
In the Hebrew, their wording is actually a little bit cryptic.
The ESV translates it as we will give ourselves up to you.
The ESV commentary on 1 Samuel says that more literally, what they’re saying is we will come out to you.
Which has a double meaning where the Ammonites could think they were coming out to surrender, but in reality they would be coming out to do battle.
In verse 11, the battle is recorded.
11 And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
Again, it’s a passage where a battle happens but it’s not really a passage about the battle itself. It gets summarized in one verse. Saul divided his men and they surrounded the Ammonites and so we see some skill in planning on the part of Saul.
The Israelites have a decisive victory. No two of them were left together.
The Ammonites are decimated. More attention is actually given to the aftermath of the victory than to the battle itself.
To explain the end of this chapter, we need to understand the end of chapter 10.
Team of rivals
In chapter 10, after Saul becomes king, he returns to his home and chapter 10 ends by mentioning that there were some who were enthusiastic about the new king, and there were some who were not.
Chapter 10, verses 26-27:
26 Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched. 27 But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.
After the victory, people wanted to round up those detractors who had been less enthusiastic about Saul and see them executed.
Back in chapter 11, verse 12:
12 Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.”
The high point of a doomed kingdom
13 But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel.”
As I said in the beginning of our time, this is the high point of the reign of Saul.
For a brief moment, Israel has the king they wanted.
Saul could have been vengeful to his detractors but chose grace instead. He could have hogged the glory but he gives the credit where it’s due when he says that it was the Lord who has worked salvation in Israel.
All is well in Israel.
There is a celebration.
It’s like when a team brings in a new coach or a new general manager and it takes them a few years to built up and then it culminates in a championship. The Cubs winning the World Series in 2016 comes to mind. All that time without winning a World Series and then they get the right people on staff and on the roster and they get there.
14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the Lord, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.
So we’ve had this great victory. The Israelites are carrying Saul around on their shoulders. The Prophet Samuel suggests that they go to Gilgal to renew the kingdom.
Why would they need to renew the kingdom when they literally just installed a new king?
I think that John L Mackay argues convincingly that the renewal of the kingdom in light of this great victory is not about Saul. That Samuel is seeking to renew the covenant to the kingdom that they have with the Lord who gave them this victory.
Gilgal was mentioned in chapter 10. It’s the place where Saul became king. It was also the place where Joshua built the first altar to the Lord within the Promised Land after they had crossed the Jordan River. In renewing the kingdom at Gilgal, it is also tying the future of Israel to God’s past faithfulness.
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