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I Samuel 13:1-14, Even When Saul Watches His Back. . .



This chapter continues the presentation of bizarre antics of Samuel that were first exposed in I Samuel 8 but came into fuller prominence in I Samuel 12. We saw in I Samuel 8 that Samuel wanted to prolong his influence through making his sons judges but that they, like entitled sons then and now, decided to take bribes and kickbacks rather than to rule judiciously.  Thus, the people sought a king, which God decided to allow.  But Samuel never seemed to support wholeheartedly this new institution. Its mere existence was no doubt a stinging reminder of the unethical behavior of his sons, and in his desire to cover up whatever emotions he felt about that, he tried his best to undermine the institution, which I described in my essay on I Samuel 12.


                                          The Background for Battle in I Samuel 13:1-7

Now, in I Samuel 13, he has yet another occasion verbally to attack Saul, the one he anointed just a few chapters previously. But before we get to that attack on Saul, we have to point out some literary features that make I Samuel 13 almost unreadable.  Let’s start on a positive note.  There is no “verse 1” in this chapter—for the Hebrew text of verse 1 is itself unclear and unhelpful.  So, the LXX translators likely just dropped it out because it added nothing to their narrative.  But then things fall apart. The chapter opens with Saul preparing for battle.  He has 2,000 troops and his son Jonathan has 1,000.  The rest of the people were sent home (v. 1).  Perhaps the 3,000 was supposed to be reminiscent of the 300 that Gideon used to defeat the Midianites.  In any case, they are prepared for battle with 3,000 Israelite troops.  Then come the non-sequiturs in vv. 3-4. 


1-- Jonathan smote Nasib the Gentile/Foreigner on the hill. This is clear.

2—The Gentiles/Foreigners hear about it.  This is clear.

3---Perhaps in anticipation of battle, Saul sounds the trumpet in all the land.  But why?  Is he trying to raise more troops?  No indication of this.  This is a bit confusing.

4—After sounding the alarm he announces that the “Slaves have revolted.”  Huh?  Who are the slaves?  Are they the Gentiles?  Can’t be.  No sense. Confusing.

5—Then all Israel cries out and says that Saul has struck Nasib the Gentile. But that isn’t true.  Jonathan has. Confusion again.

6—All Israel hears about this and they are “ashamed among the Gentiles.”  Huh?  Why would they be ashamed if they have been victorious?  At this point the confusion makes the narrative almost laughable.


Ok, now that the narrative makes almost no sense it settles into a pattern of moderate clarity beginning in verse 5.  The Gentiles now gather for battle against Israel. This actually makes sense, since Jonathan has just defeated some of them. Retaliation. That is clear enough. But the Gentiles will mount a formidable force against Israel—30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen.  Israel is vastly outnumbered. And, like typical people who are outnumbered more than 10:1, most of them want to retreat. The actual language describing the places where they retreated is worth quoting because we have five nouns in quick succession describing hiding places:  ἐν τοῖς σπηλαίοις καὶ ἐν ταῖς μάνδραις καὶ ἐν ταῖς πέτραις καὶ ἐν τοῖς βόθροις καὶ ἐν τοῖς λάκκοις or, comparing our two translations:


In the     caves    sheepfolds   rocks    ditches    pits   (Brenton)

In the     caves     dens            rocks    holes      pits    (NETS)


Great way to build our Greek vocabulary!  Ok, ready now we are for the battle.


                                                Israel’s Battle Plans (I Samuel 13:8-15)


Israel is vastly outnumbered and is mostly hunkered down in five different places with five different Greek words, as we have just seen. In another non-sequitur, the text now says that Saul waited an agreed-upon seven days for Samuel (v 8).  Of course, the only “wait seven days for me”-statement that Samuel has uttered was back in I Samuel 10:8, which most scholars reading this part of the narrative say happened a few years previously.  So, the text has not prepared us for this seven-day requirement; the story is thus vitiated a bit by that lack.  Are we to assume that there was a subsequent “seven-day show-up agreement?”  Seems so.


In any case the text acts like everyone knew that Samuel had said that he would come in seven days. The problem of the story emerges when Saul actually waits the requisite seven days, but Samuel does not show up. To make matters worse, the relatively few troops that Saul actually did control were fading away.  It seemed like everything was slipping away from Saul’s control.  So, he did what any good commander would do. He took matters into his own hands and did what he could to show his authority and that he had a modicum of control.


To repeat: Samuel didn’t show up on time. And, if we can imagine that there was a “seven-day agreement timeline,” even though the text doesn't say so, we can also imagine that Saul had the freedom to take matters into his hands after seven days. So, he does.  And he does so in a ritually approved manner—by offering up sacrifices to God before battle. Have to try to get the deity on your side. Understandable decision.


And wouldn’t you know it?  Just when Saul finishes offering the whole burnt offering (half of the sacrifices),  Samuel shows up.  ‘Oh, am I late?’  The thing that has to anger any close reader of the text is that Saul has waited patiently for Samuel and Samuel, like a delinquent schoolboy, has shown up after the bell and then acted like he showed up before the bell. Saul was in tough straits: the enemy was gathering, his own people were slipping away, and he had to make a tough decision.  His decision was to do something (he IS a commander after all) in order to keep the loyalty of the people.

But what does the latecomer Samuel do in such a situation?  Does he show compassion?  Is he big enough to admit his mistake?  Does he demonstrate the least bit of understanding of Saul’s dilemma, a dilemma that he, Samuel, had likely caused?  After all, as we have seen in previous essays, Samuel is no friend of the monarchy and seems bent on doing whatever he can to undermine Saul. So, rather than having a shred of understanding, all Samuel can do is excoriate Saul in verse 13, “You have done foolishly, for you did not keep my commandment.”  What?  Isn’t this a bit over-the-top?  Samuel should have apologized for being late and then said something like, ‘I understand why you acted as you did. It was a reasonable choice given the circumstances and my delay.’  None of this. 


And then, to add insult to the injury that Samuel had just visited on Saul, Samuel says the most chilling words imaginable:  “And “now your kingdom will not stand, and the Lord will seek for himself a person after his heart. . .” (v. 14). What??  If I were Saul I would be wondering two things:  first, ‘Why were you late, Samuel?  As they used to tell me, ‘plan for potential delays. Don’t cut corners.’’  But Samuel had cut corners—and Saul paid for it. The second thing I would be wondering about is, ‘How on earth can you say that the kingdom will be wrested out of my hands?  You just anointed me a few years back in great solemnity; you renewed the kingship; I have won victories; I have done everything right. Now you want to take it away from me and blame me for it!  This is unconscionable!’



So, if I were Saul, I would be livid if Samuel’s word was indeed the Word of God. I would feel that God had treated me with great unfairness; that Samuel was acting out of his own insecurity in not supporting the monarchy; and that he was looking for the slightest excuse to try to undermine me. If I were Saul, I think that if I were eventually removed from power, and I realized that not only Samuel but that God also was behind this, I might just go crazy. 

I Samuel 13:15-23
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