I Samuel 13:15-23, Preparations for Battle
I have already argued that the story of I Samuel 13 is unattractive for two reasons. First, the flow of the narrative either doesn’t make sense at points (the textual problems in the Hebrew of verse 1 are one example) and, second, the contents of the message of Samuel to Saul are intolerable. I will address the latter briefly in the next essay. Here I will focus on the additional plans for battle after Samuel has summarily left Saul and his dwindling troops.
We know that this battle against the Philistines will be hard for the Hebrews. They have a combined total of 3,000 troops while the Philistines had more than ten times that many (v. 4). So, the Hebrews began to panic, hide in caves and generally slip away from Saul. In order to try to keep their loyalty, Saul started sacrificing whole burnt offerings, which is when Samuel showed up. After Samuel’s departure, we learn that things are looking even more bleak for Israel.
But we have a hard time with the text. Immediately after Samuel has left we have the “remnant/remainder” (κατάλειμμα) of the people going up after Saul to meet behind (ὀπίσω) the men of war. This is opaque to me. It seems to suggest that non-warriors were hanging around Saul and that after Samuel had departed they went after Saul to go meet the troops. But even if this is what is happening, what are we to infer from it? They were bringing snacks to the troops? They wanted to volunteer to augment their numbers? Well, then we learn the really bad news, that the number of troops of Saul had dwindled to 600 (v 15).
They knew things were bleak, and so they sat and wept (v 16) while the Gentiles were gathering together and setting up camp. Then the narrative describes how the foreigners were divided into three groups and set up on three different roads. We don’t know anything about the towns or roads where they were, but we can infer that the Israelites either were surrounded or were sorely pressed.
Then, to make matters worse, we have the story in vv. 19-23 how Israel was dependent on the Philistines for the metal to make weapons. In other words, the assumption of this passage is that this isn’t an equal fight either with numbers or technology. Because Philistines had eliminated the Israelite technical capacity, the Israelites had to go to them to forge instruments, both of harvest and of weapons. The words used to describe the harvest instruments aren’t consistent, but they do give us multiple new words, which sometimes is even more valuable than consistency!
In this case the Israelites went down (v 20) to forge (χαλκεύειν) tools including the “reaping hook” (θέριστρον) and unspecified “tool” (σκεῦος) and “axe” (ἀξίνην) and “hook/pruning hook/scythe/sickle (δρέπανον). Then, in the next verse we are told that when the harvest was ready, they would have to pay for these tools: three shekels for both the “axe” and the “hook/pruning hook/scythe/sickle,” but then we have no mention either of the “reaping hook” or generic “tool” but we are told that it also cost three shekels for a “tooth” (ὀδόντα). This is a fascinating description for a harvesting tool because it almost certainly points to some kind of sickle or reaping hook, shaped to look like a tooth, but the terminology is of “tooth” terminology. In any case, our little journey on words shouldn’t hide the notion that the Israelites were vulnerable. As the text says, they had no ῥομφαία καὶ δόρυ, which are translated pretty consistently as:
But then, the end of the verse is somewhat confusing in that it says that the people didn’t have these instruments of war, but Jonathan and Saul did. Well, perhaps that isn’t so unusual; you would expect that the leaders would be accoutered somewhat better than the troops, but it is a bit unexpected to read this. Finally, the chapter concludes with unclarity. Here is verse 23:
καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ἐξ ὑποστάσεως τῶν ἀλλοφύλων τὴν ἐν τῷ πέραν Μαχεμας
“And there went out from the substance of the Gentiles into the region beyond Machema.”
The NETS translation tries to suggest that the ὑποστάσεως may have something to do with the troops of the Gentiles/Philistines, but that same word is used in verse 21 and was translated as “plan” or as “substance.” So, we don’t know if troops movements are indicated in this verse or even what is suggested. Par for the course for this chapter. The bottom line, however, is that the people of Israel are sorely oppressed; Samuel has left them; and they are vulnerable because they don’t have an adequate supply of weapons. No greater challenge could have been presented to Saul.