For this chapter, we return to Jabesh-gilead (or Jabesh for short), the town that, in Judges 21:10-14, was slaughtered because a) they failed to muster when called, and b) the Benjaminites needed wives. At some point between then and here, the town has presumably been repopulated, as it is now under siege. The big baddie of this story is Nahash the Ammonite.

When the people of Jabesh try to negotiate the terms of surrender, Nahash responds with rather steep terms: The siege will end if all the people of Jabesh gauge out their right eyes. Unsurprisingly, the Jabeshites start looking at their options. They ask Nahash if they could have seven days respite from the siege during which they would send out messengers. If no one comes to their rescue, they will agree to Nahash’s terms. The fact that Nahash agrees to the respite suggests that he is really confident that no one will come. Jabesh is in the Transjordan, on the east side of the Jordan River. Throughout our readings, the Transjordan has been considered a semi-other border land. We saw, for example, the suspicion with which the region was regarded in Joshua 22.

It seems that this story is a continuation of the Deuteronomist pro-monarchy narrative, illustrating how badly things had gotten: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In this case, the argument is that without a king, enemies can do as they please, too.

But no one counted on Saul!

When the messengers arrive in Gibeah, where Saul is living, he is out in the fields. Again, he is associated with the pastoral – first in chasing lost donkeys in 1 Sam. 9, and now following a team of oxen. It reminds me of the way Gideon was connecting to farming life in Judges 6. I’m not sure why it’s done, except perhaps to highlight humble origins.

1 Samuel 11So Saul is returning from the fields with his oxen when he hears wailing. It’s explained to him that the residents of Gibeah are wailing because of the news the messengers from Jabesh have just brought. Then, “the spirit of God came mightily upon Saul” (1 Sam. 11:6), connecting him even further to the judges.

Saul slaughters his team of oxen and cuts them up into pieces. He sends the pieces out to every region of Israel (interestingly, the reference is to geographical territories – tribes are not mentioned), along with a threat: anyone who fails to answer his call will end up like the ox.

The connection to Judges 19, where a slave-woman is cut up into pieces and her body serves as a mustering call, is obvious (though the equating of an ox and a human woman is troubling).

300’000 Israelites muster at Bezek, which either includes or is in addition to 30,000 men of Judah. It’s odd that Judah is specified while no other tribe is, particularly given that the ox pieces were sent to regions rather than tribes. It seems that, at least for this source, tribal affiliations have largely lost their significance.

They send word to Jabesh to let them know that they are coming, and will have delivered the town on the next day. The Jabeshites say (presumably to Nahash): “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you” (1 Sam. 11:10). The detail could indicate some trickery, convincing Nahash that he’s already won so that he lets his guard down. It could also be a joke. According to my New Bible Commentary, the more literal translation reads “we will come out unto you.” This may be important, because “the verb is often used for going out to do battle, the real intention of the men of Jabesh” (p.293). In other words, it’s a bit like Hannibal Lecter saying “it is wonderful having friends for dinner.”

Obviously, the Israelites win.

The people are so impressed with Saul’s first victory that they demand the nay-sayers from 1 Sam. 10:27 be put to death. Saul refuses to do this, saying that they won’t soil such a glorious day with (Israelite) bloodshed.

Now that Saul has been imbued with the spirit of God – or perhaps now that we’ve entered a different source – Saul is suddenly seen very positively. There’s the victory, for one thing (remember, this is the guy who couldn’t even find a couple donkeys). Now he’s showing mercy and/or concern for ritual purity.

With everyone now on Team Saul, Samuel calls the people back to Gilgal to renew Saul’s coronation. This is the third time Saul is declared king, and the second time it is done publicly. The obvious explanation is that we have different stories that all made it into the same narrative. I don’t think that’s necessarily a given, though, as there may be a rationale for having Saul first be elected by God, then designated by a prophet, and finally distinguished by the lay population. Further, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. It’s quite possible that an editor took three separate coronation stories and wove them into a single narrative using his default cosmological hierarchy.