The chapter opens with something of a mystery. According to John Hobbins’s translation, the opening line reads: “Saul was a year old when he became king, and he was king over Israel for two years.”

Clearly, Kish didn’t send his one-year-old out to fetch donkeys, and I think we can assume that a one-year-old can’t have a son out leading armies (we will be meeting his son Jonathan shortly). Even if we accept the possibility of a narrative jumbling – in which case the events in which Samuel is clearly an adult may have taken place after his coronation – it would be too unusual for an infant to be a dynasty founder without it getting a mention.

Far more likely, we have a corruption of the record. It could be that the earliest text had correct figures that were later dropped, or perhaps the original author didn’t know and used these numbers as a place-holder.

Hobbins goes on to mention other variations of the passage that contain more realistic figures:

There are ancient witnesses that supply a plausible age for Saul at the beginning of his reign – the Lucianic recension of the Old Greek has 30 years; the Syriac has 21 – but there are no grounds for thinking that either goes back to an earlier stage of the text in which Saul’s age when he became king was not lacking.

If anything, the presence of different figures suggests, to me, that later scholars were concerned about the absence of realistic figures and included their best guesses – arriving at different conclusions or possibly drawing from different traditions.

If we assume a late composition date, it’s not unreasonable for the author not to have access to the actual figures. Which raises the question of why he would bring up the topic at all. It could be that the point is to indicate that these events aren’t occurring right after the events of 1 Sam. 12. Rather, time has passed, perhaps quite a few years.

Saul at war

Saul selects 3,000 soldiers, sending the remainder home. He keeps 2,000 of them with him at Michmash while his son, Jonathan, leads the remainder in a raid against the Philistine garrison at Geba.

Saul reproved by Samuel for not obeying the commandments of the Lord, by John Singleton Copley, 1798

Saul reproved by Samuel for not obeying the commandments of the Lord, by John Singleton Copley, 1798

For all that the Philistines are the baddies in these stories, Saul is clearly on the offensive. When Jonathan wins, Saul blows a trumpet to signal that the tides have turned, and to call the people to Gilgal (raising the question of why he’d dismissed them in the first place).

When they hear of it, the Philistines muster 30,000 charioteers, 6,000 cavalry, and innumerable footsoldiers. They gather at Michmash, where Saul had so recently been.

The number of Philistines has the Israelites quaking in their boots, and many hide “in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns” (1 Sam. 13:6). In apparent reference to 1 Sam. 10:8, Saul waits seven days for Samuel, but Samuel doesn’t show. Saul, seeing his people starting to desert and having no idea where Samuel is or if he’s even coming, takes matters into his own hands. He orders that a sacrifice be performed without Samuel.

When Samuel arrives, he is furious. He declares that, by crossing the church/state barrier, Saul has broken God’s commandments. “But now,” he says, “your kingdom shall not continue” (1 Sam. 13: 14).

There’s the impression that Samuel may not have taken too well to the loss of his secular authority. We see a hint of this in 1 Sam. 8:7, where God tries to reassure Samuel that it is he who is rejected, not Samuel. Now that we see Samuel so furious, I wonder if it’s not because Saul has attempted to erode his last little corner of power.

Or, if we read in some allegory, it could well be that this story presents a conflict between secular and religious authorities at a time when secular authorities were just forming in the region. It seems that Samuel, as a stand-in for religious authority, is attempted to create and preserve a role for his “team” within the context of the new monarchy.

We now learn that the Philistines have, in their attempt to control Israel, forbidden smithing (not an unknown strategy – when she defeated the Oirats, the Mongolian queen Mandukhai forbade the use of knives even for eating). This indicates a power well beyond that suggested so far. Or, perhaps, it is hyperbole intended to ramp up the suspense of the story.

As a practical detail, we learn that the Israelites have had to turn to Philistine smiths to tend their tools, paying a pim (1/2 shekel) for work on ploughshares and mattocks, and 1/3 shekel for sharpening axes and setting goads.

Only Saul and Jonathan are armed with proper weapons. Which all makes it rather impressive that Jonathan was able to defeat the garrison at Gibeah.