1 Samuel 14: Rambo has a bite of honey

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When chapter 14 opens, Saul is hanging out by “the pomegranate tree” near Gibeah (evidently a once-known landmark) with his 600 men. It occurs to me that perhaps the 600, down from the 3,000 he began 1 Sam. 13 with, may be all that are left after the desertions in the last chapter. If so, it makes his decision to proceed with the sacrifice without the tardy Samuel seem quite a bit more reasonable. With his army is Ahijah, the great-grandson of Eli (via Phinehas) and evidently the new high priest as he is said to be carrying the ephod.

I had gotten the impression that the high priest status had transferred to Samuel at Eli’s death because Eli’s sons were corrupt, but it apparently merely hopped that generation. There’s also no hint here of how the priesthood survived the destruction of Shiloh, or if the office has relocated to Kiriath-jearim to be with the ark, if the ark has been moved (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years – 1 Sam. 7:2), etc.

Jonathan and his unnamed armour-bearer decide to sneak out of the camp and assault a nearby Philistine garrison, Rambo-style. They tell no one that they are leaving.

1 Sam 14When they reach the outskirts of the Philistine camp, they decide to reveal themselves. If they Philistines tell them to wait there, they agree that they will do so. If they Philistines beckon them over, they will approach. The latter will be taken as a sign that God has delivered the garrison to them, for some reason.

The Philistines chide them, saying “look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hid themselves” (1 Sam. 14:11), referencing 1 Sam. 13:6. It seems that they believe Jonathan and his armour-bearers to be defectors. So the Philistines call them over, promising to “show you a thing” (1 Sam. 14:12). What the “thing” is, or whether it’s part of their teasing, is never revealed, because Jonathan and his armour-bearer go full River Tam as soon as they get near, killing 20 Philistines.

This causes a panic among the Philistines, no doubt fanned by a timely earthquake.

Saul’s watchmen see the Philistines running about, so he orders a headcount and discovers that Jonathan and the armour-bearer are missing. Having apparently figured out what’s going on, Saul decides to press his advantage. He tells Ahijah to bring the ark. Maybe. Apparently, the LXX has Saul call for the ephod here, which makes more sense in context.

Before Ahijah can do anything, they hear the tumult growing in the Philistine camp, and Saul tells Ahijah to “withdraw your hand” (1 Sam. 14:19). This suggests that Saul wanted to go after the panicking Philistines, but he wanted to check in with God for permission first (presumably by using the Umim and Thummim kept in the ephod for divination). When it became obvious that the Philistines were easy pickings, he decided to just go for it.

The battle depiction is rather confusing, but what I take from it is that the Philistines are just completely irrational in their fear and are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the Israelites. The battle is so one-sided that the Israelites who had hidden all come out, and even the Israelites who had joined the Philistines switch back to Saul’s side.

The lack of weapons among the Israelites is, apparently, no longer a concern.

The Bite

For reasons not given, Saul makes an oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Here are a few possible reasons for the vow:

  • The narrative chronology is muddled, and he actually made this vow before going into battle in the hopes that it would ensure his victory (fasting as a prayer amplifier is far from unknown). The fact that the Israelites are already faint from hunger before the Philistines are defeated suggests that this may be the case.
  • I’ve seen it argued that the vow is meant to expunge his earlier faux pas with the sacrifice. This would be ironic since – as we shall soon find out – this too is a rash decision that meddles in cultic matters and will end up backfiring.
  • Or the point is just to show that Saul keeps doing stuff that fall under religious jurisdiction without consulting the proper authorities, reinforcing the rationale for denying him his dynastic posterity.

Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn’t get the memo. If we accept the explanation that Saul made his vow before going after the Philistines, it could be that Jonathan is still returning from his Ramboing and, therefore, didn’t hear it.

This is important, because the army finds a honey field (a forest with honey, according to my translation, but I’ve seen arguments that the term for “forest” could also mean hives. It’s possibly, then, that they stumbled upon an apiary). Jonathan pokes at a honeycomb with his staff and has a taste. Much like me when I eat chocolate, Jonathan’s “eyes became bright” (1 Sam. 14:27).

A companion tells him about Saul’s vow, but Jonathan seems not to interpret this as a danger to himself. Rather, he argues that the vow was a bad idea because now the soldiers are so hungry that they are too weak to slaughter the Philistines. In his argument, Jonathan says that it would have been “better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found” (1 Sam. 14:30).

The argument seems strange given the prohibition on taking spoils during a holy war (a prohibition illustrated in Joshua 7, though one that has already been applied inconsistently elsewhere). Still, the story seems to mirror the story of Jephthah’s vow, and Jonathan seems to highlight that it is not a good idea to make rash oaths.

The soldiers are so starved (after only a day, albeit one of battle) that they “flew upon the spoil” (1 Sam. 14:32). Unfortunately, in their hurry, they eat the Philistine livestock with the blood – prohibited in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 19:26, and Deut. 12:16. Additionally, it seems that they are slaughtering the animals as they find them, rather than having priests do it on altars.

Saul tries to remedy the issue by having a rock brought, making a an altar for the people to bring the livestock to for slaughtering.  With that, the issue seems resolved.

Saul then suggests a night attack on the Philistines, but the priest says that should be hanging out with God instead. Saul calls on God, asking him if they should proceed against the Philistines, but God does not answer him. They assume that this is a result of some unknown sin.

Using the Umim and Thumim, they first ask whether the sin is in either Saul or Jonathan, or in the people. The Umim is drawn, indicating that it is either in Saul or Jonathan. The stones are drawn again, revealing that the sin was in Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to confess to the honey-eating.

It seems that the story about the soldiers eating livestock without draining the blood was an insert, or else the chapter loses narrative continuity. Presumably, it was intended to explain the origins of an altar associated with Saul.

Both Jonathan and Saul agree that Jonathan should be put to death, but the people protest. According to my New Bible Commentary, this shows Saul to be “an insecure king outvoted by his troops” (p. 294). Surprisingly, God is apparently okay with the people ransoming Jonathan’s life, presumably by substituting an animal as in the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

Saul’s deeds and family

The chapter closes with a brief summary of Saul’s deeds and a listing of his nearer relatives.

We are told that he fought enemies on all sides: The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the kings of Zobah.

We are told about his children: his sons Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua, and his daughters Merab and Michal.

Saul’s wife is named Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. His army commander is his cousin, Abner, the son of Ner (Saul’s uncle).

1 Samuel 13: The Great Falling Out

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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.