Saul’s War Against the Philistines

Text: I Samuel 13:1-14:46

Jonathan strikes a Philistine garrison in Geba - I Samuel 13:1-4

A difficulty comes in that Paul states that Saul reigned for 40 years in Acts 13:21. "And afterward they asked for a king; so God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years." Yet, I Samuel 13:1 in the NASB says, "Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-two years over Israel." The NIV renders it, "Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years." And the NKJV says, "Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel." The NKJV is the most literal of the translations. The literal translation is "A son of a year, Saul, in his reigning and two years he reigned over Israel." It assumes that the events prior to I Samuel 13:1 took place during the first year of Saul's reign and the following events took place during the second and third years of his reign. The NASB and NIV assume that a digit was dropped in the description of Saul's reign due to copying errors. Based on some Septuagint translations, the NIV assume the first number was meant to be 30 and based on Paul's assertion that Saul reigned forty years, they assume the second number is 42 (with Paul rounding the date in Acts). Personally, I find these assumptions to be too much. There is no reason to assume I Samuel 13:1 is the standard summary of a king's reign since it is given in the middle of Saul's reign and not at the beginning or end. Interestingly, while not inspired, Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, also states that Saul reigned for 40 years. Hence, any apparent conflict between I Samuel 13:1 and Acts 13:21 is due to mistranslations and not due to the actual text.

During the second year of his reign, Saul decides to gather an army. He had 2,000 men with him at Michmash and in the hills around Bethel. Jonathan led another unit of 1,000 men at Gibeah, which is Saul’s hometown. More had responded to Saul’s call to arms, but Saul sent the rest home. It is assumed that Saul was intending to build a small army for the purpose of holding the Philistines back. He wasn’t planning an immediate full-scale war, so he sent the men he didn’t need back home.

Jonathan uses his unit to attack the Philistine garrison located in nearby Geba. This may be the same outpost mentioned in I Samuel 10:5. Saul announced Jonathan’s victory throughout Israel. This angered the Philistines and Saul called for a gathering in Gilgal.

The Philistines counter with a large force - I Samuel 13:5-7

The Philistines responded to the attack by assembling a large army at Michmash. The number of foot soldiers was described as being like the sand at the seashore.

The number of chariots is suspected to be an error in copying because the number of chariots far exceeds the number of horsemen and it should be the other way around. Also, no other army in this period appears to have nearly this many chariots. Thus, it is proposed that the number of chariots should have been 3,000, 1,000, or 300 depending on how the copyist made his mistake. The Syriac and Arabic copies of I Samuel mention only three thousand chariots. Regardless, it was still a large number that the Israelites were not prepared to face.

The text says that the Israelites were “in a strait;” that is, they were being squeezed in from all sides. This terrified the people in the region and they hid where they could. Others fled across the Jordan River into Gad and Gilead. The terror was also affecting the men Saul was gathering in Gilgal.

Saul became impatient waiting for Samuel - I Samuel 13:8-14

Samuel had told Saul to wait seven days in Gilgal a few years prior (I Samuel 10:8). Samuel had gone with Saul to Gilgal before (I Samuel 11:14-15), but at that time Saul did not have to wait for Samuel. Apparently, Saul knew that at this time, he was required to wait seven days in Gilgal for Samuel’s arrival. Saul did wait seven days, but he grew fearful. Samuel had not yet come and his army was dispersing. Before the seventh day was complete, Saul decided to give the offerings without Samuel. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Saul personally offered the sacrifices but had an attending priest make the offering in his presence. It is said that Saul made the offering because it was done at his orders. (See other cases of similar wording: II Samuel 24:25; I Kings 3:4; 8:63.)

As the sacrifice came to an end, Samuel showed up and demanded that the king explain what he had done. Saul claimed to be forced to take action because the people were leaving, Samuel didn’t arrive at the appointed time, and the Philistines were gathering in Michmash. Saul did not want to battle the Philistines without asking for a favor from God. Notice how he blamed the people, Samuel, and a possible attack that had not happened for his disobedience. It didn't matter that it was offered to God. It didn’t matter that his army was dwindling. The fact is that Saul was acting without authority, which is what the word "iniquity" means.

Samuel announced that because Saul disobeyed God, his kingship would no longer be permanent. Instead, his kingdom would fall. God has already sought out a man who loved God and God has appointed him to replace Saul. Imagine, only being a few years into his reign and knowing that his replacement has already been chosen. But he doesn’t know who and he doesn’t know when. Samuel is using the past tense to emphasize the certainty of what God planned to do. At this time, Saul is only in the second year of his forty-year reign. David was 30 years old when Saul died (II Samuel 5:4-5); thus, David was born about seven years after Saul was told he would be replaced.

For discussion:

  1. Does God accept whatever men decide to offer Him? (See Matthew 7:21-23.)
  2. How often did Saul refer to himself in this section? What does that tell you about him?
  3. Notice that Saul did not offer an apology for what he had done. What does this tell us?
  4. What might have happened if Saul had waited for Samuel?

The Philistines move in and Israel has no weapons - I Samuel 13:15-23

Samuel leaves Saul with no advice as to what to do. Saul only had 600 men left. Though he gave an offering to stop the loss of his men, his rash action did not accomplish what he set out to do. He and Jonathan returned to Geba.

Meanwhile, the Philistine army in Michmash began sending out raiders in three different directions. Notice that the positions of the two forces are now reversed from what they were in I Samuel 13:2-3.

The Philistines had tight control over the iron market. No Israelite was allowed to work as a blacksmith (I Samuel 13:19-22). Farm implements were available, but the charge for these tools was so high that few could afford the price. When Saul lead the Israelites in rebellion against the Philistines, only Saul and his son Jonathan had swords. This explains why the Israelites were helpless against the Philistine raiders.

The Philistines then set up an outpost in the pass of Michmash. “By “the passage of Michmash,” mentioned also In the description of Sennacherib’s march upon Jerusalem in Isaiah 10:29, is meant the deep ravine now known as the Wady es-Suweinit (1 Samuel 13:2, note). The Philistines threw out an advanced post from their main camp to one of the bluffs on the very edge of the valley, with the view of watching the Israelites in Geba opposite, and preventing a surprise attack on their camp” [Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges].

Jonathan sneaks out to attack a Philistine outpost - I Samuel 14:1-16

A day came when Jonathan and his armor-bearer approached the garrison of Philistine soldiers who were watching the pass that led to the Philistine army. Saul was on the outskirts of Gibeah at a place called Migron (a precipice) with his army of 600 men. There was also a priest of God, named Ahijah, who was a great-grandson of Eli, with Saul. Jonathan and his armor-bearer had gone off without Saul’s or anyone else’s knowledge.

The crossing to the Philistine outpost was not easy. There was a steep crag down into the wade and then a steep crag on the other side. The southern cliff was called Seneh (“the acacia” indicating that acacia trees grew abundantly here) and the northern cliff was called Bozez (“shining”). The northern cliff is topped by gleaming white caulk that caught the sunlight most of the day.  Not only was it difficult to climb but it left the two men exposed. They used ravines to get as close as they could without being seen.

Jonathan suggested to his armor-bearer that they cross over and attack the outpost. Jonathan isn’t certain whether God would help them or not, but he knew God would not help the Philistines who were not in a covenant with God. Jonathan had faith that God isn’t limited by the number who fought on His side. Moses told the people, “When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you ... Do not be fainthearted. Do not be afraid, or panic, or tremble before them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:1-4).

The armor-bearer told Jonathan to do what was in his heart and that he would be right alongside him.

The decision before Jonathan was not a personal matter. He wasn't trying to could gain glory by attacking the Philistines. Things were at a standstill between Israel and the Philistines. Jonathan hoped God would use him to make a difference. Hundreds of years earlier Joshua told of a promise by God. "One man of you shall chase a thousand, for the LORD your God is He who fights for you, as He promised you" (Joshua 23:10).

Notice that Jonathan did not ask for a sign from God. He wasn't even certain that God would choose to aid him ("perhaps the LORD will work for us"). No message from God came directly to him to attack the Philistines. Instead, he proposed to his armor-bearer that if they showed themselves to the Philistines. If the Philistines told them to wait, then they would fight the Philistines from where they stood when they came at them. If they invite them up then they would take that as a sign that God was with them. Being invited up would be an unlikely occurrence since they are at war. The normal response would be for the Philistines to shoot at the Israelites or raise an alarm.

Jonathan and his armor-bearer boldly allowed themselves to be seen by the Philistine camp. A Philistine sentry spotted them and, seeing them alone, decided to have some fun with these silly Hebrews. He invited them to come up into the camp to “tell them something.” Jonathan had already determined that this would be a sign to him from God as to where to wage the battle. He climbed up the crag, entered the camp, and slaughtered 20 armed men in a small section of ground. God fought alongside Jonathan, sending an earthquake that so terrified the enemy that they began to kill each other (I Samuel 14:15, 20).

Why was Jonathan looking for a sign? Jonathan knew that their only hope was that God chose to help them. If there was some indication in advance that God approved, then this would not be a foolhardy adventure by two brash young men. God would get total credit for the victory (I Samuel 14:23).

Consider if Jonathan had not looked for an indication of God's approval. Then he would be putting God to the test by jumping into battle. If he lost, he would have been remembered as a rash man. If he had won, he would have been seen as a superhero. Receiving what he believed to be permission from God, changed this. His victory was not his own. God was glorified when He used two young men, who had one sword between them, to throw the entire Philistine army into terror.

Saul’s men join the battle - I Samuel 14:17-23

The watch in Saul’s army noticed that the number of Philistines was dwindling. Saul realized something had happened and asked for an accounting of his men. He learned that Jonathan and his armor-bearer were missing.

Saul had Ahijah bring the Ark of the Covenant. The Septuagint translation says “ephod” instead of “ark”. Some commentators think this is more likely since the Ark of the Covenant was in Kirjath-jearim. However, the Septuagint is the only source giving an alternative reading. Regardless, Saul clearly was seeking to know what God wanted him to do. Seeing that the uproar in the Philistine camp was growing increasingly chaotic, he commanded the priest to withdraw his hand from the ephod. It was so obvious what he should do that there was no longer a need to ask God. But this also shows the impatient nature of Saul once again.

The people with Saul then attacked the Philistine camp but they found the Philistines fighting with each other in great confusion. The Israelites who had been serving the Philistines joined with Saul’s men. When word spread, the Israelites came out of hiding and joined the battle. Thus, the Lord delivered Israel that day.

Saul charges his men with a foolish oath - I Samuel 14:24-30

In his eagerness to have no delays in pursuing the enemy, Saul demands that the men of Israel swear not to eat until evening. Saul’s focus was on his reputation and he showed no concern for his people. This made fighting difficult for the men. Even when they passed through a forest where honey was dripping down, they feared to even taste it.

However, Jonathan had not heard of the oath since he was gone stirring up problems in the Philistine camp. He dipped the end of his staff into the honey and ate some. The sweet revived him. But someone, seeing him, warned him of Saul’s curse. Jonathan pointed out that his father had brought trouble into the land. If Saul had allowed the people to eat the spoils of the Philistines, the slaughter of the Philistines would have been far greater. Thus, Saul’s oath hindered the very goal Saul wanted to accomplish.

The army ravenously eats  - I Samuel 14:31-35

Saul’s army pushed the Philistines back to the west as far as Aijalon, about 20 miles southwest of Michmash. They were so hungry that when evening came, they grabbed the spoils and didn’t even take time to properly prepare the meat but ate the meat with the blood still in it. When Saul heard, he insisted that a large stone be set up and that the people slaughter their animals on the stone, thus ensuring proper preparation. Take note that the people were careful to follow Saul’s orders but were willing to break God’s law.

Saul then built his first altar to the Lord at that place as a memorial. There is a bit of debate regarding this statement. In Hebrew, it literally says, “As to it he began to build an altar unto Jehovah.” Some wonder if it meant he started to build an altar but did not finish (like I Chronicles 27:24). Others see this as saying that Saul began the practice of kings building altars as memorials.

God refuses to talk to Saul - I Samuel 14:36-46

Despite the weariness of his army, Saul is determined to continue the battle by attacking the Philistines at night. The men were willing to follow Saul but the priest suggested that they ask God first. When Saul asked God whether he should continue to pursue the Philistines, God gave no answer.

Saul commands that all assemble to find out who is responsible. It seems Saul assumes that the lack of an answer was because someone had sinned. Even if it turns out to be Jonathan, Saul declared that the guilty party would die. Notice that the verdict is declared as an oath before it was determined as to what was done and why it was done. Yet, no one said anything. So Saul separated himself and his son from the rest and asked that a “perfect lot” be cast. The phrase literally means “give blamelessness” or “give innocence.” The lot fell to Saul and his son. When it was cast again, Jonathan was chosen. When Saul asked what happened, Jonathan admitted that he tasted a little honey and that he was prepared to die. Once again, Jonathan shows his courage and honor.

Saul was ready to kill Jonathan. Saul gives an oath saying that God may do so to him more, but Jonathan must die. However, the people, who had been silent to this point, stated that it wasn’t right to kill the man who brought about the great victory in Israel through the hand of God. They declared that Jonathan would not come to any harm.

Thus, Saul gives up and returns home and the Philistines returned to their territory.

For discussion:

  1. Why, after not answering Saul, did God point out Jonathan who had unintentionally broken his father’s oath? Did God want Jonathan put to death?
  2. What should have been the proper response to the revelation that Jonathan had unwittingly broken his father’s oath?
  3. What does the excessive use of oaths tell us about Saul?
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