Shmuel I Fifteen: Saul and Amalek

Samuel has a message for Saul. He is tasked with wiping out Amalek, Israel’s enemy from the desert. “Now, go, and you shall smite Amalek, and you shall utterly destroy all that is his, and you shall not have pity on him: and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass (Samuel I 15:3).” This harsh pronouncement leaves little room for confusion. Amalek has not been forgotten, and now that the Israelites are settled and strong, their enemy is to be fully destroyed, with no possibility of resurrection. Saul listens to these instructions, and gathers his men to fight Amalek.

“And he seized Agag, the king of Amalek, alive; and he completely destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword (Samuel I 15:8).” Saul doesn’t fully listen to the command from God. He’s supposed to show no mercy whatsoever, with even nursing babies being subject to destruction. Saul isn’t even saving a baby – he has pity on Agag, the king of Amalek himself. This clearly won’t end well. He saves Agag, and the livestock of the Amalekites, including their sheep and cattle. We are told that Saul had pity, demonstrating his soft heart. While I sympathize, in his compassion, he has ignored a direct command from God, and that’s never a good idea.

“‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me, and he has not fulfilled My words.’ And it distressed Samuel, and he cried out to the Lord all night (Samuel I 15:11).” God is very mad, to the point of expressing regret at His own actions. This isn’t Saul’s first mistake, and I’m wondering why he hasn’t learned by now that he has to follow all instructions to the letter, rather than making his own accommodations. Samuel confronts him, and Saul owns up to his actions, explaining his thought process. Although Saul asks for forgiveness, this time it isn’t coming. “And Samuel said to Saul, ‘I shall not return with you, for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being a king over Israel (Samuel I 15:26).” In Saul, Israel has a failure for a first king. He has lost the crown because of his actions, and Samuel has to take over in some ways. He kills Agag, but even fixing Saul’s mistake can’t mend their relationship. Samuel and Saul don’t see each other again, and both Samuel and God Himself regret giving Saul the crown.

Shmuel I Fourteen: Jonathan

Jonathan must be in a very weird position. He’s the son of the king, but because of his father’s actions, he knows that he won’t ever inherit the throne. Saul will not leave a dynasty, which must leave a prince in a kind of limbo state. Anyway, Jonathan decides to take some of his men and go to the Philistines, without telling his father. Saul has 600 men with him, but no one knows where Jonathan has gone. “And between the sides which Jonathan sought to cross to the garrison of the Philistines, there was a rocky crag from this side, and a rocky crag from this side; the name of one being Bozez, and the name of the other being Seneh (Samuel I 14:4).” Jonathan wants to ambush the Philistines, so he and his companion make a plan.

“And Jonathan climbed up on his hands and on his feet, with his weapon-bearer after him, and they fell before Jonathan, and his weapon-bearer was slaying after him (Samuel I 14:13).” They wind up killing approximately twenty men. However, Saul and the people have no idea what’s happening. They’re not sure what the attack is, and are very confused. Saul sends his men to join the battle, but Jonathan doesn’t know, leading to a lot of missed communications. “And the men of Israel were hard pressed on that day, ad Saul adjured the people, saying ‘Cursed be the man who will eat food until evening, until I shall be avenged of my enemies,’ and none of the people tasted any food (Samuel I 14:24).”

But Jonathan doesn’t know about this new pronouncement, and he eats some honey. The people are successful, but sin as a result. A confusing battle scene continues. Jonathan is cursed because of his unknowing consumption of the honey, but the people protest on his behalf and he survives. Saul and his family continue to be victorious, along with Israel.

Shmuel I Thirteen: Saul’s Mistake

Saul enters the second year of his reign. “And Saul chose for himself three thousand from Israel, and they were with Saul; two thousand in Michmash and in the mountain of Bethel, and one thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin, and he sent the rest of the people, every man to his tents (Samuel I 13:2).” Saul is amassing an army, but it’s not like in the past when all of the people would have to go to war. Instead, it’s a separate army from the general population.

Jonathan, who we’re introduced to without any explanation as to his lineage, kills a Philistine officer. This leads to a massive war with the Philistines. “And the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait, for the people were hard-pressed, and the people hid in the caves, and in the thickets, in the rocky crags, and in the towers, and in the pits (Samuel I 13:6).” The people retreat to Gilgal, and wait for Samuel to join them. Even though Saul is king, he’s not an absolute ruler, and there are roles that are specifically designated for the prophet. But Saul breaks the rules, and makes a sacrifice himself.

“And Samuel said, ‘What have you done?’ And Saul said, ‘For I saw that the people had scattered from me, and you did not come at the appointed time of the days, and the Philistines are gathered in Michmash (Samuel I 13:11).” Saul is trying to justify his actions, but Samuel isn’t having any of it. He tells Saul that he’s made a mistake, and it’s going to have major consequences. Had it not been for this massive error in judgment, Saul’s family would have ruled Israel forever. Now, though, he will not establish a dynasty, because he overstepped his bounds.

We don’t hear anything about Saul’s reaction. All we know is that Samuel leaves, and Saul is left with 600 men. I wonder (and I’m sure there’s a great deal of midrash that fills this gap) what it meant for Saul to lose the potential to pass on the crown, but still be able to keep it for himself. He’s still king, but there’s not going to be a legacy for him to leave now. He didn’t seek kingship, but I can’t imagine not embracing the role, and now there’s a shadow over that. The text leaves a lot to the imagination regarding the emotions involved in this moment, and moves on to tell us that Saul and Jonathan, who is now identified as his son, go back to fighting the Philistines.

Shmuel I Twelve: Words of Wisdom

Saul is now the undisputed king of Israel, and it’s time for his role to be further established. Samuel addresses the people, marking the transition from his role as judge of Israel to the monarchy. “And now, behold the king is walking before you, and I have become old and hoary, and my sons are here with you, and I have walked before you from my youth and until this day (Samuel I 12:2).” Samuel reemphasizes his credentials, so that the people will remember him fondly, in spite of what a king may or may not bring to them. He reminds them of their past, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as Moses and Aaron and the Exodus. He also touches on more recent events, such as the destruction of Sisera, Hazor, and the Philistines.

“And now, behold the king whom you have chosen, whom you have requested, and behold, the Lord has appointed a king over you. If you will fear the Lord, and serve Him, and hearken to His voice, and you will not rebel against the commandments of the Lord, both you and the king who reigns over you, will be after the Lord your God (Samuel I 12:13-14).” Following a king does not inherently mean that there isn’t room for God, or that the king’s direct rule should in any way take precedence over God. As long as the man-made regime doesn’t contradict God, both will be able to exist. Of course, it’s easy for that to be blown off course, so in order to remind the people that God has the ultimate authority, Samuel calls on God to send thunder to show His presence.

“Only fear the Lord and you shall serve Him in truth with all your heart, for see the great things which He has dealt with you (Samuel I 12:24).” After the constant failures of the people, and their tendency to be disloyal to God and forget His power, this is Samuel’s lesson for them. To remember God in their hearts and to recognize the miracles that He has performed that have brought the people to this place and time. Let’s see how long before they forget this time!

Shmuel I Eleven: Saul’s First Victory

Saul has been made king of Israel. “And Nahash the Ammonite went up and camped against Jabesh-Gilead. And all the people of Jabesh-Gilead said to Nahash, ‘Make a treaty with us, and we shall serve you (Samuel I 11:1).'” Nahash is apparently insane, because in order to agree to this treaty, he demands that every person in Jabesh-Gilead have their right eye gouged out. Ouch seems like a massive understatement in this situation. I can’t imagine a situation bad enough that the people are actually contemplating this as a legitimate option, but they tell him that they’ll make a decision within seven days. They send messengers to Saul to let him know about the situation.

“And behold, Saul came after the cattle from the field. And Saul said, ‘What is troubling the people, that they cry?’ And they told him the words of the people of Jabesh (Samuel I 11:5).” As a sidenote, I love that Saul is still a man of the people. He’s not sitting in a castle somewhere and living off of others, he’s out working in the fields regardless of his new status. Anyway, Saul is angry when he hears the news, and he rallies the people of Israel to come together to do battle. 330,000 men from Israel and Judah come together to deliver Jabesh.

“And it was on the morrow, that Saul put the people into three contingents, and they came into the midst of the camp during the morning watch, and they smote the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And it was, that those remaining, scattered, and no two of them remained together (Samuel I 11:11).” Saul is victorious in his first campaign as king, and the people rejoice at the saving of Jabesh and the defeat of the Ammonites. They come together to slaughter peace offerings and sacrifice to God. It’s a strong start to the period of the monarchy in Israel.

Shmuel I Ten: Becoming King

Saul is the chosen one, and now he’s about to become the anointed one too. “And Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it on his head, and kissed him. And he said, ‘Indeed, the Lord has anointed you to be a ruler over His inheritance (Samuel I 10:1).'” With this pronouncement, we hear it emphasized that God, not man, chooses kings, and that the land is still God’s, just with a human steward now.

My favorite thing about this story, the part that makes it so culturally Jewish, is that the first thing that Saul has to do after being made king of Israel is to go home and reassure his dad that he’s ok. After that there’s plenty else to do, but first and foremost he has to complete his mission and bring the donkeys home. No matter how much his life has just changed, he still has an obligation to his family, and I really love the sentiment that comes with that.

After dropping of the donkeys, Saul has to go meet with a group of prophets. “And the spirit of the Lord will pass over you, and you will prophesy with them, and you will be turned into another man (Samuel I 10:6).” Becoming the king truly changes Saul’s life into a before and an after, and he’ll have a completely new identity and life than what existed before. This prophecy will show that God is with him, and will mark the transition between the periods of his life.

Samuel introduces Saul to the people as their king. Kingship is new to Israel, so there’s no center or palace for him to go to. Instead, the king goes back to his home, and his supporters follow. Some, however, dissent, and don’t do honor to him. But for a while, peace seems to hold in Israel. It’d be nice to have some peace in Israel today. I was in the shuk this morning in Jerusalem when a terror attack happened, with two Palestinian girls stabbing an old man who turned out to be a fellow Palestinian. This blog isn’t meant to be the place for my personal politics, so all I’ll say is that I wish our leaders would be able to hold the peace, even for a time.

Shmuel I Nine: Meet Saul

The people have demanded a king, and God instructs Samuel to give one to them. So, we are finally about to meet the first king of Israel. “Now there was a man of Benjamin, and his name was Kish, the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah, the son of a Benjaminite man, a mighty man of power. And he had a son whose name was Saul. He was young and handsome, there being no one of the children of Israel handsomer than he; from his shoulders and upwards he was taller than any of the people (Samuel I 9:1-2).” So we know that Saul is from Benjamin, his lineage, and that he’s young and attractive. I’m not sure how much these physical qualities matter when it comes to his leadership, but he seems to be the chosen one.

Kish’s donkeys get lost, and Saul is sent to look for them. They’re apparently pretty fast livestock, because Saul looks for them all over the land of Benjamin and can’t find them. He thinks about going home without them, because they’ve been gone so long that his father might now be worried about him, as well as the animals. But his servant suggests going to visit a local wise man to see if he can point them in the direction of the donkeys.

Spoiler alert: the wise man is Samuel.

“And they went up to the city. As they were coming into the midst of the city, and behold, Samuel was coming out toward them, to ascend the high place (Samuel I 9:14).” Now Samuel, a seer and a prophet, knows that Saul is coming. God has told him that a man from Benjamin will come that day, and that he’s the one who will be king of Israel. The two of them meet, with Saul not recognizing Samuel. Samuel takes him home, and serves him a feast. At this point, Saul doesn’t know why he is being treated with such honor, and we can see that he’s a humble man. He doesn’t know that he’s going to be king, and we don’t know why exactly he’s the one chosen for this role, but God has spoken, and Samuel will now act.

Shmuel I Eight: Give Us a King

“And it was, when Samuel had grown old, that he appointed his sons judges for Israel (Samuel I 8:1).” Samuel’s sons follow an all too familiar pattern. Like the sons of many great men, they behave wickedly and don’t live up to the legacy of their fathers. Just like Eli’s sons, they are corrupt, and this negatively impacts their father, as well as the people. The elders of Israel are given the task of addressing the problem with Samuel. “And they said to him, ‘Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now, set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations (Samuel I 8:5).'” Tired of the changing authority of different judges and priests, the people are ready for a king. Of course, that’s not to say that kings can’t also have corrupt sons, but we’ll get to that later.

God tells Samuel to listen to the demands of the people this time. The people asking for the king isn’t a reflection on Samuel, but rather on God, and He resigns Himself to their desires, but with a caveat. “And now listen to their voice; except that you shall warn them, and tell them the manner of the king who will reign over them (Samuel I 8:9).” The people are warned that a king will take their sons to be his servants and to the army, and their daughters too. A king will take their crops and lands, and call for taxes, and take the best of their crops, animals, and slaves. “And you will cry out on that day, because of our king, whom you will have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not answer you on that day (Samuel I 8:18).”

The people don’t listen to the warning. They demand a king, because they want to be like all of the other nations. Clearly the grass is always greener, because I would think that being the chosen people would be better than following the crowd, but obviously the people disagree. So, the time comes to appoint Israel’s first king.

On a personal note, I’m off to Israel for the week! I’ll still be posting from there, and look forward to the insights that being back in Jerusalem will bring.

Shmuel I Seven: Beating the Philistines

Ok, so the ark is essentially causing chaos wherever it goes. In this chapter, it moves again. “And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the Ark of the Lord, and brought it to the house of Abinadab, on the hill, and they designated Eleazar, his son, to guard the Ark of the Lord (Samuel I 7:1).” For twenty years, the ark stays put, and the people follow God, unlike throughout Judges, when we constantly hear how they strayed. So at least some progress has been made. Samuel tells the people that if they want to be saved from the Philistines, they need to totally remove idolatry from their lives and fully direct their hearts towards God. They obey, for once, and Samuel tells them to gather in Mizpah. There, the people confess their sins, and Samuel judges them.

“Now the Philistines heard that the children of Israel had assembled at Mizpah, and the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel, and the children of Israel heard, and they were afraid of the Philistines (Samuel I 7:7).” Samuel offers a sacrifice on behalf of the people, and it’s accepted by God. The Israelites beat the Philistines, thanks to God’s help. After all of the ongoing wars and skirmishes, it seems that they’ve been beaten back for good this time, and God remains on the side of the Israelites.

Shmuel I Six: Mice and Hemorrhoids

For seven months, the ark is with the Philistines. It’s already cursed multiple cities, and the people don’t know what to do with it. “And the Philistines called the priests and the diviners, saying, ‘What shall we do to the Ark of the Lord? Let us know in what we shall send it to its place (Samuel I 6:2).'” The priests say that they need to return the ark, along with a guilt offering, in order to make up for their sin. This part makes sense to me – the people need to atone for their disrespect to God. But things quickly get weird. “And they said, ‘What is the guilt offering which we shall send back to Him?’ And they said, ‘The number of the lords of the Philistines: five hemorrhoids of gold and five mice of gold, for there is one plague for all of them and for your lords (Samuel I 6:4).'” Out of all of the things that people have been told to do or to sacrifice thus far, gold mice and gold hemorrhoids are easily the strangest. I understand that the people were cursed with hemorrhoids, but this seems to be the weirdest atonement yet.

So the Philistines make these golden mice and hemorrhoids, which I can’t even conceptualize what they would look like, and build a new cart to put the ark on to send it home. They send the cart to Beit Shemesh. “Now [the inhabitants of] Beit Shemesh were reaping the wheat harvest in the valley, and they lifted up their eyes, and saw the Ark, and they rejoiced to see (Samuel I 6:13).” That must have been a glorious sight. The people are going about their days, working in the fields, and all of a sudden the ark appears before them, after months of captivity. They sacrifice before it.

But nothing can ever go smoothly. “And He smote the people of Beit Shemesh, for they had gazed upon the Ark of the Lord, and He smote the people seventy men, fifty thousand men, and the people mourned, for the Lord had struck a great blow upon the people (Samuel I 6:19).” I understand that the people aren’t supposed to get too close to the Ark and to God’s presence, but in my reading, they don’t seem to do something so wrong. They see the ark, and they make sacrifices. Is this like the story of Nadav and Avihu, where the sacrifice itself is the sin? No explanation is given, but the people of Beit Shemesh send word to Kiriath-jearim, asking them to come take the ark instead.