1 Samuel 11:1–15 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
“Saul Rescues a City, Then Gets Confirmed as King”
In last week's summary of 1 Samuel 10:1–27, we saw Saul the reluctant young man, a head taller than anyone else. God chose him to be king. However, he was so reluctant to become a king that he hid among baggage; but the people found him and proclaimed him their king. Israel's first king needed not only to be an admirable individual in his personal conduct, but also needed to be an effective military commander. The writer of 1 and 2 Samuel points out Saul's abilities in both areas here in chapter 11. The nation consequently united behind him because of his success.
The Ammonite Siege of Jabesh, Gilead (10:1–5)
Let's first put into perspective who the players are in this upcoming battle. Nahash, the Ammonite king, gave an ultimatum to the Israelite city, Jabesh, Gilead. Nahash had surrounded it; simply by doing so, he'd made his demands clear. The Jabesh-Gileadites must either surrender or be conquered. The NIV text for this chapter starts off with this gruesome account:
1Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh Gilead. And all the men of Jabesh said to him, “Make a treaty with us, and we will be subject to you.”
2But Nahash the Ammonite replied, “I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on all Israel.”
3The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days so we can send messengers throughout Israel; if no one comes to rescue us, we will surrender to you.”
There were only two albeit morose options for these Israelites: Surrender or die. Why did Nahash make that conditional, eye-gouging, treaty stipulation? Back in the Bronze Age, a nation's worldly reputation as a people meant everything. If he'd made the people of Jabesh, a city of Gilead, subjects to him while also gouging out everyone's right eye, kings and people of the surrounding nations would hear about it and fearfully dread the Ammonites' presence.
Nahash was a terrorist. He brought an army but that was his back-up plan. His primary goal was to scare the Israelites who lived in the hills of Jabesh (a town east of Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee) into surrendering to him without a fight. It's in this town that Saul's military prowess was first displayed. Who lived in this eastern country? Remember when the children of Israel journeyed from Egypt, they weren't allowed to make war with Edom (south of the Dead Sea), for the Edomites were descended from Esau, Jacob's brother. Neither were they to fight the Moabites who lived by the Dead Sea (south of Arnon), nor Ammon (off to the northeast from Moab), for all three tribes were descendants of Lot, Abram's nephew. They passed by their "cousin tribes" and took land from native people elsewhere, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and farther north.
The Ammonites were Israel's enemies to the east, descendants of Lot whom Jephthah had defeated earlier (Judges 11:12–33). Nahash (literally "Serpent") evidently sought revenge for Jephthah's victory over his nation. The men of Jabesh, Gilead offered to surrender and serve the Ammonites, provided Nahash would make a covenant with them rather than slaughter them. Nahash's purpose of putting out the right eye of his enemies was not uncommon in that day. Such wounding made a conquered nation easier to control; it was also a testimony to the conqueror's superior power. Specifically, it made the aiming of arrows when using the right eye impossible — and it would have been difficult to look ahead from behind one's shield, which covered the left eye. It therefore precluded a military revolt.
If you lived in Jabesh, Gilead, you knew that your militaristic options were quite limited. Your small town had some fortifications, but if the Ammonites attacked, you knew that every man, woman, and child in your town would be killed. If you surrendered to Nahash's military might, you were destined to lose an eye while also becoming his slave. But, at least you'd live. Obviously, this was to be a trial for the Jabeshites who'd now focus on Saul to make the hearty effort to save them.
Nahash's willingness to let his enemies take seven days to appeal for help shows that he had no fear that threatening reinforcements would come. He was sure of his superiority. He may even have viewed the delay as an opportunity to ensure victory. At this time, Israel lacked a central government, national solidarity, and a standing army. However, Nahash had no inkling of the capabilities of Saul, Israel's first king.
4When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul and reported these terms to the people, they all wept aloud. 5Just then Saul was returning from the fields, behind his oxen, and he asked, “What is wrong with everyone? Why are they weeping?” Then they repeated to him what the men of Jabesh had said.
The announcement of the messengers from Jabesh, Gilead (v. 4) led the people in Saul's hometown (and elsewhere undoubtedly) to weep, which was exactly the reaction Nahash was hoping for. They'd again forgotten God's repeated promises to protect them since they were his chosen people. Their reaction was a result of viewing the situation strictly from the natural perspective only.
Why was Saul farming at home while he had just been anointed as Israel's king? Verse 5 begins with "Just then Saul was returning from the fields, behind his oxen." Note the humility of this king of Israel. He'd already been anointed and recognized as king over Israel, yet in a sense there was nothing for him to do. He really didn't know where to begin, regarding setting up a royal court and a bureaucracy, neither of which had Israel ever done. So, he just went back home, working the field, probably figuring that God would tell him what to do when the time was right. He hadn't yet received direction from God or Samuel to do anything else, as far as the text reveals. The fact that he, the anointed king, was plowing also showed his meekness, since estate owners never worked the land themselves. Furthermore, he was willing to subject himself to work hard. Thus, he wasn't self-centered, at least at this time.
Saul’s Deliverance of Jabesh, Gilead (vv. 6–11)
Zealous for Israel's cause, Saul angrily gathered an army. God's Spirit came on Saul who responded to the messengers' news with appropriate indignation, since non-Israelites were attacking God's covenant people. The Spirit equipped him for service, so that he could do something for the LORD. It was time for Saul to act, and God was with Saul. Verse 6's "he burned with anger" shows a good anger, a Spirit-led anger within him. It didn't come out as a result of a personal sense of hurt or offense; instead, it came from a righteous concern for the LORD's cause among his people.
Saul did something drastic to impress the gravity of the pending Ammonite siege on his fellow Israelites: He cut into pieces two oxen, sending the pieces throughout Israel with his proclamation (v. 7). He followed the example of the Levite whose concubine had died in Saul's hometown (Judges 19:29–30). Later, another plowman, Elisha, would slaughter a pair of oxen and host a meal for his friends as he began his ministry as a prophet (1 Kings 19:21). Saul's slaughter and dissection of his oxen was clearly designed to connect the commencement of his reign with the historical events that accounted for his Jabesh, Gilead maternal roots.
Also noteworthy in v. 7 is this clause: ". . . anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel." Saul linked himself with Samuel because Samuel was the recognized spiritual leader of the nation. The Israelites probably dreaded both Saul's threatened reprisals for not responding to his summons and the Ammonite threat. That verse's subsequent clause — "Then the terror of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out together as one" — demonstrates Saul's energetic appeal. His bloody threat worked. When those hunks of ox-flesh arrived via special delivery, all Israel knew that there was a leader in Israel who meant business. The people discerned the power of Father God in King Saul, which inspired them with fear, compelling them to immediate obedience.
The Israelites' response constituted the greatest show of military strength since Joshua's day. Bezek, the city in which Saul chose to muster his forces (v. 8), was about 16 miles west of Jabesh, on the River Jordan's western side. The messengers returned to Jabesh with the promise that their town would be "free by noon the next day" (v. 9). The leaders of Jabesh played with words, cleverly leading the Ammonites into self-confidence such that they were convinced that they'd win. The Ammonites had threatened to put out the right eyes of the Jabeshite men (v. 2) who now told the Ammonites to do whatever literally seemed good "in their eyes."
Saul appears to have been a man of good military strategy. He thought out the attack before the battle started, wisely dividing his troops into three companies, attacking the besieging Ammonites early in the morning, just like Gideon had done (cf. Judges 7:16, 19). The morning watch was the last of three night watches, lasting from about 2:00 to 6:00 a.m. The Ammonites didn't expect the other Israelites to show so much support for the Jabesh-Gileadites. Saul thoroughly surprised and defeated them. Through his action, and by God's blessing, the victory was total. Nahash and his army were utterly routed, and the city of Jabesh was saved.
Saul’s Confirmation as King: Israel Commits Itself to Him (vv. 12–15)
This victory helped the Israelites perceive Saul as their king, with the result that they committed themselves to him. He then showed mercy to his former opponents. At this moment of great victory, Saul's supporters wanted to expose and kill those who were hesitant to support him as king. He wisely knew this wasn't a time to take revenge on his opponents who'd initially failed to support him (10:27). Furthermore, he gave God the glory for his victory when he said, ". . . for this day the LORD has rescued Israel" (v. 14).
Saul wasn't self-serving at this time. The people now gave united support to him as their king at Gilgal. He declared in v. 13, “No one will be put to death today, for this day the LORD has rescued Israel.” Peace offerings such as his expressed thanks to God for his goodness. This offering also emphasized the unity of the participants in the sacrifice. Saul's ascent to the throne was now complete. The 'great celebration' that accompanied the sacrificial ritual more than matched Israel's earlier elation delight in their receiving the messengers' report of the imminent doom of the Ammonites (v. 9).
In this incident, Israel faced a very threatening situation, physically and spiritually. The people's reaction was to weep (v. 4). God took action because he'd made promises to protect his people (cf. Hebrews 13:5–6), providing deliverance when his people saw no hope. The result was that God's people rededicated themselves to following the LORD faithfully. Their weeping gave way to rejoicing. Note Saul being humble and hardworking (v. 5), God's Spirit empowered him (v. 6) and gave him wisdom (vv. 7–8) and victory (v. 11). Saul gave God the glory for his success, and he was merciful and forgiving toward his critics (v. 13). God also gave him favor in the eyes of God's people (v. 15).
Intro Video: “The First Book of Samuel”
† Watch this introductory video clip created by The Bible Project on bibleproject.com.
- Q. 1 How were the Gileadite troops rallied "as one man: By Saul's threat? By family ties? By the Spirit's power? Or what?
- Q. 2 What did victory mean for the Jabeshites? For the other Israelites, even "troublemakers" (vv. 12–13)?