Wibble Wednesday: A king of shreds and patches (1 Samuel 13–15)

Missed another week. Sorry, folks. I’ll try to do the next one on time.

A quick shout-out to an awesome post elsewhere: I’ve talked a little about tribal oddities, and how “Levite” seems more like a profession than a tribal group, and all that, but this write-up conclusively studies all of the eighteen different entities which are vaguely tribelike and how a different subset of them gets described as “Israel” in various contexts. So, yeah, it’s not just me—there are totally several divergent tribal traditions showing up in different bits of the Bible.

But enough chatter, time for this week’s wodge-of-Bible.

Short, snarky summary: Saul loses a battle and violates a few subtle ritual precepts. Samuel doesn’t much care about the former, but loses his shit over the latter, seeing as how he never liked this whole ‘king’ idea in the first place.


Speaking of textual inaccuracies and inconsistencies, we start off with a verse which is incomplete in the original, and given variant translations. Verse 13:1 gives Saul’s age and length of kingship, but both seem to be subject to interpretation. FWIW, the Masoretic text has no age and gives two years as the length of his reign. A lot of translations give his age as either 30 or 40, presumably pulling these numbers from their asses, and some of them, for reasons I can’t fathom, give the length of his reign as 42 years (which seems like way, way too long for the chronology of David to sync right). Also, it’s not entirely clear whether there are two years up to the events of Chapter 13, or whether it’s two years for his reign in total (which continues for several chapters after this).

However, I’m not James Ussher, and don’t much care about the chronological specifics (particularly since Saul’s in the murky section of Israelite history predating independent chronology), so let’s move on to the actual narrative. The Ammonites were Saul’s latest foes, but of course the Philistines are the primary antagonists in this book, occupying, as they do, a good chunk of what Israel regards as their territory. Jonathan (who we are only later told is Saul’s son) is sent out with a thousand troops to take out a local Philistine governor and, basically, commit a formal act of war to force Israel to fight. So there’s a rallying cry and a muster on both sides: we’re not told the actual force on the Israelite side, but the Philistine force is presented as 30,000 (or 3000 in the Septuagint text) chariots and 6000 horsemen. In ancient-world terms (and real ancient terms, not the inflated numbers the Bible periodically uses) this was a formidable fighting force, and it’s not entirely surprising that the Israelites are forced to withdraw and regroup.

It is here, amidst the panicked draftees, where Saul makes what is regarded as his first mistake. Samuel apparently was on his way to rendezvous with this encampment in a week, and when he didn’t show, the tensions boiled over, with conscripts deserting. Saul’s drastic action is to rally the troops by offering sacrifices to bring luck, and of course Samuel arrives just when the offering is completed.

Now, it’s clear, from a ritual perspective, what Saul did wrong here. Leviticus goes on and on and on about proper sacrificial procedure, emphasizing that only the priesthood has the right to perform the sacrifice. Saul, of course, is not of the priestly class, and his usurpation of the priestly rite constituted a serious crime (compare to the ill-described desecration of the sacrificial procedure by Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, and you can see God’s not screwing around with this one). On the other hand, it’s hard to actually fault Saul’s action: the situation was authentically a crisis and he needed a morale booster, and from my modern loosey-goosey morality it’s pretty easy to justify a purely ritual violation to justify a result which is very good for the society as a whole. But Samuel disdains my moral relativism and goes off on a rant against Saul, which is pretty easy for him to do, since he’s been ranting for a while now about how bad kings are; now his subject changes slightly to how bad this particular king is, and he swears that Saul, for this infraction against the commandments, will be denied the opportunity to found a dynasty.

Anyways, this chapter ends more or less in an inexplicable stalemate: Jonathan and Samuel and their 600 remaining troops remain in the Philistine prefecture they’d liberated at the beginning of the chapter, despite the fact that they seem to have lost the battle to a numerically and technologically stronger foe. On the other hand, Philistia seems to have (somehow) enacted a technological ban on the Israelites, with all means for sharpening tools in Philistine hands, and with the Israelites charged for the privilege of sharpening agricultural implements. As a side result, this means the Israelites have no weapons.

There are a lot of problems with this bland statement of Israelite deprivation. I’ll admit that a honing stone is not a completely trivial thing, but it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of craft to improvise one. Also, historically, agricultural tools and weapons weren’t all that well separated: a well-sharpened mattock or pruning hook could be as effective a weapon as what passed for a sword or spear in ancient history.

But anyways, after this calamitous battle, we move on to Chapter 14, in which Jonathan gets to play the hero a bit and we engage in some dodgy divination. The Israelite encampment and the Philistine garrison are apparently practically side-by-side, and the Israelites have a priest now, and evidently the situation is somewhat stable, but Jonathan is going to shake all that up a bit by going our and taunting the Philistine guards on duty. He decides to employ a rather peculiar bit of divination as part of this plan, assuming that the specific way the Philistines phrase their challenge will convey whether Jonathan and his armsbearer can succeed against overwhelming odds. A typical reading is that God is using the Philistines (somehow) to convey this information to Jonathan in accordance with his plan, but Jonathan doesn’t pray, or ask God for assistance, or anything like that. The whole divinitory context here is just plain odd, not least of all because it works and Jonathan does in fact win out against the vanguard and plunges the garrison into chaos.

When Saul hears about this furor (and learns that his son is missing), he plans to strike while the foe is disorganized. At first he’s planning to wait for the Ark of the Covenant to accompany them in battle (because, hey, that worked so well last time), but realizing the confusion won’t last forever he decides to march without the Ark. Unlike his previous act of impatience, this one isn’t actually a usurpation of authority and isn’t condemned. With the help of returned Israelite collaborators and deserters, the Philistine garrison is routed and the whole army, cheered and energetic, continues to move.

But Saul, impulsive as ever, decides to place an oath on the whole company, announcing a general fast. It’s not clear why he does this—reading between the lines it feels like some sort of consecration of the army to God, as fasting’s often a means for ritual purity, but, as with Jonathan’s divination, that’s reading a sense into the action which isn’t supported specifically by the text. Whatever the reason, Saul’s solemn oath bears consequences, because Jonathan, who didn’t even hear the oath, tastes some honey from the beehives that the company comes upon. The punishment for this violation is deferred and actually surprisingly mild: they win their battle against the Philistines, but after the battle and a great sacrifice, God doesn’t respond to Saul’s questions. For most of us, not hearing God talking to us is a pretty common occurrence, but for Saul it’s clearly quite upsetting and he immediately concludes that somebody did something wrong, so he figures he’ll call upon some sort of investigatory magic to figure out just who the culprit is.

Verses 14:40 and 41 are the implementation of this divination, and it’s pretty incomprehensible unless you’ve paid close attention to some details of the priestly service. The ורים and תמים are two components of the priest’s breastplate, and the terms themselves are a bit opaque. They’re usually translated as “light” and “truth” (as, for instance, in the Latin motto of Yale University), and are considered to have some obscure role in answering binary questions, so when Saul says “Show Thummim” (or any of a number of other translations), the invocation is specifically to this oracular technique, which does indeed lay the guilt at Jonathan’s feet. Saul wants to kill Jonathan for his (unwitting) transgression, but the troops convince him to relent. As I said, he’s an impulsive kind of dude.

Verses 14:47–52 kind of suggest a timeskip montage. We’re told that Saul waged wars on all the neighboring kingdoms and won against all of them, and sired a decent-sized family, and built up the army. This bit kind of lends a bit of credence to the “42 years” translation way back in verse 13:1, since it suggests a pretty long kingship in which to prosecute all these wars.

In Chapter 15, we see Samuel again, for very nearly the last time. Samuel commands Saul, apparently relaying orders from God, to attack Amalek and completely obliterate the nation. It’s made perfectly clear, at great length in verse 3, that this is a war of genocide, not of cinquest. The Biblical text really, really has it in for the Amalekites, and this is not the first harsh proscription against them we’ve seen. Back in Exodus 17 they attacked Israel, which apparently induces all this enmity (although they were far from the only nation that attacked Israel during their wanderings, so it’s not clear what makes them so special). Deuteronomy 25:17–19 kind of expands on this, including specifically the allegation that the Amalekites ambushed the defenseless stragglers rather than meeting them in open warfare, and uses this as an injunction to “blot the memory of Amalek from the earth”. I’d venture that the difference between the rather indifferent attack in Exodus and the allegations and proscriptions in Deuteronomy might have to do with a difference in view between the mythological authors of Exodus and the rather more politically motivated Deuteronomists. Jews since then have been made really, really uncomfor6table by the commandment to commit genocide, and it seems that Saul might have been one of those Jews, because he’s going to have real trouble carrying out the commanded actions in this war.

Then again, maybe it’s not the slaughter that gives Saul the willies. He wins the war decisively, and decides to keep the best of the livestock and hostages, presumably for his own enrichment. God actually talks to Samuel about this, and Samuel decides that ti’s time to castigate Saul again, asking why he has so much trouble with simple instructions. Samuel’s self-defense is unconvincing, claiming that he took the best livestock for sacrifices to God, which provokes a poetic and thundering little sermon from Samuel whose message is essentially, “God doesn’t want sacrifices, he wants obedience,” and as a parting shot Samuel absolutely rejects Saul’s kingship, which exposes an interesting interplay between priesthood and monarchy: technically Samuel is a seditionist here, but in a theocratic monarchy a split between the priesthood and monarchy is more a civil rupture between two poles of power than sedition by an inferior.

The rupture isn’t quite complete, because Saul actually grabs Samuel’s robe, and tears it, which Samuel interprets as symbolic of tearing the kingship from Saul. And then, after the rupture seems truly complete, Samuel does follow Saul back to camp. But don’t be fooled, it’s not to affirm his kingship and make nice, but rather to hack King Agag of Amalek, who was being held into custody, into tiny pieces as an object lesson as to exactly what God wants done to Amelekites. And then he turns tail huffily and abandons Saul completely.

But having thrown over a king, he needs a new one since the people have gotten used to monarchy. Where will Samuel find such a paragon? Tune in next time when he gets discovered three times over!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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