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1. Saul’s disobedience at Gilgal 13:1-15
The writer introduced the history of Saul’s reign by referring to the king’s age and possibly the length of his reign. Verse one contains a textual corruption in the Hebrew text. [Note: On the many problems with the Hebrew text of Samuel, see Martin, pp. 209-222.] There the verse reads, "Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign, and he reigned . . . two years over Israel." My ellipses indicate omissions (lacunas) in the Hebrew text.
The first problem is Saul’s age when he began to reign. No other text of Scripture gives us his age at this time. The NASB translators have supplied "40" and the NIV and NET translators "30." The AV translators wrote, "Saul [was . . . years old]," leaving the number undefined.
Saul reigned about 40 years (Acts 13:21). If he was about 40 years old when he began to reign, he would have been about 80 when he died in battle on Mt. Gilboa (ch. 31). This seems very old in view of the account in chapter 31. Even if Saul was 70 he would have been quite old. The account of his anointing by Samuel pictures a young adult with a measure of maturity. I would suggest that 40 may be the first number that the copyists lost in 1 Samuel 13:1. My reasons follow below.
The second problem is, what was the second number in 1 Samuel 13:1 that is absent in the Hebrew text? The NASB has "32," the NIV "42," and the AV "2." If the last part of 1 Samuel 13:1 gives us the length of Saul’s reign, as is customary in similar summaries of kings’ reigns (cf. 1 Kings 14:21; 1 Kings 22:42; 2 Kings 8:17; 2 Kings 8:26; et al.), the missing number probably should be 42. In this case, 40 in Acts 13:21 must be a round number. If the last part of 1 Samuel 13:1 gives the year of Saul’s reign in which the events of chapter 13 happened, the number probably should be 2. [Note: Wood, Israel’s United . . ., pp. 122-23.] I think probably the total length of Saul’s reign is in view in 1 Samuel 13:1. I prefer the NIV’s 42 years here.
When did the events of this chapter happen if the last number in 1 Samuel 13:1 indicates the length of Saul’s reign? In 1 Samuel 10:8, Samuel commanded Saul to go to Gilgal and to wait seven days for him there. In 1 Samuel 13:8, we read that Saul went to Gilgal and waited seven days for Samuel. Therefore the events of chapter 13 appear to have followed those in chapter 10 soon, perhaps in the second year of his reign. [Note: Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., p. 193; Wood, Israel’s United . . ., pp. 123.]
However in 1 Samuel 13:3 Saul’s son Jonathan is old enough to lead an invasion against a Philistine garrison. Jonathan must have been at least about 20 to do that. If he was about 20, and this was the beginning of Saul’s reign, we have two problems. First, Saul must have been somewhat older than 30 when he began ruling. Yet this would make him quite old when he died in battle, as explained above. I think he was probably about 40 even though this would make him about 80 when he died. Second, if Jonathan was about 20 at the beginning of Saul’s reign, he would have been about 60 when he died with Saul since Saul reigned about 40 years (Acts 13:21). If David was a contemporary of Jonathan, as 1 Samuel implies, David began reigning when Jonathan was about 60. Yet 2 Samuel 5:4 says David was 30 when he began to reign. In spite of the disparity in the ages of David and Jonathan, it seems that Jonathan was indeed about 20 or 30 years older than David. [Note: See Leslie McFall, "The Chronology of Saul and David," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53:3 (September 2010):475-533.]
Some of the evidence (1 Samuel 10:8 and 1 Samuel 13:8) seems to support the view that the events of chapter 13 happened early in Saul’s reign. Other evidence (the ages of David and Jonathan) suggests that they may have happened much later. I favor the view that the events in chapter 13 follow those in chapter 10 closely. [Note: See again the "Chronology of 1 and 2 Samuel" at the beginning of these notes.]
Gibeah was Saul’s hometown and his capital. Michmash was five miles northeast of Gibeah, and Geba was four. Evidently Saul wanted to clear the area around Gibeah, and the central Benjamin plateau on which it stood, of Philistines, to make this population center more secure. Jonathan’s initial victory at Geba provoked the Philistines, who massed their forces across the steep valley that separated Geba and Michmash. This is the first mention of Jonathan, whose name means, "The Lord has given." Some scholars believe that Saul mustered the Israelite forces in the Jordan Valley at Gilgal, about 12 miles east of Michmash. [Note: E.g., Keil and Delitzsch, pp. 127-28.] However, the location of the Gilgal in view is problematic. In doing so, he was following orders that Samuel had given him earlier (1 Samuel 10:8). Apparently Saul was to meet Samuel to offer sacrifices of worship before he engaged the Philistines in battle. Because of the superior Philistine army the Israelite soldiers were afraid, and some even fled (cf. Judges 6:2). The enemy must have been strong to threaten Israel’s eastern territory since Philistia was Israel’s neighbor to the west.
"Since ’Hebrew’ was commonly used by non-Israelites as a synonym for ’Israelite’ (cf. 1 Samuel 4:5-10), it is understandable that the two terms should alternate throughout the narratives of the Philistine wars in chapters 13-14." [Note: Youngblood, p. 654.]
Fearful lest the mass desertion of his soldiers continue, Saul decided to slay the sacrificial animals before engaging the enemy and to attack rather than to wait for Samuel to come and offer the sacrifices. This was a violation of the prophet’s orders (1 Samuel 10:8). Contrast David’s submission to Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12:1-15) with Saul’s rebellion against Samuel the prophet. Saul could have asked for the Lord’s help in prayer, of course, as Hannah did. Evidently ritual was very important to him, so he offered the sacrifice and disobeyed Samuel. His choice suggests that he had a rather superficial relationship with Yahweh. Contrast weak-in-faith Gideon who also faced overwhelming odds fearfully, yet trusted and obeyed Yahweh nonetheless (Judges 6).
Saul’s punishment may appear excessively severe at first. However, the king of Israel was the Lord’s lieutenant. Any disobedience to his Commander-in-Chief was an act of insubordination that threatened the whole administrative organization of God’s kingdom on earth. Saul failed to perceive his place and responsibility under God. Contrast King Hezekiah’s appropriate behavior in a similar situation in 2 Chronicles 29:25. Saul assumed more authority than was his. For this reason God would not establish a dynasty for him (cf. 1 Samuel 24:21). Had he obeyed on this occasion, God would have placed Saul’s descendants on his throne for at least one generation, if not more (1 Samuel 13:13; cf. 1 Kings 11:38). Perhaps Saul’s descendants would have reigned in a parallel kingdom with the king from Judah. [Note: J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, p. 139; Youngblood, p. 657.] Now Saul’s son would not succeed him. Eventually God would have raised up a king from the tribe of Judah even if Saul had followed the Lord faithfully (Genesis 49:10). That king probably would have been David.
Samuel’s departure from the battlefield (1 Samuel 13:15) was symbolic of the breach that now opened up between Samuel and Saul. Saul’s presumptuous plan also failed to bring his departing soldiers back to him.
The results of Saul’s disobedience 13:16-23
The writer explained the military disaster that resulted from Saul’s disobedience in 1 Samuel 13:16-18. Saul’s army dwindled and the enemy continued to move around his capital city, Gibeah, freely.
Saul evidently led his troops from Gilgal to Geba where some of the Israelite soldiers camped. Saul himself proceeded back to Gibeah (1 Samuel 14:2). The Philistines had posted a larger camp of their soldiers just north of the Wadi Suweinit ravine that ran between Geba and Michmash. The Philistines used their camp (garrison, 1 Samuel 13:23) at Michmash as a base for raiding parties. From Michmash these raiders went north toward Ophrah, west toward Beth-horon, and probably southeast toward the wilderness, specifically the valley of Zeboim (exact site unknown).
The main physical advantage the Philistines enjoyed was their ability to smelt iron. This advanced technology gave them a strong military edge over the Israelites. [Note: Dothan, p. 20.] As in the days of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:8), the Philistines still had the advantage of superior weapons and the power to restrict the Israelites’ use of iron implements.
2. Saul’s struggle against the Philistines 13:16-14:23
As a result of Saul’s disobedience he began to struggle, whereas his son Jonathan, who sought to follow the Lord faithfully, became increasingly successful.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 13". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany