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The Death Of Saul And Jonathan On Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:1-7 ).
It is noteworthy that in the description of the battle the emphasis is not on the defeat of Israel, even though that is briefly described, but on the death of Saul and its consequences. Nevertheless even in its brevity we do get a vivid picture of the last stages of the battle as it brings about the deaths of Saul and his heirs.
a Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:1).
b And the Philistines followed hard on Saul and on his sons, and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul (1 Samuel 31:2).
c And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers overtook him, and he was greatly distressed by reason of the archers. And Saul said to his armourbearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me” (1 Samuel 31:3-4 a).
d But his armourbearer would not, for he was very much afraid. Therefore Saul took his sword, and fell on it (1 Samuel 31:4 b).
c And when his armourbearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell on his sword in similar fashion, and died with him (1 Samuel 31:5).
b So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together (1 Samuel 31:6).
a And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities, and fled, and the Philistines came and dwelt in them (1 Samuel 31:7).
Note than in ‘a’ the Israelites fled before the Philistines, and in the parallel the remainder of Israel did the same. In ‘b’ the Philistines pressed hard on Saul and slew his three sons, and in the parallel Saul and his three sons are described as dead. In ‘c’ Saul calls on his armourbearer to thrust him through, and in the parallel the armourbearer thrusts himself through. Centrally in ‘d’ we have described the death of Saul.
1 Samuel 31:1
‘ Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa.’
What must have been a fiercely fought battle between two totally unmatched armies is told briefly. We are not told where it actually took place, although the assumption must be that it was in the Valley of Jezreel. All that we are told is that the Philistines fought against Israel (for the description compare 1 Samuel 28:1. This description is picking up the story from there), and that the men of Israel fled over Mount Gilboa where they were systematically slaughtered. The writer is not interested in the details of the battle, only in the consequences of it for Israel.
We are even left in some doubt as to whom ‘the men of Israel’ were. They would undoubtedly include Saul’s standing army, and it may well be that it was mainly these who suffered as they bravely bore the main brunt of the rearguard action, while what was left of the ‘volunteer’ army escaped over the Jordan under the leadership of Abner, the overall general of the army (1 Samuel 31:7; 2 Samuel 2:8-9). Saul’s supreme bravery comes out, both in his being an important part of the rearguard action, and in the fact that he fought at all, given the fact of what he had learned from Samuel through the medium of Endor.
1 Samuel 31:7 would also suggest, either that the full muster of the tribes had not yet arrived. An alternative possibility is that they had been kept in reserve at the other side of the valley in order to intervene when called on. Either way the defeat of Israel’s main army was clearly so conclusive that they played no part in the battle, and then recognised that their only course, with Saul and his sons dead, was to disappear as quickly as possible, leaving the cities of Israel wide open to the Philistine invaders. They knew that further resistance would be useless and would only bring reprisals on those cities.
1 Samuel 31:2
‘ And the Philistines followed hard on Saul and on his sons, and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul.’
Playing a valiant part in the rearguard action Saul’s three warrior sons, fighting in the forefront, died bravely in action, while Saul also found himself hard pressed. he had not flinched from the battle.
1 Samuel 31:3-4 a
‘And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers overtook him, and he was greatly distressed by reason of the archers. And Saul said to his armourbearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me.”
Saul was apparently behind the units commanded by his three sons, as a second line of defence, and he and his men now found themselves under heavy bombardment by the missiles of the archers who had been able to come up on them as a result of the destruction of the first line of defence. It was clear to Saul that the situation was lost and that he would be unable to evade capture. It must also be seen as almost certain that he had been wounded by arrows that had found their target. Thus the thought of being overtaken and abused by the uncircumcised Philistines, who would undoubtedly satisfy their blood lusts on him, and would at the same time humiliate him as the king of Israel, was too much for him, and he cried to his armourbearer to thrust him through, rather than allowing the Philistines to do it. He knew that death or worse was inevitable. He preferred therefore to die on a good Israelite blade rather than on a Philistine one. At least he would prevent their enjoying that triumph. YHWH’s anointed would thus not be sullied in his death.
Saul (and the writer) may well have had in mind at this point the example of Abimelech who asked the same of his armourbearer when a woman split his head open with a millstone flung from the walls of Thebez, because he did not want to be thought of as the king who had been slain by a woman (Judges 9:53-56). That story appears to have been a well known one to Israel’s warriors, and had also been the result of YHWH’s judgment on his previous behaviour (see 2 Samuel 11:21).
1 Samuel 31:4 b
‘But his armourbearer would not, for he was very much afraid. Therefore Saul took his sword, and fell on it.’
His armourbearer, however, refused to do it through fear. The fear was probably because he considered that to slay YHWH’s anointed would be a grievous sin. Alternately he may have been afraid of what might happen to him afterwards, for it was his duty to preserve YHWH’s anointed at all costs. Either way he would not do it. Saul therefore took his own sword and fell on it. It is probable that he saw it as a religious act, almost a kind of sacrifice, in defence of YHWH’s honour.
1 Samuel 31:5
‘ And when his armourbearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell on his sword in similar fashion, and died with him.’
Once the armourbearer saw that Saul was dead by his own hand he followed his example, and thus died with him. This may have simply been out of a kind of loyalty to his master, although it could have included remorse because, as his personal bodyguard, he had failed, through no fault of his own, to preserve his master’s life. The shame may have been too much for him. He may even have feared the later consequences if he survived. The Philistines might have seen Saul’s armourbearer as a good substitute for Saul himself, thus bringing shame on Saul by proxy, while he may have felt that if he survived intact he might equally suffer shame at the hands of the Israelites for failing to keep Saul alive. People had strange ideas about honour.
1 Samuel 31:6
‘ So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together.’
The slaughter on the Mount was so complete that Saul, his three sons, his armourbearer and all ‘his men’ (his standing army) died there with him on that same day, thereby avenging all the misery that they had brought on David, and destroying any hopes of Israel’s survival as an independent nation. Without this central force Israel could put up little resistance against an enemy like the warlike Philistines. They had been Israel’s mainstay in all the wars with the Philistines through the years.
1 Samuel 31:7
‘ And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities, and fled, and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.’
That this means that the forces of Israel, who had been mustered from the most northerly tribes and from Transjordan, in order to assist in the fight against the Philistines, but had not taken part in the battle, fled, must be seen as probable. It is not likely that all the inhabitants of the cities fled. They would simply have submitted to the approaching Philistines, thus hopefully avoiding reprisals by becoming voluntary vassals. (It was the normal for invaders only to take reprisals when cities resisted. Otherwise they simply demanded tribute. It was to their advantage. See Deuteronomy 20:10-14). The Philistines would then occupy them and take authority over them, as they had previously done with the Canaanites over whom they ruled. They would become a part of the Philistine empire. (This had apparently not just been a raid with the aim of obtaining tribute, as previously. It was seemingly an attempt to build an empire and occupy the cities permanently).
In view of the brevity of the statement, however, the position is not totally clear, something reinforced by the fact that we are not totally sure what Philistine attitudes were in such a situation. They may have had a policy of slaughtering a good number of men of fighting age when they took over a city. The writer’s main aim, in fact, was simply to explain that the main cities of central Israel were now to be under the rule of the Philistines.
The Thorough Defeat Of Israel And The Death Of Saul (1 Samuel 31:1 -2 Samuel 1:27 ).
Having initially demonstrated how God’s purposes are moving forward in David, the writer now describes the humiliating defeat and death of Saul, slain by his own hand. It is the darkness before the dawn. But the dawn is clearly in mind. For the following chapters of 2 Samuel were in his eyes simply the continuation of the story. The original writer did not end on a note of anticlimax. That thought simply arises because of the historical accident of the division of the book into two.
SECTION 5. David’s First Taste Of Kingship - The Death Final Disobedience And Of Saul (1 Samuel 27:1 -2 Samuel 1:27 ).
A). David Rises To Petty Kingship Over Ziklag And Continually Destroys The Amalekites (YHWH’s Enemies) While Saul Proceeds On In Darkness To His Doom (27:1-30:31).
In this subsection David and his Men flee to Gath, while with Samuel dead Saul falls further into error and confides in a spiritist medium because YHWH too has deserted him. David meanwhile becomes a petty king, continually defeats the Amalekites, YHWH’s enemies, and is spared from having to fight against his own people (1 Samuel 27:1 to 1 Samuel 30:31).
Analysis of 1 Samuel 27:1 to 1 Samuel 30:31 .
a David leaves his haunts in Judah and goes over Achish of Gath to escape from Saul (1 Samuel 27:1-4).
b David becomes a petty king under Achish and attacks and defeats the Amalekites, slaughtering them and obtaining great booty (1 Samuel 27:5-12).
c David swears loyalty to Achish in view of the invasion of Israel (1 Samuel 28:1-2).
d Saul seeks to consult Samuel through a necromancer and is reminded that he is rejected by YHWH (1 Samuel 28:3-20).
e Saul shares hospitality with a woman condemned by YHWH and goes out into the night (1 Samuel 28:21-25).
d David is accompanying the Philistines and is rejected by them (1 Samuel 29:1-7).
c David swears loyalty to Achish in view of the invasion of Israel and goes out into the day (1 Samuel 29:8-11).
b David finds his kingdom despoiled and attacks and defeats the Amalekites, slaughtering them and obtaining great booty (1 Samuel 30:1-25).
a David shows his gratitude to those who had assisted him among the people of Judah when he was escaping from Saul (1 Samuel 30:26-31).
Note than in ‘a’ David leaves his haunts in Judah and goes over to the Philistines in order to avoid Saul, and in the parallel he send gifts to his friends who had supported him while he was in his haunts in Judah escaping from Saul. In ‘b’ David slaughters the Amalekites, and in the parallel does the same. In ‘c’ David swears loyalty to Achish, and in the parallel does the same. In ‘d’ Saul is with a woman rejected by YHWH and is reminded that he too is rejected by YHWH, and in the parallel David is with the people rejected by YHWH (the Philistines) but is himself rejected by them. In ‘e’ Saul reaches the lowest stage in his fall from YHWH when he enjoys hospitality with a woman rejected by YHWH and goes out into the night.
In some ways the flight of David to Gath appears to conflict with all that has gone before, for up to this point YHWH had always ensured that David remained in Israel/Judah and had protected him there. Indeed when David had previously fled to Gath (1 Samuel 21:10-15), it had resulted in his being humiliated and driven back into Israel, and this fact, combined with the later words of Gad the Prophet (1 Samuel 22:5), suggests that being in Israel/Judah was God’s purpose for him at that time even though he was an outlaw. In this regard it has, indeed, been pointed out that in 1 Samuel 27:1 to 1 Samuel 28:2 there is no mention of God, with the inference being drawn that his action here was also not of God.
On the other hand it is questionable whether this latter fact can really be emphasised for we must bear in mind that we are only talking about fourteen verses, verses which are on the whole the kind where no mention of God was really required, and this is especially so as there are certainly previous passages elsewhere which have also not included the name of God, even when we might have expected it, without it there being especially significant. See for example, 1 Samuel 13:15-23; 1 Samuel 17:1-24; 1 Samuel 17:55 to 1 Samuel 18:9; and especially 1 Samuel 14:47-52. Furthermore we should note that when the account of the stay among the Philistines continues the king of Gath is himself portrayed as swearing by YHWH (1 Samuel 29:6, see also 1 Samuel 27:9), something possibly intended to illustrate the influence that David has had on him, and certainly demonstrating that he recognised YHWH as David’s God and that YHWH was with him there. Thus there is no real indication that the writer sees this as a backward move. Rather he seems to portray it as demonstrating a sensible way of escaping from Saul’s prevarications, while immediately stressing that he finally took up refuge in Ziklag which was a Philistine occupied town of Judah in the Negeb (as he emphasises). So he had not permanently left Israel after all. The only question that does possibly spring to mind in this regard is as to why David did not at this stage ‘enquire of YHWH’ through the ephod. Precedent might suggest that he did in fact do so and that the writer simply does not mention the fact.
Certainly we should note that David would see no difficulty in consulting YHWH when he was in Ziklag (1 Samuel 30:7-8), even though it was outside the current boundaries of Israel (although still in what was part of Israel’s inheritance). On the other hand we might argue that Ziklag had been appropriated from Judah/Simeon (Joshua 15:31; Joshua 19:5) by the Philistines, and could really therefore be seen as an ‘Israelite’ city. This might be seen as confirmed by the fact that the writer emphasises that from that time on Ziklag was seen as belonging to Judah (1 Samuel 27:6). Consider also the fact that many fighting men of Israel came to join up with him there at this point, including men from Benjamin, Judah, Gad and Manasseh (1 Chronicles 12:1-7; 1 Chronicles 12:20-22). They too probably saw it as a haven from Saul and a kind of little Israel where they could be freer to behave as they wished, even though it did give them responsibilities towards a Philistine king, which YHWH would overrule.
We might thus argue that having established his popularity at home in Israel/Judah (apart from with the Ziphites), his rule over a semi-independent Ziklag with its surrounding territories was now intended by God to be the next stage in his training for the kingship, for through his time there he would be able to gain experience of ruling a city and its environs before he was finally faced up with the greater task of ruling Judah, and then all Israel. It is a reminder that God educates His people as and where He will.
That God was with him there comes out quite clearly in the narrative. Firstly in that he was given this convenient semi-independent position, in a place where YHWH could be consulted, and secondly in that he was later prevented from having to fight against his own countrymen, something which would surely have hindered his later rise to kingship. So whether his first move was pleasing to YHWH or not, it is clear that YHWH did not see him as having been grossly disobedient. (And all of us know of situations in which we have to make difficult decisions which have to be based on our own judgment at the time, and which might even be ‘wrong’, with God then acting graciously towards us on the basis of what we have done in all honesty, as He continues to lead us forward).
Furthermore there are good grounds for seeing the writer as deliberately wanting us to contrast this triumphant move into Philistia, along with David being given an honoured position there, with the debacle that had taken place on his previous visit to Gath when he had had to publicly humiliate himself and flee. Then it was clearly being portrayed as a move that he should not have made. Here it can be argued that, as a move that brought him honour and prestige and an opportunity to serve God in destroying the Amalekites, it was clearly of God.
But why should Achish have given Ziklag and its surrounding territories to David? The probable reason must be that it was a part of a suzerainty treaty whereby David was given his own independent city in a spot convenient for raids over the border, on condition that he made such raids and gave to Achish a certain proportion of any booty that he and his men collected. For we must surely recognise that the whole purpose of having David and his army under his umbrella was in order that David might earn his keep by raids over the border, while at the same time being available for any major offensive that had to be made. He would not want to continually provision David and his small tribe while they were idle, and continual raiding was considered to be the sport of kings (2 Samuel 11:1). There appears little doubt that such border raids constantly took place (e.g. 1 Samuel 23:1-6, and compare David’s earlier activities against the Philistines, not all of which can have been related to major invasions - 1 Samuel 18:5; 1 Samuel 18:27; 1 Samuel 20:8) as we would in fact expect in those savage days. This certainly also serves to explain David’s subsequent activities.
SECTION 5 (Continued).
The present division of the book into two parts, simply because the Greek text (in contrast with the Hebrew text which did not contain consonants) of the Book of Samuel (the Septuagint - LXX) required two scrolls, to some extent hides the continuity of this subsection which highlights the death of Saul and Jonathan and David’s great distress and nobility with regard to them. While their deaths were to lead to the final establishment of his kingship they brought him no joy. Rather he wept over them both, and especially over that of Jonathan. We must never forget that David had known Saul extremely well personally and had clearly loved him, and had for a time had that feeling at least partly reciprocated, which was why he had undoubtedly been so puzzled by Saul’s later attitude towards him, and had indeed hoped for a time that he might be able to reverse the situation. It was only when that hope had finally gone that he moved to Philistia. Meanwhile with Jonathan he had shared that love and loyalty which can only be known by two comrades-in-arms. Thus he felt the loss of them both very deeply, especially Jonathan.
It is a sign of the deep spirituality of David that while he had known from his youth, through no choice of his own (see 1 Samuel 16:0), that he was destined for the kingship, and had been thrust by God, and by his own deep regard for God’s honour, into being the Champion of Israel (see 1 Samuel 17:0), he had made no push to hurry the situation along, even when Saul had played into his hands. Rather he had patiently waited for God’s time. He had been one of Israel’s most successful field commanders, acting only out of loyalty to both YHWH and Saul, and had later weathered all the misfortunes that had been thrust on him by a jealous and suspicious Saul, without once portraying any particular ambition to take over the kingship by force, although at the same time, in the latter stages, he undoubtedly did seek to prepare the way for that kingship, both through his marriages, and through his behaviour towards the people of Israel and the elders of Judah. But that can be seen as because everything pointed to it as being YHWH’s purpose for him. It was as someone who had had it made quite clear to him by then from every source (Samuel - 16:1, 13; Jonathan - 23:17; Saul - 24:20-21) that he was truly destined to be king.
This picture of him as unwilling to act before God’s time has been consistently drawn throughout the narrative, as was the fact that it arose from his great loyalty to YHWH as his God. That was why he would not act against the one whom God had anointed. The picture therefore of him as a clever and 1saless seeker after power is not one that is ever portrayed in the narrative, even though his undoubted later ambition is never hidden. This latter ambition was, however, consistent with the picture that we have of him as a man driven by YHWH who was aware of his call by YHWH to eventual kingship. Given that sense his subsequent restraint up to this point in time must be seen as quite remarkable.
The death of Saul and his three fighting sons, and the circumstances in which it occurred, was a tragedy for Israel. To many he had been a beloved, and often successful king, and the overwhelming defeat now to be described would leave a large part of Israel under Philistine control, and Saul’s remaining and rather inept son cowering in Mahanaim, reigning over what was left of Israel by permission of his uncle Abner, commander of the forces of Israel (such as they now were). It would, however, also open the way for David’s appointment as King of Judah, for the elders of Judah clearly recognised that with the Philistines in control of central Israel, and Eshbaal (Ishbosheth), Saul’s remaining son, being restricted to Mahanaim, only David and his small but powerful army could provide them with any kind of protection, a decision undoubtedly precipitated by David’s own arrival with his men. It had the additional advantage that his position as vassal to the king of Gath made him acceptable to the Philistines. They had no objection to him reigning as their vassal. (This is really the only explanation as to why they took no measures against him after his appointment). He was thus now vassal king over both Ziklag and Judah, Ziklag from this time on always being seen as a part of Judah.
SECTION 5B). The Death Of Saul And Jonathan (1 Samuel 31:1 -2 Samuel 1:27 ).
This subsection concentrates on the overwhelming victory of the Philistines over a depleted Saul, and his subsequent death, along with his three fighting sons, on Mount Gilboa, with the concentration undoubtedly on the latter fact. It commences with a very brief description of the battle, and a more detailed description of the deaths of Saul and his sons, and ends with a dirge written by David as he mourns their deaths. Yet even in the midst of the tragedy the writer focuses on two acts of nobility, the first the bravery and loyalty of the men of Jabesh Gilead in daringly rescuing the body of Saul from its ignominious situation of being displayed on the walls of Bethshan (1 Samuel 31:11-13). Even in defeat the Israelites are seen as gaining a kind of victory over the Philistines, who would have no idea where the body had gone. And the second the genuine grief of David concerning the whole event. There is no reason for doubting the genuineness of this latter. He loved Jonathan like his own soul, and his love for Israel could also have resulted in nothing but grief in the light of all that had happened, while the fact that Saul was YHWH’s anointed would in itself have been sufficient to explain his grief over Saul’s death. Thus he would undoubtedly have shared in the grief of all Israel, even though he did recognise what it meant for him. He also appears to reveal himself as having a genuine appreciation of Saul, as in his dirge he calls to mind his nobler characteristics.
Because this subsection comes where it does we tend to see it as focusing on a tragic end as a kind of summary of the book. But that is to misunderstand the situation. The writer did not see it as coming at the end of anything. He saw this final disposal of Saul as bringing about the upward move of David from being petty king of Ziklag and victor over the Amalekites, to being king of Judah, and then of all Israel, and final victor over the Philistines. It was thus a further stepping stone in the onward triumph of YHWH. And even in this defeat YHWH would emphasise that He could not be overlooked (1 Samuel 31:11-13)
Analysis Of The Section.
a The Death Of Saul And Jonathan On Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:1-7).
b The Tidings Concerning Saul’s Death And Defeat Are Spread Among The Philistines (1 Samuel 31:8-10).
c The Men Of Jabesh Gilead Arrange For A Decent Burial For Saul’s Body (1 Samuel 31:11-13).
b The Tidings Concerning The Death Of Saul Are Brought To David (2 Samuel 1:1-16).
a David Commemorates The Death Of Saul And Jonathan On Mount Gilboa In A Dirge (2 Samuel 1:17-27).
The centrality in the chiasmus of the deed of the men of Jabesh Gilead will be noted. It was not just added in as an afterthought. It was an indication that while Israel might be down, they were not out.
Saul’s Body Is Humiliated And The Tidings Concerning Saul’s Death And Defeat Are Spread Among The Philistines (1 Samuel 31:8-10 ).
As Saul had anticipated, the Philistines sought to humiliate what remained of him. They cut off his head and sent it throughout the land of the Philistines in triumph, prior to setting it up in the temple of their god Dagon (1 Chronicles 10:10). This was similar to the treatment meted out to the head of Goliath by David (1 Samuel 17:54). (There was no thought of honouring a fallen foe. It was intended as an indication of the respective triumph of their deities). They stripped off his armour and set it up in the house of their goddess Ashtaroth, probably in Bethshan. And they displayed his body on the walls of Bethshan. This was the only way of ensuring that all knew that he really was dead. Verse 12 informs us that they did the same with the bodies of his sons for a similar reason. But there was no doubt that there was also in it an intention to gloat over their dead enemies. It was a display of their triumph, and a warning to all who opposed them.
We should note how the writer actually refrains from mentioning what happened to Saul’s head, except indirectly. This suggests that he was writing within a time span when reverence for YHWH’s anointed as king of Israel prevented him from wishing to do so. The thought of it being hung in a Philistine temple filled him with repugnance (just as he also shortly gleefully describes how Saul’s body was saved from humiliation in 1 Samuel 31:11-13). The chronicler, who considered that Saul had shamed himself (1 Chronicles 10:13), had no such inhibition hundreds of years later.
a And it came about on the next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:8).
b And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour (1 Samuel 31:9 a).
c And they sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to carry the news to the house of their idols, and to the people (1 Samuel 31:9 b).
b And they put his armour in the house of the Ashtaroth (1 Samuel 31:10 a).
a And they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan (1 Samuel 31:10 b).
Note that in ‘a’ they discovered his body, and in the parallel they fastened it to the wall of Bethshan. In ‘b’ they stripped off his armour, and in the parallel they put it in the house of Ashtaroth. Centrally in ‘c’ they sent the tidings of the victory into all the land of the Philistines, informing both their idols and their people of it. This included sending Saul’s head with the messengers, (which was the purpose of cutting it off - compare 1 Samuel 17:54 where David took Goliath’s head to Judah’s sanctuary). 1 Chronicles 10:10 tells us that it was placed in the temple of Dagon, which was where they had previously first placed the captured Ark in the time of Eli (1 Samuel 5:2). It was an act of worship to their god.
1 Samuel 31:8
‘ And it came about on the next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on mount Gilboa.’
The day after the battle the Philistines returned to the battlefield to survey the dead and strip from them anything that might have value. This was the normal practise after a victorious encounter. And there, on Mount Gilboa, above the plain of Jezreel, they found the bodies of Saul and his three sons.
1 Samuel 31:9
‘ And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to carry the news to the house of their idols, and to the people.’
Their main activity was aimed at Saul. For many years he had proved a thorn in their sides, and had prevented them from encroaching far into Israelite territory. Saul ‘had slain his thousands’, and many of them had been Philistines. But now at last they had thoroughly routed his forces and had killed him. So they cut off his head and bore it into their land to hang it in the Temple of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10:10), probably in Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1-2), but some consider it to have been one of the two temples revealed archaeologically in Bethshan. There would be a number of temples of Dagon. They also stripped him of his armour and put it in the house of Ashtaroth (a Canaanite goddess represented by many images). And they sent the news of his death and of their victory over the Israelites to the house of their idols and to their people.
For the cutting off of the head compare 1 Samuel 17:51; 1 Samuel 17:54, and see also 1 Samuel 5:4. For the stripping of the armour compare 1 Samuel 17:54. These were clearly seen as the normal things to do to a prominent foe who had been defeated and slain. Many would have been appalled that this could happen to the ‘Anointed of YHWH’. But we are already in on the secret that he was no longer the Anointed of YHWH in God’s eyes, for he had been rejected and replaced by David. This was but the final proof of that fact.
1 Samuel 31:10
‘ And they put his armour in the house of the Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.’
1 Chronicles 10:10 says that ‘they put his armour in the house of their gods’. This may have been in Bethshan which was a Canaanite city with Philistine connections by the Valley of Jezreel, but others see it as having in mind the great house of Ashtaroth in Ashkelon. The former view is seen as supported by the fact that the site of the temple is unnamed and by the parallelism:
“They put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth,
And they fastened his body to the walls of Bethshan.”
That Ashkelon is in mind might be seen as supported by the reference to Ashkelon in David’s lament (2 Samuel 1:20), and the fact that Ashkelon was in Philistia proper. That was not important to the writer, however. What he was concerned about was that Saul was being shamed and humiliated. Thus came to the end a reign which had begun gloriously and had descended into tragedy.
Ashtaroth is a plural word and may simply indicate the fact that the goddess Ashtoreth/Astarte had many images. Alternately it may be that we are to translate as ‘the houses of the Ashtaroth’ indicating that Saul’s weapons were widely distributed around different Philistine temples as tokens of victory, or borne triumphantly from one to the other.
One Small Victory For Israel (1 Samuel 31:11-13 ).
It is a mistake to see this as a kind of appended note. In fact the subsection chiasmus demonstrates the centrality of what is being described here (a fact hidden by the division of the book into two parts simply on the basis of convenience). Saul may have reached rock bottom, even as David was triumphing in YHWH’s Name, but it is demonstrated here that YHWH did not forget Saul and his sons, and arranged for them to be rescued them from further ignominy and from being cursed. It was to be seen that YHWH Himself was not defeated.
This was in itself a minor victory, but it was a reminder that the Philistine triumph was not complete and that they were not in control of affairs. It would certainly leave the Philistines infuriated and embarrassed. But its similarity to the deliverance of the Ark which the Philistines had also tried to use to honour their gods should not be overlooked. There the Philistines had been unable to retain the Ark, which they had considered their trophy. Here they were unable to retain the bodies of Saul and his sons, including that of the godly Jonathan, which they had also seen as their trophies. YHWH was not going to allow them to think that He had been defeated.
We should also note that at the commencement of his reign Saul had travelled through the night (1 Samuel 11:11) and through the Spirit of YHWH had saved the people of Jabesh-gilead from being dishonoured (1 Samuel 11:2), now the men of Jabesh-gilead had travelled through the night and had similarly rescued Saul from being dishonoured. The Spirit of YHWH was still at work.
It is difficult to overemphasise the bravery of these truly valiant men of Jabesh-gilead. They made their way by night to a Philistine stronghold, no doubt well guarded and well watched (even though the city gates would have been barred and bolted for the night), and they stole the trophies of the Philistines from under their very noses. Had they been caught they would undoubtedly have been shown no mercy, for the very absence from the walls of these bodies would have been a body blow to the Philistines. It declared to all that they were unable to guard their own city, and would make them a laughingstock for miles around. It would mar the completeness of their victory. Indeed every Israelite around about who learned what had happened would have rejoiced at what some unknown Israelites had done, and would have smirked behind his hand, and would have squared his shoulders, and have felt that much better for what had occurred, while the Philistines would have been seething in uncontrolled anger.
Furthermore it is clear that these brave men were expecting the very real possibility of repercussions, for their unusual act of burning the bodies (but not the bones) suggests that they were protecting the corpses of Saul and his sons against the possibility of recapture and further mutilation. It is also clear that all who knew who was responsible for the action maintained their silence, possibly even in the face of some brutality, so that the Philistines had no idea who had done this dreadful thing. It was not to be until much later that the details came out, and by then it would be too late for the Philistines to do anything about it.
a And when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard in respect of him what the Philistines had done to Saul (1 Samuel 31:11).
b All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan (1 Samuel 31:12 a).
a And they came to Jabesh, and burnt them there, and they took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days (1 Samuel 31:12-13).
Note that in ‘a’ we have described the rumours about what the Philistines had done to Saul, and in the parallel we have described what the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead did for Saul. Centrally in ‘b’ is emphasised this minor, but significant, victory against the Philistines.
1 Samuel 31:11
‘ And when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard in respect of him what the Philistines had done to Saul,’
The news of what had happened to the bodies of Saul and his sons reached Jabesh-gilead in Transjordan. It would reach them very quickly for they were not more than twenty miles from Bethshan, which was four miles west of the Jordan. And they would learn the whole gory details about their fate. Nevertheless it must have been three days at least after the deaths of the four Israelite heroes before their bodies were rescued. (The Philistines stripped the bodies the day after the battle. The bodies would then have to be taken to Bethshan in no particular hurry and would need to be displayed. After that the news had to reach the men of Jabesh-gilead, who would have required time to make their decision and plan their operation. All this would have taken time). Thus the bodies would have been corrupting and would have had time to be picked at by scavengers. They would be smelling and disintegrating. (People of those days were, however, not as squeamish as we are).
1 Samuel 31:12
‘ All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan; and they came to Jabesh, and burnt them there.’
The brave men of Jabesh-gilead then travelled through the night in order to rescue the bodies and take them down from the wall, no doubt arriving before dawn. Once there they had to find a means of reaching the bodies and taking them down, before once again disappearing into the night. It was a hazardous operation carried out in the utmost secrecy. The fewer who knew about it the better.
It is clear from all this how important they saw the act to be. The hanging of the bodies in the open would have made them accursed (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). And to this was added the shame both to YHWH’s Anointed, and to the people of Israel whom he represented of their being so openly displayed. Furthermore we know that these men of Jabesh-gilead had good cause to be grateful to Saul, for it was he who had rescued them and their fathers from a terrible fate at the hands of Nahash the Ammonite (see 1 Samuel 11:0), and it is quite possible that they were also related to Saul. All this had in their eyes rendered this action imperative. But when we remember how the Spirit of YHWH had come on Saul when he had delivered Jabesh-gilead, it is difficult not to see also that The Spirit of YHWH was active here. History was turning full circle.
Then the men hurriedly bore the bodies back to Jabesh in order to do them honour (this was clearly the reason for taking them back, otherwise they could easily have buried them not long after leaving Bethshan). Once at Jabesh they burned the bodies, although not the bones. This was unusual as Israelites preferred burial. But they clearly wanted there to be no danger of the bodies being retrieved by the Philistines. It was the bones, rather than the flesh, that were seen as the very centre of men’s beings and as thus representing the whole man (compare how the skull and crossbones symbol originally represented the whole man). This use is found regularly (see 1 Kings 13:31; 2 Kings 13:21; Job 4:14; Job 20:11; Job 30:17; Psalms 6:2; Psalms 31:10; Psalms 32:3; Psalms 35:10; Psalms 51:8; Proverbs 14:30; Proverbs 16:24; Proverbs 25:15; Isaiah 58:11; Isaiah 66:14; Habakkuk 3:16). Thus the flesh was not looked on as being too important. For the importance and burial of bones compare Genesis 50:25; Ezekiel 39:15; Hebrews 11:22. Indeed deliberately burning the bones was seen as sinful (Amos 2:1).
1 Samuel 31:13
‘ And they took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.’
And the bones they buried under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh. This was probably a local landmark and seen as a kind of local sacred spot from of old (1 Chronicles has ‘under the terebinth’ - compare Hosea 4:13). Perhaps the evergreen nature of the tree was seen as symbolically life-imparting. It was an indication of the honour in which they held Saul and his sons that they buried them in such a prominent place. But no outsiders would have known where to look. And they then fasted for seven days, a further honouring of Saul’s name and also a sign of mourning. Even this was a very brave thing to do. They would have had to be careful, for too much ostentation could well have drawn attention to them, and that was the last thing that they wanted. No doubt rumours would gradually filter around as to what they had done, for to the Israelites it would seem like a taste of victory in the face of defeat. But by the time that they reached Philistine ears (if they ever did) it would be too late for them to do anything about it, especially without any kind of evidence. One bone looks little different from another. David would later arrange for the transfer of the bones to the family sepulchre at Zelah (2 Samuel 21:12-14).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 31". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany