09 June 2022
One of the things Israel's Philistine overlords did was placing a garrison along the central highland highway to tax the trade between Upper Mesopotamia and Egypt. It also served to keep an eye on Saul and his activities. It's not likely to have been much more than a couple hundred troops. The garrison was at Geba, not far from Saul's capital at Gibeah.
At some point Saul had gathered a substantial force of about 3000 professional soldiers (no conscripts). One third of them were with his son, Jonathan, at Gibeah, while the rest were with him at Michmash. We aren't told what his objective was, but it must have been an initial move to push out the Philistines. So, Jonathan took his thousand troops and slaughtered the garrison at Geba, having a superior force. No Philistine escaped this action, but there were plenty of civilian weasels around willing to curry favor by running down to Philistia to report this.
So the Philistines mobilized their main army and marched up to meet Saul's force at Michmash. Keep in mind, this is not something that is done quickly. A huge force of 3000 chariots and countless infantry doesn't travel over that rough terrain quickly. Also, there's lots of baggage to haul, since they are making a camp. And the camp doesn't get set up quickly. First, they would have to establish a secure perimeter, and those guards would not be participating in the camp set-up. Thus, we are talking days here getting this thing established.
Saul and his subordinates knew they were in trouble. Samuel tells Saul to take his troops down to Gilgal and wait until he comes to join them in seven days. Saul isn't happy about this, already nervous. His troops are vastly outnumbered, and those under Jonathan were already hiding out, refusing to confront the Philistines. The civilian population was also in hiding. Some had even retreated across the Jordan to the East Bank. The whole point of the Philistine invasion was to confront any force. And if no one came at them, they would scout around and chase down any Israeli force they could find.
This is not so much cowardice on the part of Israel's troops, but a delay and watch action. They may not have a good battle plan for such a large force, but they can at least give advance notice if anything happens. Once this massive camp is established, the Philistines still have to forage for food, which means raiding parties not exactly armed for full combat. The raids would be punitive, of course, but troops trying to carry off plunder aren't going to be fully armed for battle. There would be a guard force with them, but most of the troops were lightly armed.
Keep in mind that the primary issue with Saul is that God is testing him, and Samuel knows it. So Samuel tells him to have the offering ready at Gilgal, but not to do anything until he shows up. Saul gets nervous and doesn't trust the Lord. He sees the folks starting to abandon him and forgets how Gideon defeated a vast army with just a handful of troops. Saul rashly decides to execute the ritual offering seeking God's favor. He wasn't really thinking about God's favor, but of doing something to keep his troops with him. The offering was not in itself a violation, but rather a matter of disobeying specific instructions. Kings and other leaders can, under the principle of eldership, make ritual offerings, but God had priorities.
No sooner was he done with that then Samuel shows up. There is a confrontation and Samuel warns him of his failure to obey the Lord's command. Thus, the Lord had decided that Saul would be the only king in his dynasty.
So Saul ended up with a very small force numbered in the hundreds, rather like Gideon. Worse, they were still using bronze weapons and sharp sticks, while the Philistines had some iron weapons. This is the end of the Bronze Age, but the iron they had was mostly taken from meteorites. It was wrought iron, not steel. They could heat and hammer lumps together, but there was no smelting of iron at that point. Still, iron was better than bronze, and the Philistines had enough to arm their chariot troops, at least.
The Philistines had gotten this technology from the Hittites, and guarded it closely. No blacksmith was allowed to set up a forge outside of Philistia proper. When Israelis came to buy or have sharpened their iron farm implements, they had to come to Philistia and pay a high price, and were not allowed to see how it was done. Thus, at this point only Saul and Jonathan themselves had iron weapons. The rest of Israel was using bronze and sharp sticks.
Well, things were tense and Saul had very few troops. The Philistine raiders were taking plunder in three different directions, and the civilians were fleeing. The Lord blesses Jonathan and he wipes out a small force of Philistines with only his armor bearer at his side. At this, the Lord begins shaking the ground and the Philistines suffer from fear at this omen. The Lord blesses Israel for the sake of Jonathan and the Philistines end up killing each other, so that his father's troops have an easy time of it mopping up.
Everything turns around that day. The Lord was showing Saul what He could do without him, and what Saul could have had if he obeyed. Already, we see Saul starting to lose his grip, as he makes a rash vow. It's the kind of thing a demon would whisper in the ear of a king to make him stumble. God honors that vow on principle, not because it reflects His wishes. Rather, He intends to show Saul how weak he is without the anointing. Jonathan survives that day, and Saul goes on to vanquish a lot of threats. But he is still a fool.
God gives him one more chance to restore the full anointing.
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