The triumphant Israelites had pursued part of the Philistine army for several miles before defeating it. The chase toward Aijalon had required just about all the failing strength Saul’s soldiers could muster.
Saul’s son Jonathan was surprised when he was told, as he ate a piece of wild honey, that his father had pronounced a curse on any Israelite soldier who ate anything before evening (I Sam. 14:20-28). At the rate the battle was moving, it would be evening before it was over.
“I have done nothing wrong because I didn’t know of such an order,” Jonathan explained to the soldier who had seen him eating some honey. “Besides, why should my father tell his men not to eat when they are so tired and hungry? If escaped Philistines should band together in sufficient numbers to attack us, without food we wouldn’t have the strength for more fighting. Just that one mouthful of honey has already caused me to feel stronger” (I Sam. 14:29-30).
It was sundown by the time the Israelites quit fighting and dragged into their camp near Aijalon. The hungry, tired men wasted no time in bathing or resting. Their main thought was of food, and they rushed into slaughtering and butchering the animals they had taken from the Philistines. They didn’t even take the time to properly bleed the carcasses, as God commanded (Lev. 17:10-13), but tossed them immediately over fires or into caldrons of boiling water. A few more impatient ones even gulped down chunks of raw meat. (I Sam. 14:31-32).
When the high priest saw what the soldiers were doing, he was discouraged that Saul would allow his men to prepare and consume meat in such a careless manner. He went at once to Saul.
“I have learned that the men were very careful to obey your order not to eat till evening,” Ahiah pointed out, “but now they are ignoring one of God’s health laws by gorging themselves with blood-filled meat!”
Saul immediately ordered the soldiers to come to attention and listen to him.
“You have done wrong by not properly bleeding the animals you have slaughtered, “he told them. “Cease the slaughtering. Bring a large stone here to the center of the camp for an altar.”
As soon as the stone was laboriously dragged in, Saul spoke again to the solders.
“From now on this evening all animals that are to be used for food must be killed and properly bled at this spot. I don’t want to hear of anyone else eating meat that isn’t rightly prepared” (I Sam. 14:33-35).
Much of the meats was prepared for eating that night, but only according to God’s instructions (Lev. 3:17; Deut. 12:23-25). Saul’s little army didn’t require a huge amount of food, but Israelites who had been freed from the Philistines kept pouring into the camp to ask for something to eat.
Hoping to please God, Saul gave orders that a complete altar should later be erected at the spot where the stone was. It isn’t recorded whether or not he sought Samuel’s or Ahiah’s advice in this matter.
Later, when the soldiers were refreshed and rested, Saul felt that the Israelites should seek out and destroy the Philistine troops who had hidden or escaped.
“Now that we have taken from the enemy all the metal weapons that we could carry,” Saul asked his officers, “don’t you think it would be wise to mop up the scattered Philistine soldiers before they regroup and possibly attack us? If we delay later than tonight, we could miss the opportunity to wipe out about all that is left of their army.”
Some of Saul’s officers agreed that it should be the thing to do. Others hesitantly made it known that the Philistines had suffered enough defeat, but all left the decision up to their leader.
“This is our opportunity to completely crush the Philistines,” Saul pointed out. “Tell our men to prepare to march!”
Ahiah the high priest was present. He had only listened, but now he stepped forward and held up his hands for attention.
“Before we act any further,” he broke in, “I suggest that we take the matter to God. It might not be His will for us to strike against the enemy so soon again” (I Sam. 14:36).
Saul wasn’t exactly pleased by Ahiah’s interruption, but he knew that it wouldn’t be wise to go against the suggestion of the high priest.
“Ask God to tell us what to do,” Saul told Ahiah. “Ask Him if He will give us victory over the rest of the Philistines if we go after them.”
Ahiah prayed earnestly about this matter. But no sign or indication came from God as to what Israel’s troops should do or how successful they would be in another battle. After a little wait, Saul’s patience ran out (I Sam. 14:37).
“It must be that God hasn’t answered us because someone has committed some great sin,” Saul announced. “I want the leaders of the tribes to meet with me here as soon as possible. It will determine who has sinned and caused God to ignore our inquiry. Even if it turns out to be Jonathan my son, I promise that he shall die!”
When the leaders gathered, Saul accused an unknown person of doing dome unknown thing so terrible that it was separating the people from God. He called for the guilty one to come forward, or for anyone to speak out who knew of such a matter.
Not a man spoke out or stepped up.
“If no one will admit guilt, then I’ll seek him out by casting lots!” Saul declared resolutely. “My son and I will be on one side, and all the rest of you on the other. Do you agree that handling it that way is fair to start?”
The assembled leaders, soldiers and onlookers nodded and murmured in agreement. Saul then asked Ahiah to request that God make His will known through the casting of lots. Ahiah produced the lot device, and two drawings were made. Saul blinked in surprise when he realized that his lot seemed to indicate that he or Jonathan was guilty (I Sam. 14:38-41)!
“According to this, the finger of blame is pointing to me or my son,” Saul announced hesitantly. “Now lots must be cast between us.”
Each man drew a lot. Saul scowled at sight of Jonathan’s, which seemed to point out that the younger man was in some way responsible for God’s silence.
“What awful thing have you done to cause God to show you as the offender”” Saul demanded.
“I’m not guilty of any great offense,” Jonathan replied. “When my armorbearer and I joined your soldiers during their battle with the Philistines, I ate a little honey I found by the trail. Later I learned that you had pronounced a curse on any soldier who ate before sundown. I wasn’t aware you had told your men until. . . . . .”
“Then it was you!” Saul excitedly cut in. “You ate honey and spoiled my vow to God that no man should touch food until we were safely back in camp at sundown! No wonder God wouldn’t answer Ahiah’s prayers! The curse I pronounced resst on you” (I Sam. 14:42-44)!
“You mean you think I should die just because I ate some honey?” Jonathan asked, frowning perplexedly.
“As king of Israel, I have spoken before God that it should be so,” Saul replied in a somewhat shaky voice.
Saul was almost overcome with remorse that he should lose his son in this manner. At the same time he couldn’t help being angry with him for being the one who had done what Saul had told all his soldiers not to do. Obviously he had no choice but to sentence Jonathan to death.
“Seize my son!” Saul finally ordered some nearby soldiers. “Keep him prisoner until I decide how he shall die!”
The soldier moved reluctantly toward Jonathan whom they greatly admired and respected. In the next instant a wave of people surged in quickly to surround and protect Jonathan. The soldier who had been ordered to seize him made no effort to confront Jonathan’s protectors.
“I have ordered my son to be taken into military custody!” Saul shouted. “What is the meaning of this interference?”
“We intend to defend your son with our lives!” someone yelled. “We have learned that he and his armorbearer had much to do with the victory God gave us over the Philistines, and that he hasn’t committed any great sin. That’s why we’re not allowing one hair of his head to be harmed!”
“Make them stand back from Jonathan!” Saul commanded his soldiers.
“We would have to kill our people to do that, sir,” one officer grimly observed. “Surely you wouldn’t want that.”
Even in his anger and embarrassment at being disobeyed, Saul knew that the officer was right. Frowning and red-faced, the leader of Israel gestured curtly for his son to be freed, and strode away to his tent. It was a blow to his ego that his own people and soldiers had taken a stand against him, but after he had calmed down he was thankful that he had been spared the responsibility of sending his son to his death (I Sam. 14:45).
God had caused the lots to be drawn in such a way that Jonathan would be presumed guilty so that matters would turn out as they did. The real reasons God hadn’t answered Saul’s requests through the high priest were that Saul had unwisely pronounced a curse on any man who didn’t fast during the battle and because so many men ate meat that hadn’t been properly drained of blood. Saul eventually came to realize these things after thinking about the day’s happenings.
Because events turned out as they did, no attempt was made to round up the surviving Philistine soldiers, who fled to their nation on the east coast of the Great Sea (I Sam. 14:46).From time to time other Philistine armies were formed to attack Israel, but Saul built up a powerful fighting force with which to keep the Philistines out of Canaan.
During the next several years Saul encountered the same kind of trouble from every direction, but God made it possible for him to protect Israel from all of them.
Meanwhile, Saul returned as often as possible from the wars to live with Ahinoam his wife and his several children. During one of the ruler’s stays at home, Samuel came to see Saul about a most urgent matter (I Sam. 14:47-52).
“I have a message for you from God!” Samuel told Saul when they were alone. “As the one who anointed you king of Israel and who directed and advised you in many matters, you must believe me and act on what I am about to tell you.”
“You know that I respect your wisdom and judgment,” Saul said, “but years ago you told me that God would remove me from the leadership of Israel. God hasn’t removed me. On the contrary, I have built up Israel’s army and have pushed back this nation’s enemies time and time. Israel is at last secure because God has worked through me. You have been wrong in this matter, so how can I be sure that you are right in whatever you are about to tell me now?”
“God did not tell you when He would remove you from your office, “Samuel explained. “God is patient. It could be that your place as king of Israel would be ended if you refuse to do this thing that God has told me that He has chosen you to do.”
“Have I refused to listen?” Saul asked a little impatiently.
“No,” Samuel smilingly replied. “You have had so much experience in battle that you could be most interested in accepting this challenge to destroy an ancient enemy of Israel” (I Sam 15:1-2).
Samuel then reminded Saul of how the Amalekites had so cruelly treated the Israelites when they had come up from Egypt over four hundred years previously (Ex. 17:8-14), and of God’s promise to Israel that after the people were settled in Canaan, Israel would return to the land of Amalek to destroy the whole nation (Deut. 25:17-19).
“God has chosen this time to punish that nation,” Samuel explained. “As king of Israel, it’s your duty to take an army down to the land of this enemy and utterly wipe out all the cruel Amalekites, including women and children. No one within sight is to be left alive. No animal is to be taken as booty. Camels, donkeys, cattle and sheep are all toe destroyed (I Sam. 15:3).
Saul was somewhat surprised at being told that he should direct an army to kill women and even babies. But he also knew how cruel the Amalekites were to their enemies. Saul feared to disobey in this matter of the Amalekites, lest God be angry with him.
”I shall muster men as soon as possible to march against the Amalekites, “Saul finally spoke out.
Samuel was pleased that Israel’s king should accept this special task without an argument. Saul had little enthusiasm for such a commission at first, but enthusiasm grew the more he considered it. He began to see that wiping out a whole nation could increase his popularity with the people and cause him to be more respected and feared by his enemies.
During the days that followed, Saul built an especially large fighting force at an area south of Gibeah. He didn’t set out on his mission until he had two hundred and ten thousand men, all well-trained and well-armed. Then his army moved southward through the territories of Judah and Simon (I Sam. 15:4-5).
Close to the desert city of Arad, Saul delayed his march to contact the leaders of the Kenites, people who had descended from a desert tribe of the Sinai Peninsula. When the Israelites were on their way up from Egypt, they came across the Kenites just at a time when they needed guidance across a desert region (Ex. 18:1-27). Hobab, son of a Kenite who was Moses’ father-in-law, helped lead them across the desert (Num. 10:29-32). Because the Kenites liked the Israelites, many of these people went with the Israelites into Canaan, where they were given land with the tribe of Judah in the southwest part of the nation (Judges 1:16). There they lived just north of the Amalekites. There was considerable intermingling of the two peoples because they had a love of the desert in common.
“We are moving against the Amalekites,” Saul informed the chief Kenites. “Your people have been our friends ever since we came up from Egypt, so we are warning you now to separate from the Amalekites at once. Any of you who are with them when we attack might accidentally be killed along with our enemy!”
Within hours most of the Kenites had quietly departed from the country of the Amalekites (I Sam. 15:6). It would have been too much to expect that none of the Kenites would warn their neighbors of the approach of danger, though they had been warned by their leaders not to do so. Under the circumstances, Saul knew that it would be a miracle if he could surprise the enemy. He simply continued marching from the valley where his men had shortly rested. As he approached the main city of the Amalekites, he surrounded it swiftly by breaking his army into two parts.
Some of the Amalekites had already left their city. More fled when they saw the attackers approaching, but most were trapped and slain. The Amalekites were proud warriors, but their soldiers could do little against the human wall of power, nearly a quarter of a million strong, surging in on them to avenge Israelite ancestors who had suffered and died because of the cruelty of the Amalekites more than four centuries before.
The Israelites moved on, overtaking most who had fled from the city, and spreading out to pick off the people of Amalekite villages far down the Sinai Peninsula. Every Amalekite within sight was killed – except one. That was the king of the Amalekites, Agag. Saul gave orders that he should be taken back to Canaan alive, so that the people could see what their king had accomplished (I Sam. 15:7-8).
But Saul had been plainly told not to spare any Amalekite. This disobedience was about to result in grave trouble for him!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible. Learn what punishment Saul receives for not obeying God’s instructions completely.