(14) Appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have – 1 Samuel 8:5

Samuel became the last of the judges. Unlike some of the others, he was a man of integrity and was respected throughout Israel. Every year he did an annual circuit around the country hearing cases – hence the term ‘circuit judge’ – but as he grew older he appointed some of his sons to be judges, presumably to lighten his load. However, they turned out not to share their father’s high standards and took bribes rather than dispense impartial justice (see 1 Samuel 8:1-3). (It seems that character is not automatically passed down the generations as it is common in the Bible for good fathers to have bad sons and vice versa.)

In response to this the elders of the tribes of Israel came to Samuel and asked him to “appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5). Samuel reminds them what comes with kings: they will take their sons to be soldiers and their daughters to be cooks (this was before the time of gender equality) and impose taxes of 10% – something that might sound rather attractive to those of us living in a modern democracy! In spite of the warnings the people insist and God tells Samuel to give them a king. He is led to anoint a man called Saul who becomes the first king of all Israel.

Saul is introduced as a shy man who goes back to work on his farm after being appointed king. Then the Ammonites besiege the Israelite city of Jabesh Gilead and tell the people that either they will be killed or they can surrender and become slaves and have their right eyes gouged out to bring disgrace on Israel. When Saul hears about this he is filled with anger and he galvanises Israel into action. He gathers an army of 330,000 who destroy the Ammonite army so thoroughly that “no two of them were left together” (1 Samuel 11:11) and saves the people of Jabesh Gilead.

Israel’s main enemy at the time were the Philistines. They were a strong people who lived in and around five cities including Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. They frequently clashed with the Israelites and Saul led his army against them. Saul’s son Jonathan was a brave warrior and he defeats a Philistine outpost. This provokes a strong reaction from the Philistines and many of the Israelites run away and hide in response. Saul faces a crisis.

Samuel had told him to wait until he arrived and made an offering to God before they joined battle but when he was delayed Saul offered the sacrifice himself, something he was not authorised to do as king. Samuel then arrived and condemned him for his disobedience and told him that “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people” (1 Samuel 13:14).

Samuel then leaves Saul who is now in dire straits. Not only are his army deserting him but we now read that the Philistines had a monopoly of ironworking which meant that his entire army only had two swords which were in the hands of himself and Jonathan. But Jonathan’s courage is matched by his confidence in God and he takes his armour bearer and climbs up a cliff to another Philistine outpost where he quickly kills twenty of their soldiers. This resulted in panic in their camp and the rest of the Israelite army join in and defeat the Philistines.

Saul does not distinguish himself in this victory as he tells his army that no one must taste food before the enemy is defeated. Jonathan doesn’t hear this rash command and eats honey to give himself energy. When Saul hears what his son has done he vows to put him to death and Jonathan is only saved when the men intervene.

Saul is turning out to be erratic in his behaviour and increasingly seeks his own glory as he builds a monument to honour himself after a later battle. As the story of his reign continues, Saul becomes more and more unstable and volatile as he becomes paranoid over his successor.

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