I have four items for my blog post today about I Chronicles 10.
1. I Chronicles 10:11-12 states (in the KJV): “And when all Jabeshgilead heard all that the Philistines had done to Saul, [t]hey arose, all the valiant men, and took away the body of Saul, and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh, and buried their bones under the oak in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.”
Saul had died in Israel’s battle with the Philistines, who captured and dishonored Saul’s corpse. But the people of Jabeshgilead took Saul’s body and gave it a proper burial.
The reason that the people of Jabeshgilead were so loyal to Saul, even at Saul’s death, was that Saul in I Samuel 11 delivered them from the oppressive Nahash the Ammonite. Nahash the Ammonite, incidentally, would later be kind to David, according to II Samuel 10:2. It’s an example of the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” though, of course, David in the Bible did not see himself as an enemy of Saul, while Saul saw David as an enemy. In a passage that I find rather beautiful, David commends the people of Jabeshgilead for burying Saul (II Samuel 2:4-6). In the political situation in which David found himself, David had been supported by the very person who had oppressed the people of Jabeshgilead, whereas the people of Jabeshgilead were loyal to Saul for saving them from that tyrant years earlier. David and the people of Jabeshgilead were not exactly on the same “side.” Still, David admired and honored the loyalty that the people of Jabeshgilead showed to Saul. He was willing to value goodness, wherever he saw it.
According to the Jewish commentator Rashi, there was actually another connection between Saul and the people of Jabeshgilead: that the two might have been related. Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin. In the latter part of the Book of Judges, all of Israel goes to war against Benjamin because a brutal rape and murder occurred within Benjamin’s territory. The people of Israel vow not to give any of their women to Benjamin, thereby threatening to make the tribe extinct. When the people of Israel later feel remorse about this course of action, they seek some way to help the Benjaminites to find wives and to reproduce. They learn that the people of Jabeshgilead were not present when Israel vowed not to give any daughters to Benjamin, and so the people of Jabeshgilead are not bound by the vow. The Israelites command a group of men to kill the men of Jabeshgilead, and the group abducts virgins from that area and gives them to the Benjaminites. The Benjaminites then survive as a tribe.
What can I say? The relationship between Benjamin and Jabeshgilead looks rather complex and checkered to me, as may be the case with a number of relationships in life! You have a story about how its men were killed and its virgins were kidnapped, all for the benefit of Benjamin. Yet, Benjaminites are related to people from Jabeshgilead, so there is a family connection between the two that may entail mutual loyalty, as bitter as the events leading to that connection may have been. Moreover, Saul, a Benjaminite, rescued the people of Jabeshgilead from an oppressive Ammonite ruler. Perhaps Saul did so out of family obligation, or simply out of outrage at the injustice of the situation. In any case, the people of Jabeshgilead were grateful to Saul for what he did, and they honored Saul’s dishonored body after Saul’s death. They put their own lives at risk in doing so, since they had to take Saul’s body from the Philistines.
2. I Chronicles 10:14 states that God was the one who killed Saul. Granted, Saul committed suicide (v 4), but I Chronicles 10:14 says that God actually killed Saul, since Saul did not inquire of the LORD. People have contended that there is a biblical contradiction here, for I Samuel 28:6-7 states (contrary to I Chronicles 10:14) that Saul did inquire of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him, and so Saul went to the witch of Endor for guidance. Did Saul inquire of God or not? Others respond that there is no contradiction between I Samuel 28:6-7 and I Chronicles 10:14: that Saul may have asked God a question in I Samuel 28:6-7, but he was not truly seeking the LORD and the LORD’s will in that case. I can somewhat understand both perspectives: the two passages look contradictory to me, and the fundamentalist harmonization strikes me as rather weak. Yet, I acknowledge that one can pray to God in pursuit of one’s own agenda, which is different from actually seeking God.
It is remarkable to me that, even though I Chronicles 10 and I Samuel are clear that God rejected Saul, they still appear to depict the people of Jabeshgilead as heroes because of their bravery in demonstrating their loyalty to the divinely-forsaken king. God does what God does for God’s own reasons; we, however, are called to love.
3. I Chronicles 10:9 states that, after Saul was dead, the triumphant Philistines sent Saul’s head and armor so as to carry good tidings to their idols and their people. In the Septuagint, the Greek word for bringing the good tidings is the word from which we get evangelism. Evangelism in Christianity is carrying good news about Jesus’ new reign and the life that Jesus has brought. Often, for me, it has amounted to awkward conversations in which I have to tell people about Christian doctrines, or defend controversial conservative Christian positions or biblical portrayals of God that I myself find troublesome, or convince them that they deserve to go to hell so that they will accept Christ as their personal savior, but imagine seeing it as joyfully carrying good news! Moreover, it is interesting that the Philistines not only shared the good news with other Philistines, but with their idols as well. One can probably reach all sorts of homiletical applications of this, but one lesson I can see for me is that it is good for me to share my joys with God, since God is rooting for me.
4. The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll attempts to reconcile a biblical contradiction. In Genesis 49:10, the patriarch Jacob predicts that Judah will possess the scepter. That means that the king of Israel would come from Judah, and he did, when David was king. And yet, years after the time of Jacob, when Israel requested a king, God did not select one from the tribe of Judah, but rather from the tribe of Benjamin: God picked Saul, a Benjaminite, to be king of Israel. What’s more, the prophet Samuel in I Samuel 13:13-14 tells Saul that God would have established Saul’s kingdom over Israel forever, had Saul not disobeyed God. So God was planning to make a Judahite king, chose instead a Benjamite, and even had plans to make that Benjaminite king over Israel forever, notwithstanding God’s prophecy through Jacob years before that a Judahite would be king? That looks pretty messy, doesn’t it?
The Artscroll offers a variety of solutions, sometimes drawing on Jewish sources: that God was not intending for Saul to reign forever but gave Israel Saul out of anger, knowing Saul would fail; that Israel only felt a need for a temporary ruler because she experienced God’s providence so strongly during the time of Samuel; that, even had Saul not sinned, David would still have been king, and Saul either would have ruled the descendants of his ancestress Rachel (Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh), or Saul would have been like a vice-king to David.
These ideas seem, to me, to disregard I Samuel 13:13-14’s statement that God intended Saul to rule over Israel forever. At the same time, the last idea addresses a question that has long bothered me: Did Saul have a choice as God’s rejected king to make peace with God? What if Saul had decided to stop fighting God and David, and to let David be king? Would God have still killed Saul? Saul’s son Jonathan died in battle, even though Jonathan was on David’s side. Moreover, one could argue that the evil spirit tormenting Saul (I Samuel 16:14) was keeping Saul from repenting, by making Saul continually upset about David. In my opinion, God would look a whole lot better if Saul had the ability to repent, and also could find some niche for himself after David became king, as the Artscroll suggests. Saul’s choice would then not be between remaining king in violation of God’s will and dying, for Saul could abdicate the kingship, find fulfillment in God, and contribute his talents to God’s people. God, in that case, would be extending some hope to the tragic figure of Saul.