Understanding chapter 12 is tough because it isn’t clear what genre we’re looking at here. Is it a farewell speech like Genesis 49? Or a covenant renewal/commitment moment like Deuteronomy 29 or Joshua 24 or Ezra/Nehemiah? Or dedication of the people like Joshua 4-5 or 2 Chronicles 6? It may change how we read Samuel’s speech. Problem is we see some elements of each, but all the elements of none.
What’s odd though is that Samuel begins with laying his leadership up for scrutiny. Looking for validation? Or a last ditch effort to convince Israel to reject Saul as king and make Samuel the head of Israel’s royal dynasty? Or at the very least ensure a positive legacy?Samuel mentions his sons. Odd, since it was they criminal activity which lead Israel into this new round of monarchy discussions. Abijah and Joel hardly seem like a highlight in Samuel’s career worth noting here. Remember these two from chapter 8? Taking bribes and corrupting justice in Beersheba?
As we often see in Israel’s key moments, there is a remembrance of the history of God’s people, highlighting especially the Exodus from Egypt. The he goes through the judges, Jerub-Baal (aka Gideon), Barak Jepthah, and Samuel… wait, Samuel? He’s placing himself in this category? Ok, he is Judge, and he has done great things, but why elevate himself? Some manuscripts (LXX and Syriac) have Samson not Samuel. Some manuscripts also have Bedan instead of Barak. A quick search of Bedan shows only one result, 1 Chronicles 7:17 (list of the descendants of Manasseh). Perhaps someone correcting, as Sisera is noted, Bedan must be a typo. Well, Barak wasn’t really a Judge either, more a general during the time Deborah was Judge, and of course, because Barak wouldn’t lead the armies without Deborah with him, Deborah prophesied, “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (Judges 4:9). But Samuel gives Barak the honour. Anyway, something odd about Samuel’s list. Barak is in but Joshua, Caleb, Ehud (my own personal favourite), Deborah or the oft overlooked badass Shamgar are not mentioned.
Samuel makes a noteworthy interpretation of events in 12:12, “But when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was moving against you, you said to me, ‘No, we want a king to rule over us’—even though the LORD your God was your king.”… Wait, there’s no mention of Nahash in chapter 8. Nahash was probably on the advance at that time, but is that the catalyst for the request? Well, that’s not what we got at the time. Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative) suggests that when a character provides details which differ from the narrator, the reader needs to take note, because something fishy is happening. Chapter 8 suggests that the reason for turning to a king was the imminent death of Samuel, and his sons’ conduct which would leave Israel without a qualified leader. Is Samuel reinterpreting events? Or is he pointing out what was really in their hearts at the time?… Did they simply fear Samuel couldn’t lead them against Nahash?
Then we get a storm… odd. What is the point of this? Samuel links it to the sin of Israel in requesting a king. Given the provisions for a king in Deuteronomy, what is the real sin here? Again it’s the “like all the other nations”… a trust in the king to make things happen (i.e. reject God as Sovereign). Is this storm a demonstration of Israel’s powerlessness to control their circumstances?
Chapter 13 begins with Saul making for himself a private army, and giving Jonathan 2000 men who are sent to Gibeah… but these guys go to Geba? Wait, weren’t they posted at Gibeah? Oops. Someone’s not listening. But they pick a fight with the Philstines (again, weren’t the Philistines not in Israel’s territory during the rest of Samuel’s life?). And the Philistine go directly to Mikmash where Saul’s army is. Odd. Do the Philistines have spies who know the King’s movements? Anyway, Saul gathers all Israel to Gilgal, because Samuel and Saul have an appointment to keep. Gotta respect Saul here. He doesn’t gather immediately to face the Philistines, but decides to keep his appointment. My question is this… how is all of this happening in a week? With people travelling on foot, it’s pretty remarkable to have a battle in Jabesh, a gathering at Mizpah, and now getting people to Gilgal. Pretty impressive. And this is assuming chapter 12 happens at Jabesh-Gilead.
Anywho, Saul goes to Gilgal for the meeting with Samuel. Israelites begin leaving Saul, some heading to Gilead… they’d rather risk revenge from Nahash than face the Philstines. Clearly, they don’t trust Saul. Saul waits for Samuel, who isn’t showing up… even when the time for the sacrifice has come. Has Samuel abandoned Israel too? Saul decides worship is the best “distraction”. So decides to fill in for Samuel.
Now here’s the million dollar question… did Saul “screw up” by performing the sacrifice? The narrator tells us, “He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel”. So Samuel was late. Samuel broke their agreement. Some commentators find it suspect that Samuel shows up “Just as he [Saul] finished making the offering”. Was Samuel setting a trap or a test for Saul? If so, was that from God, or is Samuel trying to sabotage Saul’s career? Samuel says “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you”… but we have no record of a command to not perform the sacrifice. Just be in Gilgal in seven days for a sacrifice.
13:16-23 is just odd. No weapons? What did they use against Nahash? And what were they using in the attack on Geba? Sticks and stones? Sheds some light on chapter 17 I suppose. But it is clear that a major showdown is imminent.