Shortly after Saul’s installation as king, we read that “Nahash the Ammonite marched against Jabesh Gilead” (1 Samuel 11:1a). The reason for this coming against Jabesh Gilead, in an obvious attempt to subjugate, is not given. Whatever the reason, “All the men of Jabesh Gilead said to Nahash, ‘Make a treaty with us and we will serve you’.” (11:1b) From the answer provided by Nahash, we can see that there was no desire for peace. He said, “The only way I will make a treaty with you is if you let me gouge out the right eye of every one of you and in so doing humiliate all Israel” (11:2b). That is obviously not the type of language that is suggestive of a true desire for treaty. Nahash wanted to subjugate. Nahash, clearly, wanted to humiliate. Nahash was using the language of curse and exile. Borrowing from Deuteronomy, Nahash desired to make these people “an occasion of horror, a proverb, and an object of ridicule” (28:37a).
We see another response from the men of Jabesh Gilead, and their response is couched in the language of exodus, as they said “Leave us alone for seven days so that we can send messengers throughout the territory of Israel. If there is no one who can deliver us, we will come out voluntarily to you” (11:3). Israel, or in this case, a group within Israel, is seeking a deliverer. Just as there is no exodus without a deliverer, there is no need for exodus or a deliverer without some type of exile. Escape from subjugation and oppression is not sought unless one is subject to such things. They did as they said they would and sent messengers throughout Israel. Shortly, this message reached the ears of Saul, and he responds in a kingly fashion. Not for the first time, “The Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and he became very angry” (11:6). He was going to function in that role as deliverer. This is what had been said of him---of the king. This was going to be the first of his opportunities to serve the people in the mold of Moses, Gideon, and Samson, and he seized it upon it in a serious fashion.
In his anger, Saul offers up a curious response. On the surface, the response appears to be somewhat unusual, but as we will see, it is a thread in the grand tapestry of God’s faithfulness that is presented in and through the Scriptures. Saul “took a pair of oxen and cut them up. Then he sent the pieces throughout the territory of Israel by the hand of messengers, who said, ‘Whoever does not go after Saul and after Samuel should expect this to be done to his oxen!’” (11:7a) Unusual? Yes. Was it a threat? Was Saul threatening to go around all of Israel and cut up people’s livestock if they did not go to battle against Nahash, on behalf of Jabesh Gilead? We should hardly expect that to be the case. Rather, how should we view this? Well, because this chapter is dealing with issues of exile and exodus, subjugation and deliverance, humiliation and exaltation, it can be seen that Saul’s response is tied with Deuteronomy. How so?
Again, Saul is not threatening people’s livestock. When he promulgates this decree, we read that “the terror of the Lord fell on the people, and they went out as one army” (11:7b). Had this been a threat by Saul against the people, that he would carry out a judgment by his own hands or the hands of emissaries that he would send, it is doubtful that the terror of the Lord would fall on the people. Instead, it would be a fear of Saul that would motivate service. So why did the terror of the Lord fall? It fell because Saul invoked the faithful, covenant God of Israel, reminding them of His words of blessing and cursing. Saul was simply informing the people of Israel that this subjugation by Nahash would not stop at Jabesh Gilead, but that it would continue, and ultimately, all of Israel would come under his subjugation. That is what is being implied by the cutting up of the oxen and the insistence that such would happen to their oxen as well. Can this scenario really be viewed in this way? What do we find in Deuteronomy? In the curses that were promised to attend the people’s forsaking of the covenant, Moses informed the people that “The Lord will allow you to be struck down before your enemies… Your ox will be slaughtered before your very eyes” (28:25a,31a). Saul informs Israel that failure to stand with Jabesh Gilead will result in cursing and humiliation coming upon all of Israel.
Returning to the issue of why Jabesh Gilead was experiencing the threat of subjugation, it is not outside of the realm of possibility to consider that it had something to do with idolatry. That is the basic, recurring reason for exile. Might it be possible that Saul understood this, especially as the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and as he considered the situation, he took in a broader view of all Israel, saw that idolatry was just as much prevalent there as it was in Jabesh Gilead, and responded accordingly so as to avert the disaster?
Once the armies of Israel gather, in the terror of the Lord and in response to the reminder of God’s faithfulness, Saul informs the potentially oppressed that “Tomorrow deliverance will come to you” (11:9b), and it did. What can be taken from this story? Beyond the obvious presentation of the way it fits within the larger narrative of Scripture, as an example of the faithful God, it can also be seen as a warning to Israel (for all time) against a narrow-minded tribalism, exclusive-ism, and division within Israel, as the various tribes fail to always consider that they are part of a larger whole, and not independent units designed to stand alone inside their own little territories.