I am going to leave the most important question in this paragraph—Saul’s suicide—for another time, and concentrate on the rest of it. First, let’s review how we got here, to the battle of הר גלבע. We first see the modern פלשתים back in ספר שופטים, though we do not know any details:
And they rule Israel for that 40 years (it’s not clear how far north and west their domain goes, but it definitely includes יהודה, דן, בנימין and אפרים). By the end of the 40 years, the people of יהודה take it for granted that they are פלישתי citizens. Then there are the 20 years of שמשון's one-man guerrilla war:
Then we go into ספר שמואל and עלי's 40 year term. It’s not clear how much of that, if any, overlaps with the 60 years of פלישתי rule mentioned in ספר שופטים, and we do not have any details of what happened when he was שופט. But he must have done something, since at the end of his life בני ישראל have gone from a collection of fractious tribes to a united army, finally fighting back against the פלשתים. The battle is in Efek, near modern Tel Aviv, and, as we know, fails. The Mishkan is destroyed, the ארון is taken, and Israel remains under פלישתי rule:
שמואל then takes over as שופט, and starts a religious revival. How long that takes is unclear; it depends on how you read the עשרים שנה of the ארון in קרית יערים; is it before or after the war in פסוק יד? Rabbi Shulman talked extensively about the chronology, and we discussed it earlier. But 80 to 100 years after the פלשתים conquer Israel, the Israelites regain their independence:
It seems that not all of Israel was liberated; southwestern יהודה (the area around Ziklag) is still פלשתי, and they probably kept most of the central coastland. And shortly after שמואל's success, בני ישראל fire him and decide they want to be a real country now, with a real king. So שאול is annointed, and the פלשתים immediately attack, through בנימין in the battle of מכמש
But בני ישראל are victorious:
Then then פלשתים try again from the south, in the battle of עמק האלה, and David defeats Goliath in single combat, ending that campaign:
And in fact the peace of Goliath holds for the rest of Saul’s reign, with only Philistine raids on Israelite territory, but no major battles until this one:
Note that the פלשטים are staging their army in אפק. This is already bad news, since that is supposedly Israelite territory. And we get to an actual battle, it is around הר גלבע, near Beit She’an:
This is very bad. If the enemy from the southwest is fighting at the Jordan, then they must have lost many battles already. This is a must-win battle for בני ישראל; there is nowhere for them to retreat. In the words of Wikipedia:
And they lose. So we end ספר שמואל א in the same way we started: with Israel under Philistine rule. It reminds me of France after the Germans invaded in World War II. David is crowned king of Judah, but he is still (as far as anyone knows) a loyal Philistine vassal, making a Vichy Israel in the south. The northern tribes are occupied and under the direct rule of the Philistines. איש-בשת, the remaining son of שאול,is crowned king of the rest of Israel, but that coronation is in מחנים, on the east side of the Jordan. The Free Israelite territory is only the Gilead, past the domain of the Philistines.
Then there is a 2-year war between דוד and איש-בשת, and 5 more years of anarchy after איש-בשת's assassination (the chronology is a little confusing; we will have to discuss that). David accumulates political control and seven years from this battle, is crowned king of all Israel and takes over the impregnable fortress of Jerusalem. The Philistines suddenly realize that their loyal vassal isn’t, and go back to war. But that takes us too far into שמואל ב.
Back to our battle, and Saul himself. חז״ל say Saul sinned 5 times:
Four of these were against G-d, not listening to the נביא, and caused him to lose his monarchy. But one was unforgiveable, and caused him to lose his life:
What was he thinking, the night before the battle? He had just gotten the news from the spirit of שמואל (שמואל א כח:יט) ומחר אתה ובניך עמי; גם את מחנה ישראל יתן ה׳ ביד פלשתים. How could he face that? חז״ל see this as Saul’s last test, one he passes:
Rabbi Aryeh Leib Freidman wrote a ספר titled שאול בחיר ה׳ about Saul in תנ״ך and the midrash. He describes Saul’s last night:
What happens in the battle? The text says ויחל מאד מהמורים, which the Targum translates as “was afraid”:
But that’s not the way that word is used elsewhere in תנ״ך:
So I think the translation should be more in line with one brought by the מהר״י קרא:
This changes how we look at the suicide: Saul is not running away because he is a coward; he is mortally wounded and needs to decide not if he will die but how he will die. The parameters of that decision we will explore next time.