In this chapter, Saul defeats the Ammonites.
I don’t think we even knew they were in conflict, but apparently the Ammonites are attacking Israel. Not that we should be surprised at this point; it seems like Israel has been in conflict with all of their neighbors for generations. 1 Samuel 9:16 told us that Saul would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. Even though the Philistines were defeated in 1 Samuel 7, it appears they have become a threat again, and are oppressing Israel.
It’s hard for me to understand the chronology of the next three chapters. In chapter 10, Samuel tells Saul to meet him in Gilgal within 7 days, and without spoiling anything, there is a passage in chapter 13 that implies the 7 days had not yet expired. This would seem to indicate that all of the events of this chapter happened in less than 7 days, including Saul’s messengers traveling around the nation, the Israelite army mustering, and the battle with the Ammonites. I don’t know how that is possible. Admittedly, the nation of Israel is relatively compact by modern standards, so maybe they really could field an army in 2-3 days. Still, it’s difficult for me to imagine how anyone could rally an army of 330,000 people in less than 7 days. In modern times, we could compare this to e.g. the first world war. In the first world war, it took the principal actors (France, Germany, Russia) between a few weeks and a few months to mobilize their national armies. Again though, these were armies of millions of people over significantly larger countries, but also with far more sophisticated infrastructure (i.e. railroads) and advanced preparation. It is not directly comparable, but I think it also gives us an idea of how long I would have expected mobilization to take.
I believe the flow of the story indicates to the contrary, as we will read in the next two chapters. But even at the end of this chapter, we see Samuel and Saul travel to Gilgal, which is perhaps the meeting that Samuel had instructed Saul to go to. This was a point of confusion for me, so hopefully this will help my readers to understand what happened. To the best of my knowledge, everything in this chapter happened within the 7 days that Samuel laid out, and the next chapter likewise.
Next, I would like to point out something in v. 8. The author writes that Saul mustered an army of men from Israel and Judah. Why would he separate Judah from Israel, if the entire nation put together is Israel? The answer is that this is an anachronism of sorts. Some time in the future, we will see Israel be separated into two kingdoms. There will be a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. The southern kingdom will be known as Judah, because Judah is the main tribe in the south (there is also Simeon in the midst of Judah, but Simeon is largely forgotten). The northern kingdom will be known as Israel. This split has not yet happened, but the author is writing this book in a time after the nation was split, and this sentence anticipates their division. It’s really confusing, but for much of the OT going forward, “Israel” does not refer to all of the tribes of Israel, but only the northern tribes. Judah will refer to the southern kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capitol. I will try to clear up these references when I see them.
In the end, Saul takes his army and smashes the Ammonites, delivering the men of Jabesh Gilead (in the land of Gilead, east of the Jordan, part of Manasseh), and Saul is confirmed as king by the jubilant masses. Saul even goes so far as to graciously forgive his earlier detractors.
All things considered, this seems like a good start to Saul’s kingship. He led the people into battle and fought on their behalf, and they are obviously grateful to have such a strong man to help defend them. This is what they had wanted, someone to lead them, defend them and fight for them. Saul, in turn, has the “spirit of God [coming] upon him in power” (v. 6), leading him to defend Israel and wipe out their enemies. It is a good start. We will see how things progress.