1 Samuel 13
The story of the Philistines’ advance into the central hill country of Israel underscores the likely reason why many Israelites demanded a king to rule over them near the end of Samuel’s life (1 Samuel 8). Rather than merely a matter of keeping up with the Joneses (as the issue is often understood based on 1 Samuel 8:5), it is likely that the people were primarily responding to the growing threat of the enemy nations around them (Joshua 13; Judges 1), including the Philistines on the coast. It appears that the Philistines had gained control over the blacksmiths of the land and thereby prevented the Israelites from fashioning metal weapons (1 Samuel 13:19-23). By the time of Saul’s reign, the Philistines had pushed all the way into the central hill country and occupied Geba (which is what is likely intended by “Gibeah of Benjamin” here) in order to control the key pass between Geba and Michmash. Saul and his forces occupied Michmash itself. At some point Saul’s son Jonathan defeated the garrison of Philistines at Geba, but his actions led the Philistines to amass a vast army of chariots, horsemen, and soldiers to capture Michmash. Saul left Michmash and retreated to Gilgal to muster more Israelites to fight against the Philistines, and it is possible that Jonathan remained at Geba across the pass. When the Israelites heard of the Philistines’ actions, many of them became afraid and fled. Some even crossed the Jordan River to the land of Gad and Gilead. At some point Samuel must have instructed Saul to wait seven days for him to come and offer a sacrifice in order to call for God’s blessing on the troops, but Samuel was delayed. This led some of Saul’s men to desert, and Saul grew desperate and offered the sacrifice himself. When Samuel did finally come, he rebuked Saul for offering the sacrifice, and then he left. Saul and his men then left for Geba, apparently to join Jonathan’s forces there. In the meantime, the Philistines at Michmash were sending out raiding parties in three directions: toward Ophrah and the land of Shual, toward the west to Beth-horon, and toward the mountain that looks down upon the Zeboim Valley, likely the lower portion of what is now call the Wadi Suweinit. Thus, the background was set for the heroic actions of Jonathan, who bravely scaled the nearby cliffs with his armor-bearer and attacked the Philistines and inspired Saul’s forces to drive the Philistines from the central hill country (see the recently updated Battle of Michmash map here).