1 Samuel 14:16-30
New English Translation (NET)
16 Saul’s watchmen at Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin looked on as the crowd of soldiers seemed to melt away first in one direction and then in another. 17 So Saul said to the army that was with him, “Muster the troops and see who is no longer with us.” When they mustered the troops, Jonathan and his armor bearer were not there. 18 So Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring near the ephod,” for he was at that time wearing the ephod. 19 While Saul spoke to the priest, the panic in the Philistines’ camp was becoming greater and greater. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand!”
20 Saul and all the army that was with him assembled and marched into battle, where they found the Philistines in total panic killing one another with their swords. 21 The Hebrews who had earlier gone over to the Philistine side joined the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. 22 When all the Israelites who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines had fled, they too pursued them in battle. 23 So the Lord delivered Israel that day, and the battle shifted over to Beth Aven.
Jonathan Violates Saul’s Oath
24 Now the men of Israel were hard pressed that day, for Saul had made the army agree to this oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food before evening! I will get my vengeance on my enemies!” So no one in the army ate anything.
25 Now the whole army entered the forest and there was honey on the ground. 26 When the army entered the forest, they saw the honey flowing, but no one ate any of it, for the army was afraid of the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard about the oath his father had made the army take. He extended the end of his staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb. When he ate it, his eyes gleamed. 28 Then someone from the army informed him, “Your father put the army under a strict oath saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food today!’ That is why the army is tired.” 29 Then Jonathan said, “My father has caused trouble for the land. See how my eyes gleamed when I tasted just a little of this honey. 30 Certainly if the army had eaten some of the enemies’ provisions that they came across today, would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater.
The Ephod was an instrument for casting lots. Saul asks to consult the oracle before battle but then, seeing an opportunity, proceeds without doing so. It’s not altogether clear why Jonathan should be guilty if he hasn’t heard the command not to eat. Again there’s something not quite right in the storytelling which derives from trying to combine a source which is favourable to Saul with another which is unfavourable. The resultant narrative is one where Saul achieves great things but where something always goes wrong. Indeed the author probably began to hold this view of Saul, as a great man cursed by God’s disfavour, and therefore condemned to ultimate failure.
There is a perception here of something dark and arbitrary in the character of God, which very few theologians mention. We can think of the story of Cain in Genesis 4 where God clearly shows arbitrary disfavour while warning the victim against sin! This dark side, God’s left hand as we might say, is evident in the Bible, not least in the anguished question of Jesus on the cross, “Why have you abandoned me?” How can we combine this perception with the statement in 1 John 1, that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”? We should certainly try to do so but we should not pretend that the contradiction does not exist in scripture and in the experience f many people of faith.
If we accept the scientific evidence of the development of species, even if we question Darwin’s theory, we are faced with the same contradiction: how can the God whom we are worshipping as love be responsible for the pitiless extermination of so many species? Of course this is not a new question but it deserves a place within Christian theology rather being relegated to apologetics against atheism. When as we shall see, Saul goes to a cursed and inglorious death he would justified in asking God, “Well, what was all that for?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by Nazis for plotting against Hitler, wrote, “The God who comes to us is the God who abandons us.”
He also said, “Lack of understanding of God is true knowledge; not knowing were you are going is the true pilgrimage.”