Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead
About a month later, Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, ‘Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.’ But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, ‘On this condition I will make a treaty with you, namely that I gouge out everyone’s right eye, and thus put disgrace upon all Israel.’ The elders of Jabesh said to him, ‘Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.’ When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the hearing of the people; and all the people wept aloud.
Now Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen; and Saul said, ‘What is the matter with the people, that they are weeping?’ So they told him the message from the inhabitants of Jabesh. And the spirit of God came upon Saul in power when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. He took a yoke of oxen, and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by messengers, saying, ‘Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!’ Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one
The beginning of this story was lost from the Hebrew text and restored from a Dead Sea scroll fragment of Samuel and explains the reason for the conflict in Chapter 11. Some of the Israelites from Gad and Reuben had fled and were living east of the Jordan in territory that the Ammonite king, Nahash considered his. As a sign of his power and a punishment from him, Nahash, set about gouging out their right eyes. He also threatened to do the same to the elders of Jabesh, despite them agreeing to accept his power and control, because they harboured those who fled from him. They begged for a chance and sent out messengers. Saul heard of this oppression and responded: he dismembered an oxen as a threat to those who choose not to join him in war. It was all powerful stuff and clear messages of domination and control.
There is nothing like blood and gore to persuade people to change their minds, to convince them that they need to change or to call people to action….it’s always a winner….OK maybe not. We can struggle with such texts that contain elements we find repulsive and difficult to stomach and there is a tendency to dismiss them. But what we have here is of its time: it sets the scene for Saul to prove himself able to lead in battle and so therefore become king. Persuading people to change or to act using violence or threats is not conducive to good relations and faithful service; humiliation and fear are not inspirational tools. However, such oppression is still felt in places around the world. Freedom, peace, joy, love and mercy are just words, for some. May we appreciate that we do not find ourselves in such awful situations, whilst lamenting that humankind has still not learned from what has gone before; and then keep seeking ways to support those around the world who are suffering.
God of freedom, God of justice, God whose love is strong as death, God who saw the dark of prison, God who knew the price of faith: Touch our world of sad oppression With your Spirit’s healing breath. Amen
Rejoice and Sing 625
The Rev’d Jenny Mills, Minister, Newport Pagnell URC & West End Wolverton URCS, Convenor of the URC Children’s and Youth Work Committee.