1 Samuel 11: Saul Defeats the Ammonites

Saul is crowned king of Israel after defeating the Ammonites.


The first taste of Saul's anointing comes at the defeat he delivers to the Ammonites in 1 Samuel 11.

The Conflict

Photocredit: Camilo
This particular conflict begins when the Ammonites approach the city of Jabesh, and the inhabitants of Jabesh try to make a covenant with the Ammonites. The covenant would have made the men of Jabesh servants of the Ammonites. Before the modern era this was a common practice.[1] Not only would this have given the Ammonites a source of free (or almost free) labor, the men of Jabesh would have likely paid a tribute to the Ammonites. From the Ammonites' point of view, this should have been a satisfactory deal. However, Nahash, leader of the Ammonites, would only grant the request if he could "thrust out [their] right eye!"

The men of Jabesh ask for 7 days respite; during these days, they send messengers to the other Israelites. When Saul hears the news, the Spirit of God comes over him and he is angry about the situation. He is led to create an army, and tells the people if they don't follow him (and Samuel), he will hew them into pieces. (I'm going to come back to this in a minute). Saul is able to create an army of 330,000 men, which he divides into 3 companies to defeat the Ammonites.

Saul's Role

Follow the leader, or be hewn into pieces! That sounds like something we would expect from an evil dictator, not one of God's chosen men, right? Saul isn't really the perfect example of righteousness, after all God becomes disappointed with him relatively quickly and chooses a replacement. Thus, we already know he isn't a perfect role model; Jesus is the only one who fit that bill. If were to start listing "men of God" off the top of my head, Saul probably wouldn't come to mind until way into the list. Regardless, for some, the context of 1 Samuel 11 may cause them to stop and ask whether God told Saul to say such a thing. I think particularly for babes in Christ, it is important to be able to discuss Saul's method.

In our society today, we often talk about doing the wrong things for the right reason (or the right thing for the wring reason). I don't think Saul's declaration is any different. Seasoned believers know that sometimes the Spirit moves your heart into a particular direction, but it is you that has to physically move in that direction. For some it may be to abandon a bad habit (e.g., smoking or drinking), and for others it may be to take your life into a new direction (e.g., career choices). Either way, it is up to you how you go about carrying out God's instructions—do you also abandon your friends, do you become grumpy? When the Spirit came upon Saul, it likely instructed him to form an army and retaliate. However, the Holy Spirit didn't come upon all able bodied men in Israel; these men only had the call to war from Saul and remember, many of them doubted Saul was worthy to be king. It was up to Saul to inspire these men to follow him. Convincing a crowd to follow you, especially in to war is a very difficult task. Saul chose a fear tactic to prompt the men of Israel in to action. Whether or not Saul actually intended to break people in pieces if they refused to join him is left to our imagination.

Since the Bible doesn't tell us how many people are living in Israel, we can't verify if the 330,000 men are all the able bodied men. In the wilderness, during the Exodus, the second census lists the population at 601,730. One would expect that after so many years, Israel's population would have increased. Roughly 400 years separate the two events, so it seems unlikely that 330,000 represents all the men in the nation. In judges, we see leaders actually punishing cities for not joining them in battle. Yet in 1 Samuel, we don't get any confirmation that Saul followed through on his threat. I believe this threat was simply Saul's desperation to get them to move into action; once he had proven himself worthy to be followed as king through victory, he would not need such drastic measures.

Notice, also, that when Saul sends out his warning, he includes the pieces of an ox he has hewn in pieces. This is the same method used by the Levite when his concubine is raped and killed in Judges 19. Perhaps Saul chose this method, because he knew it would inspire action from history.

We see later that Saul is actually compassionate towards his naysayers; he forbids the Israelites to kill the men. Now that Saul had defeated the Ammonites and proven himself to the masses, they were ready to put those who had doubted to death. While this probably seems odd to those of us raised in the US where we are free to disapprove of our president, most countries do not afford their citizens these rights; it is a fairly modern notion. In a theocracy like Israel, their doubt was even worse. Remember, when Saul's naysayers expressed doubt in his ability to reign, they were expressing doubt in God's ability to chose a leader for them. This, of course, was punishable by death. Yet, Saul said no one was to die.

Saul suggests they renew the kingdom, so the Israelites gather at Gilgal where they officially make Saul their king.


Interestingly, 1 Samuel 11:8 breaks the number of men to join Saul into men from Israel versus men from Judah. Eventually, these divisions would become two separate kingdoms. This verse shows that there was already some distinction between them; just as before the civil war (and after) there were distinctions of regions within the US.


  1. J. A. Thompson. "The Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the Old Testament". The Tyndale Lecture in Biblical Archaeology. December 1964

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