Israel’s first king, Saul, and three of his sons died while battling the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (I Samuel 31:1-6; I Chronicles 10:1-6). Israel was numbed by the defeat and the disconsolate army retreated (I Samuel 31:7; I Chronicles 10:7). The death of the royal family would have been perceived as cataclysmic, equivalent to modern U.S. calamities like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The battle also marked a hapless end to a tragic life that began with vast potential (I Samuel 9:1-2).
As was military custom, the Philistine soldiers pillaged the carnage for spoils of war and while stripping the dead, they found Saul’s body (I Samuel 31:8; I Chronicles 10:8). The king would have been easily identifiable due to his exceptional height (I Samuel 9:2, 10:23) and distinguishable armor (I Samuel 17:38). Not surprisingly, the Philistines made a religious claim about the event, crediting a victory to their gods over the God of Israel (I Samuel 31:9; I Chronicles 10:9). They stripped Saul, decapitated him and graphically displayed the king’s remnants throughout the land placing his armor in the temple of Ashtoreths, his body on the wall of Beth Shan and his head in the temple of Dagon (I Samuel 31:10; I Chronicles 10:9-10).
Upon learning of this humiliation, the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead infiltrated nearby Beth Shan under cover of night and recovered Saul’s body, reverently burning his bones and burying them beneath a tree (I Samuel 31:12-13; I Chronicles 10:12). Cremation was highly rare in ancient Israel but it may have been done to insure the safety of the body. For this deed of valor they were highly praised by Saul’s successor, David (II Samuel 2:4–6) who would later have Saul’s body exhumed for proper burial in his native Benjamin (II Samuel 21:12-14).
After completing this rescue, the people of Jabesh-gilead fasted for seven days (I Chronicles 10:12; I Samuel 31:13). They publicly mourned their fallen leader. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) compares, “The prospect of public grief is a scarce practice in our society, where we are so engaged in self-deception, pretending that everything is all right.” (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 218).
The people of Jabesh-gilead risked life for the dead. Was this wise? Are there other historical or literary examples of retrieving a corpse from enemy hands for proper burial? Did the ancient view of the afterlife influence their decision? Why did the people of Jabesh-Gilead take this risk? Why did other Israelites not also retrieve Saul’s head and armor? How do you grieve? Which is healthier, the grieving process in ancient Israel or modern America?
Only the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead and eventually David and his men fasted when they learned of the fallen king’s passing (I Samuel 31:13; II Samuel 1:12; I Chronicles 10:12). Saul’s approval rating was low as his behavior was often erratic. The threatened monarch attempted to kill his perceived rival, David (I Samuel 18:10-11, 19:1, 9-10, 11-14), and even his own son, Jonathan (I Samuel 20:33), and later brutally commanded the slaughter of 85 priests (I Samuel 22:17-19). His last irrational act was consulting a medium (I Samuel 28:7-19). After recording Saul’s death, I Chronicles summarized that “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse (I Chronicles 10:13-14 NASB).”
Even so, the people of Jabesh-gilead were not afraid to be linked with the dead king when so many others were. Forty years earlier, Jabesh-gilead was the site of Saul’s first victory (I Samuel 11:1-11). Though the exact site of Jabesh-Gilead is debated, it was a town east of the Jordan River within the borders of the half tribe of Manasseh and in full view of Beth Shan. Jabesh-Gilead appears to have been aligned with the tribe of Benjamin as the people of Jabesh-Gilead did not join an earlier expedition of Israelite tribes against Benjamin at great personal cost (Judges 21:8-14) and when Nahash the Ammonite took Jabesh-Gilead, they appealed to a Benjamite - Saul (I Samuel 9:21, 10:21; I Chronicles 12:2, 29; Acts 13:21). After a day’s march, Saul routed the Ammonites and freed the city (I Samuel 11:6-11). It was a kindness Jabesh-gilead never forgot.
Some have wondered why the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead were not at the battle at Gilboa in the first place as they were counted among Israel (I Samuel 11:3-4) yet apparently failed to heed Saul’s summons to war (I Samuel 29:4). There is a possibility that their support of the king waned. Even if this is true, they would not allow their former hero to be disgraced in death.
How does the Jabesh-gilead rescue of Saul parallel his previous rescue of them? Does everyone deserve to be mourned by someone? Who will you mourn and who will mourn you? Whose past kindness have you forgotten?
“A man’s indebtedness is not virtue; his repayment is. Virtue begins when he dedicates himself actively to the job of gratitude.” - Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887-1948)