In the course of the first Book of Samuel, Saul moves from being a clueless and rather cowardly farmboy to being a still-clueless king, with a cruel and paranoid streak to boot. Futilely seeking his father’s she-asses; asking Samuel where the Man of God might be found; hiding among the baggage to avoid the kingship; losing the affection of his son and daughter, and eventually the throne, to David; trying three times, unsuccessfully, to murder David and having his life twice spared by David; provoking the ironic question “Is Saul also among the prophets?”: altogether, he has neither an admirable nor an enviable career.
But 1 Sam. 11 (click “continue reading” for the text) shows Saul in a peak moment, when everything he does is exactly right.
As the chapter begins, Saul seems not to have made himself king in fact, or established any sort of court, despite his having been first privately anointed and then publicly proclaimed by Samuel. When the call for help from the men of Jabesh reaches his town, Saul is working on the farm. And the messengers make their announcement publicly, not to Saul as ruler; he hears the news from the townspeople, who are weeping.
Their show of weakness seemingly enrages him, and he faces the problem the judges faced before him of not being able to reliably call out the tribal fighting forces in the face of a national threat.
But Saul rises to the occasion, and justifies the people in choosing a king as a military leader. Instead of just asking for troops, he demands them under threat, and the threat is effective. (An economist would say that by threatening to punish defectors Saul got around the free-rider problem and secured a high level of public-goods contribution.) Even Judah, not always willing to fight on behalf of its northern brethren, comes out in force. The result is victory.
[Aside from the threatened mutilation, the truce between Nahash and the men of Jabesh is a normal one in an era of siege warfare. Few cities were provisioned to withstand a prolonged siege, so unless troops from outside came to the relief of the city it must eventually fall. But it was in the interests of the besieger and the besieged alike to avoid either a long starvation campaign or a direct assault on the walls, so an agreement allowing the besieged city time to find relief, with the understanding that if relief is not forthcoming the city would surrender, made sense.]
Having established his prestige and authority on the battlefield — his earlier lack of authority is shown by his sending out the threat not just in his own name but in the name of Samuel — Saul then displays a kingly magnanimity by declining to take revenge on those who had earlier spurned his authority. And the people said unto Samuel: ‘Who is he that said: Shall Saul reign over us? bring the men, that we may put them to death.’ And Saul said: ‘There shall not a man be put to death this day; for to-day the Lord hath wrought deliverance in Israel.’
Shlemiel though he may be in general, the text does not deny Saul his moment of glory.
1 Sam. 11: JPS version
11:1 Then Nahash the Ammonite came up, and encamped against Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said unto Nahash: `Make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.’
11:2 And Nahash the Ammonite said unto them: ‘On this condition will I make it with you, that all your right eyes be put out; and I will lay it for a reproach upon all Israel.’
11:3 And the elders of Jabesh said unto him: ‘Give us seven days’ respite, that we may send messengers unto all the borders of Israel; and then, if there be none to deliver us, we will come out to thee.’
11:4 Then came the messengers to Gibeath-shaul, and spoke these words in the ears of the people; and all the people lifted up their voice, and wept.
11:5 And, behold, Saul came following the oxen out of the field; and Saul said: ‘What aileth the people that they weep?’ And they told him the words of the men of Jabesh.
11:6 And the spirit of God came mightily upon Saul when he heard those words, and his anger was kindled greatly.
11:7 And he took a yoke of oxen, and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the borders of Israel by the hand of messengers, saying: ‘Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen.’ And the dread of the Lord fell on the people, and they came out as one man.
11:8 And he numbered them in Bezek; and the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand.
11:9 And they said unto the messengers that came: ‘Thus shall ye say unto the men of Jabesh-gilead: To-morrow, by the time the sun is hot, ye shall have deliverance.’ And the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh; and they were glad.
11:10 And the men of Jabesh said: ‘To-morrow we will come out unto you, and ye shall do with us all that seemeth good unto you.’
11:11 And it was so on the morrow, that Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch, and smote the Ammonites until the heat of the day; and it came to pass, that they that remained were scattered, so that two of them were not left together.
11:12 And the people said unto Samuel: ‘Who is he that said: Shall Saul reign over us? bring the men, that we may put them to death.’
11:13 And Saul said: ‘There shall not a man be put to death this day; for to-day the Lord hath wrought deliverance in Israel.’
11:14 Then said Samuel to the people: ‘Come and let us go to Gilgal, and renew the kingdom there.’
11:15 And all the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal; and there they sacrificed sacrifices of peace-offerings before the Lord; and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.