In 1 Samuel 7:10, under Samuel’s early leadership, “the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. But the Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day against the Philistines and confused them, so that they were routed before Israel.”
Now, in 1 Samuel 13, as the elders’ wished in 1 Samuel 8:20, Saul set about the task of defending Israel against foreign enemies. Saul’s planned troop deployments for the removal of the Philistine troops at Geba in the Israelite heartland. The return of Geba to Israelite rule would have been a way of strengthening the worship of the Lord in Israel. “Saul chose three thousand men from Israel” (1 Samuel 132) for the job, and divided them up into two groups.
Saul took command of the larger force, some “two thousand” men, and stationed them at Micmash about 4.5 miles northeast of Gibeah. The location was strategic, since it was near a crucial pass on the Way to Ophrah, a road in Israel’s central highlands that led to Geba. Saul’s firstborn son Jonathan was given command of the remaining men, who were stationed “at Gibeah in Benjamin,” Israel’s capital at this time. Though others had volunteered for this military campaign, Saul chose not to use them and sent them “back to their homes.”
Jonathan’s forces attacked the Philistines at Geba (1 Samuel 13:3) and, based on both Israelite and Philistine reactions, with considerable success. As a result of the assault, the Israelites had become “repulsive to the Philistines,” that is, they inflamed the passions of the Philistines to the point of enormous retaliation. As a result, they immediately “gathered to fight Israel” (1 Samuel 13:5). The Israelites spread the news of Jonathan’s attack “throughout the land” (1 Samuel 13:3) and mustered an enormous force “at Gilgal” (1 Samuel 13:4) in preparation for the retaliation.
Though Israel anticipated a Philistine counterattack, they were totally unprepared for the magnitude of the Philistine reaction: “three thousand chariots, six thousand charioteers, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore” (1 Samuel 13:5) were dispatched to Micmash, where they took possession of the site of Saul’s original military camp. When the Israelites witnessed this overwhelming show of Philistine force, they understood they were “in trouble,” “The people hid themselves in caves, in thickets, in cliffs, in cellars, and in pits.” (1 Samuel 13:6). Troop defections (1 Samuel 14:21) and mass desertions quickly resulted. The deserters either hid (1 Samuel 13:6) or completely left the Promised Land, going east of the Jordan (1 Samuel 13:7). Saul and the rest of the troops, who didn’t defect or desert, “remained at Gilgal,” where they were “gripped with with fear” (1 Samuel 13:7).