The first enemy Saul faces is not the Philistines, but the Ammonite Nahash. Nahash means ‘snake’. David will have to do with the son of Nahash (1Chr 19:1-41Now it came about after this, that Nahash the king of the sons of Ammon died, and his son became king in his place.2Then David said, “I will show kindness to Hanun the son of Nahash, because his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent messengers to console him concerning his father. And David’s servants came into the land of the sons of Ammon to Hanun to console him.3But the princes of the sons of Ammon said to Hanun, “Do you think that David is honoring your father, in that he has sent comforters to you? Have not his servants come to you to search and to overthrow and to spy out the land?”4So Hanun took David’s servants and shaved them and cut off their garments in the middle as far as their hips, and sent them away.). The threat that Nahash made audible is one of the reasons why the people wanted a king (1Sam 12:1212When you saw that Nahash the king of the sons of Ammon came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ although the LORD your God [was] your king.).
Nahash besieges Gilead. Gilead is not in the promised land, but at the wilderness side of Jordan. This is the area that is first threatened if hostile forces want to invade the land. The men of Jabesh propose the enemy to make a covenant with each other. In return, they must submit to the enemy. There is no thought of a call to God. So much the inhabitants of the city are alienated from God.
Nahash wants to go along with this proposal, but he comes up with an idea. He imposes a condition, which will further humiliate the people. His condition to gouge out the right eye will eliminate the people, because then they can no longer shoot with the bow. Nahash, however, is not just talking about a reproach for Jabesh alone, but about the reproach it brings to “all Israel”.
The snake has more awareness of the unity of God’s people than the inhabitants of Jabesh. In Judges 21 Jabesh wanted to be neutral (Jdg 21:8-98And they said, “What one is there of the tribes of Israel who did not come up to the LORD at Mizpah?” And behold, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh-gilead to the assembly.9For when the people were numbered, behold, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there.). As long as it concerns others, one does not care about it and wants to remain neutral. With this reproach on Jabesh the whole people will be affected, there will be a reproach on all Israel. This answer of Nahash is perhaps meant as revenge on Israel for the shame of the defeat Jephthah inflicted on the Ammonites (Jdg 11:32-3332So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand.33He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel.).
Under this threat Jabesh sees, now it concerns himself, the unity of God’s people and seeks his support in it. The elders of Jabesh ask for a postponement and indicate the reason of it. They want to send out a call for help to Israel. When others needed the help of Jabesh, Jabesh didn’t help. Now that they are in need themselves, they want others to help them.
Nahash, convinced of his own strength and the weakness of Israel, gives Jabesh occasion to call on others to help. Israel must have been very weak that Nahash can act so self-assured. It also seems that Israel did not have any central authority at that time. We can also conclude that neither Nahash nor the people of Jabesh heard of Saul’s election as king. This becomes even clearer when the messengers arrive in verse 44Then the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul and spoke these words in the hearing of the people, and all the people lifted up their voices and wept. in the Gibea of Saul and present their case to the people, without directly appealing to Saul.
In their mission to gain support in their defense against Nahash, the messengers also come to Gibea, where here the name of Saul is linked to. When Gibea hears of their situation, they weep about it. Their weeping is not of sadness, by which they turn to God, but of cowardice, because they are afraid of the enemy. It seems that they too know nothing about Saul, anointed king. At least they don’t ask if Saul wants to come.