The objections which have been urged to the raising and bringing into action so large an army in so short a time, have, we trust, been satisfactorily disposed of. But there remain other objections, as to the final movement and result, which likewise deserve our attention.
The objections against the probability of the respite granted by the Ammonites to the besieged, have been also considered; but it has, moreover, been urged as altogether unlikely, that king Nahash would, during the interval of respite, keep so bad a lookout, as to remain wholly in ignorance of what was passing on the other side the Jordan, and to suffer his camp to be surprised and surrounded by Saul and his army, on the very morning of the day he expected the city to be delivered up to him. But, surprising and uncommon as this oversight may appear, we meet with similar instances of apparent neglect, not only in sacred and ancient history, but even among modern and warlike nations. It was the maxim of the greatest of modern generals, never to despise an enemy; and most of the failures of this kind have arisen from inattention to this principle, There is the remarkable instance of the French general, Count Tallard, who, when he might easily have opposed the confederate army under Marlborough, and prevented them from passing the Rhine to come at him, yet suffered them to pass that rapid river unmolested; alleging, that the more that came over, the more there would be to be killed or taken—the consequence of which egregious oversight was the total defeat of the French army at Hochstadt, the taking of their insolent general prisoner, with a prodigious number of other officers of distinction, and the preservation of the German empire from the most impending danger. How much Nahash despised the Israelites has already been indicated; and supposing him apprized of their movements, the probability is that he would, under the influence of such feelings, keep his army in its cantonments till the enemy came up, without taking the trouble to meet them, or of resisting their passage of the Jordan.
Considering the strange neglect of ancient armies, and indeed of modern oriental armies, in sending out scouts for intelligence, in maintaining advanced picquets, and in keeping strict watch—of which neglect we have many examples in Scripture—it does not appear to us by any means incredible, that the Ammonites were unapprized of these movements among the Israelites. But without taking advantage of this resource, and again supposing that they did know that the Israelites were bestirring themselves west of the Jordan, it is more probable, considering the shortness of the time, that they supposed all this movement was intended to resist their further progress into Palestine, than that it was destined for the relief of the besieged. And, further, whatever martial precautions they may have taken, yet several seeming accidental circumstances, such as often occur in warfare, may, through the policy of the Hebrew monarch, have rendered them ineffectual, if not, indeed, contributory to that fatal security and indolence which their contempt of the enemy was calculated to induce. It is quite likely that Saul and some of the tribes might take advantage of their proximity to the place of rendezvous, to secure all the passes and defiles leading from the Jordan to the enemy’s camp, and thereby intercept all intelligence of his approach from reaching them, and they would think themselves the more secure on that very account. It may also be suggested, as far from improbable, that they may have been confirmed in their security by the very messengers whom Saul sent, the night before his arrival, to encourage the Jabeshites, by informing them of his intention to be present for their relief the next morning; for, while they were bearing this cheering intelligence to the besieged, it is probable that they spread a contrary report through the enemy’s camp, through which they passed, making them believe that Saul and the tribes on the other side the Jordan, had not the power or the spirit to come to their relief. But that which appears most to have contributed to the fatal security of the Ammonites, was the subtle message sent out by the Jabeshites, that having in vain implored the help of their brethren beyond the river, they had now no resource left but to march out the next morning, and cast themselves upon the mercy of the Ammonitish king. This news, once spread through the camp, could not fail to render the guards and sentinels still more remiss and negligent.
There was still another stratagem, so common in these early times, and still so characteristic of eastern warfare, that Saul was not likely to neglect the advantage which it offered; for, from the nature of the country among the mountains of Gilead, it might be used with peculiar advantages, and with much assurance of success—this was to fetch a compass, instead of marching directly upon the enemy, and so fall upon them unawares, and from a quarter least suspected. This Saul might the more easily accomplish, as it appears that he marched his army in three divisions. It might be done under the guidance of the Jabeshites who originally brought the intelligence to Gibeah, who, as belonging to this region, may be assumed to have been well acquainted with the situation of the enemy’s camp, and with all the passes that led to it. Thus, by continuing the march all that night, and with as little noise as possible, the Hebrew army might with ease come upon the Ammonites, unperceived and unexpected, until their warlike outcries aroused them, perhaps out of a profound sleep, and the growing daylight disclosed them on all sides of the camp, and ready to rush upon them in all their might. In the confusion which could not but ensue in the host of the besiegers, the Jabeshites may be conceived to have made good their promise of “coming out” in the morning—not, indeed, to yield themselves up, but to fall upon their rear, while their front and flanks were belabored by Saul’s three powerful corps.
With all these advantages, there is nothing hard to believe in the fact stated, that the Israelites gained so signal and easy a victory, and made so fearful a slaughter of their enemies. This dreadful execution lasted from morning until the heat of the day compelled them to give over; by which time the survivors were so completely scattered, that two of them were not left together.
It is stated by Josephus, and is in itself probable enough, though not recorded in Scripture, that Saul, not content with this signal victory, and the complete deliverance of Jabesh-Gilead, carried the war into the country of the Ammonites, which he laid waste, enriched his army with the spoil, and brought back his victorious troops safe to their homes, laden with glory and plunder. He adds, that king Nahash was killed in the battle. However this may be, it is certain that the Ammonites were so humbled by this great overthrow, that we do not read of any further hostilities between them and the Israelites during the remainder of Saul’s reign, nor indeed until the latter end of that of David; when Hanun, their newly crowned monarch, did, by an unheard of affront offered to his ambassadors, provoke that warlike prince to use them with much greater severity.
The reader will recollect several instances of this favorite course among the Hebrews, of surprising the enemy by swift marches. In fact, it is the distinguishing feature of the first military operation on record—Abraham’s pursuit and overthrow of the five invading kings. It was also by the very method described, that Joshua won many signal victories over the combined forces of the Canaanites. There is, particularly, that celebrated action against the five confederate kings, who had brought together their numerous forces against the Gibeonite allies of the Hebrews, Jos_10:5; and the still more remarkable victory which he gained, with a small flying army, over the king of Hazor, at the waters of Merom, although the Canaanitish force consisted of chariots, and horsemen, and foot, as numerous “as the sand of the sea.” Against this formidable host, he marched with the choice of his troops, with such long and rapid strides, that he came unexpectedly upon them, and falling upon them, according to custom, in three or four distinct bodies, gave them a total defeat, seized all their camp, burned all their chariots, hamstringed their horses, and having totally dispersed them that escaped the sword, became, by that single action, master of a wide tract of country, and of so large a number of cities, as it would doubtless have taken a long time to reduce by regular siege.