About seven miles north by east from Jerusalem is a steep, precipitous valley extending east and west. North of this valley, which is called in 1Sa_13:23, “the passage of Michmash” (now Wady es-Suweinit), lay the Philistine host, which had established a garrison, or advanced post, upon the high promontory or angle formed by the intersection of another valley extending north and south. Upon the heights about a mile on the southern side of the same passage of Michmash, stood Geba, from which Jonathan had lately expelled the Philistine garrison, and which Saul and Jonathan now occupied with not more than six hundred men. Michmash (now Mukhmas), which gave name to the passage, and where the Philistine outpost was stationed, and Geba (now Jeba), therefore, were separated by this valley, and were then, as now, in sight of each other. In this “passage,” near by the point where the other valley intersects it, are two hills of a conical, or rather spherical shape, having steep rocky sides, with small wadies running up behind each, so as almost to isolate them. One is on the side towards Jeba, and the other on the side towards Mukhmas. These are apparently the two mentioned in connection with the circumstances to which our attention is now directed, and which these particulars will better enable the reader to understand. Note: To prevent confusion, it is necessary to mention, that in 1Sa_13:15-16; 1Sa_14:5, where we read Gibeah in the authorized version, the original has Geba, which is important as identifying it with the plain from which the Philistine garrison had been expelled. It is true that in 1Sa_14:16, the original itself has Gibeah, but as the same place, so repeatedly mentioned before as Geba, is evidently denoted, this must be taken as an error of transcription, the more easily accounted for by the fact that Gibeah, in Hebrew, is but the feminine of Geba, which has, indeed, led some to suppose that the two names applied to one place.—See Bibliotheca Sacra, ii. 598-602.
We may be sure that the movements of the Philistine force, stationed on the height at Michmash, were watched with much attention and solicitude from Saul’s head-quarters at Geba. This attention may have been reciprocal. One morning an extraordinary commotion was discovered among the Philistines. Its nature could not well be discovered in the gray of the morning, and in the want of telescopes. It is clear there is a conflict of some kind going on; and see, the host gradually melts away, as if the men were beating down one another. What could it be? The Philistines had no enemies but the Israelites. Was it some broil among themselves, or had some of the garrison undertaken, without orders, a wild and desperate enterprise? When the latter thought crossed the mind of Saul, he hastened to muster his small army, or rather troop, to see if any were absent, and then he found that all were there except Jonathan and his armor-bearer, and knowing the chivalrous and daring character of his son, he had no doubt but that his hand was in this affair. It was so, indeed. That heroic young prince, strong in the true old Gideonic faith—that, as he said, “There is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few,” had privately prevailed upon his armor-bearer to settle the rock and penetrate to the Philistine garrison. Now, it is stated, in conformity with the above description, that “between the passages by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistine garrison, there was a sharp rock on the one side, and a sharp rock on the other side: and the name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Senez. The forefront of the one was situate northward, over against Michmash, and the other southward, over against Geba.” It seems to us that Jonathan chose to make the attempt here, by the hill Bozez, not only because of some facility afforded, but because the projection of the hill would conceal his advance till a good part of the ascent had been made.
When at length the two men were discovered by the sentinels scrambling up the rock, it was supposed that they were of those who had hid themselves in caverns, and who had no doubt come as deserters to the Philistines. This seems to us the obvious inference from the words—“Behold, the Hebrews come forth out of the holes where they had hid themselves.” This was a reasonable conjecture; for, in fact, a little way further down the valley there are caverns in the cliffs, particularly one great cavern called Jaihah; and it was not to be imagined that two men could be coming with hostile intentions. This explains also why no attempt was made to hinder their ascent after they were discovered, but they were rather invited to come up. Had their hostile purpose been suspected, nothing could have been easier than to destroy them, by casting down stones or other missiles upon them. As soon as Jonathan and his armor-bearer had gained a footing upon the top of the cliff, their intentions were at once evinced. The scouts or sentinels were speedily struck down, and on the two heroes marched, destroying all who opposed them. By the time they had slain twenty men, the alarm spread to the garrison, and created a general panic and confusion. Those who had seen how the assailants got up were dead. It was not known how they had got there, nor that there were only two of them; and those who did see but two, would scarcely conceive that there were no more, but must have supposed that these two belonged to a larger number, perhaps to Saul’s entire force, which had gained possession of the post: for where but two had ascended, it was clear that more could come. In their blind fury and fear they ran against each other, and slew all they met; while those who fled, hastened to the main army, carrying their own terrors to it. Their tale no doubt conveyed that the strong post at Michmash, believed to be inaccessible, had been seized by a large force of the Hebrews, who were in close pursuit, and might soon be expected. And, in fact, the crests of the Hebrews soon appeared in sight; for Saul no sooner discovered the fact from Geba, than he put his force in motion to take advantage of the panic that appeared to have been raised among the Philistines, his troop being at every step, augmented by the fugitive Israelites, who, now the tide had turned, flocked—such of them as were near enough—to his standard, as eager to join in the pursuit of an enemy already defeated by his fears, as they had sunk appalled from the aspect of his strength. There is a curious statement, that “moreover, the Hebrews that were with the Philistines before that time, which went up with them into the camp from the country round about, even they also turned to be with the Israelites that were with Saul and Jonathan.” This shows that there were some Israelites with the Philistines, being, as we conceive, deserters, who had betaken themselves for safety and subsistence to them as the stronger party. This fact strengthens the probability we have ventured to suggest, that Jonathan and his armor-bearer were taken for deserters by the sentries who saw them scaling the cliffs.
The pursuit was hot and bloody, as it was likely to be under the circumstances; for the Hebrews had many ancient and recent wrongs to avenge, and they would not fail to exact retribution for their late fears.
Saul was so apprehensive lest any part of this great opportunity of effectually humbling the Philistines should be lost, that, in the hearing of the troops, though not in that of Jonathan, who was not near at the moment, he laid an anathema upon any one who should taste food until the evening. The people, in consequence, were greatly distressed, being prevented from taking even such refreshments as offered in the way, although greatly needed. Jonathan, with one of the pursuing parties, was passing through a wood, which so abounded with honey, that it dropped upon the ground. But no man ventured to touch it except Jonathan, who, being ignorant of his father’s ban, put the end of his staff into a honey-comb, and raised it to his mouth. This fact is of some interest, as a perfectly incidental illustration of the phrase, so frequent with Moses, describing Canaan, as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” To ourselves, the fact of wild bees thus fixing their combs in the woods upon the trees, to the extent here intimated, seems somewhat strange, although the tendency of these insects to do this is shown by the frequency with which the swarms of our hive-bees alight upon trees. Although we never kept bees, nor did our immediate neighbors in the country, we have had swarms repeatedly alight upon the trees of our garden, where they would probably have established themselves in some way, if not captured for the hive. We should like to have the experiment tried of letting them alone, to see how they would manage their own affairs. We very much doubt if bees were kept by the ancient Hebrews in hives. The woods, we apprehend, so abounded in the settlements of wild bees, that honey was too abundant and cheap to be worth private attention. It was the property of whoever collected it; and as all who wanted it could not do that, doubtless many poor persons earned a subsistence by collecting it in the woods, and selling it in the towns at such a price as would just pay them for this trouble. “Bees in the East,” says Mr. Roberts, “are not, as in England, kept in hives; they are all in a wild state. The forests literally flow with honey; large combs may be seen hanging in the trees as you pass along, full of honey. Hence this article is cheap and plentiful.” It is true, that this writer has a tropical country (India) in view; but the statement is applicable to many other countries in which bees and the materials for their wax and honey abound, as was the case in the land of Canaan. Probably, as population increased, and the soil became more densely occupied by men, the product of honey decreased, and then the bees were reared in hives. Hence, in the time of Christ, we read of “wild honey,” implying that there was some not wild; but this distinction is not to be found in the Old Testament.
Another remarkable consequence flowed from this unwise restriction which Saul imposed. No sooner had the sun gone down, than the famishing people flew upon the spoil of cattle, and in the rage of their hunger hastily slew them, and began to eat, if not the raw flesh, as we apprehend, yet at least flesh so imperfectly exsanguinated, from improper slaughtering and imperfect dressing, that the law against the eating of meat with any blood remaining in it was visibly transgressed. The importance attached to this law by the Hebrews has always been most remarkable, and continues even to the present day, when a Jew will not touch meat that has been killed by a Christian, chiefly from the belief that the blood has not properly been discharged; and during a journey he will abstain from animal food altogether, except when he comes to places where he can obtain that which has been killed by Jews—or has himself been so well instructed in the proper usages as to have obtained a license to slay for himself—in which case he can kill a fowl occasionally for his own use. These customs are well illustrated in the Orphans of Lissau, in which we find it stated, that the Jews of Ramsgate formerly got all their meat from Canterbury, having among themselves no one qualified to kill in the proper manner.
When Jonathan’s transgression in regard to the honey became known to Saul, he was for putting his son to death, according to the tenor of his vow. But this the more enlightened consciences of the people forbade. With generous enthusiasm they cried—“God forbid: as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day.” These remarkable words should be meditated upon in connection with those addressed by Jonathan himself that morning to his armor-bearer—“It may be the Lord will work for us.” The Lord did work for him; and truly he wrought with God. It was a great day for Israel, and from the beginning to the end, Jonathan was the hero of that day.