Mizpah: A Clue for the Storyline of 1 Samuel and for Reading the Bible Better

nick-tong-76567-unsplashWhat is in a name? Or, for that matter, what is in a place? In the Bible, often there is a lot in a place or a name. Just think about Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:9–10) or what Nathanel thought about Nazareth (John 1:46).

Those are just two examples of the way names and places matter in the Bible. In fact, O. Palmer Robertson has written a whole book on the theological significance of geography. And the careful reader of Scripture would do well, especially in narrative books, to consider the location where the story takes place.

For instance, in 1 Samuel Mizpah, a city in Benjamin, shows up eight times—seven times in chapter 7, once in chapter 10. And I believe this location gives significant information about the book of 1 Samuel and the ominous choice of Saul as king. Let’s consider and see how paying attention to this place helps us understand 1 Samuel and how to read biblical narratives.

Mizpah in Israel’s History

The location Mizpah has many historical referents, but at least two foreshadow the events of 1 Samuel 7 and 10. First, it was the place where Jacob and Laban set a boundary and made a covenant promise not to encroach upon one another’s lands in Genesis 31. Second, it was the place Israel gathered to war against Benjamin after the men of Gibeah mistreated the Levites concubine in Judges 20. With these two prominent events in Israel’s history, it is likely this place-name will inform the way we read 1 Samuel 7 and 10. Or to turn it around, the high frequency of the name (7x in 1 Samuel 7) draws our attention to this location and the events that occurred there.

First, in 1 Samuel 7 Mizpah occurs verses 5, 6 [2x], 7, 11, 12, 16. The frequency of this place is like a flashing light identifying the place as significant to the story. But what is important? My answer is in the the way this location echoes the covenant agreement between Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31 and how it overturns the civil war of Judges 20.

In other words, just as peace was made between Jacob and Laban when they built a stone pillar at Mizpah (Gen. 31:46)—Mizpah means “watchpost”—so now when the Philistines encroached upon Israel and God defended them, this memorial stone “Ebenezer” (1 Sam. 7:12–13) seems to replay the events of Genesis 31. God granted peace to Israel at this place.

At the same time, God’s defense of Israel in 1 Samuel 7 is a striking turn of events from the last time Israel gathered at Mizpah. In Judges 20, Benjamin had incurred the wrath of their brothers because of their mistreatment of one of their daughters—the very thing spoken about Mizpah in Genesis 31:49–50. Speaking of the stone called Mizpah, Laban says,

 “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight.  If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.”

Now, in Judges with a daughter of Israel cut into pieces and sent throughout the land, the whole nation gathered to war against Benjamin. The result was a brutal war that killed 40,000 sons of Israel and 25,000 men of Benjamin (see Judges 20).

This bloodshed characterized the period of the Judges, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes, without a king in Israel (Judges 17:6; 21:25). The book of Samuel records how this anarchy problem is resolved: God places his king on the throne. But God’s choice does not come until after a foolish king is chosen from among the people, and this is where the place-name of Mizpah comes in.

Mizpah as a Place of Repentance

In 1 Samuel 7 Mizpah is the place where Samuel leads the nation into corporate repentance and worship. At the same time, while worshiping the Lord, the horns of war sound again. But this time the Lord is Israel’s defender. Unlike Judges, no sons of Israel are mustered and no sons die. Rather, the Lord thunders and protects Israel from the Philistine aggressors. Like at the Red Sea, the people are quiet while God defends them (Exod. 14:14).

In the flow of 1 Samuel, Mizpah highlights the pinnacle of Samuel’s ministry. As a judge he led the nation to repentance and peace, not warfare. However, his peace-making was short-lived. As 1 Samuel 8:1–3 indicates, Samuel has grown old and his sons are wicked. Therefore, anticipating the loss of Samuel, the nation cries for a king like the nations. And amazingly, this leads the nation back to Mizpah.

In 1 Samuel 8, God tells Samuel they have rejected Yahweh as their king and that he will grant their demand to have a king like the nations. Samuel warns that this king will enslave them and take their best sons and possessions. Yet, this does not stop them. The people cry for a king, and God grants their demand.

And where does this lead them? Back to Mizpah. Sadly, the repentance of the people is also short-lived as they return to Mizpah, where again they will focus on the tribe of Benjamin.

Mizpah as a Place of Folly

After Samuel identifies Saul as the people’s king, he calls the nation to join him at Mizpah (10:17). And what happens next is ironic and symbolic. First, Samuel reminds the nation of the way God saved them from Exodus (10:17–20). Next, he draws lots to select Benjamin, then the Matrites, then Saul. At Mizpah Saul, a son of Benjamin, is chosen by lot. What is the significance?

In Judges 20 the nation gathered to bring judgment upon Benjamin, and now God is bringing judgment on the nation by means of a Benjaminite king. God’s judgment is confirmed in that this king is not from Judah, the tribe identified in Genesis 49 with kingship. Rather, this choice of a Benjaminite king foreshadows the coming disaster of Saul’s kingdom.

Whereas Yahweh saved the people of Israel at Mizpah under Samuel’s leadership (1 Sam. 7), now he is handing them over to their wicked desires. And the geographic location of Mizpah highlights this fact. Whereas God could redeem his people when they trust in him and seek his forgiveness; when they trust in themselves and their choices, they will lose his protection. And now, instead of a foreign king ruling over them (as was threatened often in Judges), now a “foreign king” will rule from within, and another civil war must occur in Israel for God’s king to sit on the throne.

In fact, it should not be lost that in Judges it was the tribe of Judah that led the charge against Benjamin. Again in 1 Samuel there will be a competition between Benjamin and Judah, only as the narrative unfolds, the warfare is asymmetrical. While Saul will throw spears at David’s head, David will (twice) refuse to strike down God’s anointed. In this way, we see how the author is contrasting David and Saul as two different types of kings who will usher in two different kinds of kingdoms. And how does the author begin to make this contrast apparent? By denoting how events happened Mizpah.

Now, even without such geographic awareness, we can get the main point of 1–2 Samuel. To Israelites familiar with the place-names of Israel, though, this location adds significance and weight. Like Lake Placid and Lexington and Concord connote meaning to students of hockey and history, respectively, so too the names in the Bible come with reputations and symbolic meaning. And here in 1 Samuel, the author communicates his intention through the use of Mizpah.

Reading the Bible Better

Applied more broadly, careful readers should care about such geographic details. We should care about them for the historicity they give to the biblical account, but also for they heighten the literary effect of the Bible. By knowing the history of a place, we will be in a better place to “feel” the effect these words were meant to have on the original audience.

Again, this is not the only way to get the message of the book, but if the author has gone out of his way to locate an event seven times, as with Mizpah (in 1 Samuel 7), it behooves us to figure out the pre-history of this location, so that we might hear in the text what the original audience heard.

To that end, let us pay more attention to the geography of the Bible and see how the places in Scripture help us read the Bible better.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Nick Tong on Unsplash


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