Memorial Day in the Bible

Memorial Day is a day America has set aside to honor all of the soldiers who have died in service to our nation. It is celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May, and I fully support any efforts to honor our fallen soldiers. With that understood, we might wonder if the Bible has anything to say about honoring fallen soldiers in this way. Well, I can think of one story in particular that we might describe as being a Memorial Day in the Bible. The passage is 1 Samuel 31:1-13.

The story involves the battle in which Israel’s King Saul and three of his sons were killed by the Philistines. This battle was fought at Mount Gilboa. During the battle Saul was struck squarely by an arrow from a Philistine archer. Since the Philistines had a reputation for humiliating their victims — these were the same people who had once gouged out Samson’s eyes and made public sport of him (Judges 16:21-25) — Saul asked the servant who carried his armor to finish him off by running him through with a sword. When the servant refused, Saul took matters into his own hands by falling on a sword and thus ending his own life. When the servant saw that Saul was dead, he followed suit and took his own life by falling on a sword. As for the rest of Israel’s army, those who weren’t killed in the battle fled to safety and let the Philistines have the entire area.

The next day, as the Philistines walked through the battle site, they came upon the bodies of Saul and his three sons. That’s when the Philistines went downright sadistic, even macabre, on Saul:

  • They cut off Saul’s head (no doubt in revenge for David having once cut off the head of the Philistine giant Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:51).
  • They sent out the word throughout all Philistia of what they had done.
  • They stripped off Saul’s armor and placed it in the temple of their false gods, the Ashtoreths.
  • They displayed Saul’s severed head in the temple of their false god Dagon.
  • They fastened not only Saul’s headless body but also the bodies of his three sons to a wall in the city of Beth Shan.

Needless to say, Saul and his sons didn’t get the type of military burial that soldiers who die in war in service to their country should receive. But that’s when a group of courageous men from Jabesh Gilead, an Israelite town located approximately ten miles from Beth Shan, decided to right that wrong. And why did they take such a special interest in the case? It was because Saul’s first military victory as king of Israel had been a deliverance of Jabesh Gilead from the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:1-11).

So, what did these men of Jabesh Gilead do to rectify the sickening display of those four bodies at Beth Shan? They traveled all night, snuck into Jabesh Gilead, and somehow stole the bodies. The Bible doesn’t give us the details of how they accomplished all this, but evidently the plan went off without a hitch. What we are told is that the men then brought the bodies back to Jabesh Gilead, burned the decayed flesh off them, buried the bones under a tamarisk tree there in Jabesh Gilead, and fasted for seven days.

You see, even though those men of Jabesh Gilead lived long before our Memorial Day, they certainly had the spirit of it down pat, didn’t they? It bothered them that the bodies of four men who had died fighting for their country were being treated so disrespectfully and dishonorably. As a matter of fact, it bothered them enough to cause them to sneak behind enemy lines, steal away those bodies, take them back home, and give them the best burials they could under the uncommon circumstances.

And do you know how this story ends? It ends with two other passages. The first one is 2 Samuel 2:5-7. There we learn that David, when he became King in Saul’s stead, sent messengers to those men of Jabesh Gilead. In his message to them, David praised the men for showing such kindness to Saul and promised to repay them for it.

The second passage is 2 Samuel 21:12-14. Those verses tell us that David eventually had the bones of Saul, Saul’s son Jonathan, and (presumably) Saul’s other two sons dug up from under that tamarisk tree in Jabesh Gilead and reburied in Saul’s family tomb in Zelah in the territory of Saul’s tribe of Benjamin. This, at last, was a thoroughly proper burial for the bones of these men, and it provided a fitting ending to the story that I like to call Memorial Day in the Bible.

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