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Passage: 1 Samuel 8:1-12:25

1 Samuel 8:1-12:25 – Samuel and Saul


These five episodes alternate between negative and positive portrayals of kingship. The people want a king like all the other nations, but Samuel is theologically opposed.


These chapters describe the establishment of the monarchy in Israel with Saul as its first king. Two differing attitudes toward the monarchy appear here. Three texts, in which Samuel opposes kingship (1 Samuel 8:4-22; 10:17-27; 12:1-25), alternate with two others that speak favorably of the monarchy (1 Samuel 9:1-10:16; 11:1-15). The differences have been accounted for in two ways: (1) In the nineteenth century, Wellhausen thought they represented different sources: an earlier source, favorable to the monarchy that reflected the time of the monarchy itself, and a later, unfavorable source that reflected the situation of an Israel suffering in exile because of the failures of the kings. (2) In the twentieth century, Weiser and others claimed that antimonarchial sentiments were more probable in the early period when Israel was making the transition from tribal confederation to monarchy.

Both positions have merit. Since no negative comments on the monarchy occur after Samuel's final harangue (1 Samuel 12), and since the most important text in these books (arguably in the entire Old Testament!), 2 Samuel 7, relates God's promise of a dynasty to David, it seems best to recognize that these critiques may be about the institution of the monarchy, which can be interpreted as a challenge to God's kingship. Following David, the ideal king, individual kings are evaluated as to how they conform to his example (see 1-2 Kings). In its final form, the text claims that the people were wrong to ask for a king, but not because kingship itself is wrong. Rather, their reasons for asking for a king "like all the nations," were wrong and, as a result, they ended up with the "wrong" king (Saul). Eventually, this situation was corrected with the rise of David, and these two kings provide examples of proper and improper kingship.

Literary considerations argue for this final form reading. References to Samuel being "old" (8:1; 12:2) and "listening to the voice of" (that is, "obeying") in the same chapters (8:7, 9, 19, 22; 12:1, 14, 15) serve as an inclusio and a thematic refrain for the section that is preceded by the closing formula for a judge (7:13-17) and followed by the introductory formula for a king (13:1).