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Old Testament: 1 Samuel

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The Ark of God Carried into the TempleFirst Samuel continues where Judges left off. The book of Ruth comes between them in English Bibles, but not in the Hebrew Bible. Chapters 1-3 present the birth, call, and early ministry of Samuel. Chapters 4-7 relate the "adventures" of the ark of the covenant as it falls into Philistine hands. Chapter 8 is a transitional chapter describing the people's demand for a king. Samuel and Saul interact in chapters 9-15. First Samuel comes to a close with a long section recounting the power struggles between Saul and David in chapters 16-31.

So What?

The lives of Samuel, Saul, and David, presented so graphically with all the faults of the human condition, can serve as mirrors of our own humanity. Seeing how God works in and through these people can help us discern the activity of God in our own relationships with the Lord and with others.

Where Do I Find It?

First Samuel is the ninth book of the Old Testament; it follows Ruth and precedes 2 Samuel.

Who Wrote It?

Ancient tradition identifies Samuel as the author of the first twenty-four chapters of 1 Samuel and asserts that the rest of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel were completed by Nathan and Gad. Today, many scholars believe that 1 and 2 Samuel are part of the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH) and that various older traditions have been gathered together and edited by a nameless exilic editor or editors.

When Was It Written?

The final event recorded in Kings occurred in 561 B.C.E. Since the return from Babylon (538 B.C.E.) is not recorded, one assumes that 1 Samuel reached its final form sometime between these two dates (561 and 538). It was written during the Babylonian exile as part of the Deuteronomistic History, though the older traditions that comprise much of the narrative are considerably earlier than this.

What's It About?

First Samuel recounts stories of Samuel, Saul, and David as they struggle with themselves, among each other, and with God, as Israel is transformed from a loose confederation of tribes led by the judges such as Gideon and Deborah to a nation ruled by a king.

How Do I Read It?

First Samuel looks like a history of the new institution of kingship in Israel. While important historical information is presented, some of it is at odds with the presentation found in 1 Chronicles. Both Chronicles and Samuel should be read as theological, rather than historical, presentations of the early years of the monarchy. Samuel is part of a larger narrative (the Deuteronomistic History) designed to demonstrate the reasons for the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722/721 B.C.E. and Judah's exile to Babylon in 587/586 B.C.E.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

I. Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-7:17)
First Samuel begins with the rise of Samuel the prophet and the fall of the house of Eli the priest. Sandwiched between these narratives is a rollicking account of the journeys of the ark of the covenant as it is captured by the Philistines and eventually makes its way back to the Israelites.

A. The Rise of Samuel the Prophet (1:1-4:1a)
Several anecdotes of his birth and childhood illustrate Samuel's importance. His mother is barren; he is dedicated as a Nazirite, raised by a priest and as a priest, and called as a prophet.
B. The Adventures of the Ark (4:1b-7:1)
Embedded in this story about the fate of the ark of the covenant in Philistine hands is the story of the death of Eli and his wicked sons (4:11-18).
C. Samuel the Judge (7:2-17)
Now an adult, Samuel appears as a "judge," that is, as a military leader whom God raised up to battle the Philistines.

II. Samuel and Saul (8:1-12:25)
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.

A. Israel Demands a King (8:1-22)
This chapter presents the people's demand for a king and Samuel's theological opposition. In the end, God permits Israel to have a king without approving of their demand.
B. Saul Becomes King (9:1-10:16)
Saul and kingship are presented in a positive way as Saul, searching for his father's stray asses, discovers a kingdom.
C. Saul Chosen by Lot (10:17-27a)
Saul's secret anointing becomes known to all. Samuel again condemns the people's demand for a king, seeing it as a rejection of God (v. 19).
D. Saul Defeats the Ammonites (10:27b-11:15)
Empowered by the spirit and acting more like a judge than a king, Saul defeats the Ammonites.
E. Samuel's Farewell Address (12:1-25)
The Deuteronomistic editors bring the era of the Judges to a close with this speech that once again condemns the people's demand for a king, even as it accedes to their request. They must still obey the Lord, as must the king.

III. Saul and David (13:1-31:13)
This long concluding division of 1 Samuel relates the gradual demise of Saul and the steady rise of David, his successor.

A. God Rejects Saul as King (13:1-15:35)
Saul is rejected as king for disobedience at the beginning and end of this segment. In between, Saul's behavior is contrasted with that of Jonathan, his son.
B. Introduction to David (16:1-17:58)
David's anointing by Samuel introduces his status as God's chosen one. His first encounter with Saul at court and his defeat of Goliath in single combat foreshadow his success.
C. David and Jonathan (18:1-4)
David's friendship with Jonathan results in Jonathan's symbolically granting David the right of succession.
D. Saul Becomes Jealous of David (18:5-16)
Saul continues to decline while David succeeds. David's successes make Saul jealous and he plots to kill his young rival.
E. David Marries Michal (18:17-30)
Saul continues in his attempts to kill David, this time by offering him each of his daughters in exchange for impossible acts of bravery. When David succeeds, Saul begins to fear that all is lost.
F. Saul Pursues David (19:1-28:2)
Throughout these ten chapters, David--thanks to the efforts of his wife Michal, Samuel, Jonathan, Ahimelech, a priest at Nob, and Nabal's wife--repeatedly escapes from Saul's frantic attempts to have him killed. David twice spares the life of Saul before joining forces with the Philistines.
G. Saul's Last Days (28:3-31:13)
The end of Saul's tragic life finds him devoid of God's direction, seeking help through the medium at Endor. In the end, with his defeat by the Philistines at hand, Saul commits suicide, falling on his own sword.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

In the latter half of the eleventh century B.C.E., the major geopolitical powers in Egypt and Mesopotamia (that is, Assyria and Babylon) were preoccupied with their own internal troubles. As a result, the various peoples of Syro-Palestine vied for power among themselves. In response to military threats posed by the Philistines in the west (1 Samuel 4-7; 13-14; 17; 23; 31; 2 Samuel 5) and the Ammonites in the east (1 Samuel 11; 2 Samuel 10-12), the twelve tribes of Israel began a process of cooperation that eventually led to the anointing of Saul as king.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

The book of Samuel as history. Samuel looks like history, but as one reads through it, it becomes obvious that it is very different than the history we are accustomed to reading. Accounts in Chronicles and other biblical sources are sometimes presented differently in Samuel, and are often flatly contradicted. Even within the books of Samuel there are discrepancies and contradictions. This difficult issue is somewhat eased by the recognition that no biblical book is written with contemporary canons of history. Rather than disparage the biblical author's supposed failure to conform to our ideas of history, we should try to determine the theological motivation in presenting these stories this way.

Canonical setting. The books of Samuel occupy somewhat different places in the Hebrew canon and that of modern English Bibles. In the Hebrew Bible the books of Samuel are considered part of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). In English Bibles the books of Samuel are considered part of the Historical Books. Ruth has been placed after Judges and before Samuel because of this historical understanding.

Chronology. The chronology of the books of Samuel is a major problem. In general, only approximate dates can be given: the events recorded in Samuel span approximately 100 years; the capture of the ark is usually placed in the middle of the eleventh century B.C.E.; Saul reigned as king from 1020-1000 B.C.E.; and David reigned from 1000-960 B.C.E.

Deuteronomistic History (DtrH). In 1943, Martin Noth argued that the books from Joshua through Kings (excluding Ruth, which is part of the Writings in the Hebrew Bible) formed a single literary and theological work. It presented the history of Israel from the exodus from Egypt to the Babylonian exile, based upon the theological perspectives of the book of Deuteronomy. While subsequent debate regarding the date and editing of this extensive work continues, many scholars think there were at least two separate editions--one in the seventh century B.C.E. during the reign of Josiah, which emphasized the unconditional nature of the promise and a positive view of kingship, and one in the sixth century, during the exile, when the conditional nature of the covenant and a negative view of the monarchy due to the failure of Israel's kings had become painfully evident. The history was written to explain why Israel had experienced exile; it traced the downfall of Israel and Judah to the people's apostasy and failure to obey the covenantal stipulations as presented in Deuteronomy, and God's consequent handing them over into the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

Doublets. Samuel has an unusual number of "doublets," instances where the same story seems to be told twice, sometimes in different circumstances or with conflicting results:

  • two announcements of the end of the house of Eli (1 Samuel 2:31-36; 3:11-14)
  • Saul named king three times (1 Samuel 9:26-10:1; 10:17-24; 11:15)
  • Saul is rejected as king twice (1 Samuel 13:8-14; 15:1-35) yet reigns till he dies
  • David introduced to Saul at court and in the battlefield (1 Samuel 16:14-23; 17:51-58)
  • Goliath killed by David...and by Elhanan (1 Samuel 17:49; 2 Samuel 21:19)
  • David and Jonathan make three separate covenants (1 Samuel 18:3; 20:16; 23:18)
  • David seeks asylum with Achish of Gath (1 Samuel 21:10-15; 27:1-4)
  • David is betrayed by the Ziphites (1 Samuel 23:19; 26:1)
  • David's refusal to kill Saul (1 Samuel 24:1-7; 26:7-12)
  • Saul falls on his sword and is slain by an Amalekite (1 Samuel 31:4; 2 Samuel 1:10)
  • Absalom has three sons and no son (2 Samuel 14:27; 18:18)

Historicity of David. The rather large number of discrepancies and inconsistencies in the text of Samuel and Kings has suggested to a number of recent historians that the so-called "United Kingdom" of Saul, David, and Solomon, as well as these individuals, never existed. For these historians, what we have in the books of Samuel and 1 Kings 1-11 is, rather, a fictionalized account, put together in the postexilic period, to encourage the politically demoralized exiles in Babylon or the recently returned people of Judah. Most scholars reject this "minimalist" view. Their decision to do so has been somewhat strengthened by the archaeological discovery of the Moabite Stone of King Mesha and, recently, an inscription discovered at Tel Dan, both dating to the ninth century B.C.E., which refer to the "house [that is, "the dynasty"] of David."

Parallels with 1 Chronicles. There are extensive parallels between Samuel and 1 Chronicles, because the Chronicler used the books of Samuel (and 1-2 Kings) as his primary source. For example, 1 Samuel 31:1-3 is paralleled in 1 Chronicles 10:1-12. Far more such parallels occur in 2 Samuel and Chronicles (see the notes to 2 Samuel).

The Philistines. Throughout the books of Samuel, Israel's greatest threat came from the Philistines, a people from islands in the Aegean Sea who settled along the southern coast of Canaan after being repelled by Ramses III in a series of sea battles in the Nile Delta (1190 B.C.E.). There, they occupied some of the region's richest land and controlled the lucrative coastal trade route. The Philistines' military success is directly attributable to their monopoly in the manufacture and use of iron weapons (1 Samuel 13:19-23). In the absence of any written records, the probably pejorative biblical account of the Philistines becomes determinative. In the Bible, the Philistines are depicted as warlike, rather coarse, and uncircumcised; they worshiped Dagon as their national god in addition to other Canaanite deities such as Atargatis and Baal-zebub. Politically, they were organized as a federation under five "Serens" (Greek, tyrannoi, "tyrants"), who ruled in their five major cities (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza). The Greek historian Herodotus named the whole area "Palestine" after the Greek form of their name (palestina, 450 B.C.E.).

Sources in Samuel. A number of sources or traditions may lie behind the books of Samuel. The following have been variously analyzed by scholars but their general extent is recognized by many:

  • boyhood stories of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-3)
  • an ark narrative (1 Samuel 4:1-7:2; possibly connected to 2 Samuel 6:1-5)
  • negative stories about Saul, or monarchy, or both, associated with Mizpah (1 Samuel 7:3-12; 8:1-22; 10:17-27; 12:1-25; 15:1-35)
  • positive stories about Saul, or monarchy, or both, associated with Gilgal (1 Samuel 9:1-10:16; 13:1-14:46; possibly 1 Samuel 11; 15; 28; 31)
  • the so-called "Court History/Succession Narrative" (2 Samuel 9-20; 1 Kings 1-2)
  • an "Appendix," intrusive to the "Succession Narrative" above, consisting of two narratives, two lists, and two poems
  • Various lists and archival material, including Saul's family (1 Samuel 14:47-52), David's sons born at Hebron (2 Samuel 3:2-5), David's sons born in Jerusalem (5:13-16), David's cabinet (8:15-18), a second listing of David's cabinet (20:23-26), David's warriors (23:8-19), and a second listing of David's warriors (24:5-9).

What kind of book is Samuel? Recent interpretation rejects the designation "history" for Samuel, at least in its modern connotation of that which is produced by a critical historian as a factual description of events in the past. Designations such as "historical story" or "theological interpretation of history" are much more common. Clearly there is a telling, or retelling, of the story in a chronological sequence, whether accurate or imposed. The authors/compilers freely rewrote, edited, and fashioned materials and traditions of varying types into a coherent presentation of the monarchy designed to make a theological point.

Why are there two books of Samuel? Originally the books of Samuel were a single work. The Masoretic notes at the end of 2 Samuel give a total of 1,506 verses for both books and indicate that 1 Samuel 28:24 is the middle verse of the book (singular in Hebrew). Samuel was divided into two books when it was translated into Greek. The Greek translation actually includes the books of Kings as well, as indicated by the entitling of Samuel-Kings as 1-4 Basileiai (1-4 Kingdoms/Reigns). This larger context is crucial and must be kept in mind at all times.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

The ark. The significance of the ark of the covenant varies in the different Old Testament traditions. Here in Samuel, the Deuteronomic tradition is somewhat different from that in Kings (see the notes there), because the Deuteronomists are here incorporating earlier traditions (1 Samuel 4:2-7:2). This rather fanciful story relates the capture of the ark by the Philistines and its "adventures" in Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron, where various plagues befall its captors including the vanquishing of Dagon, their national god (chapters 4-5). Upon its return, the people of Beth-Shemesh learned of the ark's holy power; looking inside violated its holiness and resulted in their death (chapter 6). Following its transfer to Kiriath-Jearim (6:21-7:2), it remained in obscurity until David, realizing the powerful symbolism it held for the tribes, moved it to his new capital and sanctuary in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).

Blueprint for kingship. First Samuel 8:10-18 warns against the people's choice of a king, who will be more interested in royal autocracy than in the Deuteronomistic blueprint (Deuternomy 17:14-20; see 1 Samuel 12:3). That blueprint may provide the "rights and duties of the kingship" that Samuel presented to the people (1 Samuel 10:25).

Canaanite religion. The indigenous religion of the Canaanites was a constant threat to the Israelites. In Samuel the following were especially troublesome:

  • Baal/baals ("lord"): the chief god of the Canaanites, essentially a fertility god (1 Samuel 7:4; 12:10; 2 Samuel 5:20-21)
  • Dagon: the fish/grain god of the Philistines (11 times in 1 Samuel 5:2-7)
  • Astartes: a Canaanite fertility goddess (1 Samuel 7:3, 4; 12:10; 31:10). In Hebrew, this name is deliberately misspelled "Ashtoreth" by using the vowels of the Hebrew word for "shame."
  • mediums (28:3)
  • animism: the worship of inanimate objects, such as stones (6:14, 18; 20:19; 2 Samuel 20:8), trees (10:3; 14:2; 22:6; 31:13), and high places (9:12-14; 10:5; 22:6; 2 Samuel 1:19, 25)

Ephod. This word designates different objects in the Old Testament. In the Priestly materials it refers to the High Priest's ornate, distinctive liturgical garment (Exodus 28:6-14). In Samuel, however, it is a short tunic worn as a priestly vestment (1 Samuel 2:28; 14:3; 22:18; 2 Samuel 6:14). In 1 Samuel 23:6-10 and 30:7-8, the "ephod" seems to be a cultic object used to obtain oracles, though these texts are probably corruptions of the word "ark" (aron).

Hannah's song as theological prologue. Despite all the twists and turns of its long literary history, 1 and 2 Samuel are theologically structured as three cycles of stories, each based upon a key figure in the institution of the monarchy in Israel: Samuel (1 Samuel 1-12), Saul (1 Samuel 13-31), and David (2 Samuel 1-20). These cycles, relating the rise of kingship, are framed by magnificent psalms of praise or thanksgiving, one from Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and two from David (2 Samuel 22:1-23:7). At the heart of each is a theological statement concerning God's justice in humbling the proud and exalting the humble (1 Samuel 2:5-8; 2 Samuel 22:26-28). Thus, Saul, brought down by God, becomes the illustration of what kingship should not be; David, raised by God from obscurity to unparalleled wealth and power, becomes the model of what kingship, dependent upon God's grace, should look like; and Samuel becomes God's prophetic mediator, the one who acts on God's behalf to usher in the monarchy demanded by the people, while, at the same time, keeping the truth that God is ultimately Israel's king.

Ideal boundaries of the promised land. The ideal boundaries of the promised land were only realized in the reigns of David and Solomon: north--from Tyre on the coast to Dan; east--bounded by the Arabian Desert; west--bounded by the Mediterranean Sea; southeast--bounded by the river Arnon, east of the Dead Sea; south--bounded by a line running from the river of Egypt on the coast to Kadesh-barnea and on to the Arabah, the valley south of the Dead Sea.

Nazirites. Samuel is dedicated as a Nazirite (nazar in Hebrew means "to dedicate") from birth (1 Samuel 1:11, 22). Nazirites, according to Numbers 6:1-21, observed certain principles, such as refusing to cut their hair, drink wine, come in contact with a corpse, and eat religiously inappropriate food.

Repentance. The books of Samuel have been interpreted as providing three models of repentance as seen in the portraits of Samuel, Saul, and David.

  • In 1 Samuel 3, Samuel condemned the wicked priests at Shiloh. Following the return of the ark of the covenant, he called upon the people to turn away from the gods of Canaan and turn back to God. Following their confession and repentance at Mizpah, God responded by granting them victory and peace (7:2-14).
  • In 1 Samuel 15, Saul provides a negative example of repentance. Though he says the words "I have sinned" (vv. 24, 30), he offers excuses, becomes defensive, and reveals his insincerity.
  • After being confronted by Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7), David repents in the same words as the people and Saul, "I have sinned" (12:13), but without Saul's excuses, becoming an exemplary illustration of repentance.

Reversal of fortune. In line with Hannah's articulation of the theme that "The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts" (1 Samuel 2:7), Samuel is peppered with passages of unexpected reversals of fortune at the hand of the Lord:

  • The priests of the house of Eli are brought down while the young boy Samuel is raised to the office of prophet (3:11-4:1).
  • Saul was a Benjaminite, from Israel's smallest tribe, yet he became king (9:21; 10:1).
  • As king, however, Saul is rejected by God (13:13-14; 15:22-23).
  • David, youngest son of Jesse (16:10-11) and, as Saul's son-in-law, inferior in rank to Saul's son Jonathan, is chosen king (2 Samuel 2:1-4).
  • As king, however, David is punished for his adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:7-14) and loses power to his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15-17).
  • Absalom, in turn, dies, returning David to power and grief over his loss (chapter 18).

Not even David is free from the working out of Yahweh's reversal of fortune. The end of his reign is one of increasing strife in his family and a loss of political control. For the Deuteronomistic editors such lessons were applicable to those that had sat on the thrones of Israel and Judah, as well, and ultimately explained God's sending of Assyria against the north and Babylon against the south.

The role of prophecy. The books of Samuel present the prophets as those who announce God's word and reveal the divine will. This is seen in the major prophetic speeches that carry the plot by occurring at crucial moments in the narrative. In 1 Samuel:

  • the announcement of the fall of the house of Eli by "a man of God" (1 Samuel 2:27-36)
  • God announces the fall of the house of Eli to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:11-14)
  • Philistine "prophets" advise their leaders how to return the ark to Israel (1 Samuel 6:2-9)
  • Samuel's interpretation of Israel's demand for a king (1 Samuel 8:7-18)
  • Samuel is directed to anoint God's choice as king (1 Samuel 9:15-16)
  • Samuel's address prior to Saul being chosen king by lot (1 Samuel 10:17-19)
  • Samuel's farewell speech at the beginning of the monarchy (1 Samuel 12:6-17, 20-25)
  • Samuel's rejection of Saul (1 Samuel 15:10-11; 17-31)
  • David speaks the word of the Lord to Goliath (1 Samuel 17:45-47)
  • Gad's warning to David (1 Samuel 22:5)

Seven. There are many significant "sevens" in Samuel: Hannah refers to herself as a mother of seven (1 Samuel 2:5); the ark of the covenant is in Philistia seven months (6:1); Saul obediently waits for Samuel seven days before disobeying (10:8; 13:8); seventy men are killed at Beth-Shemesh (10:27); elders of Jabesh ask for seven days of respite before surrendering (11:3); seven of Jesse's sons pass before Samuel before David is chosen (16:10); Jabesh-Gilead fasts for seven days at the death of Saul (31:13); David rules Judah in Hebron seven years and six months (2 Samuel 2:11; 5:5); and seven of Saul's sons are executed (21:6, 9).

Three. The number three is unusually prominent in Samuel, appearing more than forty-five times, often symbolizing totality, wholeness, or completeness as in other biblical settings. The most important in this regard are: Hannah gives birth to three sons after being barren (1 Samuel 2:21); the three men who meet Saul after his anointing come with three kids and three loaves (10:3); David hides three days (20:5, 19); Jonathan shoots three arrows as a signal (20:20); David bows to Jonathan three times (20:41); an Egyptian brought to David had not eaten for three days and three nights (30:12); three of Saul's four sons die (31:2; see 1 Chronicles 8:33); the "Three" champions in David's troops (2 Samuel 23); the famine lasts three years (21:1; 24:13); God offers David three choices, each with a duration of three--years, months, days (24:12-13).

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

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