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Introduction to the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Place in the Old Testament

In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a single book of Samuel as the third book in the former prophets. There are four books in this collection: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, which effectively is a four-volume history of Israel from the conquest of the land under Joshua to the exile in Babylon.

The former prophets are often thought of as Deuteronomic history, as they describe history from the perspective of the God’s covenant with Moses. When the nation, particularly the leaders, were faithful to God, then the blessings of the covenant would be experienced. But when the nation turned away from God, then the curses of the covenant were increasingly felt, climaxing in the exile in Babylon.

When translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the books of Samuel and Kings were each divided into two, and were known as the Basileon A, B, C, D, or the Four Books of Kingdoms. In the Vulgate, they were titled The Four Books of Kings, with 1 and 2 Samuel being the first two books of Kings, and 1 and 2 Kings the third and fourth books of Kings. This arrangement has the advantage of drawing attention to the historical continuity of all four books, as the last days of David and his death are recounted in the first two chapters of 1 Kings. It was during the Reformation, that Bibles were printed with the names of the books as 1 and 2 Samuel.

First Samuel concludes with the death of Saul, which forms a natural break before David takes the throne at the beginning of Second Samuel. However, this splits into two parts the account of the rise of David to power (1 Sam 16 - 2 Sam 5), so there is great advantage in studying the two books together.

Historical Period

The two books of Samuel cover a period of roughly a century, from the last of the judges around 1050 BC, to the close of David’s reign around 950 BC, covering the transition between the theocracy of the era of Joshua and the judges, to the monarchy.

During this period there were no great world powers dominant in the Ancient Near East. Assyria had been strong in the past, but was currently weak. Israel’s struggles were mostly against her immediate neighbours, such as the Ammonites. Their main enemy during the period of the Books of Samuel were the Philistines. There had been small numbers of Philistines in Canaan during the time of the patriarchs. However soon after the conquest of the land under Joshua, larger numbers of Philistines had occupied the coastal plain in the south-west. They had five city states, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath, each with their own lord. The Philistines had mastered the skill to smelt iron, giving them a military advantage over the Israelites (1 Sam 13:19).

It was continued aggression from the Philistines that led the people of Israel to demand a king to lead them into battle (1 Sam 8). The Philistines continued to be a problem during the reign of Saul, and the first part of the reign of David. Both Saul and Jonathan died fighting them. In the narrative, the Philistines play a part in the raising up of David, and the failure of Saul. Saul tried to use the Philistines to destroy David, but that attempt ended in failure (1 Sam 18). Theologically, God was using the Philistines without them realising to establish David as the ruler of Israel.

By the end of David’s reign the political situation had completely changed. David ruled over all Israel’s immediate neighbours, and had established a covenant with the Phoenicians. Jerusalem had been established as the capital city of the land, which now extended to the full area that God had originally promised to Abraham, from the river of Egypt to the River Euphrates (Gen 15:18-21). This was the kingdom that David’s son Solomon inherited, and the only period in their history when Israel occupied the entire area of land that God had promised to them.

Authorship

Like many of the OT books, the books of Samuel are anonymous, and there is no easy way to identify the author.

The tradition in the Babylonian Talmud is that Samuel wrote the books, “The baraita now considers the authors of the biblical books: And who wrote the books of the Bible? Moses wrote his own book, ie. the Torah, and the portion of Balaam in the Torah, and the book of Job. Joshua wrote his own book and eight verses in the Torah, which describe the death of Moses. Samuel wrote his own book, the book of Judges, and the book of Ruth.” Baba Bathra 14b.

Samuel’s death is described towards the end of 1 Samuel (1 Sam 25:1), so he cannot be the author of anything following this. However, it is likely that he did write at least a portion of the first part of 1 Samuel. Unlike the books of Kings and Chronicles, Samuel does not refer to other historical sources. Different sources have been suggested, but there is little evidence or agreement about these.

At the conclusion of the account of the reign of David in 1 Chronicles, there is a reference to the records or chronicles of the seer Samuel (1 Chr 29:29). This is an otherwise unknown document, which could have been a source document for the Books of Samuel, probably covering the period of David’s life before he became king, while Samuel was still alive. It is very unlikely to be referring to the Books of Samuel themselves. It also refers to the records of the prophet Nathan, who was the king’s prophet during his reign (eg. 2 Sam 7:4, 12:1).

Original Text

There are many problems with the Hebrew Masoretic text of Samuel, with corruptions caused by words and phrases being omitted and variations between different manuscripts. Modern translators often depend on the Greek Septuagint to bring clarity to obscure passages, or to offer variant readings, so there are many footnotes included in translations. 1 Sam 13:1 is an example of damaged text, where the number of years of Saul’s age is missing.
“Saul was ... (footnote: the number is lacking in the Heb text, the verse is lacking in the Septuagint) years old when he began to reign; and he reigned ... and two (footnote: two is not the entire number; something has dropped out) years over Israel.” (1 Sam 13:1)

The Three Main characters and Overall Theme

The book describes the lives of three major characters, the prophet Samuel, Israel’s first king, Saul, and Israel’s greatest king, David, who became the standard against whom following kings were assessed. In the Book of Kings, a good king who obeyed God and was faithful to him is described as being like David.

The main historical theme in the book is the transition from theocracy to monarchy. Through the period described in the books of Joshua and Judges, there was no central government in Israel. Each tribe organised itself independently. The country was a theocracy, ruled by God himself. When necessary, especially when tribes or the nation were threatened by enemies, God empowered a ruler, known as a judge, by his Spirit to save his people and to bring peace.

The author of the Book of Judges sees this situation as a weakness and problem, and several times makes a similar comment, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25, also 18:1, 19:1).

Under a monarchy, the succession would be clearer, as one of the king’s sons, normally the first-born would succeed the king. Facing the treat from enemies, particularly from the Philistines, the people of Israel desired to have a king to be like the other nations. The people believed that a greater level of unity and strength in the nation would be achieved if they had a king. A king could raise an army to protect the land from enemies who plundered their crops, and threatened to invade and occupy their land.

Samuel was opposed to this development, and gives severe warnings of the consequences (1 Sam 8), but finally had to give way before the popular demand. Later the people admit that they had sinned in their demand to have a king, “All the people said to Samuel, ‘Pray to the LORD your God for your servants, so that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of demanding a king for ourselves’.” (1 Sam 12:19). The more positive side is seen in the account when Samuel recognises that it was God who chose Saul to be their king, "Samuel said to all the people, ‘Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.’ And all the people shouted, ‘Long live the king’.” (1 Sam 10:24).

The books of Samuel describe the interactions between these conflicting opinions, as well as the successes and failures of the three leaders.

Humanity and psychology

The books of Samuel are far more than mere history. They are full of famous and gripping stories, such as David and Goliath. They also almost painfully honest about the successes and failures of the three main characters, giving a great insight into the human condition, and giving much to think about and apply today. They also give room for interesting psychological studies, particularly on Saul and David. It is fascinating to consider whether there was a deep personal insecurity or paranoia that caused Saul’s weaknesses, and failure to be trust God and obey him.

Theology

Again, the stories contain far more than mere human interactions and behaviour. Old Testament narratives describe the events of people’s lives, but also describe the way God revealed himself to them, and the ways they responded to his dealing in their lives, both positively and negatively.

It is these aspects of humanity, psychology and theology that make these stories relevant to all people at any point in history.

LORD of Hosts

The Books of Samuel use a characteristic name for God, Yahweh S'va'oth, which is translated “LORD of hosts”. The first use of this name in the whole Bible is at the beginning of 1 Samuel. “Now this man (Elkanah) used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD.” (1 Sam 1:3). For more information, please see the Names of God page.

The word S'va'oth is derived from a military term for an army or company. During the time of the monarchy the use of the title, LORD of hosts, described the presence of God marching out as a warrior with the armies of Israel. When David challenged Goliath, he said, “I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (1 Sam 17:45).

S'va'oth is often found in connection with the ark of the covenant, which represented the presence of God with his people. People brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts into battle against the Philistines (1 Sam 4:4), thinking that it will bring them victory over their enemies.

Later in Israel's history, and particularly after the return from exile, “LORD of hosts” came to be used more to describe God's exalted nature and omnipotence (Is 23:9, 24:23). It is used this way 88 times in Jeremiah.

The word “host” can also refer to the heavenly host, the stars and planets (Gen 2:1, Ps 33:6), or the angelic armies of spirit beings (Ps 148:2, 1 Kg 22:19, Hag 2:6-9, Zech 4:6). The LORD of hosts was thought of as the saviour and protector of Israel (Ps 46:7,11).

Reference to the “LORD of hosts” is found in the following places in 1 and 2 Samuel (1 Sam 1:11, 4:4, 15:2, 17:45, 2 Sam 5:10, 6:2,18, 7:8,26.27)

Holy War

In the ancient Near East battles between nations and empires were understood as battles between the gods of the two nations. Victory of one nation over another showed that their god was stronger. In 1 Samuel, this understanding can be seen in the account of the victory of the Philistines over Israel (1 Sam 4).

After an initial defeat by the Philistines, the elders of Israel suggested that they bring the ark of the covenant from Shiloh, so the LORD may come among them and save them from the power of their enemies (4:3). When the ark arrived in the Israelite camp, all Israel gave a great shout, which drew the attention of the Philistines (4:5). The Philistines were afraid at this development, saying, “Gods have come into the camp.”, and wondering who can deliver them from the power of these mighty gods who had struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague (4:7-8). They evidently thought that the ark of the covenant had particular power, being Israel’s god.

In the subsequent battle Israel was thoroughly defeated and the ark was captured (4:10-11). The Philistines then brought the ark to Ashdod and placed it in the house of their god, Dagon (5:1-2). Their intention would have been to demonstrate that Dagon was more powerful than Yahweh, because Israel’s armies had been defeated by the armies of the Philistines. After the first night they found that Dagon had fallen face down before the ark of the LORD, so they had to put him back in his place (5:3). However, after the second night, Dagon had again fallen down before the ark of the LORD, but this time his head and hands had broken off (5:4). God then struck the people of Ashdod with tumours (5:6), so they moved the ark to Gath, where the people were also struck with tumours (5:8-9). In desperation, they finally sent the ark back to Israel.

The Philistines mistakenly believed their god, Dagon, had defeated Israel’s God. It is probable that Israel also understood events in this way. However, the Philistines had defeated Israel because God allowed them to, as judgement on the sins of the sons of Eli (3:11-14). Instead of being a regional god who had been defeated by a more powerful god, Yahweh was God of all nations, who had exercised his sovereignty over all nations to cause Israel to be defeated by the Philistines, as a punishment for their iniquity.

For other examples of this in the OT, see the Holy War page.

Dynastic defence

The outline of the section of the Books of Samuel from 1 Sam 15 to 2 Sam 8 is similar to a Hittite document called the “Apology of Hattusilis”. This is a dynastic defence in which the king outlines the reasons why his rule is legitimate. This is an important step when a king begins a new dynasty, when he could be accused of usurping the throne, and not be the legitimate king.

The Apology recounts Hattusili’s devotion to the goddess Ishtar and his ascension to the Hittite throne because of Ishtar’s favour. Hattusili was the youngest son of his father, a successful military commander, the object of intense jealousy from other officials, and he eventually usurped the throne by rebelling against the king. Presumably, Hattusili composed his apology to defend his actions and legitimise his own kingship as sanctioned by Ishtar.

In the books of Samuel, David replaces Saul as king, taking the place of Saul’s sons, and David’s sons continue the dynasty after him. The dynasty of Saul is replaced by the dynasty of David.

The following elements in Samuel have the characteristics of a dynastic defence.

1. A detailed description of the disqualification of the previous king (1 Sam 15)

2. Events which occur before the king’s coronation, leading to the climax of his coronation. Samuel describes three anointings of David, and his military exploits

3. An emphasis on the ability of the new king to rule effectively, shown by his military achievements. For David, this was particularly his victory over Goliath (1 Sam 17)

4. A leniency towards his political foes, particularly in not assassinating the ruling king. David has two opportunities to kill Saul, but refuses to do so (1 Sam 24, 26).

5. After coming to power, the new king shows an interest in religious matters. For David, this is bringing the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, and desire to build God a temple (2 Sam 6- 7)

6. A summary of the rule of the king, describing the divine blessing shown by the geographical expansion of the kingdom and peace with other nations (2 Sam 8).

Covenant with David (2 Sam 7)

Probably the most significant theological development in the Books of Samuel is the covenant with David, when God promised that there will always be a son of David ruling in Jerusalem. This is sometimes summarised as the “Tale of two houses”.

When talking to the prophet Nathan, David expressed a desire to build a temple for God, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent” (7:2). Up to this time, the centre of worship was still the original tabernacle built following the Exodus.

Nathan brought the word from God that instead of David building God a house, God will build David a house, “Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house” (7:11).

Instead of David it will be his son Solomon who will build a house for the Lord. “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever". (7:13, 1 Chr 22:10).

The promise concludes, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (7:16).

The dynasty of David did continue through his son Solomon, and from father to son for the following 400 years until the exile in Babylon. However, the dynastic line appeared to have been broken at this point, with Jehoiachin being the final Davidic king of Judah, before his uncle Zedikah was appointed king by the Babylonians (2 Kg 24:17).

Through all of the Old Testament, there is a tension between the covenants promised to Abraham and David, and the covenant made through Moses. The promises made to Abraham and to David were guaranteed, but seemed to come under threat because of the nation’s disobedience and unfaithfulness.

After the death of Solomon, the prophet Ahijah predicted that ten of the twelve tribes will be given to Jeroboam because of the unfaithfulness of Solomon (1 Kg 11:31), but one tribe will remain for the sake of David and for the sake of Jerusalem (11:32). Because of God’s promise to David (2 Sam 7), not all the nation will come under judgement for Solomon’s sin. The final exile in Babylon happened because of the persistent idolatry, fulfilling the curses of Deuteronomy, but there was still hope for the nation, because of the promise made to Abraham.

This promise led to increasing focus on the city of David (Zion), and on the hope of an ideal king like David, the Messiah. From a New Testament perspective Jesus came as the King of Kings, in the line of David, the final fulfilment of the promise to David.

For more about covenants in the OT, please see the Covenants page.