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Introduction to the Books of Samuel

First & Second Samuel in the Old Testament


What are the Books of Samuel?

The Books of Samuel are part of the "First Prophets" in the Jewish scriptures and part of the "Historical Books" in the Christian Old Testament. The Books of Samuel appear as just a single work in Jewish scriptures but it was broken up into two works during the creation of the Septuagint and that's how they appear in the Christian scriptures: First Samuel and Second Samuel.

The Books of Samuel basically pick up where the Book of Judges left off before they were interrupted by the interlude created by the Book of Ruth. Yahweh, god of the Israelites, chooses Samuel at his birth to be a prophet to the Israelites. Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of the Israelites, but Saul does such a poor job that Yahweh picks a new leader, David. Because of David's successes, Yahweh promises David an eternal dynasty ruling over the Israelites.


Facts About the Books of Samuel

  • First Samuel has 31 chapters and 810 verses
  • Second Samuel has 24 chapters and 695 verses
  • Samuel himself dies in 1 Samuel 25:1


Important Characters in the Books of Samuel

  • Eli: A priest who raised Samuel
  • Samuel: Prophet and High Priest
  • Saul: First king of Israel
  • David: Second king of Israel, successor of Saul, killed the Philistine champion Goliath
  • Jonathan: Saul’s son and David’s close friend
  • Nathan: Prophet and advisor to David
  • Bathsheba: Wife of David, mother of Solomon
  • Absalom: Son of David, leader of a rebellion against David


Who Wrote the Books of Samuel?

Tradition had it that Samuel was the author of the Books of Samuel, but modern research has revealed that a single person cannot be responsible for the entire text. Instead it was edited together out of multiple sources, some older and some later, probably by the same person who edited together the rest of the Deuteronomist History: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.


When Were the Books of Samuel Written?

The events depicted in the Books of Samuel are supposed to occur during the 11th century BCE, when the characters of Samuel and Saul was supposed to have lived. The original source material might be quite early, but scholars agree that it was edited together along with the rest of the Deuteronomist History between the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.


Books of Samuel Summary

Life of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-12): These chapters describe Samuel's birth, his childhood, his calling by Yahweh to be a prophet, his career as a Judge of Israel, his reluctant anointing of Saul as king, and Saul's early days as king.

Life of Saul (1 Samuel 13-31): Although he has some early successes as king, Saul quickly starts making mistakes — most of which involve disobedience to Yahweh. Because Saul does such a bad job, Yahweh looks elsewhere for leadership of the Israelites and settles on David because he is faithful — it's obedience and faith, not experience or skill that matter to Yahweh.

Samuel anoints David as the next king, thus establishing the principle that political leadership should be subservient to religious leadership and kings only serve at the sufferance of Yahweh — whose wishes are of course only learned through their human representatives like Samuel. Because Yahweh's blessings are withdrawn from Saul, he will descent into madness. Because Yahweh's blessings are given to David, he will achieve military successes and become a national hero.

David becomes a member of Saul's court, marrying his daughter and becoming his son's close friend. Saul tries to kill David who must flee and lives as an outlaw, always one step ahead of Saul's agents. By the end, Samuel has died, then Saul's three sons die in battle, and finally Saul commits suicide.

David's Victories (2 Samuel 1-10): David learns of the deaths of Saul and his sons and assumes leadership over Judah while a surviving son of Saul (Ish-bosheth) takes control of Israel. In the ensuing civil war David consolidates power over all the Israelite tribes.

David moves the capital to Jerusalem and Yahweh makes a covenant with him, promising that he would have a son who would rule next, that his son would build a magnificent temple, that David's descendants would rule forever, and that Yahweh would never withdraw his blessings from David's family. As a result, David enjoys many easy victories against his enemies.

David's Fall (2 Samuel 11-20): David begins to disobey Yahweh's rules by having an affair with a married women, Bathsheba, then having her husband killed. Yahweh forgives him, but then promises that there would be significant problems within his own family as a result — so David doesn't have to personally pay for his sins, but his children do. His son rapes his half-sister whose brother kills the son, flees, and starts a revolt with supporters of the old regime.


Book of Samuel Themes

Monarchy & Theocracy: A primary theme throughout the Books of Samuel is the idea of role of monarchy: what is a king, what authority does a king have, where does the king's authority come from, and how does a king compare to a god. Yahweh disagrees with the Israelites' desire for a king, seeing it as a rejection of divine leadership in favor of human leadership. Despite this, Yahweh goes along with the plan and allows whatever good or evil might proceed from such a choice.

Of course, since Yahweh is the author of everything, this means that whatever good or evil occurs is caused by and the will of Yahweh. The text makes it clear that all of a king's power, authority, and success proceed directly from Yahweh and thus all earthly, political power must be regarded as subservient to divine power — which is to say, priestly power since priests are the direct representatives of the divine and the only authorized spokesmen for Yahweh.

Covenants: Just as Yahweh entered into a covenant with Abraham and later Abraham's descendants, Yahweh now enters into a covenant with David. According to this covenant, David and his family will enjoy eternal success and eternal rule over others. Yahweh originally disagreed with the idea of kingship in part because it would introduce inequality, but apparently that's OK so long as the inequality is centered on a king who is from a particular bloodline which is sanctioned by Yahweh.

Submission & Obedience: Throughout the Bible it's made clear that success, happiness, and safety are entirely dependent upon submission to Yahweh and obedience to Yahweh. Obedience, submission, and faithfulness are key to humans upholding their end of a covenant with Yahweh.

Everything that happens to us, happens because it's what Yahweh wants. If we are obedient, Yahweh blesses us and provides us with success, both as individuals and as a community. If we are disobedient, Yahweh withdraws the blessings and instead curses us, causing us to suffer unhappiness and fail — especially when it comes to conflict with enemies.

Chosenness: The texts in the Old Testament are a theological and political history of the Hebrews, which means they are a history of people who considered themselves specially "chosen" by Yahweh. Many of their leaders were also described as being "chosen" by Yahweh — including both Saul and David. The differences in how the two are treated are instructive

Saul was rejected by Yahweh not long after he began his reign and the reason given is because of his disobedience — specifically, disobeying the order to destroy the Amalekites by killing everything. Instead, Saul spares the king and some choice animals. But just how unusual or unique was Saul in this?

Before Saul, Joshua was ordered to destroy Jericho and kill all the inhabitants, but they disobeyed by sparing Rahab and her family because she hid their spies. After Saul, David disobeyed Yahweh in numerous ways and broke many of Yahweh's laws, including adultery and murder. So whereas Saul lost Yahweh's blessings and was given over to madness for refusing to kill, David was forgiven and obtained Yahweh's eternal blessings despite committing murder.

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