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Book of 1 Samuel


Author and Date
Many questions have arisen pertaining to the literary character, authorship and date of 1,2 Samuel. Certain features of the book suggest that it was compiled with the use of a number of originally independent sources, which the author may have incorporated into his own composition as much as possible in their original, unedited form.

Who the author was cannot be known since the book itself gives no indication of his identity. Whoever he was, he doubtless had access to records of the life and times of Samuel, Saul and David. Explicit reference in the book itself is made to only one such source (the Book of Jashar, ), but the writer of Chronicles refers to four others that pertain to this period (the book of the annals of King David, ; the records of Samuel the seer; the records of Nathan the prophet; the records of Gad the seer, ).

Theological Theme
1 Samuel relates God's establishment of a political system in Israel headed by a human king. Before the author describes this momentous change in the structure of the theocracy (God's kingly rule over his people), he effectively depicts the complexity of its context.

The following events provide historical and theological background for the beginning of the monarchy:

  • 1. The birth, youth and call of Samuel (chs. 1 - 3). In a book dealing for the most part with the reigns of Israel's first two kings, Saul and David the author describes the birth of their forerunner and anointer, the prophet Samuel. This in itself accentuates the importance the author attached to Samuel's role in the events that follow. He seems to be saying that flesh and blood are to be subordinated to word and Spirit in the process of the establishment of kingship. For this reason chs. 1 - 3 should be viewed as integrally related to what follows, not as a more likely component of the book of Judg. or as a loosely attached prefix to the rest of 1,2 Samuel. Kingship is given its birth and then nurtured by the prophetic word and work of the prophet Samuel. Moreover, the events of Samuel's nativity thematically anticipate the story of God's working that is narrated in the rest of the book.
  • 2. The "ark narratives" (chs. 4 - 6). This section describes how the ark of God was captured by the Philistines and then, after God wreaked havoc on several Philistine cities, how it was returned to Israel. These narratives reveal the folly of Israel's notion that possession of the ark automatically guaranteed victory over her enemies. They also display the awesome power of the Lord (Yahweh, the God of Israel) and his superiority over the Philistine god Dagon.
  • 3. Samuel as a judge and deliverer (ch. 7). When Samuel called Israel to repentance and renewed dedication to the Lord, the Lord intervened mightily in Israel's behalf and gave victory over the Philistines. This narrative reaffirms the authority of Samuel as a divinely ordained leader; at the same time it proves divine protection and blessing for God's people when they place their confidence in the Lord and live in obedience to their covenant obligations.

All the material in chs. 1 - 7 serves as a preface for the narratives of chs. 8 - 12, which describe the rise and establishment of kingship in Israel. Moses had anticipated Israel's desire for a human king (Dt 17:14-20), but Israelite kingship was to be compatible with the continued rule of the Lord over his people as their Great King. Instead, when the elders asked Samuel to give them a king (8:5,19-20), they rejected the Lord's kingship over them. Their desire was for a king such as the nations around them had to lead them in battle and give them a sense of national security and unity. The request for a king constituted a denial of their covenant relationship to the Lord, who was their King. Moreover, the Lord not only had promised to be their protector but had also repeatedly demonstrated his power in their behalf, most recently in the ark narratives (chs. 4 - 6), as well as in the great victory won over the Philistines under the leadership of Samuel (ch. 7).

Nevertheless the Lord instructed Samuel to give the people a king. By divine appointment Saul was brought into contact with Samuel, and Samuel was directed to anoint him privately as king ( -- ). Subsequently, Samuel gathered the people at Mizpah, where, after again admonishing them concerning their sin in desiring a king (), he presided over the selection of a king by lot. The lot fell on Saul and designated him as the one whom God had chosen (). Saul did not immediately assume his royal office, but returned home to work his fields (). When the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead were threatened by Nahash the Ammonite, Saul rose to the challenge, gathered an army and led Israel to victory in battle. His success placed a final seal of divine approval on Saul's selection to be king (cf. ) and occasioned the inauguration of his reign at Gilgal (). The king in Israel was not to be autonomous in his authority and power; rather, he was to be subject to the law of the Lord and the word of the prophet (). This was to be true not only for Saul but also for all the kings who would occupy the throne in Israel in the future. The king was to be an instrument of the Lord's rule over his people, and the people as well as the king were to continue to recognize the Lord as their ultimate Sovereign (). Saul soon demonstrated that he was unwilling to submit to the requirements of his theocratic office (chs. 13 - 15). When he disobeyed the instructions of the prophet Samuel in preparation for battle against the Philistines (), and when he refused to totally destroy the Amalekites as he had been commanded to do by the word of the Lord through Samuel (), he ceased to be an instrument of the Lord's rule over his people. These abrogations of the requirements of his theocratic office led to his rejection as king ().

The remainder of 1 Samuel (chs. 16 - 31) depicts the Lord's choice of David to be Saul's successor, and then describes the long road by which David is prepared for accession to the throne. Although Saul's rule became increasingly antitheocratic in nature, David refused to usurp the throne by forceful means but left his accession to office in the Lord's hands. Eventually Saul was wounded in a battle with the Philistines and, fearing capture, took his own life. Three of Saul's sons, including David's loyal friend Jonathan, were killed in the same battle ().