Samuel, Book(s) of

views updated


Name and Division. The Hebrew Bible contains a single book called "Samuel" followed by a single book called "Kings." The translators of the Septuagint (LXX), an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, divided each of these books into two and called the resulting four books "14 Kingdoms." When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) in the fourth Christian century, he kept the LXX's divisions but called the books "14 Kings" instead of "14 Kingdoms." After the Reformation, the Protestant tradition drew closer to Hebrew usage by naming the first two books "12 Samuel" and the last two "12 Kings." Roman Catholic Bibles, however, continued to follow the Vulgate until Pope Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which urged Catholic biblical scholars to use the original language texts in their translations and commentaries. Since that time, Roman Catholic Bibles, like Protestant ones, use the titles 12 Samuel and 12 Kings.

The division between 1 and 2 Samuel occurs at a natural point, the death of King Saul. The continuity of the books is clear, however, in that 2 Samuel 1 is the natural sequel to Saul's death: a runner brings the news to David, who sings his famous lament over Saul and over Jonathan, Saul's son and David's bosom companion. The division and continuity between 2 Samuel and 1 Kings are also manifest in the text: 2 Samuel focuses on the successes and failures of David's rule; 1 Kings begins with the necessity of assuring the succession to the now aged and moribund David.

Content and Organization. The Books of Samuel constitute the second part of what scholars call the "Deuteronomistic History," that is, the books of Joshua, Judges, 12 Samuel, and 12 Kings, composed during the late monarchic and early exilic periods by writers inspired by the theology of the book of Deuteronomyhence, "Deuteronomistic." (Although in the Christian Old Testament the book of Ruth appears between Judges and 1 Samuel, it is not part of the Deuteronomistic writers' opus. It was put there by later tradition because of its chronology: "In the days when the judges were judging " [Ru 1.1].)

The first part of the Deuteronomistic History, Joshua and Judges, tells of the Israelites' arrival in the "Promised Land" and the history of their loosely organized tribal confederacy during their first centuries in Canaan. It bemoans the fact that the looseness of their political structure eventually resulted in their subjection to Philistine military superiority and in intertribal chaos among the Israelites themselves: "In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Jgs 21.25). The second part of the History, 12 Samuel, recounts the emergence of monarchy in Israel. The last judge (Samuel), with some hesitation, inaugurates kingship in Israel by anointing first Saul, then, when Saul proves unsatisfactory as a king, David. It then follows the vicissitudes of David's career. The third part of the History, 12 Kings, tells of the tragic failure of the monarchic experiment, and the eventual dispersion of the people in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

The Books of Samuel are organized around principal characters and their destinies:

  • 1. Samuel (1 Sm 17)
  • 2. Saul (1 Sm 815)
  • a. inauguration of Saul's kingship (1 Sm 812)
  • b. rejection of Saul's kingship (1 Sm 1315)
  • 3. David (1 Sm 162; 24)
  • c. David and Saul
  • i. David at Saul's court (1 Sm 1620)
  • ii. David flees from Saul (1 Sm 2126)
  • iii. The death of Saul (1 Sm 272 Sm 1)
  • d. David established as king (2 Sm 2-8)
  • e. David's troubles
  • i. Sins against the family (2 Sm 914)
  • ii. Crimes against the kingdom (2 Sm 1520)
  • f. Additional material about David (2 Sm 2124)

History of the Text. The Deuteronomistic History took the form in which we have it today during the Babylonian Exile. It is generally held, however, that the work had at least one earlier edition, either during the reign of Josiah (c. 640609 b.c.) or perhaps of Hezekiah (c. 715687 b.c.). Since elsewhere the Deuteronomistic Historian directs the reader to older works that we may presume to have been used in writing the History (e.g., Jos 10:13; 1 Kgs 11:41; 14:19; 15:23), there is no reason to doubt that such sources were used in 12 Samuel as well, although only one is explicitly named there (2 Sm 1.18). Many commentators believe that the impressive literary quality and strong narrative coherence of 2 Sm 920 points to an earlier written "Court History of King David"not indeed an official record (which would be unlikely to depict David's sins of adultery and murder so frankly), but a powerfully conceived account of the uncertainties surrounding the succession to David's throne. (Since that suspense is not resolved until 1 Kgs 12, scholars often reckon those two chapters part of the "Court History" as well.) Others would also see a source concerned with the history of the Ark of the Covenant behind 1 Sm 46 and perhaps other passages, e.g., 2 Sm 6. The incorporation of oral traditions is evidenced by tensions and disagreements that remain unresolved in the text (e.g., whether or not Samuel succeeded in subduing the Philistines [compare 1 Sm 7.13 with 13:515], or who killed Goliath [compare 1 Sm 17 with 2 Sm 21.19]).

Samuel as History. It is difficult to reach any firm conclusion regarding the historical reliability of the information contained in the Books of Samuel. The text as we have it is several centuries removed from the events it purports to recount and reconstruction of earlier written or oral traditions is fraught with conjecture and uncertainty. Moreover, other ancient sources offer no help. Neither Samuel nor Saul nor David is mentioned in contemporary or near-contemporary historical records; indeed, "Israel" as a nation is not named in ancient Near Eastern texts before the time of the divided monarchy in the ninth century b.c. All historical judgments, then, must be based on internal evidence from the Books of Samuel itself. In the past, many biblical scholars were inclined to treat the Court History as the work of an eyewitness and essentially historical, but a growing appreciation of the sophistication of the biblical authors' creativity is presently leading to a resurgence of the view that the Court History is a novel (as proposed long ago by Gressman, Eissfeldt, and others).

The large sweep of the story is politically and economically plausible. Archaeology confirms the presence and technological capabilities of the Philistines on the south Palestinian coast. Samuel tells how their monopoly of ironworking and their military organization gave them the upper hand over Israel's poorly organized and poorly armed peasantry. In such a situation, the transformation of Israel from loose tribal confederacy to the centralized, monarchical state is understandable and almost inevitable. It is entirely possible that the stresses of such a transition could destroy a vulnerable personality like Saul's and require the military and political genius of a David to surmount them.

On the other hand, the portraits of the three principal characters are drawn so strongly that they resemble heroes of legend more than makers of history. After the Book of Judges has recounted the degeneration of judgeship in Israel from the glory of Deborah to the bathos of Samson, Samuel appears as one who sums up in himself all that is best in Israelprophecy (3.194.1), priesthood (7.910), and judgeship (7.1517). Yet, despite his apparent victories (7.1014), he cannot stop the downward spiral (8.13). Under pressure from the people, and with the resentful approbation of God (8.79), Samuel anoints Saul as king. Saul, however, proves to be a disaster. In a tragedy worthy of Sophocles, Saul is undone by jealousy, drives away David, his closest and most gifted military champion, and ultimately, bereft of David's prowess, falls in battle. In the aftermath, David succeeds where Saul failed: he unites the divided tribes of north and south, throws off the Philistine yoke, and establishes Israelite hegemony over a far-flung empire. At the height of his successes, however, he succumbs to temptation. His adultery with a married woman and subsequent murder of her husband unleash forces that tear his family apart and nearly destroy his kingship. His first-born and heir, Amnon, rapes his half-sister Tamar and dies at the hands of her brother, Absalom. Absalom in turn, after apparent reconciliation with his father, rises up in rebellion against him. The rebellion is crushed, Absalom dies in battle, and David regains the throne; but the familial disintegration points up the political dilemma that will remain unresolved at the end of 2 Samuel: who shall reign after David?

Samuel as Theology. The fundamental theological issue in 12 Samuel is the problem of reconciling two apparently contradictory theological absolutes: Yahweh is the only true King of Israel, yet the line of Davidic kings is chosen by Yahweh himself. The dynamism of the narrative leads inexorably to David. Samuel supersedes Eli, but proves to be a transitional figure himself. Saul the king supersedes Samuel the judge, and the new order is born. David in turn supersedes the flawed first king and establishes a dynasty that will reign virtually unbroken for over four centuries.

Yahweh's role in all this is ambiguous, to say the least. After an initial angry reaction, God seems to approve the inauguration of a human king (1 Sm 8.79). Yet there are indications that God may have knowingly chosen a weak vessel (compare 1 Sm 10.2324 with 16.67) and foreseen, if not intended, his failure. God refuses Saul a second chance, despite his abject repentance (15.2429), a decision about which Samuel apparently has reservations (15.3031, 35; 16.1). Saul's madness is due to "an evil spirit from Yahweh" (16.14). There is no ambiguity in David's case, however. God's choice is unforced (16.1, 1213), David's victories are from Yahweh (18.14), and Yahweh makes an eternal covenant with David and his dynastic line (2 Sm 7). That covenant does not fail, despite the sins and crimes of David and his sons (2 Sm 920, the "Court History").

The Deuteronomistic Historian, writing during the Babylonian Exile after the failure of the monarchic experiment in Israel, is aware of both the glories and the abominations of the kings. In view of their realized potential for obedience as well as for malfeasance, the Historian's attitude toward kingship cannot but be ambivalent, and it is entirely reasonable that the Deuteronomist's God share that attitude. For the Historian's audience of Jewish exiles in Babylon, that very ambivalence could be, paradoxically, a source of hope. If the Exile is the due punishment for sins of Judah's kings and people (2 Kgs 17.1920), yet even this was foreseen (1 Kgs 8.4653); and the release of Jehoiachin from prison (2 Kgs 25.2730) can fuel the desperate longing of the exiles for restoration of the promised eternal kingdom (2 Sm 7.16).

Reading Samuel Today. The reader today, in a world plagued by human evil on every level from international injustice to personal sin, needs the same hope. There is good in the world as well as evil, and likewise on every level. The Christian reader believes that the promises to David have been kept, not in the human political realm, but transformed and universalized in the reign of the Son of David, the Messiah, and in the opening of the Kingdom of God to all peoples. The slow but, as faith believes and hopes, inevitable establishment of peace and justice in this world is but the outward manifestation of the burgeoning of that Kingdom wherein not only sin, but even the death that sin earns, have been overcome forever.

Bibliography: h. gressmann, et al., Narrative and Novella I Samuel (reprint; Sheffield 1991). l. rost, The Succession to the Throne of David (reprint of 1926 edition; Sheffield 1982). h. w. hertzberg, I & II Samuel (OTL; London 1964). r. n. whybray, The Succession Narrative (London 1968). d. m. gunn, The Story of King David (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series; Sheffield 1978). d. m. gunn, The Fate of King Saul (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series; Sheffield 1980). p. k. mccarter, jr., I Samuel (Garden City 1980). j. p. fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel 4 v. (Assen 19811993). r. w. klein, 1 Samuel (Waco 1983). p. k. mccarter, jr., II Samuel (Anchor Bible; Garden City 1984). l. m. eslinger, Kingship of God in Crisis (Bible and Literature; Sheffield 1985). p. d. miscall, 1 Samuel: A Literary Reading (Bloomington 1986). j. rosenberg, King and Kin (Bloomington 1986). a. a. anderson, 2 Samuel (WBC; Waco 1989). j. rosenberg, "1 and 2 Samuel," in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. by r. alter and f. kermode (Cambridge, Mass. 1987) 12245. v. philips long, The Reign and Rejection of King Saul (Society of Biblical Literature Sources for Bible Study; Atlanta 1989). a. f. campbell and j. w. flanagan, "12 Samuel," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs 1990) §9. w. brueggemann, "Samuel, Book of 12," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York 1992); 5:95773. r. polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist (Bloomington 1993). r. polzin, David and the Deuteronomist (Bloomington 1993). a. brenner, A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings (Sheffield 1994). d. jobling, 1 Samuel (Berit Olam; Collegeville 1998). r. alter, The David Story (New York 1999). m. j. evans, 1 and 2 Samuel (NIBCOT; Peabody, Mass. 2000). c. morrison, 2 Samuel (Berit Olam; Collegeville 2000).

[j. t. walsh]

About this article

Samuel, Book(s) of

Updated About content Print Article