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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers

1 & 2 Samuel

(Unless otherwise designated, I am using “Samuel” to refer to both 1 and 2 Samuel). 1 and 2 Samuel through 1 and 2 Kings were originally two books which in the Hebrew Tanak were not divided into smaller volumes until late in the medieval era.   In the Septuagint Greek translation of Hebrew scripture the four books are titled I-IV Kingdoms, fitting titles for their account of the troubled history of monarchy in ancient Israel and Judah.  

It is believed that there are two distinct narratives, from different times, running through Samuel and Kings.  The so-called early source, sort of a first edition, takes a positive attitude towards kingship.  As both Samuel Sandmel in his wonderful The Hebrew Scriptures and the notes in my Oxford Annotated Bible point out, the early narrator of Samuel was a masterful story teller who perhaps should be awarded the "father of history" title usually given to the Greek Herodotus who lived five hundred years later.  The later source has nothing good to say about monarchy, depicting Israel's crowning of a king as a national disaster that led Israel away from Yahve into eventual exile.  The later source is thought to have been written in Judah sometime after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel when things weren’t going well in Judah either.  

A post-exilic editor(s) combined but didn't reconcile the two accounts and inserted some poems along with other material, resulting in a choppy, sometimes confusing narrative that’s especially apparent in 1 Samuel.  The two narrative threads jump back and forth in time, with things that seemingly happened earlier coming later in the book.  Some parts, including whole chapters, are displaced from where they logically should be.  Story details are sometimes inconsistent.  Samuel is depicted as a judge ruling all Israel; then he is a local “seer” (clairvoyant) previously unknown to Saul who came to him seeking help in finding some straying asses and left as the anointed future king of Israel (1 Samuel 8 & 9).  David was brought to Saul’s court as a musician to sooth the troubled king who “loved him greatly” and made David his armor bearer (1 Samuel 16:14-23).  Then in the next chapter Saul has to inquire about the identity of the young man who killed Goliath (17:55-57).  Having learned David’s identity, Saul then brought him to his court.  In 1 Samuel 17 Goliath was killed by David but according to 2 Samuel 21:19 Goliath was killed at another time by one of David's warriors named Elhanan.  In the most intact Dead Sea Scroll manuscript of Samuel the height of Goliath is described as a believable but still tall for that time six feet.  But over time the legend and Goliath's height apparently grew.  In later manuscripts he is ten feet tall.  

There are many other problems with the text which became corrupt as it was repeatedly copied with attendant errors over time.  Words, phrases, and whole texts were left out.  The numerical count for Saul’s age and years of reign are missing from the text in 1 Samuel 13:1 (the translators of the KJV tried to supply the missing numbers by guessing).  Some things were added by later editors.  There are major differences between the Masoretic Hebrew text on which most translations are based and the Septuagint as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts of Samuel.  Some of the problems have been cleared up with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are 1000-1200 years older than any previously known manuscript of the Hebrew Bible).  The best preserved and most extensive Samuel manuscript in the Dead Sea Scrolls has a previously unknown paragraph that belongs at beginning of 1 Samuel 11, an account that Josephus knew and included in his first century CE Antiquities of the Jews.  That passage has been restored in some recent scholarly editions of the Bible.

But however much the text may have been altered and damaged between the time of original writing and its incorporation into the Hebrew canon, the stories told in Samuel are well constructed narratives.  2 Samuel, apart from some misplaced sections (chapters 21 and 24 probably should come before chapter 9), has fewer of the textual problems in 1 Samuel.  The Oxford Annotated Bible’s introduction to the book describes it as “one of the most clearly written, most homogenous, and most easily understood of all biblical books.”  Chapters 9-20, detailing David’s domestic and political affairs, are particularly well written.  It has been suggested that those passages were written by someone contemporary with the incidents described.

While, like the rest of the Bible, Samuel is more concerned with theology than history, the events depicted are believed by most scholars to be a relatively accurate representation of life in ancient Israel.  Archaeologists have found evidence of increased settlement and centralization of power in areas described by Samuel as connected with the early monarchy.  Extra-biblical references to the “House of David,” dated as early as the 9th century BCE have been discovered, challenging any notion that David was not a historical figure.  

The types of events and activities described by Samuel differ from those in the Pentateuch.  While Yahve sometimes speaks to someone, divine messages are most often conveyed by prophets.  Apart from military victories and plague outbreaks attributed to Yahve, there are no miracles or direct divine interventions.  Events are more secular, for the most part resulting from the actions of human beings.  Apart from the call of Samuel, Yahve is not directly encountered but it is clear that he is behind everything, whether good or bad, that happens.  

Obedience to Yahve is of paramount importance; what we think of as basic moral standards not so much.  Saul was not reproved for trying to kill David but for his failure to wait for Samuel to offer a sacrifice instead of doing it himself (1 Samuel 13) and for saving the life of a captured enemy king, disregarding Samuel’s order to “utterly destroy” the enemy.  After denouncing Saul, telling him his descendants would not inherit the throne of Israel,  Samuel “hewed in pieces” the captive king (1 Samuel 15), an action that would be considered an immoral war crime today.  David’s affair with Bathsheba and sending her husband to be killed in battle was reproved by the prophet Nathan, with the child born from the affair dying (2 Samuel 9), but his census (as in Numbers a counting of men available for military service) of Israel brought down worse punishment.  Confusingly, in a circular narrative, Yahve is described as having “incited” David to “Go number Israel” and then killed “seventy thousand men,” out of the eight hundred thousand numbered in the census as punishment for what he led David to do (2 Samuel 24).  Belief that everything, evil as well as good, comes from God and that there are reasons for divine actions is pervasive throughout the Old Testament.  Perhaps two unrelated events, the census and an outbreak of disease, were associated with Yahve as the causal connecting agent.  

There are three main characters in the books of Samuel:  Samuel the prophet who is also portrayed as the last judge of Israel, Saul the first king, and David the most glorious of all Israel’s kings.  1 Samuel covers the period from the birth of the prophet Samuel to the death of King Saul.  2 Samuel is entirely about David, one of the most fully developed and appealing characters in Hebrew scripture.  Before being proclaimed king, but with Samuel having already anointed him, David was sort of a Robin Hood figure, fleeing from Saul’s attempts to kill him, out in the wilds with a band of outlaws but still effectively fighting against Israel’s enemies.  Which of course made him an appealing hero figure for me as a child.  His story is for me still one of the most compelling in the Bible.  

I knew David mostly from Arthur Maxwell’s The Bible Story.  But there were some troubling details that Uncle Arthur left out in his retelling of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation.  Such as Saul demanding one hundred foreskins of the uncircumcised Philistines as the price of giving his daughter to David, and David coming in with two hundred Philistine penises to claim his bride (1 Samuel 18:20-30).  Or the "Spirt of the Lord" coming upon Saul so that he "stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel, and lay naked all that day and all that night” (1 Samuel 19:18-24)  There is another account (1 Samuel 10:5-6) or perhaps another version of the same incident in which Samuel told the newly anointed Saul that he would encounter a band of prophets “coming down from the high place (typically in the OT the place where gods other than Yahve were worshipped) with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre, prophesying.  Then the spirit of Yahve will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man.”  Which incident is puzzlingly said to have given rise to a proverb, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”  Then there was David’s (2 Samuel 6:20-23) near naked dance, which outraged his wife, before the ark as it was brought to Jerusalem.  Apparently dancing and nudity were part of the ecstatic visionary experience of prophets in ancient Israel.  Maybe something like the naked holy men of India or shamanistic traditions in many cultures?


1 Samuel begins with the promise of a son to a barren woman named Hannah.  In return for Yahve “opening her womb” she would give the child “to Yahve all the days of his life” (1:11).   In due time Samuel was born and taken to Eli, the priest of the shrine at Shiloh, in fulfillment of Hannah’s vow.  At this point in the text there is inserted a poem/psalm (which according to an Oxford Bible note is really a psalm of national thanksgiving) which became the model for the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:46-55.  Luke (2:52) also borrowed “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with Yahve and man” (1 Samuel 2:26) to make it a description of Jesus as a youth.  While still a boy assisting the priest, Samuel was “called” by Yahve who told him that Eli’s corrupt sons would not be allowed to succeed him.  It is not directly stated but implied that Samuel would be Eli’s successor.  After the detailed account of Samuel’s birth and childhood call he becomes a more vague figure who led Israel in times of crisis, anointed as king first Saul and then David, and instructed/reproved Saul.  

1 Samuel 4-7 is an account how the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant which was foolishly taken into battle in the belief that it would help Israel.  When Eli, who was ninety eight years old and blind, heard of this terrible development he fell backward out of his seat, breaking his neck.  But the ark brought “tumors” (perhaps bubonic plague) upon the Philistines who decided to send it, along with five golden sculptures of “tumors” and five golden mice, off on a cart pulled by unattended cows who unerringly brought it back to Israel.   There was much rejoicing with the cows sacrificed as a thanksgiving offering to Yahve.  However Yahve “made a great slaughter” of seventy Israelite men who “looked into the ark.”  After the people followed Samuel’s instruction to “put away the foreign gods,” Yahve helped drive the Philistines out of Israel.

There follow conflicting accounts of Yahve’s attitude, as conveyed by Samuel, towards the people’s demand that they be given a king (8-10).  At Yahve’s direction, Saul was anointed but not yet proclaimed king, something which Saul didn’t disclose when he got back home with good news about missing asses he went in search of.  Then Samuel called an assembly (10 which more logically should follow chapter 8) in which he denounced the request for a king before casting lots to choose the king.  The lot fell to Saul, who however was hiding.  Yahve (through Samuel?) revealed Saul’s hiding place from which he was brought to be acclaimed as the king.  But not until after a decisive victory over the Ammonites was he actually installed as king.

Initially Saul, who is described as standing head and shoulders above everyone else, was an effectual leader, defeating enemies and acting as a judge over Israel.  Then he made a mistake in offering a sacrifice himself rather than waiting for the tardy arrival of Samuel (13).  The promise of an eternal kingly dynasty was taken away.  He again failed to follow Samuel’s instructions and saved the life of a captive king along with the flocks and herds of the enemy.  Yahve “repented” of having made Saul king and sent Samuel to again denounce him.  Saul blamed “the people” who took the animals to sacrifice to Yahve. To which Samuel replied, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” words that I well remember from my religious indoctrination although I don’t think I knew their origin.  Yahve demanded perfect obedience; for this failure Saul was “rejected from being king over Israel.”  The kingship would be given to “a neighbor” (15) who turned out to be David.

There followed the secret anointing of David and his entrance into the court of Saul as a musician to sooth Saul from whom “the spirt of Yahve departed, and an evil spirit from Yahve tormented him. . . . And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him” (16:14, 23).

I Samuel 17 tells the well-known story of David the shepherd boy, as yet unknown to Saul, killing Goliath the giant champion of the Philistines.  In chapter 18 David was brought to Saul’s court.  Saul’s son, Jonathan, “made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”  David proved his worth as a soldier and was “set over the men of war.”  But David began to outshine Saul, with women greeting him upon his return from battling the Philistines singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”  In an envious rage Saul twice tried but failed to spear David.  

Saul’s jealous mania seemed to wax and wane, sometimes treating David well; other times trying to kill him.  Eventually David fled with the help of Samuel, his wife who was also Saul’s daughter, and Jonathan.  Until the death of Saul along with Jonathan in battle, David remained in hiding with a band of men who gathered about him whom he led against various enemies of Israel.  Eventually David took refuge with the Philistines who excused him from going with them to fight against Israel.  

2 Samuel 1:19-27 quotes from “The Book of Jashar” (also cited in Joshua 10:13) the “How are the mighty fallen” lamentation of David over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.  David gradually moved into the position for which Samuel had anointed him, taking leadership first over Judah and then, after negotiations with the other tribes and “a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” in which David proved stronger, becoming king of all Israel (2 Samuel 2-3 - all the following citations are from 2 Samuel).  With the capture of Jerusalem the court of David was moved from Hebron to what became known for all time as “the city of David” (5:6-10).  Further battles and various treaties eventually extended the territory of Israel to the boundaries of the Pentateuch’s “Promised Land.”

While David was very successful in battle, he was plagued with domestic problems.  He had a number of wives, at least ten concubines, and many children.  Michal, the daughter of Saul and David’s first wife who was given to him in exchange for Philistine foreskins, helped David escape from her father, but then was given (by Saul?) to another man.  David reclaimed her despite her second husband who “went with her, weeping after her” until he was ordered to turn back (3:16).  But things did not go well with Michal who was scandalized by David’s dance wearing only a loin cloth before the returning ark.  David angrily responded to her and apparently no longer had sexual relations with her as she remained childless (6:20-23).  Then there was the affair with Bathsheba, the virtual murder of her husband which cleared the way for David to marry her, confrontation by the prophet Nathan, and the death of the child born to Bathsheba who, however, later gave birth to Solomon (11:2-12:24).

The tragic story of Absalom is the most extensive episode in 2 Samuel (13-19).  It began when one of David’s sons, Amnon, overcome with lust for his half-sister, Tamar, raped her after which he refused to redeem her honor by marrying her.  David was angry but did nothing.  Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, however avenged her by killing Amnon after which he fled.  Joab, David’s chief general whose good intentions sometimes didn’t turn out well, intervened with David to bring Absalom back home.  But Absalom conspired against the king and gained a following which crowned him king in Hebron after which he moved on Jerusalem.  David and his court fled with the ark, leaving his ten concubines “behind to keep the house.”  Absalom occupied Jerusalem, taking his father’s concubines for himself, something that apparently represented succession to the throne.  Eventually David’s more skilled soldiers defeated those of Absalom who fled upon a mule.  Riding under a tree, his head (not his hair! 18:9) was caught in the branches where he hung suspended until Joab killed him.  David withdrew in deep mourning.  Joab reproved him: “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and concubines. . . . For I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. . . . Then the king arose, and took his seat in the gate.  . . . And all the people came before the king” (19:5-8).  There followed another revolt that took “all Israel” except for Judah away from David but was quelled by Joab (20).  Throughout the reign of David there are indications of tensions between Judah and the other tribes of Israel which eventually led to the divided monarchy after the death of Solomon.

Chapter 22 of 2 Samuel is song of praise for deliverance which is duplicated in Psalm 18.  There is another poem (23:1-7) which is represented as the last words of David, although there is no account of his death until the beginning of 1 Kings, followed by a list of “the mighty men whom David had” along with their exploits (23:8-39) which includes at the end, with no reference to his exploits, marriage, or manner of his death, “Uriah the Hittite,” the husband of Bathsheba.

© 2021 James Moyers