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Introduction to the Book of 1st Samuel

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General Info

The two books of Samuel, named for its principle character, the final judge and the priest-prophet who presided over Israel during her transition into the monarchy era, was originally one book in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) divided it into two books, the “First and Second Book of Kingdoms”.  The books of Samuel and Kings (designated the “Third and Fourth Book of Kingdoms”) cover the entire historical period of the transition and the monarchy of Israel.  Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (completed 405 AD) designated the books of Samuel as “First and Second Kings” and Kings as “Third and Fourth Kings”.  Later Hebrew and most English versions retained the separations, but returned to the original names of “First and Second Samuel” and “First and Second Kings”.  In the Hebrew Bible, Samuel (along with Joshua, Judges and Kings) is located in the Former Prophets (Nevi'im Rishonim).  In the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox canons, the books of Samuel make up two of the twelve OT Historical Books (Joshua to Esther in the Protestant canon).

As God’s representative, Samuel established the monarchy by anointing both Saul and David, Israel’s first two kings.  Basically, 1 Samuel covers the ministry of Samuel and the reign of Saul, while 2 Samuel spans the reign of David.  In the larger context, the Hebrew books of the Former Prophets outline the history of Israel from their entry into the Promised Land to their exile from the land, chronicling the events and deteriorating spiritual conditions which led to their deportation.

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Brief Survey

The First Book of Samuel begins with the miraculous birth of Samuel to the devout woman Hannah, after her fervent prayers because she had been barren.  In return, Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord for the days of his life.  Hannah’s prayer (ch 2) anticipates a future Messianic King.

The next few chapters tell the story of the Philistines capturing the Ark of the Covenant, which God allowed because of Israel’s disobedience.  After God brought judgment on several Philistine cities, including a demonstration of superiority over their false god Dagon, the Ark was sent back to Israel.  Samuel then reappears in chapter 7 to lead the Israelites to victory over the Philistines.

Chapter 8 represents an important turning point in the history of ancient Israel, the beginning of the transition to the monarchy.  The people ask Samuel for a king so that they can “be like other nations”, thus rejecting God’s rule.  Despite Samuel’s opposition, God instructed him to anoint Saul as king (chs 9-11).  Moses had anticipated Israel’s desire for a king, but the king’s rule was to be subservient to God’s ultimate authority, unlike the other nations where the kings were autonomous.  Thus the question became, would the king maintain the covenants with God?  Samuel gives his farewell address in chapter 12, after which Saul becomes the main character for the remainder of the book.

Saul’s reign began well, but due to lack of faith, he soon proved to be unwilling to submit to God’s requirements for the theocracy.  As a result, God instructs Samuel to anoint David, a man after God’s own heart, as Saul’s successor (ch 16).  David enters into service to Saul as a musician, but soon distinguishes himself by killing the Philistine giant Goliath (ch 17). As David’s popularity continued to grow among the people, Saul became jealous and insecure, attempting to kill David on several occasions (chs 18-26). Saul also executed the Priest a Nob for giving refuge to David.

Meanwhile David became close friends with Saul’s son Jonathon, who helped David evade Saul.  On two occasions, David had the opportunity to kill Saul (ch 24, 26), but spared him since he still considered Saul to be “God’s anointed”, trusting in God’s timing for his own reign as king to begin.

Chapters 28 and 29 mark the beginning of the final downfall of Saul.  Samuel had died (25:1) and Saul was facing a battle with the Philistines, so he consulted with a witch at Endor to summon Samuel’s spirit from the dead.  During the séance, Samuel prophesizes that the next day, Israel will be defeated and Saul and his sons would be killed in battle. The book ends with the fulfillment of this prophecy (ch 31).  Saul’s three sons, including David’s best friend Jonathon, are killed, and Saul commits suicide after being wounded to avoid being captured or killed by the Philistines.

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Key Verses

So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son.  She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the LORD for him.” (1:20)

Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high.  My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.  “There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.  He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness.  “It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the LORD will be shattered.  He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.  “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (2:1-2, 9-10)

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times,  “Samuel! Samuel!”  Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (3:10)

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.  They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD.  And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. (8:4-7)

So all the people went to Gilgal and confirmed Saul as king in the presence of the LORD.  There they sacrificed fellowship offerings before the LORD, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration. (11:15)

"You [Saul] acted foolishly,” Samuel said.  “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.  But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command.” (13:13-14)

But Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.  For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.  Because you [Saul] have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.” (5:22-23)

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?  Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem.  I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”  ... So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. (16:1,13)

David said to the Philistine [Goliath], “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head.  Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.  All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands.”  As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.  Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead.  The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. (17:45-49)

David said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, 'David is bent on harming you'?  This day you have seen with your own eyes how the LORD delivered you into my hands in the cave.  Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, 'I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the LORD's anointed.' ...  When David finished saying this, Saul asked, “Is that your voice, David my son?”  And he wept aloud.  “You are more righteous than I,” he said.  “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly...  May the LORD reward you well for the way you treated me today.  I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands.  Now swear to me by the LORD that you will not cut off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father's family.” (24:9-10, 16-21)

Now Samuel died, and all Israel assembled and mourned for him; and they buried him at his home in Ramah. (25:1)

[After the witch summoned Samuel's spirit from the dead,] Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”  “I am in great distress,” Saul said.  “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”  Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy?  The LORD has done what he predicted through me.  The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors--to David.  Because you did not obey the LORD or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this to you today. The LORD will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.  The LORD will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines.” (28:15-19)

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa.  The Philistines pressed hard after Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua.  The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.  Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”  But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it.  When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him.  So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.  When the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled.  And the Philistines came and occupied them. (31:1-7)

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Author and Date

The Books of Samuel do not identify their author, although 1 Samuel does attest that Samuel wrote a book (10:25).  Jewish tradition (Talmud) holds that the prophet Samuel wrote the first twenty four chapters of 1 Samuel (since his death is recorded in chapter 25), and that the prophets Nathan and Gad composed the remainder of the two books (see also 1Chr 29:29-30).  Others speculate that an unnamed prophet compiled the books from the writings of the aforementioned prophets, and from the Book of Jasher (2Sam 1:18) and annals of King David (1Chr 27:24).

The events in 1 Samuel span the period from before Samuel’s birth to the death of King Saul (~1010 BC) while 2 Samuel covers the era of David’s reign (~1010-971 BC).  The books were probably compiled into their nearly final form shortly after Solomon’s reign (971-931 BC).  The statement regarding the town of Ziklag belonging to the “kings of Judah to this day” (1Sam 27:6) indicates that this portion was probably written after Solomon’s death in 931 BC, since the kingdom split into Israel and Judah in the early reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  The usual critics date the books to the exile in the middle of the sixth century BC, but the antiquity of the linguistics (particularly as compared with the books of the Kings) and the inclusion of many eyewitness accounts indicate that the bulk (if not all) of the books were written and assembled in the earlier period just discussed.

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Historical Background

In the five Books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy), we observed the formation of the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people.  After about four hundred years in Egypt, God raised up Moses to lead His chosen people out of captivity, but due to a lack of trust in Him, the people were sentenced to wander in the desert for about forty years until the adults of the first generation died (except for Joshua and Caleb, who would enter the land due to their faith).  The book of Joshua then recorded the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land that God promised to Israel’s patriarchs.

After the death of Joshua (~1375 BC), the Israeli people once again rejected God’s leadership and entered into the period of the judges, one of the darkest eras in ancient Israel’s history.  During this epoch, we saw a cycle of the people turning away from God, who would then allow them to be oppressed by their enemies.  The people would then cry out to God, who raised up a military leader (judge) to deliver them, but as soon as the repression passed, they went back to doing whatever was right in their own eyes and the cycle would begin again.

This dark era forms the background for the Book of 1st Samuel.  Around the beginning of the eleventh century BC, when communication from God was rare (3:1), Samuel entered the priesthood by serving under Eli, and then became Israel’s last judge.  Due to the lack of national identity and structures at the time, most authority was dispersed among the various independent tribes and clans.  Rather than trust in God’s leadership, the people asked for a king so they could be “like the other nations”.

God had anticipated this request, so He had given requirements for a king at Moses’ farewell address on the plains of Maob (Dt 17:14-20) just prior the entrance into the Promised Land.  The ideal king was to guard the covenant and be subject to God’s ultimate rule, but all human kings would fail to various extents.

Thus, the stage was set for the transition from the judges to the reign of Saul, the people’s choice for their first king, who would fall out of God’s favor due to his disobedience.  Ironically, much of the nation continued to function as individual tribes during Saul’s kingship.

About 1200 BC, a group of maritime immigrants known as the Philistines had settled in the lower coastal plains in western Palestine.  Now in 1 Samuel, while the other great empires of the area were in a relative state of weakness, God would use these fierce and technologically advanced warriors to eliminate Eli’s decadent family, protect David (who Samuel had anointed as Saul's replacement), and end the reign of Saul.  On the positive side, the threat of the Philistines was a major factor in causing the Israeli nation to finally unite under David’s leadership.

For more Information:

See OT History Books for the position of Samuel within the context of the OT historical periods.

See OT Historicity for Historicity of the OT History books.

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See OT History for timeline of additional historical events.  The date of Samuel's birth is unknown, probably during the lifetime of Samson and Obed, the son of Ruth and Boaz who were grandparents of King David.  Another challenge is that, not all material in the book is arranged in strict chronological order.  Dates for David's reign and afterward can be fixed with reasonable accuracy.  Prior dates are approximated.

~ 1100 BC Birth of Samuel
~ 1050 BC Saul becomes Israel’s First King
~ 1025 BC David anointed by Samuel to be King
~ 1020 BC David and Goliath
1011 BC Death of Saul and Jonathon
1011 BC David becomes King of Judah
1004 BC David becomes King of a United Israel and Judah (Book of 2nd Samuel)
971 BC Solomon becomes King (Book of 1st Kings)

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The historical purpose of 1 Samuel is to chronicle the transition from the rule of the judges over certain clans and tribes to a more unified nation under Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David.  Both were anointed by the prophet / priest Samuel, who was also the last judge of Israel.

Thus the central theme of both books of Samuel is kingship.  While Hannah (Samuel’s mother) is the first to specifically pronounce the coming of Israel’s kings in 1 Samuel (2:10), God had actually promised Abraham (Gen 17:6) and Sarah (Gen 17:16) that they would be the ancestors of kings.  In addition God had given Moses information regarding kings which included excesses to avoid and a responsibility to properly administer the covenants (Dt 17:14-20).  Israel’s kings were to be ultimately subject to God via His prophets.

Therefore, as with all the other historical books of the Bible, we also see the major theme of God’s sovereignty and providence.  A king’s success, and by extension, the success of the nation as a whole, was dependent upon faithfulness to God and His covenants.  When Saul proved unfaithful, he was rejected as king (ch 13-15).  God also demonstrated His power and sovereignty  in 1 Samuel by orchestrating Samuel’s birth to the barren woman Hannah (ch1),  defeating the Philistines without a human army (ch 4-6), arranging Samuel’s anointing of Saul by wandering donkeys and divine meetings (ch 8-10), and having Samuel anoint the youngest of eight brothers (David) of an obscure shepherd family as Israel’s future king to replace Saul (ch 16).  God’s later covenant with David (2Sam 7) would guarantee a final eternal heir to David’s throne, Jesus the Messiah (Jn 7:42, Rev 11:15).

For the varying purposes of the historical books of the kingdoms, see Harmony of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The first book of Samuel offers many interpretive challenges, so we’ll provide a brief overview of each, beginning with those common to both books of Samuel.

Our first interpretive difficulty is the original language text itself.  The OT books were written at different times between ~1440 to ~400 BC, but no original autographs have survived.  We basically have two sets of manuscripts, the Hebrew Masoretic texts (from about 100AD) and the Septuagint (the Greek translation from about the second or third century BC).  In most books, the texts are very consistent.  In the books of Samuel (and in Jeremiah) however, we often find discrepancies between the two texts.  In addition, the Dead Sea Scrolls agree with the MT in some places and with the Septuagint in others.

The question we face is “Which of these ancient texts are closest to the original?”  Space limitations preclude a detailed analysis here, but none of the variances significantly alter the meanings within the books.  Most modern English translation tend to use the MT in the majority of places, and include the alternate readings in the marginal notes.

The frequent mention of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in Samuel may be a bit confusing to some folks.  After Pentecost (Ac 2), the Spirit permanently indwelt all New Covenant believers from the moment of redemption.  Therefore, the Christian can call upon the Spirit’s power and guidance for service at all times.  In the OT however, the Holy Spirit would empower a person for specific acts of service to God, but could be withdrawn at any time once His objective was accomplished.

Finally, we should pay attention to certain literary features of the narrative that runs through the books.  The author does not give extensive coverage to a wide range of people and events, choosing instead to focus primarily on Samuel, Saul and David.  We should thus note their personalities, moral fiber, faith, and experiences, including interaction with other characters and one another (eg the decline and fall of Eli and Saul with the rise of Samuel and David respectively).  The author also realistically portrays both the good and bad character traits of each leader.

Moving to the specific challenges in 1 Samuel, we begin with the people’s request for a human king (Hebrew melek).  Was this request appalling to the Lord?  We address this issue in our commentary of 1 Samuel 8-12, Israel Requests a King.

We next move to a few common questions about 1 Samuel.  First, Saul was considered the people’s choice for a king because his spiritual condition basically mirrored that of the nation, but did this necessarily doom Saul’s kingship from the beginning?  Based on the Scripture, it appears that God gave Saul every chance to succeed.  He gave Saul His Spirit, allowing him to prophecy, and generally changed his heart.  Indeed, Saul’s reign began well, but even though God made every provision for his success, Saul’s character flaws and lack of faith led to his eventual downfall.

Who or what appeared to Saul when he consulted the medium in chapter 28?  When Saul faced overwhelming odds in an upcoming battle with the Philistines, he attempted to contact Samuel, who had previously died, through a medium.  Any occult practices in which a person attempts to contact the dead is strictly forbidden (Dt 18:9-12) upon penalty of death (Lev 20:6,27, see also the mediums response to Saul on 28:9).  People were to rely on God for guidance instead.  The plain meaning of the narrative indicates that the figure is indeed Samuel, who God apparently allowed to return and speak to Saul, giving a prophecy that is fulfilled the next day.  Nevertheless, Saul’s sin in consulting a medium is serious enough that the Chronicler singles out this particular failure as a primary reason for Saul’s death (1Chr 10:13-14).

How could Israel lose a battle while in possession of the Ark of the Covenant?  The chronicle of the ark is found from 4:1 to 7:17.  The Israelis were facing a major battle with the Philistines.  The people remembered that, during the conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua, they always carried the Ark into battle, so they figured if it worked then, it would work against the Philistines who also carried images of their own gods into battle.  What Israel failed to realize is that, under Joshua, the Ark was carried into battle upon direct orders from God who was leading them.  In this case however, the people failed to consult God, but merely thought of the Ark as a “good luck charm” and went into battle on their own.  In other words, they were attempting to manipulate God for their own benefit.  So, God allowed them to be defeated and the Philistines to capture the Ark.  He them sent calamities upon the Philistines until they returned the Ark to Israel, thus demonstrating that He was in total control and could not be manipulated.

Finally, some questions typically surface regarding the ethics of war.  One of the most frequent questions concerns God’s instructions to Saul to “completely destroy” the Amalekites (15:1-3) for attacking Israel shortly after the Exodus (Ex 17:8-16, Dt 25:17-19).  We have a full discussion of this topic in our The Ethical Question of War in the Conquest of Canaan article.

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The first book of Samuel can be divided into three sections.  The first eight chapters record the birth and judgeship of Samuel and the transition from the judges to the monarchy.  We next see the rise and failure of Saul in chapters 9-15.  Finally, chapters 16-31 narrate the rise of David and the eventual fall of Saul.

1:1 – 3:21 The Birth and Call of Samuel
4:1 – 7-1 The Capture and Return of the Ark
7:2 – 7:17 Samuel as Judge defeats the Philistines
8:1 – 8:22 Israel Requests a King
9:1 – 11:13 Saul’s Anointing and Confirmation as King
12:1 – 12:25 Samuel’s Farewell Address
13:1 – 15:35 The Failure and Rejection of Saul as King
16:1 – 16:23 Samuel Anoints David; David Enters Saul’s Service
17:1 – 17:55 David and Goliath
18:1 – 20:42 David Friend of Jonathon but Relationship with Saul Deteriorates
21:1 – 23:29 David Flees from Saul; Saul kills the Priests at Nob
24:1 – 24:22 David spares Saul’s Life
25:1 – 25:44 Death of Samuel; David marries Abigail
26:1 - 26:25 David spares Saul’s Life again
27:1 – 29:11 David among Philistines; Saul Consults Witch at Endor
30:1 – 30-31 David Destroys the Amalekites
31:1 – 31:13 Israel defeated by Philistines; Death of Saul and Jonathon

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