the Fifth Week of Lent
Layman's Bible Commentary Layman's Bible Commentary
- 1 Samuel
by Various Authors
THE FIRST AND SECOND BOOKS OF SAMUEL
The Character of the Books
A reading of the Books of Samuel shows that they are the same type of literature as that found in the Book of Judges. The same motifs are to be found — the emphasis on divine retribution for sin at the personal and national levels, the concern with the centrality of the prophetic consciousness in Israel’s history. There are also the first signs of a new motif — the Temple at Jerusalem as the focal point of Israel’s life. It is true that the account of the building of the Temple comes in the Books of Kings, but here we have the story of the conquest of Jerusalem, the account of David’s sudden and conscience-prodded desire to build a house for the Lord, and the record of the historical vicissitudes of the Ark of the Lord in its progress toward its final resting place in the Temple at Jerusalem. The books are valuable to us for the insights they offer into the nature of the prophetic consciousness, into the ministry of the priests and the practice of oracular divination, into the nature of the sacrificial system, into the importance of the Ark in Israel’s worship, into the democratic nature of the kingship, and into the Covenantal structure of Israel’s society.
As in the case of the Book of Judges, the present form of the Books of Samuel is the work of an editor or editors who share the prophetic view of history found in the Book of Deuteronomy. They have made use of a considerable amount of earlier material, most of it probably written down by the time it reached them. Because there were often two versions of the same event available, we shall find that, in the Books of Samuel, different accounts will be given in succession.
Part of the task of the historian is to gather the historical truth from both accounts and weigh the actual historical happening. Yet we have to remember once more that the Bible is not a purely historical record and that the writers were not concerned with details, variations in which may disturb us. Their main emphasis was on what the living God was saying in history, and they were interested in events at the level of revelation. Hence they are prepared to offer varying versions of the same event, so long as the revelation stands clear.
We shall now enumerate some of the earlier sources used by the editors. The Books of Samuel fall into three main sections. The first part, 1 Samuel 1-12, deals with the story of Samuel; the second part, 1 Samuel 13-31, covers the history of Saul; the third part, II Samuel, presents the story of David. Within the third part, 2 Samuel 9-20 seems to depend upon a contemporary source, which may be thought of as the "Court History of David." It is characterized by a faithful portrayal of the Israelite king, with no attempt to cover up the blemishes in his character, his moral lapses, and his errors in judgment, or to evade recording his troubles. Thus David’s adultery with Bathsheba is told with acknowledgment of his guilt, while the rebellion of Absalom is recorded in a way that conveys a sense of reality. These "court annals" are generally accepted as dating back to David’s time.
The early chapters of Samuel seem to draw on a source preserving traditions of the prophet’s childhood, and on one dealing with the history of the Ark. Possibly the latter source is also used in 2 Samuel 6, 7, where we are told of the movement of the Ark to Jerusalem and of David’s desire to build a temple, although these chapters may have been taken from the Temple records.
It is when we come to the stories of Saul and of the early years of David that we meet duplicate versions of the same event. There are two accounts of how Saul became king (1 Samuel 8; 1 Samuel 10:17-27; and 1 Samuel 9:1 to 1 Samuel 10:16; ch. 11). In the first account Israel’s desire for a king is regarded as a defection from God’s sole kingship; Samuel anoints Saul but also gives a warning of what Israel may expect from an earthly monarch. The other account associates Saul’s kingship with God’s express choice through his prophet, and this regards the monarchy as a divinely ordained institution under God’s blessing. There are also two accounts of David’s flight to Achish (1 Samuel 21:10-15; 1 Samuel 27:1-12), two versions of his sparing Saul (1 Samuel 24:1-22; 1 Samuel 26:1-25), and two descriptions of Saul’s death (1 Samuel 31:1-7 and 2 Samuel 1:1-16). There are also two accounts of how David became associated with Saul, one picturing David as a shepherd boy and the other presenting him as a musician and armor-bearer. These are discussed in the commentary. At this point, it is sufficient to note that the editors seem to have been using two sources dealing with Saul’s kingship and David’s early years. The earlier source regarded the institution of kingship favorably and presented it as under God’s blessing. The later source described the kingship as an act of apostasy in which the people had turned to an earthly leader rather than relying on God. It reflects the attitude toward the monarchy shown in Hosea 10:9 and possibly also the attitude of the editors themselves. We may say that the first source was much more nearly contemporaneous with the events it records, and that the second was later and shows the attitude toward the monarchy which developed after some experience of it. It would be wrong, however, to regard this second source as less significant, since it may well reflect an attitude that went back to the early days of the monarchy, although then less in evidence. It may also preserve genuine traditions and details that amplify the earlier source.
The Books of Samuel contain many interesting poetic fragments — the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10); the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19-27); the lament of David over Abner (2 Samuel 3:33-34); David’s hymn of thanksgiving (2 Samuel 22); and the testament of David (2 Samuel 23:1-7). Of these, it is generally agreed that the song of Hannah does not strictly describe Hannah’s experience, and probably was written later. The hymn of thanksgiving ascribed to David also occurs as Psalms 18. In its present form it was probably written after David’s time. There is no reason why the two laments should not be the actual compositions of David, and we may also ascribe to him the testament of 2 Samuel 23:1-7, even though it does not reach the poetic heights of the laments and presents a somewhat idealized picture. These psalms and the representation of David as a musician remind us that the tradition enshrined in the Book of Psalms, which made David the psalmist of Israel par excellence, had some foundation in the events of David’s own life.
A miscellaneous appendix is added to the Books of Samuel (2 Samuel 21-24), in which the editors have gathered various pieces of tradition and reports which could not be fitted into the main body of the history writing.
Samuel, Judge and Prophet. (1 Samuel 1:1 to 1 Samuel 8:22)
Samuel’s Early Years (1 Samuel 1:1 to 1 Samuel 3:21)
The Fortunes of the Ark (1 Samuel 4:1 to 1 Samuel 7:1)
Samuel’s Day of Power (1 Samuel 7:2 to 1 Samuel 8:22)
The Tragedy of Saul. (1 Samuel 9:1 to 1 Samuel 31:13)
Saul as King (1 Samuel 9:1 to 1 Samuel 12:25)
The Revolt Against the Philistines (1 Samuel 13:1 to 1 Samuel 15:35)
Saul and David (1 Samuel 16:1 to 1 Samuel 20:42)
Civil War (1 Samuel 21:1 to 1 Samuel 26:25)
The War with the Philistines (1 Samuel 27:1 to 1 Samuel 31:13)
David as King. (2 Samuel 1:1 to 2 Samuel 24:25)
David at Hebron (2 Samuel 1:1 to 2 Samuel 4:12)
David at Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:1 to 2 Samuel 8:18)
The Personal Affairs of David (2 Samuel 9:1 to 2 Samuel 12:31)
The Tragedy of David’s Family (2 Samuel 13:1 to 2 Samuel 20:26)
Miscellaneous Data: An Appendix (2 Samuel 21:1 to 2 Samuel 24:25)