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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.



On first appearance the books of Samuel may give the impression of a well-organized composition dealing with three main characters, Samuel, Saul, and David. But on a closer reading of the narrative, a number of discrepancies, contradictions, and duplications become evident. Although Samuel seems to be the main character in the first block of narratives, he disappears completely from 1 Sam 4–6 only to be reintroduced again in 1 Sam 7 . Two different interpretations of the movement to secure a king are evident in 1 Sam 8–11 ; in some sections YHWH disapproves of the development and it was contrary to his will that a king was chosen, but in others the kingship, and Saul its first incumbent, gain divine approval. There are a number of duplicates in both the Saul and David cycle of narratives. In the case of Saul, there are two accounts of his rejection by YHWH (1 Sam 13 and 15 ) and two again of David's introduction to his court (1 Sam 16 and 17 ). The Davidic cycle has double reports of his betrothal to Saul's daughter (1 Sam 18 ), his defection to the king of Gath (1 Sam 21 and 27 ) and his unwillingness to grasp the chance to kill Saul (1 Sam 24 and 26 ). These features demand a consideration of the composition of the books.

2. Continuous Strands.

An approach that found favour among scholars of an earlier generation was to find in 1 and 2 Samuel evidence of continuous strata of material. It was an approach that was developed under the influence of Pentateuchal criticism and its apparent success in identifying the main narrative strands combined to form the Pentateuch. Examples of duplicate narratives, with their repetitions and deviations, naturally led to a search for strands or sources similar to the ones which had proved so successful in Pentateuchal source criticism. The traditions in 1 Sam 8–11 about the founding of a monarchy provided a good starting-point for such an investigation. In the older strand in 1 Sam 9:1–10:16; 11; 13–14 is found an account which takes a favourable attitude towards the monarchy and is thought to be historically reliable. A later account in 1 Sam 8:1–22; 10:17–27; 12; 15 is critical of the monarchy and is thought to reflect the theocratic view of the post-exilic period to such extent as to make it of little historical value. Moving from these parallel strands to other duplicate narratives, attempts have been made to identify one strand as a continuation of the Pentateuchal J and the other as a continuation of E; others found in the antimonarchial strand traces of Deuteronomistic thinking. A fairly late example of this line of thought is found in Otto Eissfeldt's Introduction ( 1965 ), where it is argued that in at least 1 Samuel there is an E sequence almost without gaps. Because this sequence was by nature a reshaping of an earlier secular presentation, it follows by implication that there was an original continuous strand which betrayed the marks of the Pentateuchal J stratum. Although Eissfeldt's work appeared in its third German edition in 1964, he was by then out of step with the general trend of OT literary criticism, which had abandoned the idea that continuous strata could be traced in the books of Samuel, and with that the possibility of identifying them as a continuation of Pentateuchal strands.

3. Independent Units.

A different and more acceptable approach is to posit that the books attained their present form after the combination of a number of independent narrative units, some long and some short. Many of the narratives had a previous existence as independent pieces before becoming attached to a narrative complex. The most influential study in this area was Rost's examination of the succession narrative in 2 Sam 9–10; 1 Kings 1–2 (1982). Following the success of his approach other studies concentrated on complexes such as the ark narrative (Campbell 1975; Miller and Roberts 1977 ) and the story of David's rise (Grønbaek 1971 ), and others again on shorter units.

4. The Ark Narrative.

Narratives about the ark in 1 Sam 4:1b–7:1 are taken as one unit because of their concentration on the fate of the ark during a particular period, their total exclusion of Samuel, who is the key figure in the surrounding chapters, and their distinctive vocabulary. Some have also included 2 Sam 6 , recording the transportation of the ark to Jerusalem, as a climax to the complex; there is, however, no general agreement on this, mainly because of the difficulties caused by variations in nomenclature between 1 Sam 7:1 and 2 Sam 6:2–4 .


The historical setting suggests an early date for the ark narrative. The tenth century BCE has been proposed as a possibility, with the pilgrims coming up to festivals in Jerusalem as the intended audience. Its purpose was to give them an outline of the ark's previous history. Others, whilst accepting a tenth-century date, find in the narrative an underlying theological theme, namely YHWH's activity in the history of Israel (Campbell 1975 ) and by implication his power and invincibility (Gordon 1986 ).


An earlier date, taking the narrative back to the time of Saul and David, has also been proposed (Miller and Roberts 1977 ). The main argument given in support is that an account of the previous misfortunes of the ark would be unnecessary and irrelevant once David was on his way to be king in Jerusalem. A date between the defeat at Ebenezer and the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem has therefore been suggested. This issue has been made more complex by Miller and Roberts' proposal to connect other passages with the ark narrative, more especially the passages in ch. 2 which are critical of Eli and his sons and therefore provide a reason for the defeat at Ebenezer.


An early date seems more appropriate for the ark narrative than the later date proposed by some investigators. To date some parts of it after the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE and others in the reign of Hezekiah in the late eighth or early seventh centuries, and to interpret it as a narrative intended to combat the tide of Assyrian religious beliefs and practices (Schicklberger 1973 ), divorces it entirely from the historical setting to which it belongs. So too does the emphasis on its timelessness and therefore its possible relevance to those in the Babylonian exile (Timm 1966 ). On the contrary, it is best understood as an ancient independent unit which eventually found its way into the books of Samuel (cf. also Gordon 1986 ).

8. The Founding of the Monarchy.

As noted above, the presence of duplicate accounts of the founding of the monarchy in 1 Sam 8–11 was one of the main reasons for finding in Samuel a continuation of Pentateuchal sources. With the abandonment of that approach an alternative method of dealing with these chapters had to be sought. The contrast between pro-monarchial and antimonarchial attitudes cannot be missed; it must also be observed that they have been set side by side and allowed to intertwine; however, the placing of an antimonarchial section at the beginning of the complex ( 8:1–22 ) and another at its end ( 12:1–25 ) is a clear indication of the sentiment of the final editor.


These features have been given a different interpretation in recent studies. First, instead of searching for evidence in support of Pentateuchal sources there is a tendency to find the origin of individual narratives at different centres. Some, such as 8:1–22 , originated at Ramah, others, such as 10:17–27 , at Mizpah; some again, such as 11:1–25 , obviously preserve ancient semi-historical material (see Weiser 1962 ). Secondly, there has been a shift of opinion regarding the priority of the two different attitudes towards the monarchy. Instead of taking the pro-monarchial strand as older and more reliable than the antimonarchial, which was later and reflects a post-exilic view of the institution, it is now claimed that the antimonarchial stance was a natural immediate reaction towards such an innovation (cf. Ishida 1977; Crüsemann 1978 ). Thirdly, the nature of the opposition to the monarchy in these chapters has been reassessed. One contention is that the antimonarchial sections were not absolutely opposed to the monarchy but to particular forms of monarchy, especially those encroaching upon the sovereignty of YHWH (Boecker 1969 ; cf. Birch 1976 ).


It does not concern us at this point to decide how the monarchy was founded, nor to attempt a description of the historical circumstances leading to the election and anointing of Israel's first king. But, as far as the composition of the books of Samuel is concerned, what is envisaged is that a number of traditions about the early beginnings were available at different key centres, each reflecting the interests of its particular centre. When they were brought together into this complex, they were set side by side without any apparent awareness of the contradiction involved.

11. The History of David's Rise.

The extensive collection of narratives in 1 Sam 16–31 has been designated as ‘The History of David's Rise’, whose theme is the advance of David under the guidance of YHWH, a theme supported by its counterpart, namely that Saul had lost divine favour and was no longer competent to rule (cf. Grønbaek 1971 ). Although Saul is present throughout these chapters, interest focuses on David, and the story of his rise to power, from his initial anointing at Bethlehem by Samuel until his acceptance as king over Israel in Jerusalem, is traced step by step.


There are some uncertainties about this History. Its natural starting-point is with Samuel's commission to find a successor for Saul (1 Sam 16:1 ); but alternative starting-points have been proposed. Some have argued against the inclusion of the report of David's anointing in 16:1–13 , mainly because no other reference to his anointing is found in the History, and furthermore because it is Saul that is consistently called ‘God's anointed’. Others have taken the starting-point back to 15:1 . Likewise there is disagreement about the History's conclusion. A suitable climax is provided by the account in 2 Sam 5:1–10 of David's occupation of Jerusalem. But arguments have been presented for including other sections within the History, most notably the account of David's victories over the Philistines in 2 Sam 5:17–25 in fulfilment of the promise in 2 Sam 3:18, and also 2 Sam 6:1–23 because of linguistic similarities to 5:17–25 . Also included by some is Nathan's oracle in 2 Sam 7 , which seems to be presupposed by 2 Sam 3:9–10 and 5:2 . However, the fact that such a variety of opening and concluding sections have been proposed is not in itself a sufficient reason for doubting the existence of the History.


Unquestionably the impression gained is that an author has brought together material relating to David's advance to the throne and has worked it around a dominant theme. Its obvious aim was to demonstrate that David was the legitimate successor of Saul as king of all Israel and that he gained the throne lawfully by respecting ‘the LORD's anointed’ and not taking any of the many chances given to him to usurp the throne. This latter point is made clear in the two accounts of David's refusal to take Saul's life (1 Sam 24 and 26 ); the same point is brought out again in the emphasis on David's noncomplicity in the deaths of Saul (1 Sam 29:1–11 ), Abner (2 Sam 3:28–39 ), and Ishbaal (2 Sam 4:9–12 ), as it is in Abigail's specific statement to this effect in 1 Sam 25:30–1 . David behaved honourably on all these occasions, and it is impossible to support the view that he was an opportunist engaged in guerrilla warfare against Saul and joining with bands of malcontents to usurp the throne (as argued by Ishida 1977 ; cf. Gordon 1984 for a refutation of this argument).


A tenth-century date for this History has been suggested; a justification of David's conduct as he was moving towards the throne was perhaps necessary in the reign of Solomon, when a Saulide faction was in danger of threatening the unity of the kingdom. It has been suggested that a member of Solomon's court prepared the history and deliberately took a positive attitude towards the Saulides. Not quite as convincing is the proposal to date it in the early years of the divided kingdom, soon after Solomon's death, and to give it the specific aim of supporting Davidic and Jerusalemite claims to supremacy over ‘all Israel’.


The comparison made recently between the History and the thirteenth-century BCE ‘Apology of Ḥattushilish’ throws an interesting light on the history of the genre (McCarter 1980 ). Ḥattushilish, a Hittite king, after absolute allegiance to his predecessor, finally usurped the throne when his life was in danger. In his revolt he was assisted by the goddess Ishtar who had promised him the throne. Similarly David had been faithful to Saul until he was finally compelled to leave court; he too came to the throne because YHWH had promised it to him. In both versions it was divine will that finally decided the issue of succession.

16. The Succession Narrative.

L. Rost's (1926 ) study of the succession narrative identified 2 Sam 9–20; 1 Kings 1–2 as a separate unit that was mainly concerned with the issue of succession to David's throne. It is an issue that is given full expression in 1 Kings 1:20 , and the narrative as a whole is concluded with the statement in 1 Kings 2:46 that ‘the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon’. Other possible candidates for the throne have been dismissed one by one until the final scene portrays the contest between the two last candidates, Adonijah and Solomon.


There are no real grounds for disagreement about the conclusion of the succession narrative, despite the attempts to take 1 Kings 1–2 with the Solomonic corpus which follows rather than the Davidic section which precedes. Another view that has been taken is that the original corpus was a Court History of Davidic times, upon which was superimposed the theme of succession when 1 Kings 1–2 was added to it (Flanagan 1972 ). There is more room for disagreement about the specific point at which the narrative begins. It can be argued that the promise to David in 2 Sam 7 is an appropriate introduction to a section concerned about the succession (Jones 1990 ). Links have been noted too with the bulk of 2 Sam 2–4 (Gunn 1976 ), possibly with 5:1–3 and also with 6:16, 20–3 ; but the case for connecting these sections with the corpus is not as convincing as is the one for connecting 2 Sam 7 . Strict adherence to the theme of succession helps to eliminate some of these sections.


Giving it the title Court History raises the question of the character of this complex of narratives. A court history must be envisaged as a document giving an account of events which keeps as faithfully as possible to their course, and would depend possibly on some records, and definitely on recollections of eyewitnesses. Eyewitness accounts would have been possible here if the History is dated in the period of the Solomonic Enlightenment which came soon after the events described. Consequently it has won acclamation as ‘the oldest speciment of ancient Israelite historical writing’ and as ‘genuine historical writing’ (von Rad 1966 ). Nevertheless, the validity of the term ‘history’ has been doubted. Reports of private scenes and conversations suggest that some of its contents are more akin to court gossip than to reliable history. Its interest in personalities rather than in the political implication of events, its lack of reference to the international scene, and the absence of citation of sources and of chronology have led to the judgement that, whilst using historical facts and possessing a historical theme, it cannot be classified as historical writing (Whybray 1968 ). Although the author displays remarkable narrative skill, his work is more a historical novel. Admittedly all the characteristics of a good novel are present: a theme, division into scenes, artistic structure, use of dialogue, portrayal of characters, and mastery of style. But to consider it as a novel, or a ‘work of art and entertainment’ (Gunn 1978 ), fails to do justice to its aim and purpose. There are good reasons for placing it in the category of political propaganda.


The aim and purpose of the complex thus becomes an issue. As noted, its aim has been described as seeking to demonstrate the legitimacy of Solomon's accession to the throne and to justify the elimination of his opponents. The narrative's aim is to make a point. Works disseminating political propaganda were known in the days of Solomon; Egyptian precedents also sought to legitimize claims to the throne, such as the claims of Amenemhet in the Prophecy of Neferty and the claims of Sesostris in the Instruction of Amenemhet (Whybray 1968; Mettinger 1976 ). Doubts have been raised, however, regarding its designation as ‘succession narrative’ and also the definition of its aim as legitimizing Solomon. Against the former it has been pointed out that succession is not the dominant issue in most of these chapters, especially in 2 Sam 13–20 (Conroy 1978; Gunn 1978 ); against the latter a case has been made for seeing an anti-Solomonic tendency in 1 Kings 1–2 and anti-Davidic elements in 2 Sam 10–12 . Many of the discussions of purpose are combined with complex analyses of the Deuteronomistic History into editions by successive redactors, with the various editions modifying the view taken of David and Solomon. For such reasons some have been inclined to abandon altogether the concept of ‘succession narrative’. Carlson (1964 ), for instance, claims that this corpus of material is too closely integrated with the remainder of the narrative in Samuel-Kings to be separated and treated as an entity. He finds in the narrative ‘recollections’ of previous sections as well as thematic and verbal similarities to other parts of Samuel-Kings. Rejecting the term ‘succession narrative’, he finds the schema ‘David under the blessing’ (2 Sam 2–5 ) and ‘David under the curse’ (2 Sam 9–24 ) adequate to deal with the Davidic corpus of tradition.


Whatever difficulties may arise in connection with such terms as ‘court history’ and ‘succession narrative’, it is clear that a block of tradition reaches its climax with the statement in 1 Kings 2:46 , which causes a break between it and what follows. Although the succession of Solomon to the throne gives a general indication of the theme of that section, the concept of ‘succession narrative’, as originally defined, may well have to be modified. But it is conceivable that during the early years of Solomon the events leading to his accession to the throne were recorded. It may be that the unease caused by the executions of 1 Kings 2:39 prompted the writing of a political tract to show that Solomon was the legitimate heir. Its contents suggest that it emerged from court circles.

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