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Samuel, The Books of


The two books are in reality one (cf. Kings, Chronicles): in the Hebrew text, they run continuously, with the counting of words and sections characteristic of the Hebrew tradition coming only at the end. The division into two appears first in the Greek translation (the Septuagint) and then in the Latin Vulgate: from there it came to be used in other translations, and by the sixteenth century also in printed Hebrew Bibles. The traditional title “Samuel” reflects the fact that he dominates much of the material, particularly in the establishing of the monarchy; hence he came to be seen as the author. The Greek and Latin texts use titles that cover also the following books of Kings—thus either “four books of kingdoms” or “four books of kings.” Since these four books together cover the whole period of the monarchy, these latter titles are really more appropriate.


Briefly the contents are:

1 Samuel 1–15: Samuel and Saul
1 Samuel 16–31: Saul and David
2 Samuel 1–8: David's rise to power
2 Samuel 9–20: David's reign
2 Samuel 21–24: narratives, psalms, and lists.

Such an outline does not show the complex interweaving of themes which the books reveal, and for a proper understanding we also need to consider both what precedes and follows, as well as the subdivisions and interlinkages within the books themselves.

What precedes in the Hebrew text is the book of Judges. (Ruth in that text stands in the third section of the canon, as one of the Five Scrolls, with Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther.) The sequence in this form is clearly right for the narratives: Eli the priest at Shiloh, who appears in the first four chapters, is depicted so as to fit into the series of “judges,” his activity rounded off at his death (4.18) with the statement that “he had judged Israel forty years.” In addition, the refrain in Judges 17–21, “in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (17.6; 18.1; 19.1; 21.25), may be seen as an appropriate preface to the establishment of the monarchy. The order in the English text places Ruth after Judges: this derives from the Greek and Latin versions and is also intelligible—not only is the book of Ruth set “in the days when the judges ruled” (1.1), but it has its climax in the birth of a son to Ruth who was to be the grandfather of David. The story of Ruth prepares for the appearance of David as king.

There is no break between Samuel and Kings; the story of David does not end, as we might have expected, at the end of 2 Samuel; it continues into 1 Kings 1–2. A commonly held view is that the group of chapters from 2 Samuel 9 to 1 Kings 2—ignoring for the moment 2 Samuel 21–24—forms a continuous unit, often called the “Succession Story” or the “Court History of David” (see below).

The recognition of continuity into 1 Kings and of the link back to Judges, itself continuous with Joshua, points to the understanding of the whole group of books from Joshua to Kings. They form a “history” from the conquest of Canaan to the fall of Judah. Because of many links of language and thought with the book of Deuteronomy, which precedes them, they are often termed the Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic) history, though it is evident that the differences between the books, in particular in their style of presenting the narratives, raise many questions about the nature of this whole compilation. Nevertheless, whatever the processes involved, we are invited to read the books as a sequence, and at many points later parts of the story can only be fully understood by reference back to earlier, as well as back to the presentation of Israel and its laws offered by Deuteronomy.

A closer look at the material within the main sections as set out above shows many different kinds of writing now woven together. The proper understanding of the books involves the recognition of these different elements and a discussion of their possible origin and significance, but also an appreciation of the overall presentation, its patterns and its functions. The date of the books of Samuel can only be determined within this broader framework: its final shaping must belong at the earliest in the sixth century BCE.

The Text of the Books of Samuel.

The detailed problems of the Hebrew text and its relationship to alternative forms, attested by the early Greek translation and by the fragmentary manuscripts from Qumran, are a matter for a full commentary. There are passages where the evidence points to the existence of more than one recension, and, as may be seen from the brief notes in NRSV and from similar notes in other modern translations, there are many instances of small variations between the alternative texts. For example, the last verses of 1 Samuel 1 differ considerably in the Greek, and the psalm in 1 Samuel 2.1–10 is there followed by the addition of a passage found also in Jeremiah 9.23–24, expounding the ideas of knowledge of God and of divine justice. In addition, some parts of the Samuel text—the death of Saul and sections of the David story—are to be found in a different form and arrangement in 1 Chronicles, and the psalm in 2 Samuel 22 appears also as Psalm 18. Textual questions arise in all such duplicate texts.


As mentioned above, various types of material are found in the final form of the books of Samuel. The psalm in 2 Samuel 22 may be set alongside that in 1 Samuel 2.1–10; the latter does not appear in the book of Psalms, but it is clearly a psalm, used in the narrative to draw out the significance of the birth of Samuel in relation to the establishment of the monarchy. (The hymn in Luke 2.46–55 is closely related to this poem.) 2 Samuel 22 is immediately followed by another short poetic passage (2 Sam. 23.1–7), which depicts David as prophetic spokesman, though it also has considerable links with psalms relating Davidic kingship to the rule of God. Two poems of a quite different kind, laments over the dead, appear in 2 Samuel 1.19–27 and 3.33–34. These seem likely to be early: the first is cited from the Book of Jashar, the second has a gnomic quality. Some material in the books is of archival character: the family and officials of Saul are noted in 1 Samuel 14.49–51; the family of David in 2 Samuel 3.2–5 and 5.13–16, distinguishing his kingship in Hebron from that in Jerusalem; and David's officials in two slightly variant forms in 2 Samuel 8.15–18 and 20.23–26. The genealogical material is paralleled in the much more elaborate lists in 1 Chronicles; the lists of officials (cf. also 1 Kings 4.1–6 and 7–20) function as markers at the end of narrative sections. Lists of David's warriors, found in 2 Samuel 21.15–22 and 23.8–39, appear also, and in part more fully, in 1 Chronicles 21.4–8 and 11.10–47.

The major part of the two books consists of narratives. These are grouped around the main characters or associated with particular themes. Thus, 1 Samuel 1–4 are associated with Eli, head of the priestly house at Shiloh and linked to a first defeat by the Philistines and the loss of the ark of God: in part they are more concerned with the appearance of Samuel and the interweaving of the downfall of Eli's priesthood with the anticipation of a new and lasting priesthood alongside a royal house (2.27–36, also 3.10–18). The ark theme of 1 Samuel 4 continues in 5–6, and reappears in 2 Samuel 6: this has led to the supposition of an “ark source,” though it may be doubted whether such a source existed independently of other material. Various stories, clearly not all of one piece, have gathered around the figure of Samuel: he is depicted as a prophet (so, for example, in 1 Sam. 2; 9–12), a judge (so 1 Sam. 7.15–8.3), and a military leader (1 Sam. 7.3–14). As a prophet, he continues to appear in the narratives, or in some measure to overshadow them, not only through to his death (1 Sam. 25.1) but beyond it, in his appearance to pronounce doom on Saul in 1 Samuel 29. Saul, as also his son Jonathan, appears in heroic stories such as 1 Samuel 11 and 13–15. They appear as foils to David in 1 Samuel 16–31, in stories gathered more closely around the figure of David as the true king increasingly recognized as designated to replace Saul, who had been divinely chosen but then divinely rejected. With the death of Saul, told in two forms in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1, the way is clear for David to establish his kingship, over the south at Hebron, over the north with the death of Saul's feeble son Ishbaal (Ishbosheth), and with victories over the Philistines and the surrounding lands (2 Sam. 5 and 6). The stories of his reign in 2 Samuel 9–20; 21; 24 reveal further aspects of his achievements and his weaknesses, in effect brought to a conclusion when the succession of Solomon is defined in 1 Kings 1–2.

The two stories in 2 Samuel 21 and 24 are concerned with the consequences of religious disobedience (cf. also 1 Sam. 13 and 15): 2 Samuel 21.1–14 records a failure by Saul which had dire repercussions rectified by David; 2 Samuel 24 a failure by David resulting both in disaster and in the establishment of a new holy place.

The variety in style and level of the many stories suggests various origins. If we may judge from what is told of other heroic figures, both biblical and nonbiblical, it is likely that some are popular legends now attracted to a particular figure. Some may be early; others are evidently late, at least in their present form (so, for example, the Samuel war story in 1 Sam. 7). How much of actual history they contain is debated; precision of detail, such as is to be found in the intimate accounts of the life of David and his court, for example in 2 Samuel 12 and 13, are often thought to have eyewitness character. But this is deceptive; a good storyteller will provide the details that makes a story vivid, whether or not it is closely linked to actual events.

A Literary Work.

Various theories have been propounded to account for the present shape of the books of Samuel and to describe their literary evolution. Older views saw the possibility of parallel sources combined; the stories of the establishment of the monarchy in 1 Samuel 9–12, showing both favorable and unfavorable attitudes, seem to point clearly in that direction. But there is little evidence of continuous sources; alternative traditions have been brought together (so, for example, 1 Sam. 24 and 26: David's sparing of Saul's life; and 1 Sam. 31 and 2 Sam. 1: the death of Saul). Attempting harmonization in such cases is not satisfactory. An attempt has also been made to discover blocks of material, such as the Samuel birth narratives, the ark narratives, the story of David's rise to power, the Succession Story or Court History of David. It is difficult to determine where such blocks begin and end, and to understand the function of such blocks before they were incorporated into the final work. 2 Samuel 9–20 with 1 Kings 1–2, most often recently designated the “succession story” and the one most widely accepted as an ancient source, presents substantial problems; those who have studied it most closely do not agree on its function: Is it a pro‐Solomon apology or a virulent anti‐Solomon polemic? Is it virtually the work of an eyewitness (with candidates for authorship from the entourage of David) or a later reflective compilation? Did it originally stand in the work, or, bearing in mind that most of it is absent in 1–2 Chronicles, was it a late insertion? It may be proper to recognize that this, sometimes hailed as the earliest piece of real historical writing in the Bible and on occasion used as evidence for a supposed period of Davidic‐Solomonic enlightenment, is perhaps more a construction of modern scholarship than an actual ancient independent work.

More recently, there has been a tendency to think rather in terms of a great wealth of stories, naturally attached to that period in which monarchy came to be instituted and looking to the almost legendary characters of David and Solomon, which have been worked over to produce a now vivid literary work, highly structured and skillfully woven together, to be read as one: the unevennesses and discrepancies that exist, which a modern reader notes, reveal both something of the diversity of origin and also much of a literary technique not concerned with historical evaluation but with meaning and impact.

Discerning larger patterns in the arrangement and handling of the material has led to illuminating insights: the stories of David, for example, have been thought to be so ordered as to depict him as first under divine blessing and protection and then under a divine curse (cf. also the changing picture of Saul in 1 Sam.); but not everything fits so easily into a single pattern. Structuralist approaches, though sometimes so elaborate as to be unconvincing, have nevertheless pointed to the literary skill of the work: the narrator anticipates, provides occasional résumés, offers comment on the meaning of events (so for example in 1 Sam. 12 and 2 Sam. 7), and, sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly, points to the significance of what is being told. The comments are often religiously based, and in some measure linked to the thought of Deuteronomy; more clearly, they show the attempt of a compiler concerned to understand the contemporary situation in which the community now exists by relating the story of the past. Some clues (so, for example, in 1 Sam. 4–6) may point to the sixth‐century BCE period of Babylonian conquest and exile for leading members of the Judean state; the victory of the captive God of the ark in a foreign land (that of the Philistines in the story) suggests hope for a defeated people, deprived of political and religious leadership and institutions: their God might be thought defeated and captive, but in reality he mocks his powerless opponents. Such an interpretation would also fit with the overall impression of the Deuteronomic history, which reflects on Israel's failures but has a climax at the end of 2 Kings in the release of the captive Davidic king, suggesting some hope of restored life.

At first sight there is a certain miscellaneous quality about the various elements in 2 Samuel 21–24, but they should not be seen merely as an “appendix”: there is a similar collection in Judges 17–21. A closely knit structure is evident in 2 Samuel: two narratives (21.1–14 and 24) enclose two lists and brief anecdotes of heroes (21.15–22 and 23.8–39), which in their turn enclose two psalms (22 and 23.1–7). The first narrative finally resolves the problem of the royal family of Saul; the first hero list provides a link passage associated with the Philistine wars, which brought the downfall of Saul and the triumph of David (cf. 1 Sam. 17–18 and 31; 2 Sam. 1; 5). The first psalm is associated by its heading with the deliverance of David from “all his enemies … and from Saul” (22.1). The second psalm depicts the kingship of David and points to a final kingdom; its military theme is drawn out in the hero lists and stories of 23.8–39. The second narrative in chap. 24 draws together the theme of David's failures and that of his establishment of kingdom and Temple—for though the Temple is not here mentioned, the placing of this narrative as a lead‐in to the succession of Solomon is clearly designed to imply what later (1 Chron. 22.1) was regarded as established fact.

History and Interpretation.

In the light of the comments already made, it is clear that questions about the actual history of the period with which it deals are difficult to answer. Estimates vary greatly. There are those who would claim that much of the material lies very close to the events, and therefore believe that reasonably firm statements can be made about events and characters. Some would see particular sections or narratives as authentic in this sense, and others, such as 1 Samuel 7, as late inventions. Other commentators, while recognizing the presence of stories based on ancient traditions, would doubt the possibility of a historical reconstruction. The work presents considerable chronological difficulties. Eli belongs within the judge style of presentation, with his forty year period of rule; Samuel is similarly described, but without any figure given (cf. 1 Sam. 12.1–2; 25.1). The reign of Saul is problematic, since clearly the “two years” of 1 Samuel 13.1 is an error. David (like Solomon) again has forty years; the division of the reign into seven years in Hebron and thirty‐three in Jerusalem does not suggest good chronological information. Problems arise when the attempt is made to order events alluded to or described: the stories of 2 Samuel 9–20, together with those of 21 and 24, do not make up a satisfactory sequence. Unlike the material of 1 Kings 15 to 2 Kings 25, there is no overall archival framework into which the individual sections are fitted. Numerous stories could derive from popular legend, now applied to particular figures. The story of Absalom's rebellion looks like history, but is in many respects more stylized than real.

The view taken by an individual reader or by a historian will often depend on the degree to which some measure of harmonization is undertaken. But it may be doubted whether such historical uncertainty is a serious disadvantage in reading the books. What appears to be more important, for writer and reader alike, is the overall picture. We may observe the development and interpretation of a number of interrelated themes. Within the whole story, from the conquest of Canaan to the fall of Judah, changes clearly took place in the life of Israel: the shift from tribal life with local leaders to national life under the monarchy; the question of true kingship arose; the one shrine was established, Jerusalem; a true priestly line emerged, to stand alongside the royal dynasty—a theme that was to become vital during the period of the exile and to result in various claims and counterclaims in the postexilic community.

All these issues are dominant in the books of Samuel. Ostensibly, the story is one of the past. But in reality, its final shaping has drawn together themes that serve not simply to describe what was believed about the past; claims are being made about the present, to depict for a community that has its own questions and uncertainties the meaning of that age which had brought into being the major institutions of the monarchical period and to invite a revaluation of these institutions in a later time of change.

Peter R. Ackroyd

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