1, 2 Samuel

1 and 2 Samuel Introduction

In the Hebrew text the two books of Samuel formed one only. The ancient Greek Old Testament viewed the books of Samuel and Kings as a single historical work, and divided it into four sections called ‘Books of the Kingdoms’ (or ‘Reigns’). The Latin Bible kept this division, calling the four sections ‘Kings’ (see the subtitles in the av). Since the sixteenth century Hebrew Bibles too have divided the original book of Samuel into two parts, named the first and second books of Samuel.

The text

It is unfortunate that the standard (Massoretic) Hebrew text of the books of Samuel has been relatively poorly preserved (see for instance 1 Sa. 13:1). The ancient Greek text (the Septuagint) often differs from the Hebrew, and can be very helpful. Some useful additional Hebrew evidence is also available from the Qumran manuscripts (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Occasionally other ancient translations can be used. The niv footnotes make reference to these sources of information where they are important (see for instance 2 Sa. 13:39; 14:4).

Approaching the books of Samuel

Scholars find three underlying problems in approaching the books of Samuel. The first is textual. Is the standard Hebrew text to be followed, or the ancient Greek, or Qumran or other evidence, where these differ? The second is literary. Do different source documents or traditions lie behind complex sections of Samuel? If so, must they be sifted out and treated individually? The third is historical. Did events happen exactly as stated in Samuel, or must we try to distinguish the historical from the unhistorical? All three problems sometimes coincide, as, for example, in the story of David and Goliath. Here the text is very much shorter in an important Greek manuscript than in the Hebrew, and many scholars think the shorter text is the original one. The Hebrew account may have used material from at least one extra source document. If so, is this additional material equally accurate historically or not?

For a full discussion of such technical questions, larger commentaries must be consulted. For the purposes of this commentary, the niv text has been accepted as the basis for comment; the niv usually follows the Hebrew closely. Secondly, the commentary assumes that the biblical stories should be treated as they stand. Many recent studies have been stressing the need to approach the material as a unity, without denying that the biblical authors used many sources. Thirdly, the commentary also treats these stories as historical. This is not to deny that some historical problems exist. However, the biblical writers undoubtedly believed that they were presenting historical facts, and we must share their approach if we are to understand their purpose and message. For this period of Israel’s history there is very little by way of external evidence, but two lines of argument can be offered in support of the general historical accuracy of the books of Samuel. First, the general picture makes good sense and fits its historical context well. For example, the start of the Israelite monarchy must inevitably have been difficult and controversial—exactly how it is portrayed. Again. the Philistine activities are entirely credible. Secondly, the portraits of the main characters ring true. David in particular is represented realistically, as a man of great ability and charm, but with some very obvious weaknesses and failings. He is not idealized, in spite of the sympathetic treatment of him.

Date, authorship and purpose

The name Samuel in the title refers to the first major character in the books but he was not the author; his death is recorded as early as 1 Sa. 25:1. The author is unknown but he cannot have been writing earlier than the death of Solomon, towards the end of the tenth century bc, since 1 Sa. 27:6 shows knowledge of the divided monarchy. It is generally agreed that the books of Samuel were not written by themselves but were part of the whole sequence of books beginning with Joshua and ending with Kings. If so, the author of this whole historical work was writing at the time of the Babylonian exile (sixth century bc). Some verses, such as 1 Sa. 9:9 and 2 Sa. 13:18, suggest that the writer lived long after the events he records. However, the author made use of many ancient and authentic source documents, one of which is mentioned by name (2 Sa. 1:18).

In exploring the biblical author’s purpose, therefore, we have to consider the purpose of Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings as a whole. These books cover the history of Israel from the time of the conquest of Canaan until the exile. It was a period of victory, success, decline and fall. Above all, the author wanted to demonstrate God’s hand and God’s purposes in all these historical events. In particular, these books are a commentary on kingship, an institution which ultimately failed, and yet which laid the basis for the Messianic hope. In this broader context, the books of Samuel deal with Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. David was Israel’s greatest king, and his notable achievements are described in detail. Yet he was far from perfect, and his reign was by no means trouble-free. The books of Samuel explain the two sides of this picture, and show how God overruled in the history of Israel by interacting with David and other important individuals. The message is a call to repentance, as God’s people suffered for their past sins at the time of the exile. It is also a call to faith, with its reminders about God’s election of Israel, his provision for his people in every age, his faithfulness to them, and his promise of a coming King.

Further reading

J. G. Baldwin, Samuel, TOTC (IVP, 1988).

R. P. Gordon, I and II Samuel (Paternoster/Zondervan, 1986).

R. W. Klein, I Samuel, WBC (Word, 1986).

A. A. Anderson, II Samuel, WBC (Word, 1989).

av Authorized (King James) version

niv New International Version

TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (1 Sm 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.