1, 2 Samuel

How to read 1 and 2 Samuel


  • Content: the transition from the last judge, Samuel, to the first king, Saul; the rise of David.

  • Historical coverage: from Samuel's birth (ca. 1100 B.C.) to the end of David's kingship (970 B.C).

  • Emphases: the beginning of kingship in Israel; the concern over kingship and covenant loyalty; the ark of the covenant as representing God's presence; the choice of Jerusalem as "the City of David"; the Davidic covenant with messianic overtones; David's adultery and its consequences.


The books of Samuel and Kings together form a continuous history of the Israelite monarchy from the time of Samuel to its demise in 587/6 B.C. It is important as you read them to remember that in the Hebrew Bible they belong to the Former Prophets. Like the books of the Latter Prophets, these books present God's perspective on the history of his people; although they concentrate on Israel's kings, prophets play an important role as well.

The book of Samuel tells the story from the beginnings of kingship to the declining years of David's reign. The story centers on three key people: Samuel, the last of the judges and the prophet who anoints the first two kings; Saul, Israel's first king; and David, Israel's most important king. The book itself is in four basic parts, related to these three men.

Part I is about Samuel alone (1 Sam 1-7). Essential here are the birth, call, and early career of Samuel ( 1:1-4:1a) and the loss and return of the ark of the covenant (4:1b-7:1), followed eventually by a great victory over the Philistines (7:2-14).

In part 2 (1 Sam 8- 15), Samuel and Saul overlap. Two matters are essential here: (1) Yahweh's affirmations of and warnings about the monarchy (chs. 8-12; cf. Deut 17:14-20) and (2) the beginning of Saul's reign and Yahweh's rejection of him as king (1 Sam 13-15).

In part 3 (1 Sam 16-31), Saul and David overlap. Its essential story is told at the beginning and the end: the anointing of David to replace Saul as king (16:1-13) and the death of Saul and his heir apparent, Jonathan (ch.3l). Thus it is all about David's rise and Saul's decline, as well as Saul's constant pursuit of David in order to kill the upstart rival to his dynasty.

Part 4 (2 Samuel) concentrates on David-although concern over Saul continues (chs. 1-4;9; 21)-while Nathan (chs. 7, 12) and Gad (ch. 24) now don the prophetic mantle of Samuel. Chapters 1-9 set out the basic story of David's reign, the most significant part of which is the covenant in chapter 7 that establishes David's dynasty "forever" (w. 15-16). Chapters 10-20 narrate David's sin with Bathsheba that becomes a catalyst to expose the internal weaknesses in David's family and the tenuous nature of the united kingdom. Chapters 21-24 are a kind of reflective appendix to the story of David.


The book of Samuel is full of many intriguing and riveting individual stories. But this very fact, which makes reading Samuel so interesting, can also cause you to miss some significant things with regard to the bigger picture of the story of Israel. To read Samuel well, you need to be aware of a few of these, especially some Deuteronomic themes that pervade the whole.

The history itself takes place roughly over the eleventh century B.C., a time when no superpower is a major player in Palestine (see "Specific Advice for Reading Joshua,"). Thus the time was ripe for a strong local power to arise and subdue the others, which was precisely what David did (see 2 Sam 8). The major obstacle to such a program came not from the Canaanites but from the Philistines, whom you first meet in the book of Judges (Shamgar, Samson). They were sea peoples who had settled on the Mediterranean coast and held sway over the coastal area (and often further inland) from their five major cities (Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron). It is their influence that pushes the Israelite tribes toward the unification and protection afforded by the monarchy, and it is their presence that lies behind so much of the story of the book of Samuel, until David defeats them "in the course of time" (2 Sam 8:1).

The book of Samuel, therefore, is especially the story of transitions from the periodic, partial rule of judges to an institutionalized hereditary monarchy; from a king who looks like the typical Near Eastern king (warned about by Samuel as a prophet, 1 Sam 8:10-18) to one who is loyal to Yahweh; from no central place where God's Name dwells to a new center in Jerusalem. All of this is marvelously told-with wit, irony, suspense, wordplays-but above all with an eye to what God is

doing with and among his people, even as he gives them a king.

One of the central (Deuteronomic) concerns of the book, evident in the structure itself, is the true worship of God at the place of his dwelling (his presence). This theme begins with a prophecy against the house of Eli because they "scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling" (1 Sam 2:29). Then chapters 4-7 focus on the ark of the covenant, whose capture meant "the glory has departed from Israel" (4:22). Later, a central feature of David's reign is his bringing the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6), where he desires to build a temple for it, but is forbidden (ch. 7). And the book ends with David's building an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah (24:18-25), which the intended reader would know is the precise place where the temple will eventually stand.

Linked to this is another theme that is a central feature of the narrative, namely, the tension between monarchy and covenant loyalty. You will see how this is set up near the beginning-in the contrasting sentiments between Samuel and the people in I Samuel 8- 12. As the story proceeds, you are regularly reminded that even divinely appointed kings can, and do, act like other kings (as warned about in Deut 17:14-20). Yet David's essential loyalty to Yahweh lies at the heart of the story, and God covenants with him that his dynasty will endure forever (2 Sam

7)-a covenant that becomes a central feature in much of the rest of God's story.

Note how this tension lies at the heart of the contrasting stories of Saul and David (1 Sam 16-31). At issue in the end for our narrator is not whether Israel has a king, but what kind of king they will have. Key to this is whether the king will both be faithful to Yahweh and display Yahweh's character, since whatever else is true about Israel's king, he is to be the earthly representative of Yahweh's own kingship over Israel. Thus, even though Saul is anointed by Samuel and appears to begin well, there are deep flaws in his character,many of which are already subtly present at the beginning. At the end he is rejected because he thinks like any other king- that he is above the law and can act autonomously. Moreover, the prophetic tradition in Israel, represented by Samuel and Nathan, serves as a constant reminder that kings were not autonomous. Israel may indeed have rejected theocracy (the direct rule by God) for monarchy (1 Sam 8), but the role of her king was to mediate Yahweh's rule in Israel and thus to lead God's people in obedience to Yahweh.

A similar ambivalence pervades the story of David reign as well (2 Sam 5-20).The fact that David's kingly exploits are merely summarized in 2 Samuel 8 while the story of his sin and the evil it let loose in the kingdom is narrated in considerable detail (chs. 10-20) should get our attention! Thus the narrator reminds us in various ways of David's genuine loyalty to Yahweh, not least by his placing the two great poems of David's devotion and praise to the Lord (22:1-23:7) as the centerpiece of his summarizing appendix (chs . 21-24).Yet this picture of "the man of faith" (21:15 -17 ; 23:13- 17) is set in the context of "the man of weakness" (24:1-17)-but who, when confronted with his sin, repents by means of prayer and sacrifice.

You will also want to watch for two parts of a subplot from Genesis (see "specific Advice for Reading Genesis, p.26) that mark this story as well: (1) the barren-woman motif that begins the story of Samuel (echoed in a variety of ways in Luke 1) and (2) God's choice of the "lesser" to fulfill his covenant purposes (David the shepherd boy).

There is one other important matter to keep in mind as you read, which leads to how this narrative fits into the metanarrative of the biblical story. In the ancient Near East the king was considered both the embodiment of his people (that is, he stood in for them at all times as their representative) and the representative of the deity for the people (cf. Ps 2:7, where the Davidic king is called "God's Son"). This is why Samuel and Kings tell the story of Israel almost exclusively as the story of their kings-and why the king speaks for the people in the Psalter. But this also explains why kingship was such a frightening prospect in Israel. At the same time, however, the role of David in the biblical story is affirmed, for in the end it is David's greater Son who comes as the true embodiment of Israel while also, &s the true Son of God representing God to Israel. This is why Jesus'kingship plays such an important role in the New Testament telling of his story.


The Story of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-7)

The narrator intends for you to admire Samuel, who serves as Israel's last judge and next great prophet after Moses. He is also the one who will anoint Israel's first two kings.


The Birth and Call of Samuel

Note the decisive role that Hannah plays in this story: a barren woman praying for a son (1:1 -20), dedicating him to God (1:21-28), and rejoicing in the Lord (2: 1- 11 ). Note also how her prayer anticipates at least two motifs of the story-(l) God blesses the weak, not the strong, and (2) God will give strength to his king. Samuel's origins are then set in contrast to the wickedness of Eli's sons (2:12-36), followed by Samuel's call (3:1-18) and a concluding summary of his ministry (3: 1 9-4:1a). Note how Eli's acceptance of Yahweh's rejection of him as priest (3:18) serves as a foil for Saul's later refusal to accept Yahweh's

rejection of him as king.


The Loss Return of the Ark

Note how this section is dominated by the loss and return of the glory of God, associated with the ark, where God "is enthroned between the cherubim" (4:4). The ark is not a talisman for Israel to use at a whim (4:1b-22), but neither are the Philistines to think that they have conquered Israel's God (ch. 5), so it is returned partway toward its final resting place (6:1 -7:1). Some twenty years later, Samuel calls for national repentance, which results in God's aid in defeating the Philistines (7:2-13, echoes of Judges). Note how the concluding section summarizes Samuel's ministry, even though there is more to say about him (cf. the role of 1 Sam 15:34-35 in the Saul narrative).

The Story of Samuel and Saul (1 Samuel 8-15)

Here watch for the tension between kingship in Israel and covenant loyalty; Samuel warns of this three times, and the first king then comes to represent covenant disloyalty


Saul Anointed King

You might want to read this section in light of Deuteronomy 16: 18-17:20. Note how it starts (8:1-3) with,)echoes from Deuteronomy 16:18-20 (judges who pervert justice and show partiality). The rest of this section is bookended by two warnings about the potential evils of monarchy, including statements about the people's rejection of Yahweh's kingship (8 :4-22 and 1 1:1 4-12:25). These frame the narratives about Saul's becoming king-first, his anointing by Samuel (9:1-10:8), which emphasizes Saul's humble beginnings, and second, his being presented to the people and their confirmation of him (10:9-1 1:13), emphasizing his continuity with the prophetic tradition, his timid nature, and his military success (the holy war).


The Failure of Saul's Kingship

Here Saul's entire reign (13:1) is reduced to three incidents that occurred well into his reign. Two framing narratives demonstrate his covenant disloyalty-offering his own sacrifice (13:2-15) and violating the covenantal holy-war rules (15:1-35; cf. Achan's sin in Josh 7). The central narrative (13:16-14:48) demonstrates his weakness of character and personal failure in engaging the holy war. Each of these is symptomatic of his general disobedience and provides evidence of his lack of true faith in Yahweh. Thus Yahweh rejects him as Israel's king (encapsulated in I 5:22-23). Note how, despite the fact that Saul lives on until chapter 31, his reign comes to its effective end at 15:35, where he is rejected (though mourned) by Samuel and by Yahweh.

The Story of Saul and David (1 Samuel 16-31)

As you read this part of the story, look for the interweaving of David's rise to power, even though a fugitive, and Saul's decline. You need to be aware that the author's interest at the beginning is not so much with the chronology of events as with their significance for the story as a whole.


The Rise of David

Notice how the opening story of David's anointing as future king (16:1-13) concludes on the twin notes that the Spirit of Yahweh came on David (v. 13) but had departed from Saul (v. 14). The first two scenes (16:14-23;17:1-58) set up the program: David's initial positive relationship with Saul; David's first exploit-a shepherd boy who trusts Yahweh ("the battle is the Lord's [Yahweh's]," 17:47) slays the Philistine champion Goliath (thus success in the holy war).


The Decline and Death of Saul

This section begins with a story illustrating its central theme: Saul's jealousy of David and his attempts to kill him (ch. 18). Note how the rest of the section is dominated by Saul's pursuit of David while David in turn has two opportunities to kill Saul, but will not lift his hand against "the Lord's anointed" (chs. 24 and 26, which encircle his being saved from his own anger by Abigail).

Interwoven into this theme are (1) other accounts of Saul's downward spiral, in the end consulting a medium (ch. 28) and finishing in shame (ch. 31); (2) accounts of David's existence as the fugitive head of a band of guerrillas; (3) evidence of David's obedience to Yahweh and consideration of his character (e.g., his largeheartedness toward Saul and Jonathan)-note especially how Abigail's speech in 25:26-31 not only saves David from vengeful wrongdoing but in effect allows the narrator to express his theme for these chapters; and (4) David's frequent, temporary stays in enemy territory, where God protected him from harm and covenant disloyalty under conditions that could have produced either result.

The Story of David (2 Samuel)

You will observe that the first part of the story is dominated by the theme of David's covenant loyalty, which leads to the Davidic covenant, yet one particular moment of covenant disloyalty sets up much of what goes wrong with the rest of the story (1 and 2 Kings).


The Story of David as King of Judah

This section presents the aftermath of Saul's death; note how it emphasizes David's nonrole in the civil war that followed. Thus he laments over Saul and Jonathan (ch. 1). Following the account of his becoming king of Judah (ch. 2), he is notably exonerated in all the tragedies that follow (chs. 3-4). Keep your eyes open for the rift between north and south, which is picked up again in chapters 19-20 and becomes final in 1 and 2 Kings.


The Story of David as King over All Israel

Following David's assuming the kingship over all Israel (5:1 -5) is a sequence of four narratives (5:6-7:29) that are especially crucial: (1) David's conquest of Jerusalem, (2) the conquest of the Philistines, (3) bringing the ark to Jerusalem, and above all, (a) God's covenant with David that "your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me" (7:1-16), to which David responds in an outpouring of praise and gratitude (7:18-29).

The importance of the preceding narratives is highlighted by the brevity of chapter 8, which serves to bring the conquest to a conclusion (see Joshua). Here you find David's many years as king condensed into two brief summaries. And because our narrator is ultimately concerned not with David's kingly exploits but with his character, he concludes with another narrative of David's kindness to the house of Saul (ch. 9), where the.,lame" enter the palace-despite the saying in 5:8! But note how this scene sits in contrast to the unfortunate story that follows'


David's Sin and Its Consequences

Note how the account of David's sin against Bathsheba and Uriah is told in detail. It is set up in chapter 10, recounted in chapter 1 1, and condemned

in chapter 12. And watch for the irony in chapter 11-the faithful foreigner Uriah honors an unfaithful Israelite king; the foreigner retains sexual purity during war, while the Israelite king dallies with his wife; the king, who has not gone into battle himself, sends the faithful soldier to his death in battle. The king is portrayed throughout as one who is accountable to God for his actions (note how crucial ch. 12 is to the Israelite view of kingship), but in contrast to Saul, David repents and is then filled with remorse over the dying child, the result of his sin.

This event sets in motion the rest of the story (chs. 13-20) in two ways. First, watch how illicit sexuality, murder, and intrigue are multiplied in David's family, as Nathan's prediction (12: 10- 12) is fulfilled. In turn there is rape , fratricide, treachery, rebellion, seizure of David's concubines, and civil war, and the fissures between north and south portrayed in 19:8b- 20:26 anticipate the unbridgeable chasm related in 1 Kings 12. And second observe how this whole series of events is related to the question later raised by Bathsheba in 1 Kings 1:20: "Who will sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?"


Final Reflections on David and His Reign

Notice how the narrator also and Saul, before David's story summarizes David, as he did Samuel is actually over (cf. 1 Sam 7:15-17; 15:34-35). But in this case it is a purposeful arrangement (in a concentric, non chronological pattern) of two narratives, two accounts of David's mighty warriors, and two poems. The two poems (2 Sam 22:1-51 [a version of Ps 18] and 23:1-7) review, first, God's mighty acts for and through David and second, God's covenant promise of an enduring throne. Note especially how both poems ascribe glory to God at every point. If David is o'the lamp of Israel" (21:17), God is in fact David's lamp (22:29).

The inner frame for these affirmations comprises two accounts of David's mighty warriors (21:15 -22; 23:8-39), reminding you of God's role both in battle and in times of David's humanity and vulnerability. Significantly, the famine and plague stories (3 years/3 days) that frame the whole (21:1 - 14;24:1-25) end with obedience and sacrifice. Again watch for the irony: Following the two poems and the list of David's mighty men, 2 Samuel concludes with the story of David counting his fighting men, in violation of holy-war law, to begin preparations for further conquests, and to establish his own importance (24:1- 17). At the same time, the sacrifice on the site of the future temple (24:18-25) prepares the way for 1 and 2 Kings.

The book of Samuel takes God's story into the monarchy, especially

by means of the story of King David, a man of faith even while a man

of weakness. God's covenant with David is the basis for Jewish messianism,

fulfilled finally in the ultimate Son of David Jesus of Nazareth.