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1–2 Samuel claims to record the history surrounding the creation of the first state of Israel, its conquest of Jerusalem for a capital city, and the original promise of a future Messiah from the royal line of King David, who was renowned for his psalms and his defeat of the giant Goliath.
The book has long been considered by many biblical scholars to contain early, perhaps even eye-witness historical testimony at various points (see Date and authorship). It is widely judged by literary critics to contain some of the finest characterisation, dialogue, and plot development in all of ancient literature.
As a book, 1-2 Samuel has a certain coherence of style and subject matter that unites its numerous distinct narrative episodes. Although it has a clear beginning (similar to Ruth) its conclusion is more open-ended. The book finishes with King David still alive and on the throne and his heir apparent Absalom a tragic casualty of civil war, whereas the choice of Solomon as heir and the death of David are recorded in the first two chapters of 1 Kings. Thus 1–2 Samuel is closely connected with the following book of 1–2 Kings. This has influenced the conclusion of many scholars that the book of Samuel was intended to be part of a larger edited history of Israel from a very early stage.
The book tells the story of the formation of ancient Israel from a coalition of separate tribes into a unified state. As history writing, though, it is less focused on politics, economics, or demographics than on characters and their interaction with the God of Israel and His representatives. The book revolves mainly around the prophet Samuel and the two kings he anointed in succession, Saul and David. David became the founder of a dynasty in Israel that lasted for more than four centuries, as described in 1–2 Kings.
The following outline gives the broad contours of the story told by this book.
Chapters 1-7 tell the story of Samuel and Israel’s early wars with the Philistines. Chapters 8-12 are concerned with the choice of a king for Israel, which Samuel reluctantly agrees to on the demand of Israel’s elders. The following chapters tell the story of Saul’s reign and his rejection as king by God through the agency of Samuel (chapters 13 and 15). Although Saul remains king until the end of 1 Samuel, the focus beginning with chapter 16 is on David, anointed as king secretly by Samuel while still a shepherd boy, his rise to be the king’s leading commander, Saul’s hostility to him, and his flight from the court and life as leader of a band of guerrillas, until Saul is killed in the battle of Gilboa in 1 Sam 31.
1:1 to 5:5 tell of David’s success in becoming king first of Judah, with his capital at Hebron, and then of all Israel and Judah. In 5:6 to 6:23 we read of his capture of Jerusalem to be his new capital, and his bringing of the Ark of God there as the new state’s religious centre. His prophet Nathan gives him a promise from YHWH that his dynasty will be permanent (chapter 7). The wars by which his power was extended are briefly described in chapter 8. Chapters 9 to 20 are an account of dynastic conflicts, including David’s adultery with Bathsheba, whose son Solomon will succeed him, the death of his eldest son Amnon and the rebellion and death of another son, Absalom. Chapters 21-24 is a kind of appendix, including narratives not placed in chronological order and two poems attributed to David, one of which, chapter 22, is a version of Ps 18.
Date and authorship
The book has been anonymous since ancient times.
The book itself refers to other texts, possibly sources (1 Sam 10:25; 2 Sam 1:18; 8:16-17; 20:24-25), and it is not unlikely, therefore, that the book was composed using preexisting traditions or source texts. Initially scholars suggested that these might have belonged to the hypothesised ‘J’ and ‘E’ sources of the Pentateuch, but ever since a 1926 book by Leonhard Rost, the majority scholarly view has been that the source material initially comprised distinct clusters of related stories. These are normally defined as follows:
- Shiloh tradition (1 Sam 1–3)
- Ark narrative (1 Sam 4–6; 2 Sam 6)
- Rise of Saul (1 Sam 7–15)
- History of David’s rise (1 Sam 16 – 2 Sam 5)
- Prophecy of Nathan (2 Sam 7)
- Account of the Ammonite war (2 Sam 10; 12:26-31)
- Succession narrative (2 Sam 9–20; 1 Kgs 1–2) or court history (2 Sam 9–20)
- Appendix (2 Sam 21–24)
There is much disagreement over the precise boundaries of most of these segments, mainly because it is possible to recognise narrative foreshadowing and related material in earlier stories.
On dating this source material, many scholars believe that the vivid storytelling of much of it, and its strong support for David, suggest that it comes from a time close to the events, perhaps from an eyewitness of many of them. But recently this view has receded in favour of the view that much of the material is imaginative composition from a later time, perhaps as late as the 6th or 5th century BCE, though the language suggests a rather earlier date.
As regards the date of the editorial compilation of these assorted segments into a coherent book, most scholars still rely on some variant of the theory proposed by Martin Noth in 1943 about a “Deuteronomistic History”, a single edited work spanning Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Little of the book, however, displays clear “Deuteronomistic” features. There may have been an earlier prophetic edition which first combined the various traditions and sources. These prophetic editors may have even been responsible for the supposedly ‘Deuteronomistic’ anti-monarchical views in 1 Sam 8–12, since prophets are notoriously critical of kings in Israelite tradition.
If the primary mind(s) shaping the final form of 1–2 Samuel were Deuteronomistic, their purpose may have been to teach that the Israelites’ insistence on having a king like all the nations was why their nation eventually failed and went into exile. In that case, many of the other stories can be interpreted similarly as pointed metaphors for this later historical period, as Robert Polzin argues. Equally, works of literature do usually have ongoing relevance for later generations for whom they were not written, and this could apply to either the source material or edited compositional stages of 1–2 Samuel. On the other hand, if one takes the traditional view that much of the book was written within the lifetime of many of its characters, its purpose may have been to defend Solomon’s claim to the throne of David (his mother Bathsheba’s adultery being particularly hard to explain), or else to defend David’s claim to the throne of the first king Saul (his alliance with the Philistines at the time of Saul’s death being problematic).
This book claims to record historical events of huge religious and political significance for both the Jewish people and the Christian religion, so its authority as a historical source has been intensely questioned in recent decades, from different approaches.
(1) Late editing into a final form would mean that the book is further removed from the history it claims to speak of, and thus less reliable, although it could have used reliable early sources carefully. There are occasional notes in the text that suggest a later time of writing (1 Sam 27:6; 2 Sam 18:18).
(2) Scholars have often identified stories that appear to imitate or contradict each other, for example, David being introduced to Saul (1 Sam 16:14-23; 1 Sam 17:55-58), David sparing Saul (1 Sam 24; 1 Sam 26), or a giant called Goliath being killed by a man from Bethlehem (1 Sam 17; 2 Sam 21:19). Some interpret these as evidence that the stories were two versions of the same event that grew over time through oral tradition, and are therefore unreliable. Others see the differences between the paired stories as deliberate and meaningful when interpreted within their narrative context.
(3) There is considerable disagreement over the interpretation of archaeological remains from the Late Bronze and early Iron Age, particularly those in Jerusalem, and how these might be reconciled with the data from 1-2 Samuel.
The worldview of the author(s) and/or editor(s) of 1–2 Samuel has been explored from many different perspectives. One popular approach is to look behind the story, trying to understand the motivations of characters, or the human or divine causes of events within the narrative as a reflection of ancient Israelite society and its beliefs. Alternatively, looking beyond the story might consider the implications and impact of specific events or texts in the book for subsequent thought.
One noteworthy example of an event is the arrival of the Ark of God into the newly captured city of Jerusalem (2 Sam 6), a story which has defined the religious importance of Jerusalem even to the present day.
An example of a text is the promise of an eternal dynasty for David and for his future descendant (2 Sam 7), which is seen as one origin of the Messianic hope in Judaism and Christianity. The Jewish concept of a Messiah has been connected above all with the figure of David and his royal dynasty from very ancient times. Most scholars would recognise even before the exile to Babylon a belief in the permanence of David’s dynasty, perhaps with the concurrent hope for a better king than the current one (see Ps 132 or 89). The connection between David’s own status as the ‘anointed’ and that of his future royal heir(s) is to be found above all in 2 Sam 7, where the prophet Nathan delivers to David an oracle promising that his dynasty will endure “for ever” (vv. 13, 16, 25, 26, 29).
History and theology
The book of Samuel has been read and valued since very ancient times. Most scholars accept that 1 Chronicles makes use of a number of texts drawn from 2 Samuel and the last chapter of 1 Samuel. There is also clear borrowing between 2 Sam 22 and Ps 18, though the direction of borrowing is disputed.
Josephus retold many of the stories of 1–2 Samuel in his Jewish Antiquities books V–VII, and the New Testament refers to stories from 1–2 Samuel also, e.g., in Matt 12:1-8 and Acts 13:20-22. Numerous imaginative expansions of details in the text of 1–2 Samuel, known as midrash, were brought together from many sources to form Midrash Samuel in the 9th century, some of these being found in the earlier Aramaic translation of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, called Targum Jonathan. Christian scholars such as Origen, Chrysostom, and Bede preached sermons or wrote commentaries on 1–2 Samuel, as did later medieval Jewish scholars, most notably Rashi, and later Christian scholars including Hugh of St Victor, Nicholas of Lyra, Cardinal Cajetan, and John Calvin.
Fine art and music
Stories in the book of Samuel have inspired a huge diversity of works of fine art. These include famous sculptures of the shepherd boy David by Donatello (twice), Verrocchio, Michelangelo, and Bernini, and paintings of David and Goliath by Rubens, Caravaggio (several times), Michelangelo, Titian, and Poussin. The mad King Saul was painted by Rembrandt and his final battle by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. David’s anointing by Samuel was painted by Raphael, David and Jonathan by Rembrandt, David and Abigail by Rubens, and (David watching) Bathsheba bathing nude by Rembrandt (twice) and Gentileschi, among many others.
There have been many musical retellings of the stories in 1–2 Samuel. George Frideric Handel wrote an oratorio “Saul” (1738). Leonard Cohen’s famous pop song “Hallelujah” describes David as a writer of psalms and depicts his adultery with Bathsheba. The story of “King David” was also made into a musical, a modern oratorio, by Tim Rice and Alan Menken, initially commissioned for official Israeli celebrations of the 3,000th anniversary of David’s capture of the city of Jerusalem in 1995.
Literature and film
Literature based on 1–2 Samuel is very diverse, including John Dryden’s allegorical poem “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681), Voltaire’s play Saül (1763), Stefan Heym’s satire The King David Report (1973), Gene Edwards’ psychological drama A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness (1980), and Joseph Heller’s novel God Knows (1984).
Films depicting events from 1–2 Samuel include notably “David and Bathsheba” (1951), with Gregory Peck as King David, and “King David” (1985) with Richard Gere in the title role. NBC also produced a TV series called “Kings” in 2009, retelling the story of David.
Politics and military
During the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th century CE, Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, adopted the nickname ‘David’ in court, after the biblical king. Similarly, early in the 17th century, King James I of England (VI of Scotland) argued that the words of the prophet Samuel in 1 Sam 8:11-18 outlined the acceptable demands of a king on his people. John Dryden’s poem “Absalom and Achitophel” was a pointed comment on late 17th-century politics, and similarly Stefan Heym’s book The King David Report was a satire on government propaganda in the German Democratic Republic.
The military tactics described in 1–2 Samuel have also inspired successful imitation, e.g., when the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the Michmash Pass on 13 February 1918 by a single British infantry company, following the strategy of Jonathan and his armour bearer from 1 Sam 13–14.
Alter, Robert. The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Brueggemann, Walter. David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002.
Gordon, Robert P. 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary. Exeter: Paternoster, 1986.
Halpern, Baruch. David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King. Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001.
Klein, Ralph W. 1 Samuel. 2nd ed. Word Biblical Commentary 10. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. I Samuel. Anchor Bible 8. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. II Samuel. Anchor Bible 9. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Rost, Leonhard. The Succession to the Throne of David. Translated by Michael D. Rutter and David M. Gunn. Sheffield: Almond, 1982.
Tsumura, David Toshio. The First Book of Samuel. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.