Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!
1 Samuel charts the establishing of the kingdom of Israel. Beginning with the call of the prophet Samuel, the book tells of the nation’s demand for a king and the work of God to establish that kingdom. The first king, Saul, blurs the boundaries God has set for the king by prophesying and acting as a priest; God takes away his blessing and raises up David as an alternative. Saul eventually kills himself, but only after many attempts to eliminate the threat from David. David himself is established as a mighty leader and a hero in battle.
Historical and literary context
There’s one important thing to note about 1 Samuel before getting started – it is really only the first half of a bigger book along with 2 Samuel. The original book was split with the Greek and Latin translations; our English Bibles have followed that tradition, and we’ll look at them separately. It’s useful to bear in mind that they were composed together.
Samuel is all about the formation of the kingdom of Israel, from the original call for a king to the end of David’s life. The book was probably written a few generations after the events it describes took place. It’s highly likely that oral and written traditions from contemporary times formed a large part of the book, edited together in the years that followed.
Several literary genres are present in 1 Samuel, many of them among the finest of the Ancient Near East. The hero stories about David are evocative of ancient epics, while there is also some sublime poetry and oratory. It makes for some of the most gripping reading in the Old Testament, not least for its unusually detailed characterisation. David is one of the most colourfully drawn figures of Bible history – helped by the author’s decision to include distinct material about his personal and family life on the one hand, and his public leadership on the other. The deep emotions of the Psalms only add to the rich depiction of David in Samuel.
The call of Samuel (chapter 3) in the dead of night is a dramatic introduction to the prophet’s public ministry. Devoted to God because of his mercy to a faithful woman, Samuel served the priests. We’re told that Eli was practically blind, probably as much a comment on his spiritual leadership as the physical use of his eyes. His sons had gone astray in their service, stealing from the offerings and sleeping with the women who served in the tent of meeting. There was a spiritual drought in the land. It’s appropriate, then, that Samuel’s call is so theatrical: he twice mistakes God’s voice for that of his leader, Eli (itself an observation pregnant with theological significance) then hears a message of judgment. There is hope for Israel, though, because God has spoken. Just as he had remembered Hannah, he remembered his people and used his prophet Samuel to take his word out to them.
The people of Israel wanted a king to rule over them (chapter 8). In these days of the Arab Spring, it’s hard for us to imagine a popular uprising in demand of an autocratic ruler. Yet that’s exactly what happened in Samuel’s day – the people demanded a king. They had seen their neighbours being led into battle by monarchs and wanted one for themselves. They were warned of the cost of such a move, but they demanded it nonetheless and God answered their request. This story isn’t about politics and governance, though. It’s deeply theological. God says that by asking for a king they were rejecting his kingship over them. In other words, the people were looking for a king like the nations had, but God wanted them to seek a king like himself. They were quite right to seek a king but quite wrong in the kind of king they sought. Each time we encounter a king in the history books, we’ve got to ask this question: How would this king compare with a king from God? Each time we’ll be left looking forward and longing for that king to come, getting an ever clearer picture of what he will be like, what he will do, and what he will achieve by it.
David and Goliath (chapter 17) is the archetypal hero story. David is the super-underdog, even among his own people who deride him for wanting to take the fight to Goliath. Goliath is a monstrous brute, a superhuman hulk of a man who lorded it over his enemies believing himself to be beyond harm. David’s extraordinary mix of humility, bravery and level-headedness placed him one-and-one against the Philistine giant, and David won. God blessed him and equipped him for the fight; David would be the first to declare the victory entirely the LORD’s. The question for us, though, is what does it mean for us today? Can we expect to conquer our enemies with a little bit of pluck and a slingshot? We’ve got to ask the ‘who am I?’ question – and most of the time we’ll find ourselves among the Israelite soldiers. Unable to take the fight to the enemy, we rely upon God’s king to do battle for us. In weakness, humility and the power of God, he triumphs over the powers of darkness and wins blessings for his people. If this is what David does for the people of Israel, how much more will God’s king do for his people?
Under the surface
1 Samuel is the story of the LORD’s anointed. Samuel anointed Saul, marking him out as the man chosen to be king over Israel. Following his rebellion, Samuel anointed David to be king after Saul. In one sense, this made regime change inevitable: God had removed his blessing from Saul and bestowed it upon David. However, in another sense Saul was still king until he died. David had the chance to kill Saul but would not do so because it would have meant pitting himself against the LORD’s anointed. He knew the folly of standing against God’s chosen king, even a flawed man like Saul. This tells us two things. Firstly, that David held God’s will in high regard and risked his own safety to seek righteousness before God. Secondly, it shows us that it’s of enormous significance to be the LORD’s anointed. It’s a phrase used throughout the Bible, always reaching forward to the coming of Jesus and his fulfilment of the type of the king.
The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. (3:1)
The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (3:19-21)
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. (8:6-7)
David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. … All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (17:45, 47)
Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands. Now let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I won’t strike him twice.” But David said to Abishai, “Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless? (26:8-9)