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Samuel: The Rise of Kingship

1 Introduction

2 Samuel Cycle

3 Saul Cycle

4 David Cycle

5 Samuel as a Book

Study Guide


Abner, Absalom, Amnon, Anointing, Ark of the covenant, Bathsheba, David, Davidic covenant, Eli, Goliath, Hannah, Hebron, Hophni and Phinehas, Jebus, Jerusalem, Joab, Jonathan, Messiah, Michal, Mount Gilboa, Nathan, Philistines, Samuel, Saul, Shiloh, Succession narrative, United monarchy, Zadok

Michelangelo’s David

Michelangelo’s David

David was Israel’s most charismatic and effective leader, extending the nation’s influence to its furthest reaches. Michelangelo’s depiction idealizes David as if he were a Greek god. The biblical narrative does not shy away from the darker side of David, including his affair with Bathsheba and Uriah’s murder.

Source: Michelangelo’s David (Florence, Italy, Galleria dell’Accademia: 1501– 1504). Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on a photo by Barry Bandstra, 1998.


Dynamic and visionary leaders shape the character of nations. Flawed and failed leaders also shape their nations, though for different reasons. Especially during periods of social transition, charismatic leaders are critical in molding institutional structures.

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Samuel Timeline

FIGURE 8.1 Time Line: The Books of Samuel

Think of the influence of George Washington on the course of the American revolution and Lenin and Trotsky on the Bolshevik revolution. It is no surprise, then, that Israel had a sizable collection of stories about its earliest founding fathers, most significantly, Samuel, Saul, and David.

The books of Samuel concentrate on the role that these leaders played in the emergence of the Israelite state and how it should be configured. After the chaos of the judges’ era, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” Israel needed and craved strong direction. Many people were inclined to have a king, even though this seemed to go against the theocracy that had created them. Remember that divine rule had been mandated at Mount Sinai, and this demanded that Yhwh be their king. Yet present political circumstances seemed to demand something more: a strong unifying human king. Would this change the fundamental spirit of the nation?

There is no compelling reason for these books to be called the books of Samuel. They were not written by Samuel, and they deal with Samuel only part of the time. The books might better be entitled “Kingship in Israel” or “The Rise of the Monarchy” because they deal with the development of that institution. In fact, this is very nearly what the books of Samuel and Kings are called in the Septuagint: “Kingdoms I, II, III, and IV.” Nonetheless, associating the content of these books with Samuel is not entirely inappropriate. Samuel was an important, even pivotal, figure. He guided Israel’s transition to kingship and bridged the periods of the judges and the monarchy (see Figure 8.1).

The Samuel material is configured as two books though structurally they are one. Dividing Samuel into two parts was done because not all of it could conveniently fit on one scroll. Ignoring the book division, the subject matter divides neatly into three main sections on the basis of the editor’s transitional passages in 1 Samuel 13:1 and 2 Samuel 1:1. Each section focuses on a major historical figure: Samuel (1 Samuel 1–12), Saul (1 Samuel 13–31), and David (2 Samuel) (Table 8.1). All three figures were pivotal in the development of Israel’s institution of kingship.

We were primed for a treatment of the issue of kingship by the refrain of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The overall theme of the books of Samuel is the emergence of the new institution of monarchy in Israel. These writings consider the rocky beginnings of monarchy, its early failures, and its golden age in David.

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TABLE 8.1 Structure of Samuel



Books of Samuel
1 Samuel 1–12

Saul was . . . years old when he became king and two years he ruled over Israel (1 Samuel 13:1)
1 Samuel 13–31

After the death of Saul, David returned from striking the Amalekites (2 Samuel 1:1)

2 Samuel

If we place the leadership issues addressed in the books of Samuel within the context of the time the material was edited beginning with the reign of Josiah, we would observe that the question of leadership must have been especially urgent for the Deuteronomistic historian. During the times of the Babylonian crisis and the exile, one of the reasons for the drastic decline of Israel was the perceived failure of political and religious leadership. If recovery was ever to happen, Israel would need strong leadership. The exiled Judeans must have mulled over the questions long and hard: What shape should a new leadership take? Could a king extricate us from our predicament? Would God again work through our leaders? Presumably the Deuteronomistic historian thought that reexamining the period of the development of kingship might provide some answers to these pressing questions, and additionally might provide some needed instruction for any new leaders that might arise.

1.1 Rise of the Monarchy—A Summary

Samuel’s birth was a miracle, and he distinguished himself early on as a prophet in Shiloh (1 Samuel Chapters 1–3). The Philistines captured the ark of the covenant, later returning it (4–6), but thereby revealed themselves as Israel’s most dangerous foe. Samuel rescued Israel from the Philistines, but Israel demanded a king (7–8). Samuel anointed Saul king (9–10), and Saul demonstrated his leadership by rescuing Jabesh-Gilead (11). But then Saul broke holy war rules, and Samuel removed Saul’s divine endorsement though Saul remained in office (12–15). Samuel anointed David king (16), and David demonstrated his character by defeating Goliath and the Philistines (17). This led to an intense rivalry between Saul and David that had Saul pursuing David to kill him, and David always eluding Saul’s grasp (18–27). Saul faced the Philistines in a final battle in which he and his sons died (28–31).

David, earlier designated king, took office in Judah and later all the tribes of Israel accepted his authority (2 Samuel 1–5). David set Jerusalem as his capital and moved the ark of the covenant there (6), and Nathan presented Yhwh’s eternal endorsement of the Davidic line (7). David defeated Israel’s enemies (8–10) but sinned with Bathsheba, had her husband killed, and was punished for this (11–12). Punishment took the form of deadly infighting among his sons as they positioned themselves in line for the throne (13–14). David’s son, Absalom, actually took the throne from his father for a time but was killed for it (15–19). David consolidated his power and further built his empire (20–24).

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Tel Dan Inscription

FIGURE 8.2 “House of David” Inscription

An inscription found at Tell Dan in northern Israel contains the first reference outside the Hebrew Bible to the dynasty of David (see Biran and Naveh, 1993). This fragmentary thirteen-line inscription, written in early Aramaic and dating to the mid-800s BCE, appears to celebrate the victory of the king of Aram in Damascus over a king in Israel. It contains the phrases “king of Israel” (upper box) and “house of David” (lower box).

Source: Graphic by Barry Bandstra based on A. Biran and J. Naveh, “An Aramaic Stele from Tel Dan,” Israel Exploration Journal 43, no. 2–3 (1993): 81–98.

1.2 Archaeology of David’s Kingdom

Neither David nor Solomon are mentioned outside the Bible in any Egyptian or Mesopotamian texts. The archaeological record of Palestine once appeared to substantiate the Davidic–Solomonic empire. Twentieth-century archaeologists made a case for the empire on the basis of findings at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer, where monumental buildings and massive gate complexes of similar structure were found and attributed to the reigns of David and Solomon. The dating of these structures is increasingly being called into question. Even more problematic is the lack of evidence in Jerusalem itself. Virtually no physical remains, not even pottery fragments, from the tenth century BCE (the time of David) have been discovered. From the available evidence, if in fact Jerusalem was occupied at this time, it would have been a rather small village and not a city of such resources as to administer an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to Egypt. Population estimates for the area of Judah, including Jerusalem, are about 5000. At this time in history Judah was rural and quite isolated, hardly the stuff of empires.

The earliest external documentation for the existence of the Davidic dynasty is from an inscription found at Tell Dan (Figure 8.2). The existence of a ruling force connected to the figure of David cannot be called into question. The issue then becomes why the biblical portrayal of the united monarchy (also called the united kingdom) of David and Solomon took shape the way it did.

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1.3 Reading Guide

The first chapters of 1 Samuel capture the quality of civil and religious life in Israel in the early Iron Age, and they establish the central theme of humbling and exalting. So read 1 Samuel 1–8, paying special attention to Hannah and her song and the contrast between Eli’s house and Samuel. Then notice how the story of the ark of the covenant also expresses the theme of Hannah’s song. The story of the demise of Saul and the rise of David is a must-read because it contains the Goliath tale (1 Samuel 16–17). Read 2 Samuel 7, which is the foundational statement of the Davidic covenant, presented as a dynastic promise from Yhwh guaranteeing that David’s line would forever provide Israel’s kings. The story of David’s affair with Bathsheba and the aftermath demonstrate how this covenant worked out in the history of David’s line (2 Samuel 11–12).

2 SAMUEL CYCLE (1 Samuel 1-12)

The first part of the books of Samuel deals with its namesake. It treats the birth and career of Israel’s last judge figure, Samuel (see Table 8.2).

2.1 The Early Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1–4:1a)

The story first treats the birth of Samuel. Elkanah was a pious man who had two wives. Peninnah had children but Hannah had none. It was commonly thought that sterility was a sign of God’s disfavor. Hannah felt low and abandoned, yet she also had faith in God. During their annual pilgrimage to the central sanctuary at Shiloh, Hannah fervently asked Yhwh of Hosts, as he is called in these early chapters, for a son.

Eli was the high priest of the Shiloh temple. When he saw her praying, he mistakenly thought she was drunk because he only saw her move her mouth and heard no sound; evidently, he could not recognize true piety when he saw it. Note how here and elsewhere one of the interests of the writer is to signal the ineffectiveness of Eli and his high priesthood.

God answered Hannah’s prayer. She conceived, bore a son, and named him Samuel, meaning “God heard.” In return for the gift of the child, Hannah later gave the child back to God by devoting him to divine service in the temple at Shiloh. Hannah prayed a prayer of thanksgiving at the dedication. Hannah’s song, 1 Samuel 2:1–10, celebrates the great divine reversal. He turns weakness to strength

TABLE 8.2 Biographical Sketch of Samuel

Born to Hannah and Elkanah

1 Samuel 1, 2
Grew up in the temple at Shiloh 3
Defeated Philistines at Mizpah 7
Anointed Saul as Israel’s first king 9, 10
Delivered farewell speech 12
Rejected Saul 13, 15
Anointed David to be king in place of Saul 16
Died and was buried at Ramah 25
Appeared to Saul as a spirit

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and death to life. Hannah’s song is the model for Mary’s song of thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus in the New Testament, traditionally called the Magnificat and found in Luke 1:46–55. A couple of the lines communicate the tone and theme of Hannah’s song:

My heart rejoices in Yhwh . . . because I rejoice in your victory. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Yhwh kills and gives life, he brings down to Sheol and raises up, Yhwh makes poor and makes rich; he humbles, he also exalts. He raises the poor up from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ashes to make them sit with princes. (2:1, 4, 6–8)

The song has a rich poetic quality. Some scholars suggest that it once circulated as an independent poem. Maybe so, but what we notice is that it fits well here and was placed strategically to introduce the theme of the books of Samuel. Often in works of literature and theology, the controlling theme is stated early in the work, and later stories develop that theme. Hannah’s song voices a theme that resounds through the books of Samuel. Yhwh raises up and he pulls down. The humble are given honor, and the proud are shamed. Pay special attention to the theme of the reversal of fortunes in the books of Samuel. The theme is typically worked out in an opposing pair of parties, one ascending and one descending.

The first instance of this theme working out in history is the reversal of Hannah’s own station in life. Hannah was vindicated over arrogant Peninnah. Once barren, she now has a son, and a special one at that—one who now works in the holiest shrine in the land. Later, notice how Eli and his sons are contrasted with Hannah and Samuel, and how Saul and David later reverse positions. The Goliath and David pair is another instance of pride and a fall, and on the national level be alert to how the Philistines are set in contrast with the Israelites.

Immediately after Hannah’s song, we get a description of the sons of Eli and their priestly practices. They appropriated the sacrifices of the people in a self-serving way, taking the best for themselves. In contrast stands Samuel. Of all things to mention, we get a description of his clothing. He wears a totally unpretentious linen garment. His humility is implicitly contrasted with the presumption of Hophni and Phinehas. Eli could not control his sons, and as a result Yhwh was about to remove them from the priestly office. This account prefigures that change in clan privileges. The juxtaposition of futures is starkly drawn:

Yet they would not listen to their father, for it was the will of Yhwh to kill them. The boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with Yhwh and with the people. (2:25b–26)

Then an anonymous man of God came to Eli (2:27–36) and uttered the judgment word of God that Eli’s family would be removed from priestly office and replaced with an unnamed “faithful priest.” The Deuteronomistic historian was closely in touch with the prophetic tradition and frequently makes a point of how the course of history works out the prophetic word spoken by one of the prophets. It would have been anachronistic for the writer to state it here, but later the Deuteronomistic historian shows whom he intended by “faithful priest”—the dynastic priesthood of Zadok, which later supported the Davidic royal line. It is likely that Eli and the Shiloh priesthood are ancestors of the Abiathar priesthood, which was deposed when Abiathar lost out to Zadok (see 1 Kings 2:27).

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Capernaum Ark

FIGURE 8.3 Ark of the Covenant

This fourth century CE limestone relief from Capernaum, Israel, may be a depiction of the ark of the covenant on a cart when the Philistines returned it to Israel.

Photo by Barry Bandstra, May 1992.

Samuel grew up in Shiloh and worked in the temple there. Although “the word of Yhwh was rare in those days, and visions were infrequent” (3:1), Yhwh appeared to Samuel in the middle of the night as he slept near the ark of the covenant. The message he received from Yhwh was the same as that delivered by the “man of God.” Eli’s family would be removed from office. From then on, the word of Yhwh was revealed to Samuel, and he was recognized by everyone to be a prophet.

2.2 Travels of the Ark (1 Samuel 4:1b–7:17)

The Philistines surface again as the main threat to Israel’s existence. There are some suggestions that the Philistines had a technical advantage over the Israelites because they had iron implements. 1 Samuel 13:20 tells us how Israelites had to go to the Philistines to sharpen their tools. Later, Goliath the Philistine had a heavy iron spear (1 Samuel 17:7) while David had only a slingshot. Facing the Philistines in battle at Aphek, the Israelites fetched the ark of the covenant from Shiloh, thinking it would automatically give them victory. The Philistines proceeded to kill many Israelites, including Hophni and Phineas, and to capture the ark (Figure8.3). After Eli heard these shocking outcomes, he died.

When the Philistines took their prize home, the ark wreaked havoc upon deity and humanity within their cities. After it was placed in the temple of their chief god, Dagon, it caused his statue to topple and its head to break. Then physical illness broke out among the Philistines. They shuttled the ark among their cities until finally they decided to return it to the Israelites. It first arrived back in Israelite territory at the town of Beth-shemesh. After seventy men died there because they had peeked into the ark, the survivors sent it on to Kiriath-yearim, where it remained until David’s day (see Figure 8.4).

This account of the war with the Philistines interrupts the history of Samuel. In fact, he plays no role in it. The story appears to have been placed here to fulfill the judgment word of Eli’s demise. It also demonstrates some things about the power of Israel’s Yhwh. First, he refuses to be “used.” He cannot be mechanically called on to perform for Israel’s benefit, as they had attempted in battle at Aphek. Second, though

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Ark Map

FIGURE 8.4 The Ark’s Travels

apparently captured by the Philistines, Yhwh proves to be more powerful than their god Dagon, and Dagon even finds himself bowing down to Yhwh. Third, the Israelites had better respect him, or they will die as did the men at Beth-shemesh.

Now Samuel returns to the story. He gathered the Israelites together at Mizpah (see Figure 8.5) and renewed their commitment to Yhwh. The Philistines fought them there but were defeated. In this part of the account (7:3–17), Samuel is described as Israel’s great savior and judge after the model of the earlier judge heroes. He is talked about as if he is about to pass from the scene, and yet he will be a major force behind the scenes for much of the remainder of First Samuel.

2.3 Search for a King (1 Samuel 8–12)

How does a society manage to move from one leader to another and still retain stability? On whose authority does the next leader take office? Can a nation peacefully change its form of government? Israel faced these challenges when Samuel,

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Samuel's Career

FIGURE 8.5 Map of Samuel’s Career

the last judge, got old. Apparently, his sons were appreciated no better than Eli’s sons, and the people did not want them to take over. The nation lobbied for a fundamental change. They demanded, “Appoint a king to rule us, like the other nations” (8: 5).

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This was radical and unheard of in Israel! The fundamental covenantal structure that had shaped Israel’s life had placed Yhwh in the position of the king, with Israel as his nation. The covenant federation founded at Shechem was based on this model. The people’s demand for a human king appeared to be a rejection of that relationship. Samuel was deeply shaken by this as well as by the apparent rejection of his leadership and that of his sons. But Yhwh counseled him that it was really a rejection of himself, and not Samuel. Yhwh also instructed Samuel to go along with the people’s demand.

Samuel warned them what a king would be like, drafting their sons and daughters to work for the crown, taxing them heavily, and in general making life difficult. This warning, not incidentally, is a fairly transparent prophetic critique of the monarchy as it actually came to be within Israel. Nobody could say they had not been forewarned!

Next we meet Saul. He is introduced as a tall, handsome man, the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. Searching for some lost donkeys one day, he went to Samuel because of his reputation as a prophet in the hope that he could locate them. When Saul arrived, Samuel arranged a banquet in his honor and afterward anointed him king. The ceremony of anointing involved pouring olive oil over the head of the person chosen by God. The oil may have been a symbol of the pouring out of the spirit of Yhwh. The person would need this empowerment by the spirit to carry out the responsibilities of office.

Although there is evidence that priests and prophets were anointed, the ceremony was especially used to designate kings. A person who has been authorized in this way was called an “anointed one.” This is the translation of the Hebrew word mashiach, rendered messiah in English and christos in Greek, from which the title Christ was derived. Note that the term messiah did not imply that such a figure was divine, only that the deity had designated the messiah figure to be a leader.

On his journey home, Saul received proof that he was indeed Yhwh’s anointed one. Passersby gave him gifts of bread and wine, presumably in recognition of his office, and he was overcome with ecstatic prophetic behavior, which was evidence that the spirit of Yhwh had in fact come upon him.

But Saul received a mixed review after Samuel formally presented him as Israel’s first king. Some of the people assembled at Mizpah hailed him while others grumbled, “How can he save us?” But shortly thereafter, Saul silenced his detractors. When the Transjordanian Israelite town of Jabesh-gilead was besieged by the Ammonites, “the spirit of God came upon him powerfully.” He put together an army and came to their rescue. Now having seen proof of his leadership ability, the people gathered together at Gilgal and confirmed his kingship.

The time was right for Samuel to step down from national leadership and give way to Saul. Samuel took the occasion of the assembly at Gilgal to deliver a farewell speech (1 Samuel 12:6–25). He reminded the people of the nasty step they had taken—“the wickedness that you have done in the sight of Yhwh is great in demanding a king for yourselves.” The farewell speech gave the writer the opportunity to encapsulate his theological perspective. So much of the theology of the Deuteronomistic historian comes out in such big speeches. This particular address expresses once again the Deuteronomistic critique of kingship:

If you will fear Yhwh and serve him and heed his voice and not rebel against the commandment of Yhwh, and if both you and the king who rules over you follow Yhwh your Elohim, it will be well. But if you do not obey the voice of

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Yhwh, but rebel against the commandment of Yhwh, then the hand of Yhwh will be against you and your king. (12:14–15)

TABLE 8.3 Sources in Samuel


Samuel’s warning against kingship

9:1–10:16 Saul and his anointing Promonarchy
10:17–27 Another warning by Samuel Antimonarchy
11:1–15 Saul’s victory over the Ammonites Promonarchy
Final warning by Samuel

The king is not absolute. Both the king and the people must be subject to the law of God. The covenant and its demands take precedence over any rights of kingship.

Looking at it holistically, this set of stories is somewhat puzzling. On the one hand, as with this Samuel speech, the view of kingship is quite negative. A king is granted only grudgingly to the Israelites and only with dire warnings. On the other hand, some passages reflect a positive appreciation of Saul, acknowledging that he was needed by Israel at this time. This situation has led some to posit that Chapters 8–12 originally contained two different sources, an antimonarchy one and a promonarchy one. They are intertwined in an alternating way, as if to say, “We like Saul and we need a king, but we really do not want one.” Table 8.3 displays the alternation between these differing viewpoints.

Samuel does not die until Chapter 25. Yet the narrative focus changes at this point. Saul takes center stage as he assumes the leadership role in Israel.

SAUL CYCLE (1 Samuel 13-31)

The story of Saul is a tragic tale (see Table 8.4). Having risen to the position of king and having been acclaimed by the people, he fell prey to the temptations of power. Although Samuel was supportive of him early on, he later turned away from Saul. From here on, we will see an increasingly frustrated and ineffective Saul, and we will see the corresponding rise of David. Remember the theme of Hannah’s song—how the mighty have fallen, but Yhwh exalts the lowly. It works out in the following cycle of narratives.

TABLE 8.4 Biographical Sketch of Saul

Anointed king by Samuel and presented to Israel

1 Samuel 9, 10
Rescued Jabesh-gilead and was acclaimed king by Israel 11
Disobeyed Samuel by offering a sacrifice at Michmash 13
Battled Philistines and ordered Jonathan executed 14
Rejected as king by Samuel 15
Tried to kill David 19
Pursued but never caught David; his life spared by David 23, 24, 26
Died in battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa

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3.1 Saul’s Disobedience (1 Samuel 13–15)

Saul gathered the troops at Gilgal to fight the Philistines. Samuel, in the role of army chaplain, was supposed to come and bless the troops. But when he did not show up on time, Saul went ahead and offered the ritual sacrifice. As soon as the offering was ignited, Samuel appeared and condemned Saul for presuming to function as a priest. This is the first occasion Samuel indicated that Yhwh had rejected Saul and had chosen someone else to take his place as king.

Saul’s tendency to make bad judgments (was it a sign that he was no longer in Yhwh’s favor, or just a sign that kings tend to make bad decisions?) is seen in the next encounter with the Philistines. Saul’s son Jonathan surprised a group of Philistines and thereby threw the entire Philistine army into a panic. The Israelites had the opportunity to completely wipe out the Philistines, except that Saul had foolishly decreed that the men should fast. This inappropriate abstention from food seems to signal a kind of misplaced religiosity on Saul’s part. In any case, the Israelite warriors did not have the energy to pursue the Philistines to their death. Even worse, Jonathan had not heard about the fasting decree and unwittingly broke his father’s command when he ate some wild honey. Saul would have executed Jonathan for disobedience had not Saul’s own soldiers stopped him.

Later, Saul had the opportunity to eliminate Israel’s oldest enemy, the Amalekites. They were the first ones ever to attack Israel, right after the Hebrews had left Egypt. But Saul did not follow the rule of holy war to completely eradicate the enemy and burn the remains. He took spoils of war and spared Agag, the Amalekite king. Samuel was furious when he found out. He summarily condemned Saul and proclaimed that Yhwh had rejected him as king. Then he himself killed Agag. Samuel completely disowned Saul and would not see him again—that is, until he came up from his grave to haunt Saul.

3.2 Saul versus David (1 Samuel 16–31)

Competition for high office is often the anvil of national history. The contest is evident on many levels in the books of Samuel: Eli versus Samuel, Samuel versus Saul, and now Saul versus David.

Both having rejected Saul, Samuel and Yhwh turned elsewhere for a new king. They went to a most unlikely place to find one, the insignificant village of Bethlehem in the southern tribe of Judah. Among the sons of Jesse, Yhwh passed by the elder sons and chose the youngest boy, David, to be king. This peculiar choice continues the countercultural ancestral tradition of passing the promise to the younger son: not Cain but Seth, not Ishmael but Isaac, not Esau but Jacob, not Reuben but Judah and Joseph, not Manasseh but Ephraim.

Samuel anointed David, and immediately the spirit of Yhwh came upon him. In the Hebrew Bible, the spirit of God is the power that God bestows on select individuals that enables them to perform their God-given task. As if the spirit could not simultaneously be on two people at once, in the next verse we are told that the spirit of Yhwh left Saul and in its place an evil spirit (also from Yhwh) took possession of him. In hopes of calming his troubled mind, Saul hired David to be the court musician. Skilled on the lyre (a type of harp), David comforted Saul and Saul came to love him dearly.

Again the Philistines harassed the Israelites. This time they camped in the Elah valley near an Israelite garrison. Daily their champion warrior Goliath of Gath

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(see Maeir and Ehrlich, 2001) taunted the Israelites, trying to goad them into a fight. None of the Israelites took up the challenge until one day when David came by. He was delivering food to his brothers in the camp when he heard Goliath’s challenge. David was astounded that none of the Israelites had the courage to face him. He immediately volunteered himself. Armed with only a slingshot and stones, he faced Goliath in single combat. His first shot struck Goliath in the forehead and knocked him unconscious. David ran over to him and cut off his head. This threw the Philistines into a panic, and the Israelites drove the Philistines away.

There was great rejoicing, and women were singing in the streets, “Saul killed thousands, David killed ten thousands.” Everyone, including Saul’s own son Jonathan, was enamored with David—everyone except Saul himself. Saul was angered by the popularity of David. From then on he tried actively to eliminate David in one way or another. He tried to spear him in the palace, but David was too quick. He made him commander of the army, hoping he would die in battle, but David’s popularity only grew as he won battle after battle.

In a plot to have the Philistines kill him, Saul offered David the honor of marrying one of his daughters and thereby officially joining the royal family. As always in the ancient world, a bride did not come freely. A bride price had to be paid to her parents. Saul stipulated the bride price to be 100 Philistine foreskins. Saul was, of course, expecting David to get killed in the process. But David, always ready to do Saul one better, instead brought him 200. Saul had no choice but to give David his daughter Michal in marriage.

Frustrated and now obsessed with eliminating his rival, Saul planned to assassinate David. In an ironic turn, David was kept informed of Saul’s plans by both Jonathan and Michal. Saul’s own son and daughter betrayed him and took David’s side, in effect acknowledging that he would be Israel’s next king. The loyalty of Jonathan is especially remarkable because by aiding David he was implicitly renouncing his own claim to the throne.

David found it necessary to flee. He found help and refuge wherever he could. The priest at Nob gave him provisions and later was killed for it by Saul’s men. Those who refused to help, such as Nabal, paid the price. David also stayed for a time with the Philistines, cleverly making it look like he was on their side while never really injuring Israelites. Twice while he was hiding in the Judean wilderness David had the opportunity to kill Saul, who was chasing him. Both times he held back out of respect for Saul’s office. Each time, the piety of David is set in contrast to the obsessive behavior of Saul.

ph-philistinecoffin.eps FIGURE 8.7 Philistine Anthropoid Coffin This Philistine pottery coffin was found at Beth-shean and dates roughly to the time of Saul (1000 BCE). The coffin is the size of an adult. The removable lid bears a face, perhaps a likeness to the one interred inside. This coffin and other material evidence prove that the Philistines occupied Beth-shean at this time, attesting how far east they had penetrated and how dire the Philistine threat really was Photo by Barry Bandstra, 1979

Meanwhile, pressure from the Philistines continued to grow, driving the Israelites back toward the Jordan River. Saul was hard pressed and tried to make a stand at Mount Gilboa. He was at his wits’ end as the time for battle approached. Samuel was dead, so he had no one to give him counsel, no one to bless the troops before the fight, and no one to assure him of the presence of Yhwh. Desperate for a word from Yhwh, Saul approached a professional diviner. In a s√©ancelike encounter, the spirit of Samuel appeared before him:

“Tell me what I should do.” Samuel said, “Why do you ask me? Yhwh has turned from you and is now your enemy. Yhwh has done to you just what he spoke through me. Yhwh has torn the kingdom out of your hand and has given it to your companion David, because you did not obey the voice of Yhwh.” (28:15–18)

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Saul's Career

FIGURE 8.6 Saul’s Career

Looking for help and assurance, Saul received anything but a word of comfort. Samuel only confirmed his and Yhwh’s earlier rejection of the benighted king. Fulfilling the prophetic word of Samuel, the kingdom was taken away as Saul and his sons died in battle on Mount Gilboa (see Figure 8.6). When the Philistines came

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Philistine coffin

FIGURE 8.7 Philistine Anthropoid Coffin

This Philistine pottery coffin, now located in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, was found at Beth-shean and dates roughly to the time of Saul (1000 BCE). The coffin is the size of an adult. The removable lid bears a face, perhaps a likeness to the one interred i nside. This coffin and other material evidence prove that the Philistines occupied Beth-shean at this time, attesting how far east they had penetrated and how dire the Philistine threat really was.

Source: Photo by Barry Bandstra, June 1979.

upon Saul’s body, they beheaded him, stripped him of his armor, and hung his corpse on the wall of Beth-shean (see Figure 8.7) for all to see. Hearing of Saul’s demise, the citizens of Jabesh-gilead, whom Saul earlier had rescued, bravely recovered his body, along with the bodies of his sons, and gave them respectful disposal.

4 DAVID CYCLE (2 Samuel 1-24)

David is an enigma, and cracking his code has become a cottage industry. Was he a good king devoted to Yhwh, or was he a villainous opportunist? Did he actually build a world-class empire and usher in the Israelite golden age? Did he even exist? Historians and archaeologists are asking serious questions about the supposedly greatest king Israel ever had.

The second book of Samuel deals with David’s consolidation of power. He subsumed under his own authority all the territory of Judah and the northern tribes. For the first time, all the tribes were united in a cohesive national entity.

4.1 David’S Rise to Power (2 Samuel 1–8)

Saul was mortally wounded and asked a soldier to finish him off. That soldier ran to David, Saul’s crown in hand, with what he thought would be news well received. David was outraged that this man had finished off Saul, even though Saul realistically had had no chance for survival. What do we see here? Do we see David turning as irrational as Saul? Is this the beginning of David’s decline?

Probably not. David was genuinely pained that his one-time mentor, Saul, was dead. David’s emotions come out in the sensitive and touching eulogy that David delivered upon the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19–27). This poem, not coincidentally, picks up the theme of the books of Samuel first articulated in Hannah’s song—“How the mighty have fallen!” (see especially verses 19, 25, and 27). Remember, the proud are humbled, and the humble exalted.

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Yet, in addition, David’s reaction reveals his political savvy. Contrary to the expected reaction, though Saul was his rival, he did not express his approval nor would he condone in any way the death of Saul. He did nothing that might serve to alienate the loyal followers of Saul, which was virtually the entire entity of northern Israel. Even in this time of tragedy, David kept the door open for the friends of Saul to join him in political union.

David went to Judah, his home tribe, to rally support now that Saul was dead. He set up his headquarters at Hebron, the regional capital of Judah. David ruled from Hebron for seven and a half years. Meanwhile in the north, Ishbaal had been proclaimed king by Abner, the commander of Saul’s army. The opposing sides were now drawn, the house of David against the house of Saul. But while David’s power base got stronger, Ishbaal’s got weaker. The Hebrew text gives Ishbaal’s name as Ishbosheth, which means “man of shame.” Based on 1 Chronicles 8:33 and 9:39, we know his name originally to have been Ishbaal, meaning “man of Baal.” The name was changed to eliminate the divine element Baal and at the same time to disparage this pretender to the throne. The same defamation technique was applied to the name of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, originally named Meribbaal.

Seeing that the future lay with David, Abner, Ishbaal’s commander, defected. This in turn provoked Joab, David’s commander. He and Abner earlier had a disagreement, and perhaps Joab also felt insecure in his position as David’s right-hand man. Joab secretly met Abner and killed him, thus getting rid of a serious rival.

David lamented Abner’s death and blamed the treachery on Joab. Abner was well respected in northern Israel. His presence in David’s camp might have proven troublesome, yet none of the blame for his death fell on David. David was again sensitive to the feelings of Saul’s loyalists and did not provoke their ill will.

Conditions in the north deteriorated completely. Ishbaal was attacked by two of his officers. They killed and decapitated him, carrying the head to David in Hebron as proof of their new loyalty to him. David, as we have come to expect, was not impressed—quite the opposite. He had those two traitors killed, again sending a signal that he did not condone violence done to the house of Saul.

Completely without direction or leadership, the tribes of the north asked David to become their king as well. With a covenant, David assumed kingship over both Judah and Israel, reigning over a united nation. David very wisely decided he must move his capital from Hebron. If left there it would seem he was favoring his ancestral tribe of Judah. David and his men attacked and occupied what was then called Jebus, to be identified with Jerusalem (see Figure 8.8). Second Samuel 5:6–10 describes how David’s men got into the city. The archaeology of Jerusalem may or may not yield clues to how they did it (see Reich and Shukron, 1999). David had it called “the city of David” to indicate it was directly under his command. Then he rid the surrounding territory of Philistines, providing greater security for his new capital city. Finally, in an act of great piety and even greater political astuteness, he fetched the ark of God from Kiriath-yearim and brought it into Jerusalem. The presence of the great symbol of the tribal federation and focus of earlier religious devotion firmly established Jerusalem as the religious center of the newly unified nation.

David had a desire to build a shrine for the ark in Jerusalem. Nathan, the Jerusalem royal court prophet, received word from Yhwh that David should not build Yhwh a house. With a divine play on words, Yhwh said that instead, he would

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David's Career

FIGURE 8.8 Map of David’s Career

build a house for David, meaning a perpetual dynasty. Then, in what is termed the Davidic covenant, Yhwh pledged his enduring support for the line of David:

Your house and your kingdom will be established firmly forever before me. Your throne will be established forever. (7:16)

Although Davidic kings might sin, Yhwh would never remove his support from them as he had done with Saul. This promise is the foundation for messianic expectations in Judaism and Christianity. Yhwh promised he would never remove his support from the offspring of David. It implied, also, that there would be a divinely sponsored king over Israel forever.

David was at the peak of his career (see Table 8.5). Endorsed by Yhwh, loved by his people, he also managed to defeat Israel’s inveterate enemies. Chapter 8 sums up his victories. He subdued the Philistines. Never again would they be a threat to Israel. He defeated the Arameans, the Moabites, and the Edomites, giving Israel peace on every side. Verse 15 concisely summarizes the era of righteous rule David inaugurated. David ushered in a time of shalom, and it would be remembered as the golden age of Israel.

So David ruled over all Israel. David administered justice with equity to all his people. (8:15)

David was at the height of his career. But, as you might have anticipated, things were too good to last. Although David had the support of

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TABLE 8.5 Biographical Sketch of David

Anointed king by Samuel

1 Samuel 16
Killed Goliath, the Philistine 17
Befriended Jonathan, Saul’s son 18
Pursued by Saul, took refuge in Philistia 18–30
Mourned the deaths of Saul and Jonathan 2 Samuel 1
Anointed king over Judah 2
Anointed king over Israel 5
Captured Jebus (Jerusalem) and made it the capital 5
Brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem 6
Given the Davidic covenant promises by Nathan 7
Committed adultery with Bathsheba 11
Fled Jerusalem after Absalom’s coup d’√©tat 15
Built an altar on Araunah’s threshing floor 24
Died and Solomon followed him as king
1 Kings 2

Yhwh and, indeed, of the entire nation, he became complacent and presumptuous, hence ready for a fall. Remember the theme: The proud will be humbled and the humble exalted.

4.2 Dynastic Succession (2 Samuel 9–20)

This portion of 2 Samuel, along with 1 Kings 1–2, details the family history of David as his sons fight with each other over who would follow David on the throne, hence dynastic succession. The narrative reads like a short story and may have been composed from court records. Authorities have variously termed this account the succession narrative and the “court history of David.” By the way the writer introduces the Bathsheba story, the narrator signals that something bad was about to happen:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings normally go out to do battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel. They devastated the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. (11:1)

David’s troubles began when he neglected his royal responsibilities. Shirking his military duty—remember, it was his courage in facing Goliath that brought him national acclaim—it is no wonder that he got into trouble. David spied a beautiful woman from the roof of his house and asked her to the palace. Though married to Uriah, Bathsheba accepted David’s invitation—who could refuse the king?—and David had an affair with her. Matters got complicated after it became apparent that she was pregnant, even though her husband had been at the Ammonite battlefront with David’s army. David tried to cover up his responsibility for the pregnancy by recalling Uriah to Jerusalem in the hope that he would sleep with his wife. After making his report to the king, Uriah refused to enjoy the pleasures of home out of loyalty to his troops, certainly an ironic twist that sets David’s indiscretion in stark relief.

David had Uriah killed, and with a grand kingly show of caring, he wed the grieving woman. No doubt all Israel admired their sovereign for marrying Israel’s

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newest war widow and one with child at that. David assumed that he had managed to keep his sins of adultery and murder hidden until Nathan exposed his guilt. This would be the test of Yhwh’s commitment to David. Would Yhwh abandon him as he had abandoned Saul after Saul sinned?

On analysis, David’s sins were just as serious as Saul’s, if not worse. For Saul’s sins, Yhwh denied dynastic succession and removed his favor from the king. But Yhwh did not react the same way to David’s sins. An inquisitive reader would want to know why.

David certainly deserved to be removed from office, but Yhwh remained true to the spirit of the Davidic covenant. For the sake of the covenant promise, David was allowed to remain on the throne. Yet David was not given blanket forgiveness without discipline. He was punished by the death of the baby born to Bathsheba. Furthermore, the sins of adultery and murder that he had committed in secret would be committed in public by his sons. Indeed, there is “poetic justice” here. David’s own sins would be duplicated within his own family, yet in an even more heinous way. Yhwh delivered the following judgment oracle through Nathan the prophet:

“The sword will not leave your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” Thus says Yhwh, “I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives, and before your eyes give them to your neighbor. He will lie with your wives in the full light of day. You did it secretly, but I will do this thing in front of all Israel, and in the full light of day.” (12:10–12)

This prophetic word of punishment becomes the literary-theological agenda for the following narrative. This punishment works out in the family of David as his sons vie for the right to follow him on the throne.

Amnon was the crown prince, the first in line for the throne. His particular sexual sin was an obsessive infatuation with his half-sister Tamar. One day, feigning illness, he deceived her, trapped her, and then raped her. Then, as the ultimate act of rejection, he refused to acknowledge her in any way. Her full brother Absalom took revenge on Amnon two years later and killed him.

David loved Absalom deeply, but he had no choice except to punish him. He exiled Absalom and would not allow him to appear in Jerusalem. But Absalom was a clever man, the consummate politician, much like his father. He was also very handsome. Eventually, he was allowed to come near the city gate of Jerusalem but no farther. There, he endeared himself to the people. He intercepted citizens as they came looking for David’s help. Instead, he offered his own services: “No need to go to the king. I will take care of you.” In this way, the text says, “Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel.

Having won over the populace, he made a run for the crown. First, he proclaimed himself king in Hebron, the place David had first become king. Then, he gathered military support and attacked Jerusalem. Realizing that he was powerless to resist, David fled into the Judean wilderness. Absalom took control of Jerusalem and in a public display of power took David’s concubines and slept with them on the roof of the palace, in full view of the citizenry. What David had done in secret, his son did in public.

Yet David was not totally without support. He had left Hushai, one of his trusted counselors, behind. Hushai feigned support for Absalom, but in fact he was loyal to David and worked to frustrate Absalom’s plans. He gave advice to Absalom that

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reversed the advice of Ahithophel, another royal counselor. Hushai’s advice enabled David to make good his escape and eventually consolidate his strength. His advice rejected, Ahithophel went out and killed himself.

When finally Absalom mounted an attack on David in the wilderness, it was too late. Absalom’s men were defeated, and he himself was killed by Joab, David’s commander. Although almost incapacitated by grief, David returned to Jerusalem and resumed control.

4.3 David’s Last Days (2 Samuel 21–24)

These last chapters contain various materials pertaining to David and his rule but not in any clear order, and they seem to be chronologically jumbled. There is poetic material written by David in Chapter 22, which finds a virtual duplicate in Psalm 18. There is a list of David’s warriors. And there is an account of David’s sin in taking a census of the people, read by God as a sign of his lack of faith. Instead of relying on Yhwh, he was counting the strength of his army. Yhwh punished him and the nation with a plague.

The book ends with David purchasing the property of Araunah and offering a sacrifice, which stopped the plague. The site of the altar, the threshing floor of Araunah, became the site of the Jerusalem temple. In its own way, the end of Samuel points ahead to the next momentous stage in the history of the monarchy, the reign of Solomon and the building of the temple.


The books of Samuel are a composition that went through various stages of development. They incorporate blocks of material that existed at one time separately, such as the Ark Narrative (1 Samuel 4:1–7:1), the story of Saul’s rise (1 Samuel 9:1–11:15), the story of David’s rise (1 Samuel 16–31), and the Succession Narrative (2 Samuel 9–20; 1 Kings 1–2).

The rise of kingship is the central agenda of the books. The retention of the two sources on the monarchy, one positive and the other negative, allows the text to give a nuanced and realistic evaluation of the new institution. The promonarchy source was probably shaped by the Deuteronomistic historian during the reign of Josiah. The antimonarchy source may have been added by an editor during the exile, as a commentary on the failures of Israel’s kings. Kingship was part of the plan of God to deliver the people, but it also arose out of the people’s disobedience and resulted from their turning away from the theocratic ideals of the Mosaic covenant.

An editor shaped the diverse materials into a linear history that incorporated a prophetic critique of the establishment of the monarchy. Within this history, Samuel was the main figure acting on God’s behalf to monitor this new institution. The rise of kingship culminated in the divine covenant established with the house of David. And the lessons of David’s career reinforced the need for absolute dependence on God, along with obedience to the Torah that would hold in check a king’s impulse to exalt himself above the law.

On the literary plane, the book was cogently organized into three cycles of stories, each centering on a central player in the rise of kingship. The literary-theological theme that unites these cycles and reinforces the supremacy of divine justice is the one articulated in Hannah’s song: The proud will be humbled and the humble exalted.

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The final stage of Samuel’s editorial development came when this prophetic history was incorporated into the larger Deuteronomistic History. This stage is marked by theological editorializing in the form of major speeches, including Samuel’s in 1 Samuel 8 and 1 Samuel 12 and Nathan’s in 2 Samuel 7. All of these reflect the Deuteronomistic historian’s particular theological perspective on how the divine plan works itself out through the historical process.



1. Structure of Samuel. What are the three cycles of stories in the books of Samuel?

2. Theme of Samuel. What literary–theological theme is articulated in Hannah’s song and what are the many ways it works out concretely in Samuel?

3. Theocracy and monarchy. How did the the development of the monarchy in the books of Samuel come into conflict with the ideology of theocracy? What are the two conflicting views of kingship in Samuel and the theological struggle associated with its establishment?

4. Davidic covenant. What claims, promises, and obligations are found in the Davidic covenant? How did the statement of the Davidic covenant serve to explain the struggle among his sons to succeed David as king of Israel?


1. Leadership. What broad issues concerning group leadership surface in the books of Samuel? What commentary on leadership seems to lie under the surface of the text? How might the views of Samuel have application for today?

2. Kingship. Compare the careers of Saul and David. How were their trajectories alike, and how were they different? What was the effect of the Davidic covenant on the course of David’s career? What was its effect on the destiny of the Israelite state?

3. Hannah’s song. This song expresses the biblical theme that the proud will be humbled and the humble will be exalted. This appears to be the fate of the earliest kings. Do you think that the author of Samuel was writing a treatise on human nature and the politics of power? Is it inevitable that powerful leaders become arrogantly self-important and ultimately self-serving? Can you think of any counterexamples?


The David Story, by Robert Alter (1999), is a commentary and contemporary translation of 1 and 2 Samuel. King David: A Biography, by Steven. L. McKenzie (2000), reconstructs a picture of David that views him as a usurper and generally despicable character rather than as a pious hero. David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, by Baruch Halpern (2001), excavates the text to expose yet another “real” David. To Kill and Take Possession: Law, Morality, and Society in Biblical Stories, by Daniel Friedmann (2002), examines biblical stories of questionable moral virtue, including tales of David. David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (2006), by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, uses archaeology and historical analysis to argue that Israel’s royal traditions were shaped in later historical periods for political and religious ends.