Murderous kings, political turmoil, and charismatic shepherds—oh my! In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete outlines the thematic underpinnings, historical context, and biblical scholarship surrounding the book of 1 Samuel. Join him as he explores the following questions:
- Who are the main characters in 1 Samuel?
- Who is the book named after?
- What do we know about Samuel?
- Why is there a 2 Samuel?
- What are the main themes of the book? What function does it serve within the narrative of Deuteronomistic History?
- Why is the Hebrew text in 1 Samuel considered “corrupt”?
- What does modern biblical scholarship have to say about the book and its narrative?
- What do we learn about David and Saul through this book?
Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.
- 1 Samuel, like the other books in the Deuteronomistic History, reflects on Israel’s past from the point of view of the Babylonian exile, and then the return from exile. — @peteenns
- The book that we know as 1 Samuel was written and edited much later, but the author is also relying on older stories, and in some cases, court annals that are mentioned in the Deuteronomistic History. — @peteenns
- We’re not reading an objective history of Israel, but a story with an axe to grind. Namely, explaining how the exile could have happened and giving some hope for the future. To put it another way, the Deuteronomistic History is an apology, a defense, a justification, for David and his dynasty. — @peteenns
- Many scholars are not shy to say, simply, that we’re dealing here with political propaganda in support of David’s kingship, and the divinely sanctioned legacy of David. — @peteenns
- It seems that we have here another example of what we see throughout the Hebrew Bible, and elsewhere in the Deuteronomistic History, namely, different traditions that are brought together side by side. — @peteenns
- As I see it, the purpose for giving voice to these two contradictory traditions about kingship, it’s for a reason: it expresses the ambiguity that the writer of 1 Samuel had about kingship. — @peteenns
- I think we should honor that life is complicated. Being an Israelite is complicated. Is kingship a good idea or a bad idea? Good question. — @peteenns
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You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
And I’m Jared Byas.[Intro music begins]
Hey, folks, before I get into the episode today, I wanted to tell you that the newest book in our series, Psalms for Normal People comes out today, April 17th! Oh, my goodness. Now, as you know, I love ruining books of the Bible by exploring the historical, cultural, and political context of these ancient texts and that’s exactly what you get from our author, Josh James, in Psalms for Normal People as he unpacks the biblical scholarship surrounding the Book of Psalms. And whether you’ve memorized the Psalms, or you’ve never heard of them before, this book is going to bring you so much enlightenment and happiness that [Sighs] I can’t even! Well you can get it wherever you like to buy your books, so go order your copy, and make sure to leave a review.
Alright, now, let’s dig into the episode for today, which is the book of 1 Samuel. And as per usual, we will do what we always do, right? We’ll look at the book as a whole to get the big picture and then to see what insights we might glean from a closer reading of it and from biblical scholarship, which is all about close readings.[Transition music to signal sneak peek of episode]
Pete[Teaser clip of Pete speaking plays over music] “The editors who compiled the Bible preserved multiple traditions of the same event. Why? Because. That’s why. They might ask us the question, ‘Why do you even ask that? Wouldn’t you preserve both traditions as part of our sacred past?’ So, you have them and they bring them together, and sometimes awkwardly, but not carelessly. Actually, very intentionally.” [Ad break]
So, first, some general fun facts about 1 Samuel—and I do mean fun, folks. Just buckle up. This is so much fun. This will change your life—Okay. First, the book is anonymous. But it’s named after one of the main characters, Samuel, who is Israel’s last judge, and also a prophet and a priest, and, especially, in 1 Samuel—this is where he’s so important—especially, he is a kingmaker. Samuel anoints Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. So Samuel the character is obviously very important to this book and he sits at the transition from the period of the judges and you can see my last solo episode on that—but as a transition from the period of the judges to the monarchy, so he’s truly a pivotal character.
Second, fun fact, there is also a, as you would probably guess, a 2 Samuel, which might raise the question, why a two parter? Well, the answer is that it wasn’t always that way. It was originally written as one book, technically a scroll, and that unity is still reflected in the Jewish canon where they just refer to this as Samuel. The Christian canon, right? That divides it into two books, probably because the Christians adopted the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which is called the Septuagint, and we’ve had podcasts about that as well. And the problem is—well it’s not a problem just a reality—the Greek language takes up more room than Hebrew. Why? Because Greek is written with the vowels—go figure—and Hebrew isn’t. And that makes the Greek much longer, too long, apparently, to be bound in one scroll, or even one book. And that same logic will hold also for 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Third fun fact is that 1 Samuel is part of something called the “Deuteronomistic History.” That’s a mouthful, I know. But we’ve looked at that in other episodes, like, most recently in Joshua and Judges, the last two solo episodes that I did. But I just want to mention it briefly here in case you know, you haven’t memorized every word that I’ve said. The books of Joshua through 2 Kings like, so, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, leaving out Ruth. Ruth doesn’t belong in this Deuteronomistic History. They’re called the Deuteronomistic History because they advocate a theology that is laid out and promoted in the book of Deuteronomy, namely, the importance of proper worship of God, the king’s obligation to keep the covenant, and also a system of rewards and punishments for Israel’s obedience and disobedience. Now, a lot of study has been done on the Deuteronomistic History and its distinctive concepts and vocabulary, and this theory is considered one of the key insights of modern scholarship. I mention this mainly to encourage readers to see 1 Samuel not as a standalone book, but as part of a narrative of Israel’s, unfortunately, largely failed monarchy, written from the point of view of the theology that we see in the book of Deuteronomy. That’s a mouthful, but at least see 1 Samuel as part of a much bigger composition that reflects Deuteronomy.
Okay, fourth fun fact is, actually, related to the third. As part of the Deuteronomistic history. First Samuel, like the other books in the Deuteronomistic History, it reflects on Israel’s past from the point of view—this is very important—from the point of view of the Babylonian exile, and then the return from exile. See, in other words, even though the book of 1 Samuel covers about roughly 60 years, somewhere around—again, these dates are… You can’t take these to the bank—but about 1020 to 960 BCE. That’s a 60 year period covered in 1 Samuel. That’s the period it covers, but it was written centuries later. Although we can’t just leave that there. That book, as we know it—I mean, not to make it too complicated here—but the book that we know as 1 Samuel was written and edited much later, but the author is also relying on older stories, and in some cases, court annals that are mentioned in the Deuteronomistic History. And you may be familiar with a recurring comment made by the writer, at the end of many of the king’s reigns. Something like, “And the rest of the deeds of kings so-and-so,” are they not written in the annals of the kings of Judah or the kings of Israel or something like that? Now, we’ll get to that more in later episodes. My main point here is that the book reflects on earlier events and court records that are nevertheless interpreted through the lens of the tragedy of the Babylonian exile. And what I’ve just described is something that is common to, I would argue every single book of the Hebrew Bible, because that’s when all this was brought together after the Babylonian exile.
Moving on, a fifth fun fact, the Deuteronomistic History as a whole tells us at least as much about the time of the author, as it does the time of the events the author is recounting. See, we’re not reading here an objective history of Israel, but a story with an axe to grind. Namely, explaining how the exile could have happened and giving some hope for the future. To put it another way, the Deuteronomistic History is an apology, a defense, a justification, for David and his dynasty. Though, of course, things are never that clear cut in the Bible, as we’ll see when we look at chapter eight—more on that in a minute. And one of the themes of the Deuteronomistic History is a support of David as God’s chosen and most excellent king, namely, because he never led the people into false worship, which most of the other kings did in one way or another. Now, many scholars are not shy to say, simply, that we’re dealing here with, frankly, political propaganda in support of David’s kingship, and as important, the divinely sanctioned legacy of David. And, one day, I’m hoping to have an episode simply on the Deuteronomistic History itself, understanding that, frankly, unlocks a lot of the Hebrew Bible and helps make sense of a lot of stuff, but that’s not for today.
Okay, the sixth and final fun fact concerns the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel—if you’ll let me nerd out here just a little bit—the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel is corrupt. Which is a term that textual scholars use to describe a text that has some serious problems, gaps, lacks, mistakes. The problem is that the Hebrew text we have, a 1 and 2 Samuel has a lot of things left out that really need to be there. And these things were left out likely due to some pretty major copying errors somewhere down the line of history. Now, other versions of 1 and 2 Samuel, however, preserve what are called “fuller” and therefore, better readings. I mean, for example, the Septuagint. The Greek translation of the Hebrew text is a much “fuller” text and scholars are forever reaching into this Greek text to fill in the gaps that are left out in 1 and 2 Samuel. Now, I find this fascinating, I don’t want to dwell on this too much, but any decent Study Bible will be quick to point out these problems. For example, in just Chapter 1 of 1 Samuel, of my study Bible, problems with the Hebrew text are pointed out in verses 9, 11, 18, 22, 23, and 24. And if you want a good clear example of the problems with the Hebrew text, I recommend just glance at chapter 13, verse 1, and the notes that, hopefully, your Bible supplies for you. See, the Dead Sea Scrolls especially have been very helpful in untangling this problem and if you’re interested, you can check out my solo episode 164.
Okay, let’s move on to the outline of the book. And as some of you are well aware, I love outlines. I really do because they’re just so helpful. They provide some structure to help keep us from getting completely lost in these long books and they help us get sort of the feel for the big picture. I think that’s very, very important for any Bible reader to have a sense of the whole where it’s going, and then you read the details. Alright. So, as for the big picture, 1 Samuel takes us from the birth of Samuel, to the death of Israel’s first king Saul and his son, Jonathan, who was also a very close friend of David. Now, David himself makes his appearance in the Bible about halfway through the book, and that’s at chapter 16. And, to jump ahead for a second, in 2 Samuel, we read about the consolidation of David’s power and his reign, which starts out good but is largely a story of falling short—think of the Bathsheba incident—and of political intrigue. His son, Absalom, wants him dead for a few chapters and not for no reason, okay? More on all that in the next episode. So, here’s how I break up this book of 1 Samuel, I break it up into three sections. Chapters 1-8, the first section, are about Samuel in the pre-Saul years. The second section, chapters 9-15, this section focuses on the rise of Saul to power. And then the second half of the book, chapter 16-31, are about Saul’s downfall and coterminous with that, David’s rise to power. So, you’re gonna get a lot more political intrigue in that section. Now, for part of that third section, I want to break that down into two subsections. For part of that third section—this is chapter 16-22—David and Saul coexists somewhat now with tensions, but they do coexist somewhat. But in chapters 23-31, Saul’s antagonism toward David just ramps up a bit. By the way, you might be interested in listening to Episode 220, where we discuss the historical David with Joel Baden of Yale University, and I don’t want to repeat too much of what he said there, or this would be a very, very long episode indeed.
So, anyway, let’s take each of these three sections, highlight some things that I think are theological importance or just general interest, and then bring in some insights where possible from modern biblical scholarship.
So, section one, chapters 1-8, this section recounts Samuel’s miraculous birth to the barren woman, Hannah. And bearing children against the odds is a theme that Bible readers will recognize from such places, as you know, the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Samson’s unnamed mother, and—you know, of course, we’re Christians—in the New Testament, the birth of John the Baptist, and of Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Luke. Now, these sorts of births alert us that something big is about to go down. That’s, I mean, they’re just alerting you that something is happening. And in this case, what’s going down is the coming monarchy, which Samuel will help bring about. Now, in fact, this is such a big moment, the coming of the monarchy, that in chapter two, Hannah breaks out in a prayer, praising God for looking upon her woeful, barren condition and delivering her. And that prayer—and folks, this is the really important part here at the beginning of 1 Samuel—that prayer, it just sort of effortlessly slides into praise of God, not simply for delivering Hannah but for delivering the Israelites, namely, reversing the social dynamic.
Let me just flesh it out a little bit. Just as lowly Hannah was exalted by God by receiving a child, now the lowly of Israel will be exalted over the powerful who are mistreating them. Okay, how so? How are they going to be exalted? Well, the last line in the prayer tells us, this is chapter 2, verse 10. “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed.” And that’s you know, “King” and “anointed” mean the same thing. Without question, this line is meant to foreshadow the just reign of David. His reign will reverse the fortunes of Israel, which, you know, Israel now languishes under corrupt rule. Remember the book of Judges, right? That’s all that stuff happening there. Like everyone’s doing what is best in their own eyes. That’s how the book of Judges ends and it’s already setting you up for the need for kingship. Now, while we’re on the topic, I should also mention that Hannah’s song is quite deliberately picked up by Luke and reshaped for Mary in Luke chapter one where she sings a song of thanksgiving, known to many of us by the Latin word, the Magnificat. Because her song begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” right? For the same reason because Mary is going to have a baby. So, like Hannah, Mary speaks of the reversal of fortunes her son signifies, both for her personally, and for the Jews. See Jesus, the son of David, the rightful King is here.
Now, Samuel’s name is significant, but hang with me here. This is a slight nerd out moment here again, but it’s what we do here. Right. So, Hannah’s son is a gift from God, a gift she asked God for. And the Hebrew word for “ask” is שאל (sha’al), which is so very close, folks, to the Hebrew word for Saul, שאול (sha’ul). See, the consonants are the same in both which is very significant. Remember, Hebrew is not written with vowels, right? So, the consonants here are very significant, and they’re the same. Many scholars see here an intentional wordplay, contrasting two requests to sha’al’s, let’s say. Hannah’s request, sha’al, of God is a good request that is honored. See, this is, Samuel is born and he grows up and that leads directly to David’s kingship because he anoints David. The people’s request for a king, which happens a little bit later in 1 Samuel 8, the people’s request for a king like the other nations have, and this is another request, another sha’al, is not a good request, because it leads to sha’ul, Saul. See, the people’s bad request fizzles. And this sha’al-sha’ul wordplay serves to contrast the two requests. And, I don’t know, I hope that wasn’t a thorough waste of time for you. But I like trying to point out the intricacies where possible, and the sophistication of the biblical stories in Hebrew. They weren’t just thrown together, there are some pretty thoughtful people behind these stories, giving you things to chew on and to think through and to sort of stop you from going too quickly.
Anyway, other highlights of this section. The first section includes Hannah offering Samuel to the high priest Eli to raise him as a Nazirite, which means to be set apart for special service to God where, among other things, no wine is permitted to be drunk. Another prominent and I think, probably better known Nazirite is Samson, that—anyway, Eli, the high priest, Eli, his sons, his own sons, Hosni and Phineas, they seem to be complete losers having total disregard for their priestly duties. And it is this priestly family’s dysfunction that leads the people to ask for a king in chapter 8. And I suppose we can’t blame them. The same theme appears in Judges. Where kingship is presented as the only solution to the chaos of the period of the judges. The people here, all they’re doing is echoing the same sentiment. They want a king like the other nations have. The judges aren’t working, a priestly class that comes from Eli, it’s not working. We need a king.[Ad break]
Good point, see, but this is why Samuel’s response to this is so interesting, even on a certain level, perplexing. He should be saying, “Oh, finally now we’re going to have a king, the problem that’s mentioned in Judges is now finally going to be solved.” But the requests to have a king like the other nations displeased Samuel, as the story tells us, who then prays to God and it seems the Lord is even more displeased. Why? Well see, by asking for a king, they have actually rejected the Lord as their king. And again, this is is odd because besides the pro-kingdom vibe of Judges where kingship is going to be a good thing, a solution to a problem, Deuteronomy 17—remember the Deuteronomistic History relies on Deuteronomy—but Deuteronomy 17 posits kingship, as a good and normal thing. Let me read to you Deuteronomy 17:14-15. “When you have come into the land, that the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose.” So, here they are doing just that. But now, it’s a problem. Why?
Well, my take is that it seems that we have here another example of what we see throughout the Hebrew Bible, and elsewhere in the Deuteronomistic History, namely, different traditions that are brought together side by side. And as I see it, the purpose for giving voice to these two contradictory traditions about kingship, it’s for a reason it expresses the ambiguity that the writer of 1 Samuel had about kingship. See, after all, remember this is why the date of this stuff is so very important. The exiled Judahites saw the long 500 year history of the monarchy as landing them in exile. So, that raised the question; Is monarchy really a good thing? See, 1 Samuel makes sense in light of the exile and the post-exilic experience. It doesn’t make sense in, let’s say, the 11th century BCE.
By the way, side comment here if I may, Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite people and scholars, in his book—a wonderful and amazing book. I can’t recommend it highly enough—”The Prophetic Imagination,” he argues that monarchy has always been a bad idea. Why? Because it made the Israelites like Egypt and made them the oppressor. He gets this from 1 Samuel 8. See, God tells Samuel, “Fine, let other people have it their way, but tell them what accompanies monarchy, let them know what’s going to happen to them.” See, with kingship comes trouble, unavoidable trouble, things like forced labor, taking private possessions for the national good, and other acts that sort of squash the little guy. With kingship, in other words, comes administration, and the need to support and protect the monarchy and that takes manpower and woman power. Both men and women are sort of conscripted for different tasks in 1 Samuel 8.
See, kingship by design will reduce the people to slave status. See, that in verse 17—and then we read in verse 18—again, this is Samuel speaking—”And in that day,” right when you’ve been enslaved by your king, “And in that day, you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves. But the Lord will not answer you in that day.” See, this is a huge moment here because this is a clear allusion to the Exodus story where the people cry out because of another king, Pharaoh. And what does God do? Well, God does respond to the people’s cry. You can see that in Exodus 2:23-25. But now, he won’t. So, is kingship a God thing? Or isn’t it? See, in 1 Samuel, if you didn’t know Deuteronomy was there, you’d say God just doesn’t like kingship at all. But we have two voices here, right? Is this a God thing? Or isn’t it? I can’t imagine a stronger condemnation of kingship than what we see in 1 Samuel 8, comparing the Israelites to Egyptians. Now, personally, rather than trying to solve it, which one is right, I find it helpful and frankly, necessary, to keep this tension in mind while reading the Deuteronomistic History and especially getting to 1 and 2 Kings where all the kings have listed. See, it seems that the ancient writers lived with this tension enough to codify it into their sacred texts. I think we should honor that life is complicated. Being an Israelite is complicated, is kingship a good idea or a bad idea? Good question.
Okay, one more general point about this section, concerns the capture of the Ark by the Philistines. What they do, is they bring it, remember the Philistines are running the show here. The Israelites are oppressed by the Philistines. That’s how the story goes. So, the Philistines have all the power and what they do is they capture the Ark, they bring it into the house of the god Dagon, who is found face down two mornings in a row—the second time with his head and his arms cut off, right, because he’s an idol, right? And then the Philistines experienced plagues. And many scholars think it was the bubonic plague carried by rodents because, look at this yourself, 1 Samuel 6:4-5. And so, lest they replay the Exodus story with its ten plagues against the Egyptians, what are the Philistines to do? Well, they basically FedEx the Ark back to the Israelites in the form of a cart drawn by two cows and then it winds up in the town of Kiriath Jearim, where it stayed until David moved to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel after he became king. See, this incident forms the basis of Samuel’s admonishment of the people that obedience and repentance lead to victory. And so, they should put away their foreign gods, which is a very common theme in the Deuteronomistic History.
Okay, let’s move on now to section two. This is chapters 9-15. This section tells a story of the rise of Saul. It’s something really of a rags to riches story. It begins with Saul looking for his father’s donkeys and he winds up being declared king… Pretty good day. And see, he looks the part two, he said to be handsome, and tall, the kind of person you would want leading you into battle. You don’t want an accountant or a librarian leading you against the Philistines, you want somebody who looks the part. So, God tell Samuel to anoint Saul as king, and then to deliver the people from the Philistines—which, just, maybe a slight side issue here—that’s a very Judge like kind of scenario. God’s Spirit is sort of given to a particular person and empowers that person to deliver the people. And Saul, in other words, is like Samuel something of a transitional figure between Judge and King. In fact, he even experiences an ecstatic trance, which confirms his leadership—again, that’s sort of a Judge-like, and also a prophet-like thing as well—and in his battle against the Ammonites, and you see that in chapter 11, the spirit of god came upon Saul to empower him to battle—which, again, reminds us of Samson, a Saul-like figure that we discussed in the Judges episode. But beginning with David—there’s going to be a pretty significant shift—kingship will be hereditary, at least, in theory. No more charismatic figures who are imbued with the Spirit of God to do X, Y, and Z. Now, Samuel also gives a long farewell speech, not unlike what Moses and Joshua do at the end of their careers. And he’s basically—I mean, poor guy—he’s basically defending himself, right? The people, they have their king as they asked, but don’t blame Samuel, if it all goes sour, which it does almost immediately. See, Saul’s reign winds up losing steam. Why? It’s sort of interesting. The Philistines, see—again, they’re a big problem—and they have saw against the ropes and he does what, frankly, you would expect any good king to do, he offers a burnt offering to God for help. Right? Trying to get God’s attention, to say, “Hey, help us out down here.” The problem is that Samuel had told Saul to wait seven days until his arrival before offering a sacrifice. But… I don’t know, put yourself in Saul’s position, what would you do? He’s between a rock and a hard place. He’s between Samuel’s command and his duty as Israel’s military commander and therefore protector and liberator. But that move to sacrifice, well, it costs all his kingship and, as if to drive the point home, Saul’s son, Jonathan, wound up routing the Philistines, right, instead of Saul. And later—and we’ll see in a few moments here—in the Goliath episode, David will be the one to fight Saul’s battles for him once again. See, this is all very anti-Saul business, these stories.
Now, what sealed the rejection of Saul was sparing Agag, the king of the Amalekites, even though Samuel had told him to spare no-one but utterly destroy them all because of their opposition to the Israelites after leaving Egypt, back in Exodus. So, this vengeance is a long time and coming. But see, that doesn’t matter. His disobedience was still the final straw. And, by the way, if you’re familiar with the story of David, David has his own share of cataclysmic moments, but he’s never given this sort of treatment by God. God will wind up, rather, sticking with David through thick and thin and with his descendants, at least until the Babylonian exile when the Davidic dynasty came to an end, but David gets a different treatment than Saul. Now, biblical scholars will often say that Saul is hardly getting a fair objective shake by the writer. I mean, just think about this. Was he really such an abject failure? After all, the Deuteronomistic History is an apology for David and his dynasty. Saul is introduced to as a failure, not a solution to Israel’s problems but a contributor to them. Not that David is perfect, far from it, actually, but the Davidic dynasty which lasted over 400 years is seen as a God-thing. And that brings us to section three of First Samuel, with the rise of David, the political tensions with Saul that resulted and Saul’s eventual death.
Now, the first part of section three, this is, if you recall chapter 16-22, let’s call it section 3A. It begins, in chapter 16, with David’s introduction as the youngest of the eight sons of Jesse. Now, Samuel, as a story goes, is instructed by God to go and anoint one of the sons of Jesse to take Saul’s place. And, Samuel, understandably assumes it will be the eldest, Eliab. He appears in the next chapter too, so remember that name, Eliab, He seems like the logical choice, not only because he’s the firstborn, but because, you know, he looks the part, he’s tall! Of course, [hums] so was Saul. But, see, it turns out neither Eliab, nor any of Jesse’s present sons, are chosen by the lord, meaning the ones who are present in the room with him and Samuel. But there is one more son, the youngest, who is busy in the field, tending the sheep, and that, of course, is David. Now, here’s the thing like Saul and Eliab, David is also described physically as ruddy with beautiful eyes and handsome, that’s in 16:12. Now Ruddy, it seems, suggests youth in contrast to Saul and Eliab, but still, it’s striking. Are we not, at this point, to be on guard against being fooled by a king’s looks? That’s what God says to Samuel not five verses earlier concerning Eliab, this is in verse seven, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature because I have rejected him, for the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Yet, [Sighs] here, immediately after giving David’s physical description as ruddy and handsome and all that the lord says to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” See, I would have expected, instead, some comment, making it completely clear that God’s choice of David is completely independent of his appearance. But the whole thing is left, I’m just gonna say tantalizingly, ambiguous, and that’s a good word when reading about David, ambiguous. We have here a taste, really, of what is to come in the story of David. A divinely chosen king, a man after God’s own heart—see that in 13:14—but this king will nevertheless do some very Saul-like things later in his life that will result in years of trouble for him, and we’ll get to that in the next podcast episode.
So, anyway, David is introduced as the next king, whom Samuel anoints and upon whom the spirit of the lord came, again, indicating even David’s judge like status, a transitionary figure, as we saw with Saul. That means that the spirit of the lord will depart from Saul, and instead he is given, as we read in the text, an evil spirit from the lord. Now, “evil” certainly does not mean like a demon or something like that, but something bad for Saul, something not good, something harmful to him. Right. That’s what the Hebrew word “Ra`a`” means not evil, the way we think of it. And that evil spirit, so called, came upon Saul, apparently in waves, which has suggested to many that we’re dealing here with an ancient understanding of mental illness of some type—which I agree with—and the cure seems to be, according to Saul’s servants, that, “You know, hey king, there’s this guy, we heard of, Jesse’s son, who is skilled in playing the lyre.” So, Saul sent messengers to Jesse to have David come and play for him when needed. And Saul wound up getting quite fond of David and made him his armor bearer. Now, an armor bearer is a right hand man, of sorts, who accompanies the king into battle. So, David was in Saul’s service, living with him and working for him.
Alright now, hold that thought, and let’s turn to the very next story, chapter 17. This is, of course, the famous story of David slaying Goliath. And here we see a second introduction of David, as if the first one never happened. Let me lay out the problem, as the battle against the Philistines raged in the valley of Elah, Goliath, well, what does he do? He issues this famous challenge for the Hebrews to pick their own champion and go sort of man-to-man with him, rather than having an all out battle between the two sides. Okay, that’s fine. But David, curiously, well, he’s not at the battle and, in fact, he’s introduced a second time and this is in 17:12, “Now, David was a son of an ephraimite of Bethlehem and Judah named Jesse who had eight sons.”
Um… Hey, writer, we know that already. We just read that in chapter 16, and right after this, we read, “The eldest three sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle.” Okay, that’s great. But where’s David? Well, the text goes on to say, “David was the youngest. The three eldest followed Saul, but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. See, David is not at the battle with Saul, which is odd seeing that he is Saul’s-” Wait for it, “-armor bearer.” He should be. Instead, he seems to be living at home and the only arrives at the battle site at his father’s request, who asks him to check up on his brothers and bring them some food. And when David gets there—see things get really interesting now—he starts inquiring about Goliath’s challenge. He notices the hubbub, he asks him around, and he learns that to whoever defeats Goliath, Saul will give him his daughter in marriage, thus, making him, well, close to the royal family, if not by marriage, part of the royal family. And David is intrigued and he winds up in Saul’s tent selling himself as the man for the job. Now, Saul, who’s fully abdicating his responsibility is Israel’s warrior king to get out there and fight, he lets the boy face this giant with a slingshot. Of course, as the story goes, he is victorious. We all know the story, see after the battle is over—and this is really my point here—after the battle is over. It’s clear that Saul has no clue, absolutely no idea who this guy is and you can see that in verses 55-58, let me read them. “When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, ‘Abner, whose son is this young man?’ Abner said, ‘As your soul lives, oh king, I do not know.’ The king said, ‘Inquire, whose son the stripling is.’ On David’s return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. Saul said to him, ‘Whose son are you, young man?’ And David answered, ‘I am the son of Your servant Jesse, the Bethlehemite.'”
It is pretty clear that there were two stories of David’s introduction to Saul, one in chapter 16 and the other in chapter 17. And I’m making a big deal about it because it lets us in, a bit, to the nature of the literature. Listeners of this podcast won’t be surprised to hear that this is an example of what we might call “twice told tales with differences” and that’s a staple of the Hebrew Bible. The editors who compiled the Bible preserved multiple traditions of the same event. Why? Because! That’s why. They might ask us the question, “Why do you even ask that? Wouldn’t you preserve both traditions as part of our sacred past?” So, you have them and they bring them together and, sometimes awkwardly, but not carelessly, actually, very intentionally. Now, something else I’d like to point out here briefly in this story, is David’s character. See, David is not… People, hold on to your seats here—he is not the model of godliness despite the press that he gets, but instead, he is, again, an ambiguous moral character. Sure, he defeated Goliath and in a show of godly courage, but he’s also portrayed here as having a politically ambitious side. Right, when he arrives on the scene, he seems a little too curious about the reward Saul will give to the man who defeats Goliath. His daughter, right? Which, again, would put the victor inside the inner circle of the monarchy. But David’s intrigued. This interests him.
Now, David’s eldest brother, Eliab, overheard him asking about the reward and he called them out for his ambition. Yeah, they knew David, they grew up with the kid, right? “We know you, David, just stop having ambition, just go back home.” And David’s respons is classic between brothers- Between siblings of any sort, “Why? I was only asking a question!” “If you say so David,” and then he immediately turns to someone else and asks the very same question about the reward. See, he seems a little too interested. And then David’s conversation with Saul can be read in two ways either David is a courageous young man filled with God’s Spirit, who won’t let his mere age deter him from trusting God in the battle and defeating this uncircumcised Philistine, or he’s a bit arrogant for thinking that shepherding sheep qualifies him for being a mighty warrior. Also, by doing what Saul really should have done himself, which is to, you know, engage Goliath, one could conclude that David is making one concrete step toward usurping Saul’s power, which is exactly what winds up happening. See, this story is so rich and I should mention too, that as David goes out to engage Goliath, the narrator once again, comments on David’s handsome appearances, this is in chapter 17:42. And again, this raises questions in the readers mind about whether David will go the way of Saul or not. And the answer, especially in Second Samuel is, yes, both. Anyway, the story of David and Goliath is a complex layered story that is worth reading line by line with a good study Bible in hand.[Ad break]
Alright, you know, folks just brief intermission here, so I can get something off my chest. I love doing this series of one book per podcast, but even just skimming the surface of First Samuel could give us three episodes. And there’s just so much happening here, politically, literarily, theologically, and also, one of my favorite issues is the complex history of the composition itself, where the book was developed over a long period of time and you can see elements of that pretty much wherever you look. And I’m already frustrated here, folks, to be honest, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Don’t be concerned about me, but I’m frustrated at how much I have to cut out. But, let’s stick to the plan of one book per episode and we can always circle back, and we probably will and take a deeper dive with guests, like we did with Joel Baden and our David episode. But, even with that episode with Joel, we were skimming the surface. Okay, thank you. I feel better now. Let’s keep moving. Alright.
Other highlights of section 3A include the following: David forms a very close friendship with Saul’s son, Jonathan, which is so close in fact that even medieval Jewish scholars mused that the closeness might have included sexual intimacy, feel free to Google it. And Jonathan helps David evade his angry father who is angry because, why? David’s gaining popularity. And, you know, plus Saul is just a bit unhinged because of this evil spirit that he has. And Saul even tries killing David in chapter 18. And also David in the section he marries Saul’s daughter, Michal, who also helps him escape from Saul. See, at this point, the separation between David and Saul is not yet 100% complete. Saul’s hostility will increase but it has begun. Enough that David feels he has to flee to Gath for safety. And you should know that Gath is a Philistine town. Oh, gosh, David! So, David is like just palling around with Israel’s oppressors, which should raise an eyebrow. They both, the Philistines and David, they both have the same enemy, Saul. There’s a little bit of collusion going on here, I think. So, he then flees, David, he goes to the Philistines first, then he flees with his 400 men. Right? He’s gaining a following here—to the cave of Adullam, which is near David’s hometown of Bethlehem, where he really now begins consolidating some support for his kingship. And at the end of this section, after Saul slaughtered the priests of Nob for helping David, we are introduced to the lone survivor of that massacre, the priest, Abiathar. So what, who cares? Well, he will wind up being David’s high priest—because every king needs high priests—he’s gonna wind up being David’s high priest, but who is then banished by David’s son, Solomon—oh, gosh—for supporting Solomon’s rival and elder brother, Adonijah. Who, being the elder brother, really should be the next king. But no, it doesn’t work that way in the Bible. This will get us into all sorts of cloak and dagger stuff in First Kings, which again, we’ll get to one day soon enough.
I want to just pause at this point here, what I just mentioned, before moving on to section 3B. I just want to mention something, rather than dwell on it—even though this could be a long thing we could talk about for hours, and I’ve even written on this and podcasted about this pattern in the Hebrew Bible, of God inexplicably preferring the younger son over the elder son. You know the list, God favorite Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Joseph over his brothers, Moses is the younger brother to Aaron. And then David is the youngest and Solomon, who’s the next king, he’s not the eldest brother. He’s at least second in line. And, I think, this is, for me, a crucial theme in the Hebrew Bible and I believe the purpose of this theme written into the Bible, going all the way back to two Chapter Four of Genesis, the Cain and Abel story, this whole theme serves a large purpose, which is to build up a head of steam to get to the David and Solomon story to legitimize their reigns. See, those earlier stories were written in light of the monarchy where two kings arose who probably shouldn’t have become kings.
Okay, let’s move on to our last section. This is 3B, chapters 23-31. Here, we read that David twice spares Saul’s life, even though he could have finished him off and be done with him. David’s restraint is contrasted to Saul’s impulsiveness. Again, due perhaps to his evil spirit, mental illness. Now many scholars read these episodes as the writers over the top defense of David. Sort of like saying, “See, people? David was a good guy, he doesn’t kill people.” But later in the story, people in opposition to David, they just seem to drop dead. And on his deathbed, David even counsels Solomon that, you know, you might have to get rid of some of the opposition, you might have to get rid of some people, get them out of the way. David is certainly a violent character and these two episodes of sparing Saul’s life—at least I read it this way, and others do too—these are likely the writers attempt to take the edge off a bit. Now, apart from David eluding Saul and refusing to kill him, in this section, Samuel, he got old and he dies, which basically removes all adult supervision over both David and Saul. The next story, David takes as his wife, Abigail, and she is the wife of a Nabal. Now Nabal in Hebrew means “fool,” so, I’m guessing his mother didn’t give him this name, this can’t be his name. But, again, the writer isn’t aiming for historical objectivity here and Second Samuel, David will repeat this move by taking the already married Bathsheba as his wife after getting her husband, Uriah, out of the way, basically having him murdered in battle.
Anyway, David and his men do, what amounts to, you know, a shakedown for protection deal here. You can sort of see between the lines this is what’s happening in chapter 25:6-8. And like Bathsheba’s husband, Nabal dies at a feast of a heart attack, it seems. Though, reading between the lines, many scholars suggest that David had something to do with it and the writer is trying to soften the blow a bit. You know, after all, Nabal had insulted David’s request for supplies, or was it a veiled threat? It’s part of the Shakedown, right? But with Nabal out of the way, what is David do? Well, he marries Abigail, and then a few verses later, he marries Ahinoam, which may very well be the wife of Saul since Saul’s wife and 1450 is Ahinoam. So, David seems to be not just marrying for love here, folks, he seems to be consolidating key territories through marriage, which is a not too subtle challenge to Saul’s kingship. Now, in this section, we also see David fleeing to Gath, right, the Philistine territory for a second time, though the Philistines now reject David. They don’t trust him, which, frankly, makes sense. Why would they ever trust him to begin with? He is an Israelite, after all, right? And they also see that he has a faithful following, and it’s getting bigger, and they probably have figured out by now that he actually has designs on the kingdom. So, they cut ties. Frankly, they should have just killed them. But anyway, it would have been nice, had David initiated this separation, but no. He doesn’t do that. And that still leaves open the question of what he was doing hanging out with the Philistines in the first place. David, man after God’s own heart. David seems to loathe the Philistines in the Goliath episode. It’s reasonable to suggest that he used Saul’s enemy, the Philistines, to solidify his own position. He’s a good tactical war guy.
Now, in the middle of all this we have the famous story of Saul consulting in medium to raise up Samuel’s ghost, so he can ask him for help and fighting the Philistines. Now, Samuel is quite annoyed at being disturbed and reminds him it is too late, since God has already become Saul’s enemy. I mean, after all back in chapter 15, Saul’s robe was already torn by Samuel, which is symbolic of the tearing away of the kingdom from him. And, by the way—and we’ll get to this eventually—but a similar incident happens after Solomon’s death, when the Prophet Ahijah takes his own robe and tears it to 12 pieces, giving Jeroboam 10 of those pieces. That’s the number of the northern tribes because Jeroboam will be the first northern King and that signals obviously a change in Israel’s political fortunes, they will now be a divided monarchy. So, this tearing of robes thing seems to be very symbolic of political change. Now, the book ends with the accounts of the deaths of Saul and his sons, which includes David’s close friend Jonathan. David’s opposition to the kingship is now fully out of the way. Saul, his three sons, and his armor bearer are killed. No son of Saul will succeed him. Though, as we will learn in Second Samuel there is another son, Ishbaal, who is kept safe. And after David is anointed king in Second Samuel 7 we read that Ishbaal has his own following and lays claim to the kingdom, which, you know, that lasts for that’s about a two year reign until he’s assassinated.[Hums] It turns out, too, that Jonathan had a son, Mephibosheth, which makes the political intrigue even more interesting and Second Samuel.
Now actually—and not to stray here—but each bow, which means “the Lord’s man” or “Baal’s man,” Baal is a Canaanite God—that’s the Greek name. In Hebrew, it is Ishbosheth, which means “man of shame,” which again, clearly, isn’t his real name. It’s like referring to a certain political figure who must not be named as “mar-a-lago.” Don’t blame me for that. I got that from Stephen Colbert. Anyway, names are symbolic, and they change names to get points across to paint a certain picture of characters. Okay. Anyway, as we close, where is this story going? Well, Second Samuel will take us from David’s struggled to ascend the throne and to be the sole King, to a final section that recounts some of the deeds of David’s reign. And in between, things are going well for David for literally about four chapters. The rest is a disaster. He dies in First Kings 2, not in peace but amid some political turmoil. So, First Samuel 16, through First Kings 2, David—that’s a lot of chapters, David gets a lot of airtime in the Hebrew Bible—the focus on David, clearly, suggests his importance—I mean, to state the obvious—at least importance in the hearts and minds of the later biblical writers living during the exilic and post-exilic periods. But even with that, few doubt that David was a figure to be reckoned with long before that. It’s sort of like—not exactly the same—but it’s sort of like the Gospels and the quest for the historical Jesus. The texts both help and obscure the historical figure, right, both Jesus and David. What we’re seeing in the Deuteronomistic History and in the gospels, it’s analogous. It’s an expression of the importance of these figures and how those figures were understood later on as they were writing their stories. Okay, at any rate, First Samuel begins an apology—again, a defense for David and his legacy, which was clearly important for Israelite self identity after the mess of the monarchy and the humiliating discouragement of the exile. And a word often used to describe the story of David in the Deuteronomistic History is “propaganda.” And, I think, this is an accurate description. Now, may rubs some listeners the wrong way, and I completely understand and, in fact, I have sympathy for any negative reaction, one might have to that word talking about the Bible. But, take this for what it’s worth, I truly don’t know what else to make of it. And so, I accept that designation. It seems self-evident to me. And, for me, that is respecting the Bible and what the author’s we’re trying to do. Okay, but so, what are we supposed to do with this story of David, if it’s just propaganda? What should it mean to us? Well, folks, as I never tire of telling my students, “That’s a great question.” It really is. It’s not a defeatist question. It’s an invitation. Welcome to Adult Bible reading, which is what I tell my students. Welcome to theology. Welcome to the history of interpretation. To quote the Mandalorian, if you’re going to read the Bible, “This is the way.”
Alright folks, thanks for spending some time with me and we’ll pick this up again in a few weeks with Second Samuel. See you.[Outro music begins]
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You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget you can also catch the latest episode of our other show, Faith for Normal People, wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People podcast team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Natalie Weyand, Stephen Henning, Tessa Stultz, Haley Warren, Nick Striegel, and Jessica Shao.[Outro music ends]