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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Aaron Higashi joins Pete to talk about five key points in understanding 1 & 2 Samuel—and why our reading of this biblical tragedy doesn’t have to be tragic. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • When and where does 1 & 2 Samuel take place?
  • Is there more than one author of 1 & 2 Samuel, and how do we know?
  • What stories in 1 & 2 Samuel orient us to seeing different authors?
  • What’s all the back and forth about having a king?
  • How is fatherhood a major theme?
  • What do we find out about the treatment of women in 1 & 2 Samuel?
  • Where can we find inspiration and hope in the midst of so much sadness and tragedy in these narratives?
  • What conclusions does Aaron draw about the historicity of 1 & 2 Samuel?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • 1 and 2 Samuel are primarily historical books that tell stories in the form of prose. — @drabhigashi @theb4np
  • The Hebrew Bible in particular is very interested in the qualities of these characters and spending a considerable amount of time with them. — @drabhigashi @theb4np
  • Once you get [a set of stories] that cannot be reconciled, that’s then our foundation for exploring how the rest of the stories and the text fit with one of these but not the other. — @drabhigashi @theb4np
  • For books that are fundamentally about the beginning of the monarchy, there’s a lot of ambivalence about whether or not there should be a king to begin with. — @drabhigashi @theb4np
  • You could almost learn how to be a good parent by doing the opposite of everything that the characters in these texts are doing. — @drabhigashi @theb4np
  • As readers of this text, we have a lot of freedom in what parts of the text we’re going to repeat and tell and embrace, and weave into the fabric of our own worldview. — @drabhigashi @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas. 

[Music plays]

Pete: Hey, everybody, on today’s episode it’s just me, Pete, and I’m talking about Five Things You Need To Know About 1 and 2 Samuel with Dr. Aaron Higashi. Now, Aaron is not only one of our esteemed Nerds in Residence scholars, but also an adjunct instructor at Grand Canyon University. He’s widely known for sharing biblical scholarship on his TikTok channel, which is just amazing. You got to go check it out. It’s @abhbible, and he’s also writing for us our commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel in the Bible for Normal People book series, so, there you have it. So, with that, let’s get into this episode. 

[Jaunty music plays over teaser clip of Aaron speaking] 

Aaron: “As readers of this text, we have a lot of freedom in what parts of the text we want to play a part in our theology, or what parts of the text we’re going to repeat and tell and embrace as the prescriptive parts of the text. These are the things we’re going to take with us. These are the good precious metals amongst all the rest of this, terrible things that are happening. I think if we extract these stories and carry them with us, they can be enriching for our lives today.”

[Ad break]

Pete: Aaron, welcome to the podcast!

Aaron: Hi! So happy to be here. 

Pete: Great to have you. Goodness gracious, you’re one of our nerds and everything, and now you’re on a podcast, and I can’t believe this. 

Aaron: Officially a nerd. 

Pete: [Laughing] Officially. 

Aaron: I know, I’ve been all my life, but it’s not, it’s not only until now that somebody’s recognized it, so it’s, it’s real.

Pete: And it’s a good thing now. 

Aaron: Yes! [Laughing] 

Pete: You’re not getting your lunch money taken or anything like that, so. 

Aaron: Well, I could go back in time and tell the 13 year old me.

Pete: [Pete laughs] Right. Well, listen, anyway, let’s talk about 1 and 2 Samuel, these wonderful books, and start just by orienting us to these books. You know, what’s covered there generally, what time span are we looking at, stuff like that.

Aaron: Sure. So, 1 and 2 Samuel are primarily historical books that tell stories in the form of prose. They are covering about a hundred years, give or take, of history from the beginning of the 11th century BCE, so about 1070- 1060, somewhere around there, to the top part of the 10th century BCE, around 970- 960, somewhere in there.

And it’s a story of several generations beginning with the character of Samuel himself before his birth, and then to the generation after him where we get kings like Saul, and then the generation after him where we get David and his sons as well. So it’s a multi-generational epic taking place between the 11th and 10th century BCE at the dawn of the monarchy in ancient Israel.

Pete: Yeah, a lot going on there. Actually, I mean, you know, two big books and about a hundred years. I guess for the most part, that’s a pretty quick compression of time there. You know, some of the other books take a lot more space up, but this is focusing on a specific period. And I guess, I don’t know, for me, Aaron, I feel that the amount of time spent to cover a relatively short period of history suggests something of the importance of this for the writers and I guess for the editors of the Bible as well. 

Aaron: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we are zooming in a little bit to really talk about these characters in a kind of detail that we don’t often get in biblical narrative. We so rarely get even basic descriptions about what characters look like, what they’re feeling, what they’re doing when God is not otherwise commanding them to do x, y, and z, like what they’re doing in their off time, so to speak.

[Pete laughs] 

But we are spending a lot of time with these characters. We get to see their rise and their fall, their careers. So yeah, the Bible is very interesting. The Hebrew Bible, Old Testament in particular, is very interested in the qualities of these characters and spending a considerable amount of time with them.

And I think part of that is also because we’re talking about a period in history that’s critical, where it’s a transition from the period of the Judges that came before, where we had these charismatic warriors that God would periodically raise up in order to fight off foreign invaders and free the people of Israel.

We’re transitioning from there to what we see in 1 and 2 Kings, which is these kind of dry, sometimes analytic stories that are just like, such and such was a king for this many years, he did x, y, and z, and then, you know, he died and somebody else is king after him. We’re really moving from this older conception of ancient Israel as loosely affiliated tribes in this period of the Judges to a much more centralized monarchy, and there’s a lot of tension in that transition from this older way of life and the theology that came along with that older way of life, and this newer way of life and the very different theology that comes with that. 

Pete: Right. Okay, well, let’s get into the book. And we, we advertised, right, we’re going to have five things you need to know. 

Aaron: Five things. 

Pete: Five things. 

Aaron: Only five. [Laughing]

Pete: Only five. You can’t know six things, only five things. Let’s just go through what those five are. Let me just say for the sake of our listeners, this is where this is going. One, there’s more than one author. Two, there’s a lot of back and forth, a lot of ambiguity about having a king.

Aaron: Mmhmm. 

Pete: Fatherhood is a major theme in these books, okay? Fourth, the books are rough for women characters, and then the fifth, 1 and 2 Samuel is a tragedy, but our reading of it doesn’t have to be. That’s interesting. Well, let’s start with the first one. There’s more than one author, is there? 

Aaron: Yes, I think so. 

Pete: And how do you know? How do you know, Aaron? 

Aaron: It’s a good question. I spend a lot of time online talking to people about the multiple authors of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and that ruffles a lot of feathers because tradition held, and a lot of people think, that Moses wrote those five books. So there’s tension there between what scholars think and what everyday people and churches think. I think there’s a little bit less tension here because even old Christian and Jewish traditions held that a combination of inspired prophets like Samuel, Nathan, and Gad contributed to the composition of 1 and 2 Samuel.

So telling people there’s more than one author isn’t as immediately provocative, but there are some tools that more modern biblical scholars use to try and find these authors, and one of them is paying very close attention to the text and seeing where there are contradictory and redundant stories. So you say the same thing twice in two different ways, where these two different stories don’t even seem to acknowledge each other.

And there are several examples of this. I give you an easy one very famous story, between 1 Samuel 16, where David is first anointed as king, and 1 Samuel 17, the very famous story of David and Goliath. Both of these stories ultimately serve the purpose of showing how David comes into Saul’s service to become a member of his household. They both culminate with that. How did David get so close to Saul and the king? These two stories both accomplish that goal. But they characterize David in very different ways. In 1 Samuel 16, David is, although he is the youngest of Jesse’s sons, he’s already a man grown. The text describes him as a valiant warrior and a man of war. He becomes Saul’s armor bearer. He’s given a high position in Saul’s household because of his skill in battle and also because he can play music to soothe Saul and this evil spirit that’s tormenting him. 

And then you turn the page to 1 Samuel 17, probably one of the most famous stories in the entire Old Testament Hebrew Bible where David fights Goliath. And in this story, David’s a little kid. You know, so small that he can’t wear Saul’s armor, so small that he can’t use Saul’s weapons. And at the very end of 1 Samuel 17, Saul doesn’t even seem to know who David is. And he has to get with his general and they sort of like, well, who is this guy? Maybe we should figure out who his father is and we can invite him in, you know, afterwards.

So these two stories are two probably originally independent traditions. They don’t seem to know about each other at all. But they ultimately serve the same purpose of saying, how did David go from being nobody to being somebody in Saul’s household? And that’s sort of the beginning of this process of trying to parse out multiple authors.

We seem to have one author for 1 Samuel 16, another author for 1 Samuel 17, and then we can go from there and say, what kind of stories are related to 1 Samuel 16 that also don’t seem to be aware of 1 Samuel 17 and vice versa? But there are a lot of examples of this. If you pay close attention to the text.

Pete: Yeah, I mean close attention and not like super crazy close attention. 

Aaron: Yeah.

Pete: But just sort of reading it as if you’ve never read it before I think, you know, we’re so familiar with these stories. We just sort of keep going, but I guess you’re saying that they’re, not to put words in your mouth, there are two introductions to David in 1 Samuel. 

Aaron: Yes. 

Pete: Right. Okay. And they don’t know each other, but an editor felt like putting them next to each other. Why not? 

Aaron: Yeah. It would be even more strange to put them very far apart.

[Pete laughs] 

The editor’s, the editor’s hand is kind of forced there. 

Pete: Or just pick one and go with it. 

Aaron: You could do that. It’s fortunate that the editor did not feel that way because then we get both traditions, right? So it’s probably the case that much later, a couple hundred years later, an editor is sitting down, they have both these extremely important stories sitting in front of them. And they think, well, I’m going to preserve both side by side for the benefit of future generations. And we do benefit from that because then we get to see a more holistic picture of who ancient people thought David was. 

Pete: Although we have more fights on TikTok too.

Aaron: We do, but that’s good for content, likes, and [laughing] so much the better. 

Pete: Can you give, um, I mean, that’s a famous example. Can you think of another one just to help orient us to this whole concept of having more than one author? 

Aaron: Sure. There are also three stories about how Saul becomes king. So between 1 Samuel chapter 9, 10, and 11, there are three redundant stories of Saul becoming king. Any one of them would have been sufficient for him to become king, but we get three, and they’re very different in theology. And again, the text itself does not seem to know about them. So in our first story, it begins in chapter 9 and continues to chapter 10. Samuel is told by God, go anoint Saul, make him king.

And it’s a pretty straightforward story about Saul originally sets out to try and find some of his father’s donkeys, and then ends up bumping into Samuel, and then he’s anointed king. In the second of these stories, in the second half of chapter 10, Saul is chosen king by lot. They just, like, draw straws for it, and Saul is picked to be king, except he runs away. So this has a much more negative portrayal of Saul and his suitability to become king, because when the opportunity comes, he flees. 

And then in 1 Samuel chapter 11, you have a third story about Saul becoming king, and this one sounds very similar to the stories in Judges. In this one, there’s a threat from a foreign enemy, and Saul hears about it, and the Spirit of God descends upon him, and he becomes empowered, and he rallies an army around him and destroys this enemy. And then afterwards, almost through, like, popular acclaim, he’s taken to Gilgal and made king, almost without Samuel’s participation at all. Samuel’s mention in that chapter is sort of perfunctory. It’s just like when Samuel was like, hey, we should make him king. But I mean, everybody’s already, like, firmly on his side about it.

So any one of these stories would be fine, right? Being anointed by the prophet, a very famous prophet, that should be enough. By being chosen by lot in public in front of everybody, that should be enough. And then, you know, by popular acclaim, that should be enough. And these stories are only tenuously edited together with like single lines. You’ll get in the middle of chapter 10 like, Oh, Saul didn’t tell anybody, so now we got to do it again.

So there’s very little that connects these things together, but once you start seeing it once, you start seeing it everywhere. There are two stories about Saul appointing David to positions in the military to try and get him killed. There are two stories of David being saved by Saul’s family members, once by his son and then once by his daughter from his murderous attempts. There’s two stories about David joining up with the Philistines, two stories about David sneaking up on Saul and then having the opportunity to kill him but not killing him. So there’s a lot of these once you catch on to it. 

Pete: And once you start digging, it just, all sorts of interesting things come up. But, you know, one thing I can imagine people responding to hearing this, Aaron, is “well, can’t these be reconciled somehow? I mean, is it necessary to say that we have different authors, could they just be a writer feels like repeating himself, and we just have this text?”

Aaron: Some of them can be, if you try really hard. The two stories about David sneaking up on Saul, if you wanted to, you could probably find some way to make them mesh together. The 1 Samuel 16 and 1 Samuel 17 cannot be. They are completely different portrayals. David is old in one and a valiant warrior, and David is a little kid who can’t fight at all in the other.

So at the very least, they’re not in chronological order. Then you’d have to invent some strange reason why Saul, like, forgets about David between the two. So you’d really have to, you’d end up rewriting the text so much that you might as well not be reading the Bible at all. You might as well be reading fanfiction about the Bible. So it varies on how much you can reconcile them. But once you get one that cannot be reconciled, that’s then our foundation for exploring how the rest of the stories and the text fit with one of these but not the other.

[Ad break]

Pete: Let’s move on. I want to get to these five because these are great. So, there’s a lot of back and forth about having a king. Talk about that. 

Aaron: Yeah, for books that are fundamentally about the beginning of the monarchy, there’s a lot of ambivalence about whether or not there should be a king to begin with.

Coming out of the book of Judges, if you’re reading this in a Hebrew Bible, 1 and 2 Samuel come immediately after Judges. If you’re reading it in a Christian Old Testament, uh, you have Ruth sort of in between there. But Judges, as a book, is generally very opposed to the idea of having a king. The idea there, the ideal, is that God is the king of the Israelites and that God will send his spirit on people when necessary in order to defend the nation. But once we start getting into these early chapters in Samuel, that arrangement is no longer suitable. It’s not working. It’s not sustainable for people. And this sort of comes to a head in 1 Samuel 8, where a collection of elders come to Samuel and they tell him like, look, your sons are corrupt.

You’re not going to hand down leadership of the country to them. We want to have a king like all the other nations. And Samuel takes this very hard, he complains to God about it, and God says to him, look, it’s not you they’ve rejected, it’s me they’ve rejected as their king. And it’s kind of this sad moment for God, if God can have sad moments. 

[Pete chuckles]

And then Samuel goes on to tell him, look, if you’re going to have a king, this king is going to oppress you, he’s going to tax you, he’s going to enslave your people, he’s going to profit off your misery, essentially. In order to build up this army and rule over you, and some of that does end up coming to pass much more explicitly with Solomon and some of the kings after it, not so much with these first two kings. But that’s a pretty negative evaluation of having a king.

And then, we get a few chapters where Saul is made king, and then it sort of circles back again. This anti monarchal voice pops up again very strongly in chapter 12, 1 Samuel 12. And there, Samuel gives a long speech which twice calls the desire to have a king evil. Explicitly says it’s evil to want to have a king.

And if you just read those two chapters, 1 Samuel 8 and 1 Samuel 12, you would definitely walk away with the impression that there’s no way that God is on board with this, that this is a good thing to have, that this is a direction that ancient Israel should be moving in. And then you get to other passages where it seems like a king is the best thing in the world, so God has no problem anointing Saul to be king in 1 Samuel 9, in 1 Samuel 16, which is with David’s anointing, God seems to be all about it, I found a man after my own heart.

You know, that’s going to be this David character, whether or not that turns out to be true, sort of a different story, but God seems very invested in picking the right person, happy to do it. And I think the strongest statement about this when we get to 2 Samuel 7, the Davidic promise, where we get a lavish amount of theology about how the monarchy is going to function, how God is going to be committed to David and his line of kings that descends after him forever and ever.

He’s going to be like a father to the kings. It’s a very close relationship, a very theologically powerful relationship. So you get none of this hesitation that you see in some of these earlier passages. And so you really go back and forth. It’s almost like you’d get to one page, King’s a bad idea. You turn the page, it’s a great idea. You turn the page, it’s a bad idea again. You definitely get that feeling reading through the text. 

Pete: Well, I mean, something that strikes me, I don’t know, Aaron, if you have any insight about this, you know, this back and forth, the ambivalence of kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel, this is part of the Deuteronomistic history.

Aaron: Yes. 

Pete: Right, which is, which is styled after the theology in Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomy 17 seems to be just assuming the positive nature of kingship. When you have a king, just make sure you choose one from among your own people. Don’t choose a foreigner. And make sure this person reads Torah every day.

It’s that kind of a thing. And that, that’s always puzzled me that as part of this Deuteronomistic history, we have two voices still playing off of each other. One of them wins, I think. Actually, which one does win? Is kingship a good idea or a bad idea? 

Aaron: I think ultimately it’s a bad idea. It’s a, it’s a failed experiment.

I think 1 Samuel 12 is sort of the, the Deuteronomistic historians sort of last word on the issue, which is very negative towards having a king, and I think that comes from a place of pain, sitting in the midst of Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, having already crafted this theology where essentially the fall of Israel and Judah is the result of idolatrous kings.

I think it’s only natural for them to think back and say, you know, we really went wrong here. But it is complicated. 

Pete: I mean, I don’t want this to be too simplistic, but one way maybe of explaining this and please correct me if I’m wrong, but maybe the assumption of positivity with respect to kingship and Deuteronomy is at least partly due to its pre exilic setting.

Even if it’s late 7th century, or at least maybe a hopefulness that kingship can be a good thing. But then this Deuteronomistic history is written with exile right in the rearview mirror or even in the midst of it, right? So it seems like we’re seeing a very interesting historical dialogue here between, you know, the writer of 1 and 2 Samuel and then what we have in Deuteronomy.

Aaron: Yeah, Deuteronomy itself, I mean, for like 200 years now, I think most biblical scholars have believed that Deuteronomy is composed towards the end of the 7th century BCE under the, related to the reign of Josiah, and there would be good reason you know, for the ideology of the time to look positively, I mean, if this is sponsored in some way or inspired by some way by Josiah and his rule, then that would be a good reason for it to speak somewhat positively about the kingship.

And the description of the king there in Deuteronomy 17 is then, you know, either copied or in retrospect written in to describe Josiah as well. So that’s as positive as you get in this strain of Deuteronomy through the Deuteronomistic history. And I think it just sours after that because even Josiah’s reign in 2 Kings at least doesn’t turn out great. He sort of dies, in a very… 

Pete: I mean, if the writer’s intention is to make us think kingship is a great idea, he’s a really bad writer.

Aaron: [Laughing] That’s true. 

Pete: Because by the end of it, it’s like, I’m sick and tired of this. I mean, every single king except for two are just making the same mistakes. 

Aaron: Well, I think that’s, again, because of the multiple authors. So you have some that are against it and some that are for it. And it is a battle, an argument that they’re almost having across time.

Pete: Yeah. Interesting reading these texts as ancient arguments, in a sense, is, I think, fascinating. 

All right, let’s get to the third point. How is fatherhood a major theme? 

Aaron: Yeah, this might be [chuckling] I think it’s a major theme, you know, I was trying to think of some way I could bring myself and my own experience. I’m a father of three young daughters. And so issues of fatherhood in the Bible just occur to me now more than they used to. But as I was reading 1 and 2 Samuel recently, getting ready for this lovely book that I’m writing, I just, I noticed it so much. 

One of the first things that we hear about Eli, one of the very first characters that were presented in 1 Samuel, is that his children, his sons, are terrible people. And I can’t help but think that that reflects poorly on him as a father, that these two grown men, Hophni and Phidias, they grow up in his household, but they are, you know, doing irreligious things in the temple. They appear to be coercively sleeping with women in the sanctuary space.

He is not a great father that he tries on one occasion to try and discipline them. It doesn’t take. So this, it doesn’t seem to be working out well here. And then later we learned that Samuel, who grew up in Eli’s household at the sanctuary in Shiloh, also has sons who are corrupt. And it almost seems like he inherited his inability to raise sons any better than Eli did from him. And then once I was sort of on to this, I just paid attention to it everywhere, all these father son, father daughter dynamics throughout the text. And we actually get to hear, because this is a multi generational story, we actually get to hear a lot about these relationships between fathers and their children.

So Saul is a father. He seems to have done a good job raising Jonathan. Jonathan is a pious figure, a heroic figure, a deeply feeling figure who expresses his emotions rather freely. A loyal figure, very loyal both to his father and to David, as difficult as that is to be at the time when he’s wrestling with it.

He manages to take out a Philistine garrison by himself, so he’s got some skills, you know. So Saul seems to have done a decent job with Jonathan. But then because of this tormenting spirit that’s sent to him, Saul also tries to kill his son. This goes downhill from there. And then we have David, of course, who so much of 1 and 2 Samuel are dedicated towards.

Although we don’t hear much about his father, Jesse, David is himself eventually a father, and it seems to be a terrible father at that. His one son, Amnon, seems to inherit his inclination for being terrible with women and ends up sexually assaulting his half sister, Tamar. He doesn’t seem to be a good father to Absalom either because Absalom leads a civil war against him.

And even in his last days, David is so obsessed with trying to take out the last few people who are kind of close to him in life that his last instructions to his son Solomon are all about how to assassinate the right people so that he can sit on the throne. And he doesn’t seem to have been a good father to Solomon because, of course, although Solomon ends up being very wise, he is brought down by some of the same thing, you know, an inability to treat women well and relate to women well is a big problem for Solomon as well.

So you just get generation after generation of men unable to raise good sons. And when I read it, especially recently, I’ve been reading it a lot and find so many negative examples that you, you could almost learn how to be a good parent by doing the opposite of everything that the characters in these texts are doing.

Pete: [Chuckling] Yeah. This is not a guidebook for being a biblical father. 

Aaron: No. Well, no, I hope not. 

Pete: Or it is. If you want to be a biblical father, go right ahead. 

Aaron: Yeah. Well, I mean, it complicates that idea of biblical fatherhood a lot, which I think some people would probably celebrate an idea of biblical fatherhood. And I hope they are looking elsewhere when they do that, because, I mean, apart from Saul, you know, Saul gets a lot of flack in the text. Samuel has it out for Saul constantly. 

But of these characters, he’s probably the best father out of all of them. And then even God as a father figure is very explicitly stated in that Davidic promise in 2 Samuel 7, where he says that he will be a father to the kings. And then we can sort of ask that perilous but necessary question of what kind of father is God to these figures, to David and his sons and the line of kings after him. And there’s a lot of ways you could answer that question. I don’t think very many of them would be super positive. 

I think it could be an interesting thing for people to read. You know, you go back and you read these stories, you’re looking for something new to take a look at. Look at, you know, ask yourself, are any of these characters good fathers? And then sort of see how it plays out in narrative, and I think you might find some surprising things.

[Ad break] 

Pete: Okay, how about the fourth? These are, I mean, this is a big issue of how the treatment of women in 1st and 2nd Samuel, so let’s talk about that for a bit. 

Aaron: It’s a hard issue. It’s a hard issue to even talk about. But we should probably start by saying that one thing that 1st and 2nd Samuel have going for it is a relatively large number of named women characters who get some agency and who have speaking parts and do significant things in the narrative. There are some books in the Hebrew Bible Old Testament where there is not a single woman around, right? You can go entire books and you won’t get a single named woman character. It’s different here. 

We sort of start, in many ways, with a woman character in the form of Hannah. Hannah is one of the first characters that does anything in the text who is Samuel’s mother. Uh, and she’s a pious figure who really sort of takes her situation in her own hands as barren before God’s intervention. And because she dedicates her unborn child to God’s service, she’s able to conceive and have a son. And then she quickly disappears from the narrative, but in a sense, she’s one of the few women who make it out alive or who make it out unscathed. She gets into the story, she gets exactly what she wants out of the story, and then she manages to get away before anything terrible can happen to her. But then we get a lot of women who are, in particular, victims in various ways of the violence of male characters, in particular David. I mean, it’s just a laundry list.

In 1 Samuel 25, we have Abigail, who is married to a man. David is sort of running a protection racket in the wilderness, pretending to look after some wealthy homes there, and he comes down out of nowhere and is like, hey, you guys need to pay up. I’ve been keeping everybody safe here. And Abigail’s husband Nabal, like, refuses initially, and then miraculously winds up dead in the middle of the night. And David swoops in and marries Abigail, and she sort of gets carried off to be, I think, like his second or third wife, depending on exactly how the timing works out. But Abigail gets to speak up in her story a little bit. I mean, she’s in a terrible situation. She’s either going to die or end up with David, and she chooses ending up with David, so she gets to exercise a very limited amount of agency, but she’s clever in the way that she’s able to survive the situation, even if that cleverness is only to end up in the hands of another man. 

Pete: Mmhmm. 

Aaron: We have Mikhal, who is one of Saul’s daughters. She gets a couple interesting scenes. She saves David’s life early in 1 Samuel from one of Saul’s attempts to kill him. But then in the end, she’s one of the people who criticizes David for his dancing in 2 Samuel 6 when David has the ark brought to Jerusalem. He’s dancing around like crazy, and Mikhal criticizes him for this, and then he curses her to not ever have any children anymore, and she never has any children. 

Pete: Mmhmm. 

Aaron: There’s Bathsheba, of course, who’s probably the most famous instance of a woman who suffers from David’s inclination towards violence. It’s a pretty famous story where David is, uh, he should be out at war, but he’s not. He’s staying home in Jerusalem and happens, he looks down into her house and sees her bathing, and demands for her to come up into his palace and rapes her, and then is condemned by the prophet Nathan as a result of this.

She doesn’t exercise very much agency in that story, but she does end up playing a significant role at the beginning of 1 Kings and having her son Solomon sit on the throne as opposed to David’s actual oldest son at that point. So she does, her entrance into the story is a tragedy, but she does get some say at the end in the fate of the nation.

There are other characters, Tamar, who is one of David’s daughters, who gets raped by her half brother. There’s Rizpah, who is one of Saul’s concubines who has all her sons executed by David as a kind of weird generational payback to the Gibeonites. It’s a very strange story that sort of has no real precedent and it’s sort of inserted at the end of 2 Samuel, but then she goes out and stands guard over the corpses of her children in an act of mourning.

Pete: It’s a moving story. 

Aaron: It is a very moving story. You know, we so infrequently get these moving stories involving women. So there’s that category of women, women who are hurt by men. There’s another category of women who don’t have names, but nevertheless, pull off some pretty clever things. So there’s the witch of Endor or the median of Endor in 1 Samuel 28, who calls up Samuel’s spirit from the underworld. It’s a very easy story to skip over, but like one of the few ghost stories that we get in the Bible. So kind of fun to read. 

[Pete laughs] 

But Saul’s trying to figure out whether or not he should go to battle with the Philistines and God won’t talk to him. So he’s, he tries to find, like, a necromancer, essentially, to call up Samuel’s spirit so he can consult with him instead.

And she’s quite a clever figure to be able to survive that situation. I mean, this is very dangerous for her to have a king who’s outlawed the kind of magic she is capable of doing, apparently. And she manages to make it out of that situation just fine. And there are two wise women, the wise women of Tekoa, who Joab, David’s general, brings in to help David reconcile with his son Absalom.

And then there’s the wise woman of Bickrey at the very end of 2 Samuel who, after a guy revolts against David, she’s like, don’t lay siege to our city, we’ll just kill him and bring his head to you and you can leave us alone. 

Pete: [Chuckling] Right. 

Aaron: So these women are in extraordinary situations. But they use their cunning to survive. So we get to see women in a lot of different situations, both unable to escape the kind of violence that they’re subjected to, but also some women who are able to escape it through, you know, extraordinary cleverness. 

Pete: Yeah. And again, complex character development here, I guess, or, or just a diversity of women characters. Some victims and some having more agency. 

Aaron: Yeah a full cast of women characters, and that’s quite rare for biblical stories. 

Pete: Yeah, let’s move to the fifth thing that people have to know, they just have to have to. Right so, 1 and 2 Samuel is a tragedy, but our reading of it doesn’t have to be so let’s talk about that for a few minutes. 

Aaron: Yeah, I wanted to end on a upbeat, right? [ Laughing] I wanted to give some people some feel-good pick-me-up to end on. 

If you just think of 1 and 2 Samuel, the stories, if you just think about the content, so much of it is sad. If you think about the narrative, so much of it is our main protagonists not getting what they want, or ending up in terrible places after a lifetime of ambition doesn’t actually pay off for them.

So it has elements of a tragedy. But as readers of this text, we have a lot of freedom in what parts of the text we want to play a part in our theology, or what parts of the text we want to sort of remember these stories by, what parts of the text we’re going to repeat and tell and embrace and weave into sort of the fabric of our own worldview. And I think there are a handful of places in the text where we get to see almost different ways the story could have turned out that have things worth celebrating in them. 

So let me give you some examples. In 1 Samuel 19, Saul tries to get his son Jonathan on board with a plot to kill David, and Jonathan appeals to both his piety and his sense of morality and to his own love for both Saul and David, and gets him to stop. And Saul promises not to hunt down David anymore. 

Now Saul continues to try and kill David after this, but there is this moment in this text, this dramatic confrontation between father and son where love and the possibility of forgiveness and confession and that mutual loyalty that they feel towards one another is enough to sort of shake Saul from this violence that he is so committed to. And for a second, it’s like it’s almost possible that the story could have turned out a different way. Saul could have stuck with his commitment to Jonathan not to pursue David anymore. And who knows how the story would have turned out then, maybe with more peace. Who knows? But it’s almost like a glimpse. We get just this tiny little look at another possibility. 

There’s a similar story where we had a little moment we’re celebrating at the end of 1 Samuel 20, where Jonathan and David sort of realize that David can’t stay around Saul anymore. They have this very loving goodbye. They embrace each other. They cry in each other’s arms. They kiss each other. They make oaths to each other about taking care of each other’s family in the future. It’s a very moving scene, again, about love and camaraderie and perhaps something more. I mean, Jonathan and David’s relationship is very complicated. In the handful of instances we get to see of it, we get some powerful emotions there.

And then of course, it sort of all goes to hell after that. But there is this moment sort of frozen in time where you could see, this could have been different. Jonathan and David really could have been friends or together or whatever it was that they were aiming to be. There is an alternate world in which that is a possibility.

There’s even a moment between Saul and David himself in 1 Samuel 24, one of the times when David sneaks up on Saul. And Saul has like this, he breaks down in front of David. He’s like, you’ve never done anything wrong to me. I’m, I shouldn’t have come after you like this. Clearly God favors you. You’re going to be king someday. And Saul is again, crying his eyes out. There’s probably more men crying in 1 and 2 Samuel than there is in like the rest of the Bible put together. Very emotional characters. And again, it’s that moment where you’re like, maybe this could have been different. Maybe there could have been peace here in this loving, openhearted, very vulnerable exchange between these characters.

And I think if we embrace stories like these as the prescriptive parts of the text, these are the things we’re going to take with us. These are the good nuggets, the precious metals amongst all the rest of this terrible things that are happening. I think if we extract these stories and carry them with us, they can be enriching for our lives today.

Pete: And that’s so common an approach really in the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation to, to find sustaining meaning we have to get creative. 

Aaron: Yes. 

Pete: And we have to be selective and we have to sort of explode those parts and maybe minimize others and I just, to me, that’s such a valuable lesson that you’re, you’re just, you’re drawn to that simply by virtue of the text itself and how it tells the story. And there are places where you just don’t like David at all. And then you have these moments with Jonathan. 

Aaron: Yes. 

Pete: You know, and it’s like, okay, this is, there’s something going on here. You know, there’s a friendship or whatever that’s, you know, that’s an old, a big topic we probably can’t get into here at the end of the podcast, 

[Aaron chuckles] 

but the nature of the relationship has been something since medieval Judaism talking about like what exactly is going on.

But the point is that, you know, you have these moments in the story and I, to me that describes virtually every biblical book. There are moments that are just right there for us and others that are just so difficult to access. And the history of interpretation has been about trying to navigate that stuff.

Aaron: Absolutely. 

Pete: One last thing. We have a couple minutes here, and I’m going to ask you the biggest question possible, but you can’t give me a super big answer. 

Aaron: Okay [Laughing]

Pete: So here we go. Generally speaking, where do you come down with 1 and 2 Samuel and the whole question of historicity?

Aaron: I think David for sure existed. We have scant extra biblical evidence, but I think sufficient extra biblical evidence. We found the Tel Dan inscription 20 years ago or something like that, that attests to a house of David, probably named after its founder. So I think David was real, I think he was king. I think he probably even ruled over something that might have looked like a united monarchy at the time.

I think at the time he was in charge, he was probably the most successful military leader. And I think that’s all you really needed in order to say that you are king of those people up there too, if they can’t fight back. So I think in that very limited sense, we have a king over a united, semi-united Israel and Judah.

As far as the particulars of the story, I think the worst stories about David have at least some truth to them. Because I think in my reading, and in the reading, if you want to read like, uh, Joel Baden’s book on the historical David, or Baruch Halpern’s book, their argument is that a lot of this is sort of like propaganda, an apology.

There must have been a time in David’s life, probably right after Absalom’s revolt, his son’s revolt against him, where questions were raised. You know, why does David have the right to rule over all these people? Who is he? A usurper to the throne? A man who came from nothing? Why him of all people? And I think that probably pushed for his royal court of scribes to produce some literature defending his right to rule and to craft at least sort of earlier versions of these narratives.

Now, I think there’s also, for sure some ahistorical later layers that have been added to this, but I think the heart of the story was created in that mid 10th century environment needing to justify David’s presence on the throne. I think there’s a kernel of historical truth there.

Pete: And that literature just expanded over the centuries that people edit and add, which is again, so typical of the biblical corpus.

We could go on forever here. I actually, I like 1 and 2 Samuel. I don’t like 1 and 2 Kings because it’s the same thing again, again, and again. But yeah, there’s a lot of intrigue and some not so good parts. Obviously we talked about that too, but uh, as I like to tell my students, it’s worthy of your adult attention.

So I want to thank you, Aaron. Appreciate you being here. 

Aaron: Well, thank you. 

[Jaunty outro music plays to signal end of episode] 

Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to

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Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of The Bible for Normal People. Don’t forget you can catch our other show Faith for Normal People in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by The Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jared Cazel, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez. 

[Outro music ends] 

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.