1 Samuel

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1 Samuel picks up the story where Judges left off. The opening chapters tell the story of the birth and dedication of another judge-like figure. It doesn’t take long, however, to realise that Samuel is a different sort of judge. After his birth and childhood, the story moves on to the regular conflicts between the Israelites and Philistines, which gave rise to the Israelites' desire for a king to protect them. Chapters 9–31 describe first the choosing and then the rejection of Saul, and then the choosing of David, followed by the long conflict between them.

Reading time: Two-and-a-quarter hours
Short of time? Just read 1–3; 8–10.16; 28.3–31.13
Theological history

6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world. (1Samuel 2.6-8)

14 If you will fear the LORD and serve him and heed his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well. (1 Samuel 12.14)

But the LORD said to Samuel, '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.' (1 Samuel 16.7)

Possibly the oddest feature of 1 Samuel is that it appears to be both in favour and against having a king. Keep an eye open for these competing strands as you read.

Jewish tradition attributes the authorship of 1 Samuel 1–24 to Samuel and the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel to Nathan and Gad. There is no evidence for this within the book itself, or for any other author. In style and theology it is very similar to Joshua, Judges, 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, and so it is often thought to form part of a collection of writings scholars call the ‘Deuteronomistic histories’.  

What do we know about him/them?

Next to nothing.
It is suggested that the authors of these 'Deuteronomic histories' were influenced by Deuteronomy and told Israel’s history from that perspective.  The key feature here is that Deuteronomy stresses that God’s people will only stay in the land if they remain faithful. Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings tell the story of how God’s people failed to be faithful and so, eventually, went into exile from the land.

No one really knows when these books were written. 
It is thought that they reached their final form in the 6th century BC, shortly after the Judeans went into exile, and were finalised then in order to explain why the exile had happened at all. It is clear, however, that these final documents were drawn together from already existing sources, many of which would have been written during or shortly after the event described.

What were people feeling?

The books, therefore, have more than one audience – those who read the first annals of the history and those who read the final text once it was pulled together. Since it is hard to know anything about the first audience we will concentrate on the second.

If it is right that these histories are written to explain why the exile happened, it's clear that the people would have been feeling hurt, despairing and lost. For a sense of what people were feeling then, have a look at the book of Lamentations which provides an accurate insight into their emotions.

Other books set around this time

2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings

This is a history book, but it falls into the category of what you might call theological history – history with a purpose. It is not telling the events just so that you can know what happened, but so that you can understand why it happened. Many of the historical books of the Bible are like this.

1.1–7.17 The rise of Samuel and the demise of the house of Eli
8.1–12.25 The advantages and disadvantages of kingship and the selection of Saul as king
13.1–31.13 The conflict between Saul and David, ending with the death of Saul at the end of the book

There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.

Place

Ramah, Shiloh, Ashdod, Ekron, Mizpah, Beer-sheba, Gilgal, cave of Adullam, En-gedi, Jezreel,  Ashkelon, Beer-sheba, Carmel, Dan, Edom, Ephraim, Gath, Gaza, Gilgal, Hebron, Israel, Jabesh-gilead, Jerusalem, Jezreel, Judah, Mizpah, Moab, Mount Gilboa, Mount Tabor, Negeb, Paran, Shiloh, Shunem, Ziklag

The names of people and peoples

Philistines, Ammonites, Amalekites, Amorites, Cherethites, Edomites
Benjamin, Benjaminite, Hittites, Jeconiah, Joshua, Levites, Moses, Nazirites

Other words

Sheol, ark of the Covenant,  Dagon, burnt offering, Cherubim, idols, priest, sons of the prophets, Urim and Thummim, w​adi
 

There are a number of stories that are told twice in slightly different ways. Look out for them in the book and ask yourself why they might have been included twice.

There are lots of references to Canaanite and Philistine religions, which are regarded as a great threat to the Israelites. When you notice them, ask why they were regarded with such suspicion.

Some people think Hannah’s song (2.1–10) sets up the major themes of 1 Samuel. Take especial care to notice its theme in chapter 2 and then look out for these themes in the book and see if you agree that it is, in fact, a prologue. 

Another theme in the book is repentance – look out for good and bad repentance in the stories and ask what there is to learn from this about repentance today.

  • Were there any parts of the book that you particularly liked or that inspired you?
  • Were there any parts of the book that you disliked or that troubled you?
  • What did you think the book was about?
  • Why do you think 1 Samuel is positive about kingship? And why is it negative about it? Why do you think they have kept both strands in the book side by side?
  • What might these strands say about leadership today? 
  • How do you feel about Saul and about David as people? Which character did you like best? Saul? David? Or neither of these? (maybe Samuel? Jonathan? Abigail?)
  • Did you read anything in the book that touched you, expanded your faith or made you think more deeply about your life and how you live it?

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