The two books that form Samuel contain the history of the continuing formation of the Kingdom of God that is embodied in God’s set-apart people and nation, Israel.
It tells the story of the transition from the period of the Judges (the Shophetim) that starts late in the book of Joshua, extends through the book of Judges, and includes the book of Ruth, and then takes us into the period of the monarchy (that is, the Kings of Israel).
However, the books of Samuel end with King David; it is left to other records to take it from there. The period covered is from about 1140 B.C. to around 1000 B.C, 140 years (give or take).
In this first book of Samuel we’re going to see a progression of 3 major events take place each with a rather in-depth story surrounding them:
- The anointing of Samuel as a new type of Judge that is more akin to a prophet; then
- The coronation of Saul as the first king of Israel and then ultimately his rejection by God; and finally
- Saul’s growing conflict with David that goes hand in hand with the decline of Saul’s kingdom, and terminates with David eventually replacing Saul.
From a higher view what we’re seeing is that the ruinous era of the Judges has run its course and at least part of its divine purpose was achieved by demonstrating to the tribes of Israel that Israel (and all humankind for that matter) needed to be governed by a king.
Man’s sinful condition is such that we need a strong earthly authority to rule over us and keep us in line or we are guaranteed to run afoul of God’s laws and commands, leading to disastrous results.
I know this idea of a need for a king flies in the face of our American system that holds self-rule as sacrosanct, but the Bible certainly does not advocate democracy as the solution.
I don’t want to venture too far afield but as long as God’s rule is rejected and we prefer the rule of men, the temptations of leadership, wealth, and power are usually too much for us to handle in any humanly oriented government system. All of our governing systems are doomed to fail eventually.
The era of the Judges proved that strong central rule was indispensable; that not even Israel who had every possible advantage in having Yehoveh as their God and even holding God’s Word in their possession, could withstand the evil inclinations that lurk within us all to do things our way.
Self-interest, greed, and the sheer ambition of power combined for the ever-declining morality of Israel until finally, God had to rescue them once again or absolute destruction was the inevitable outcome. And God’s way to save Israel was to give them a king.
Interestingly the Hebrew Sages have assigned the book of Samuel (as well as Kings) to be part of what is called The Former (or early) Prophets.
But where do we find Prophets in those particular books? We don’t as we typically think of the office of Prophet. So we should handle the term Prophet lightly as what it amounted to from the time of Moses’ death through the book of Kings because it isn’t quite in the mold of someone like Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel.
The earlier concept of a prophet was not so much as a seer of the future who gives a spiritual vision that is not of his own accord. Nor does he provide the spiritual prophetic vision in his own words, but rather he is an occasional instrument of God who helped to bring about God’s will on earth, often in the selection and anointing of leaders.
We see a steady progressive move towards the formal office of the Prophet being established as a spiritual seer and messenger of a direct oracle from Yehoveh, and it’s earliest beginnings were centuries before the time of Samuel, Saul, and David.
And interestingly we see a pattern of prophetic warning to the people of Israel that they were headed towards a monarchy and it was put into a negative light.
Thus the books of Samuel and Kings have been a real source of heated debate among Bible scholars and theologians. Because on the one hand, the anointing of King Saul seems to have its origin in the reckless and wicked behavior of the people of Israel who insist on having a king like their neighbors (and God reluctantly gives them that King). But on the other hand in time God replaces Saul with David and God seems pleased to do it and King David is set up as the ideal earthly leader for His people; a leader that Yehoveh says is near to his own heart.
Not only that but God seems to move from preferring that His people not have a king to promising David that his descendants would be the royal ruling dynasty FOREVER!!
It’s this situation (along with a couple of others) that has led many modern Bible scholars to turn to literary and textual criticism to try and find the answer to God apparently doing a major about-face.
Did God change His mind about the need of a king for Israel? Or have we in the Scriptures merely two or more historical accounts of that period that eventually wound up in our Bibles, written by two or more authors, each with their different point of view of the situation?
Might there be an original account that was modified and redacted on a couple of occasions (at the least) by an editor who felt the need to rationalize the seeming negative attitude that God held at one time towards Israel having a king? And then unexpectedly changed to a positive attitude about a king over Israel with the rise to the throne of David?
Put another way: were people loyal to David busily at work rewriting history to validate and glorify his kingship, and at the same time setting Saul up as being illegitimate or at the least without merit, to make his demise at David’s hand more palatable?
I can tell you that this line of thinking is quite popular right now. But I see it as misguided and the result of an intellectually based textual and literary criticism approach to the Bible that sets aside the bigger picture that forms the indispensable context for understanding the Word of God. As well as ignoring the God-patterns and principles set down beginning in Genesis, and showing little interest in the underlying theology that is the essential thread that strings together a pearl necklace of stories.
Indeed if one removes the spiritual element from the history of Israel, one has nothing more to examine than yet another of the hundreds of histories of nations rising and falling since the dawn of Creation.
Rather in my view what we see is that God has been steadily moving Israel along a path towards the ultimate king, the Messiah, and giving glimpses all along the way of the Messiah’s attributes and character.
The Lord gave Israel a leader in Moses that bore a particular characteristic of the future and last leader, that of being a Mediator for the people.
Then the Lord gave Israel a leader in Joshua that bore another aspect of the future and ultimate leader, the warrior chief.
During the era of the Judges, the Lord demonstrated the attribute of deliverance from oppression by using various Shophetim (Judges) to save Israel from the never-ending litany of enemies who tried to subjugate Israel and take their land and possessions.
During the coming era of the kings that Samuel will transition Israel into, the Lord would give Israel a leader that demonstrated the attribute of ultimate central authority and how if it were accomplished under Holy Spirit guidance Israel would indeed exist and operate as the intended Kingdom of God.
But if it were achieved without paying attention to the Lord’s laws and commanded the resultant kingdom would simply be another in a long list of nations of men destined to fall and blow away as dust just as all the other kingdoms had down through the ages.
In the course of examining Samuel, we’ll run headlong into some of the fascinating events in the Bible including the confiscating of the Ark of God by the Philistines and it’s subsequent return.
We’ll see King Saul go from being an admired and charismatic leader into a depressed and depraved psychopath.
We’ll watch a young David courageously fight the giant Goliath when the Israelite soldiers were too fearful to confront him; and then observe the people’s growing adoration of David lead to Saul becoming jealous, paranoid and mentally unstable.
As we open the Word of God to the first few verses of Samuel in my next blog post, we’ll find that the Levitical Priesthood at Shiloh existed by now in name only.
It had not been held immune from the depths of apostasy into which all of Israel had plunged during the dark era of the Judges. And so we find the aged and decrepit High Priest Eli unable to control his thoroughly worthless sons who ate the sacrifices brought from the people right off the altar pit as though they had a bar-b-que.
If Israel were going to be salvaged from its current dismal state of bondage to sin and idolatry, it would need yet another new beginning of sorts. And it would be necessary for God to start at His earthly sanctuary at Shiloh, but such a rescue could not possibly be accomplished using those corrupt men who were priest-pretenders.
Thus the pious Hannah, wife of the Ephraimite Elkanah, asks God to deliver her from her humiliating barrenness and a son is born to her: Samuel.
Because she had vowed a Nazarite vow to dedicate Samuel to serve God, once he is weaned she takes her son to the sanctuary at Shiloh and turns him over to Eli.
Hannah is apparently oblivious the unwholesome and thoroughly degraded priesthood as it now exists. There the Lord God of the Universe calls to the innocent 5-year-old Samuel, and Samuel responds with “here I am.”
Eli recognizes that Yehoveh is selecting and separating Samuel apart from all others for a particular divine purpose, but Eli has no clue that this particular purpose was also a call to judgment upon himself and his sons and his whole household who had failed so miserably to serve God or Israel correctly.
Chapter 2 of 1st Samuel is that religious feast called the Song (or prayer) of Hannah. There we see so many of Yehoveh’s multiple attributes laid out directly and without compromise:
- It is God who does it all.
- It is God who saves and delivers.
- It is God who is so holy that nothing comes close.
- It is God who can regenerate a dead womb.
- It is God who takes life and makes a life.
- It is God who puts men in the grave and resurrects them at His will.
- It is God who helps the poor and brings down the mighty.
- It is God who sits in judgment of everyone and everything.
Samuel rises to power, and in the 7th chapter of 1st Samuel, it was time for the uneasy peace brought about by the easy compromise that Israel had with the Philistines to come to an end.
The Philistines felt they had the right to lord over Israel by now, and God led Samuel to begin the process of breaking Israel free from these pagans.
So Samuel called for the people to acknowledge their apostasy and put things right between them and God as step number one.
The people gathered at Mizpah and Samuel as the priest offered a sacrifice, but the Philistines attacked the worshipping Hebrews as the Philistines considered the gathering an unlawful assembly and a provocation.
Israel prevailed with Samuel’s leadership, and the question was now openly asked as to why there could still possibly be a need for a king if a leader who seemed to be operating more or less in the traditional leadership role of a Judge proved so useful?
By the 12th chapter of 1st Samuel, the cry for a king again arose, and Samuel gave in to it.
But could there be room for two leaders of Israel? How could a Judge and a king operate in the same sphere?
But even more, Samuel worried about what might happen to the covenant relationship between Israel and YHWH. Whereby the agreement was that YHWH was to be Israel’s king a proposition that seemed to have been horribly violated by the people who would have it no other way than to have an earthly king just like their neighbors.
With the rise of Saul, Samuel’s role would have to change. A monarch in the person of Saul now ruled over the political matters of Israel so that Samuel would become the representative of the spiritual values of God on earth. But who (Saul or Samuel) would have pre-eminence?
Thus we see the beginning of this king/prophet tandem formed in which a God-designated Prophet would be the king’s spiritual advisor so to speak.
The Prophet would be the official bearer of God’s oracle TO the king of Israel, and the king was not so much to obey the person of the Prophet, but rather he should follow the message of God that the Prophet brought to the king.
Lessons for modern day Israel and we, the modern day church, abound as we move from story to story and chapter to chapter; lessons filled with warnings that I pray we pay attention to rather than apostasy that I fear that we’ll repeat.
We will continue with Samuel chapter one in my next blog post.