Politics Magazine

Books of the Bible: I Samuel

Posted on the 25 April 2015 by Erictheblue


The first half of the first book of Samuel describes the creation of Israel's monarchy under its first king, Saul.  Our imaginary "general reader" is apt to be confused for a familiar reason: there are two different sources that, in the canonized text, exist in side-by-side, alternating fashion, and the details of the history laid out in the two traditions could hardly be more incompatible.  In one, the establishment of the monarchy is viewed as a good thing.  In the other, it's very  bad.  You can imagine reading along, doing your best to comprehend, and being rewarded with a clanging bell of dissonance.  The more you notice, the louder the ringing. 

The scholar Bernhard Anderson, in his book Understanding the Old Testament, writes that in I Samuel 1-12 there are different sources that "can be traced rather easily."  This seems to me evidence of the chasm between mainline biblical scholarship and the dogma of our fundamentalist friends.  The different sources can be traced "rather easily" in the biblical text only if you are willing to drop the notion that the whole thing has one divine and inerrant Source.

If, however, you do dismiss the fundamentalist fiction, I Samuel gains considerably in coherence and human interest.  The opposite views of the two sources are not very different from a perpetual American argument about the power and scope of the federal government.  We have seen how Israel, in the years when it was first trying to establish itself in Canaan, was essentially a loose confederation of tribes.  There is a lot of persuasive evidence, including in the Old Testament itself, indicating that the decisive victories of Joshua should be attributed to nationalistic enthusiasm instead of assigned to history.  Israel's "conquest" was actually more like an infiltration.  Its military was hampered  by technological backwardness and the lack of anything like a command center.  The nation's success in Canaan required unification, and that it achieved success is to be credited to the founding of the monarchy.  That is one tradition.  The other is that Israel, by becoming like all the other nations, turned its back on its covenant relationship with Yahweh, who was naturally displeased.  In the long run, the result was ruin.

The core of the pro-monarchy tradition is found in chapters 9 through 11, which narrate a story that contains elements of the tall-tale.  Saul is an obscure young man who nevertheless possesses a striking physical presence: he is "handsome" and "stood head and shoulders above" everyone else.  He sets out to find some asses that have strayed from his father's land and, accidentally but providentially, becomes king.  The unlikely sequence of events is set off when, discouraged by being unable to find the lost asses, he consults Samuel, a local "seer" who, it develops, is also a kind of disguised prophet who had received from God the power to anoint a king.  Detecting in Saul the requisite characteristics, he does just that in a private ceremony that is followed immediately by a military crisis.  Saul, whose recently acquired eminence was not public knowledge, responds decisively:

He took a yoke of oxen, and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of messengers, saying, "Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!"  Then the dread of Yahweh fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.

God's plan, then, called for the unification of Israel, because it was the means of vanquishing its foe, and, the battle won, this tradition ends with the public acknowledgment of Saul's kingship:

So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.  There they sacrificed peace offerings before the Lord, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.

This rather fanciful and engaging story is preceded, in chapter 8, by the first movement of the opposing tradition wherein the people of Israel approach Samuel and demand a king.  Samuel, who is here not a local clairvoyant with secret powers but rather the last judge of Israel (else the people would not have known to come to him with their demand), prays to God, who replies:

"Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods. . . .  [H]earken to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them the ways of the king who shall reign over them."

On this advice, Samuel delivers a long speech in which, inveighing against the tyranny that will surely follow upon the establishment of centralized power under a king, he sounds a little like an ambitious Republican politician kissing up to the tea-party faithful.  Chapter 8 ends when the rebellious people persist in their request for a king, which is followed, abruptly and disorientingly, by the pro-monarchy tradition of chapters 9 to 11 described above. Only, what I hadn't mentioned before, the pro-monarchy story is itself interrupted, at 10:17-27, by the conclusion to the anti-monarchy story about how Saul became king--not at Gilgal, but at Mizpah, and not by any supposed merit confirmed by battlefield success, but, consistent with the notion that Israel can have only one rightful king, by simple lot.

I lay all this out partly because I think it's the only way to understand what's going on in the first half of I Samuel and partly because I think it's interesting that subjecting biblical texts to the same kind of scholarly analysis used to interpret other ancient texts yields results.  In every realm there is an alternative to magical thinking.  Evolution by natural selection has carried the day because it explains so convincingly so much of observed reality that otherwise makes hardly any sense at all.  The text of the first twelve chapters of I Samuel is like observed reality and the two-source hypothesis is like the brilliantly illuminating theory that, however insulting to the fundamentalist cause, provides a comprehensive account of what is otherwise a confusing morass of contradictory parts. 

The second half of I Samuel is concerned preeminently with the personality of Saul and his rivalry with David.  Since "The Book of David" would be an apt alternative title for the second book of Samuel, let's for now reserve that discussion.

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