Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel Introduction

With Ruth and the judges behind us, we are now on the cusp of entering the kingdom period in Israel's history.  Indeed, in this very book a king is going to be anointed over Israel, to unite the warring tribes, lead the people into battle, and guide them into righteousness and the Law.

Or at least that's the theory.  In practice, we will see many kings spend an awful lot of time leading people into battle and very little time with righteousness and the Law.

1 Samuel, sometimes called 1st Samuel, is the first half of what was originally a single composition, the book of Samuel.  At some point in history (possibly the Septuagint) the book was divided roughly into two halves, named as such.  My readers will notice that the final chapter of 1 Samuel is not really much of a conclusion, and thematically the book blends with the second half very closely.

The authorship and dating of Samuel shares many of the same difficulties as finding the authorship and dating of Judges and Ruth.  The book does not name its own author, and while the events described by the book can be dated, the book does not date its own composition either.  As with most books of the bible, there is a "traditional" author that is listed in the Talmud, and there is one or more "modern" guesses at the authorship.  The traditional author is Samuel himself, while the "modern" guesses usually suggest that the book was composed by multiple authors over some period of time in the 6th or 7th century BCE.  The traditional theory is that the book is a singular work written in one man's lifetime, while the modern theory is that the book is a patchwork of older oral traditions written down and edited and revised until it stabilized into a final form.

It's not my purpose to analyze these theories in depth.  In general, I think if we needed to know who the author was, we would have been told.  That's not to say that figuring out the author would be meaningless, but given that this is a 2600 year old book, it's nearly impossible at this point to come up with a definitive authorship for Samuel, so I think there are more meaningful avenues of investigation, such as the theology, history and culture of the book, rather than trying to figure out who might have written it down.

I'm going to move on.

The content of Samuel is almost entirely stories about people's lives: Saul and Samuel and David.  I think it's one of the easiest books to read in the OT, because it is strictly narrative, and a lot of the stories are actually quite interesting.  I also think it is very well written.  So this is a really good book for first-time readers, and it should be fun to write commentary for as well.

Thematically, 1 Samuel covers the history of Israel's earliest king, from how he was anointed as king over Israel to his death.  This man is king Saul.  King Saul is a literary foil in this story, brought out for the almost sole purpose of showing us what a bad king would look like.  Saul is also a demonstration of the futility and destruction that results when people make decisions without appealing to the LORD for wisdom and guidance.  In that sense, it's similar to the story in Joshua 9 when the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites into signing a peace treaty.

The interplay between Saul and David is probably the most important part of this story.  In particular, we will observe how David, even after being anointed as Saul's replacement, continues to live in deference to Saul, whom he calls "the LORD's anointed", because Saul was anointed before David.  Even when Saul is trying to kill David, David hides and runs away.  When David has it in his power to kill Saul, he declines.  This happens more than once.  I don't want to discuss those stories in depth right now, but I want my readers to focus on how these experiences shape David throughout his life, and think about how they might affect his future kingship.

What I love about 1 Samuel is this: for nearly every other biblical figure, I always wonder about their backstory and how they got to be the men or women that they are.  I wondered about Ruth's story, why she remained faithful to Naomi, and I wondered about Abraham, how he became a righteous man, and about Moses, and many others.  With David, we actually get to see a lot of his backstory before he becomes king, and that story is here.  We see David taken from being a rugged shepherd boy and grow into the rather daunting figure that he becomes.  More significantly, we can see how he is emotionally shaped as he struggles through adversity, and how he grows in humility and dependence on the LORD.

I can't think of anything else I want to add, so let's just dive right in.

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