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The Theology of 1&2 Samuel

The Theology of 1&2 Samuel

I’m a big fan of getting the “Big Picture” of a biblical book. The old cliche that “You can lose the forest for the trees,” is definitely true in biblical studies. We can become so microscopic by examining a word or verse (which definitely has its place!), that we can lose the meaning of the whole. My purpose in this article is to look at the theology, or big picture, of 1&2 Samuel. These books were originally one book and, therefore, they should not be separated if one is looking for the overall teaching they provide. (Note: I have done a similar post on The theme of the book of Genesis).

We’ll tackle the theology of 1&2 Samuel by looking at the following four points:

  1. 1&2 Samuel is a story about 4 main families (a point often overlooked in many commentaries and studies of these books).
  2. A summary of the contents of these books.
  3. How the beginning and ending of 1&2 Samuel contributes to understanding its main themes.
  4. Key texts that summarize important theological points being made.

A Story About 4 Families

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel
The significance of family relationships is highlighted in my book “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel”. Available at Amazon USA / UK.

Because these are books that talk about the establishment of the monarchy in Israel, it’s often overlooked that these books are a story about 4 families. The families of Samuel, Eli, Saul, and David not only dominate the narrative of 1&2 Samuel, almost every person mentioned in these books is related to one of these four families! There are a few exceptions to this, but the only reason these exceptions appear in the story is because of their effect upon—and relationship to these 4 main families.

There’s also a special relationship between the heads of these 4 families. Samuel becomes a surrogate son of Eli, Saul becomes a surrogate son of Samuel, and David becomes a surrogate son of Saul. These relationships connect the leading figures of 1&2 Samuel and move the story forward.

The use of family language in 1&2 Samuel is also very striking. For example the word “son” or “sons” occurs over 300 times in these books. The word “house” which can not only refer to a physical building, but to a family or dynasty—like “the house of Saul,” or “the house of David”—occurs about 176 times. The word “father” occurs 82 times, and I could bore you with the frequent occurrences of other family terms, but hopefully you get the idea. This emphasis on family is what led me to title my book on 1&2 Samuel “Family Portraits,” and it’s a feature of these books that is often overlooked.

Overview of Contents of 1&2 Samuel

There’s a great deal of disagreement over how to outline the books of Samuel. My purpose here is to present an outline that will give us a general overview of the contents without going into detail as to why I’ve broken the chapters down the way I have. That would be another long post.

Any overview of 1&2 Samuel should point out that these books constantly present contrasts between the major characters.
1 Sam. 1-7 depicts the end of the period of the Judges and present a contrast between the inept and corrupt leadership of Eli and his sons with Samuel. These chapters also anticipate the coming monarchy through Hannah’s prayer and by depicting Eli in royal terms. Chapters 4-7 also detail the important threat that the Philistines pose to Israel. Eli’s ungodly leadership results in God abandoning Israel to Philistine domination, but Samuel’s godly leadership reverses the tide and brings victory to Israel over their enemies.

1 Sam. 8-15 introduces the people’s demand for a king, followed by the selection of Saul. While there are mixed reviews on the beginning of Saul’s kingship in 9-11—some in favor, some not—Samuel’s speech in chapter 12 lays the groundwork for what the Lord expects in both a king and His people. Sadly, chapters 13-15 tell of Saul’s rebellion and rejection. Saul’s son Jonathan provides a positive contrast to his father as we see what a godly king should look like, while Samuel’s instructions and rebukes demonstrate Saul’s rebellion.

1 Sam. 16-2 Sam. 1 introduces us to David and provides various contrasts with Saul. David receives God’s Spirit while Saul loses the Spirit, only to have an evil spirit torment him. While Saul fears the enemy, David steps out in faith and defeats Goliath. Thus, just as Eli’s leadership  resulted in failure and domination by the Philistines, so too does Saul’s. David, like Samuel before him, brings Israel victory against the Philistines. Saul seeks to kill David, while Jonathan befriends him. And when presented with the opportunity, David refuses to take Saul’s life. These chapters end describing Saul’s death and David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan.

2 Sam. 2-8 describe the rise of David over Judah first, and finally over all of Israel. The early chapters (2-4) contrast the rule of David and his general Joab with the rule of Saul’s son Ishbosheth and his commander Abner. Chapters 5-8 show David fulfilling a number of ancient prophecies, as well as establishing Jerusalem as the political and spiritual capital of Israel. The highlight is chapter 7 when God makes a covenant with David and promises him an eternal dynasty. This covenant recalls the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:10 and highlights the messianic theme of 1&2 Samuel.

2 Sam. 9-20 focuses on the house of David. Chapter 9 introduces David’s desire to do good to the house of Saul by blessing Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth. Things begin to unravel however when David is provoked into a war with the Ammonites. During the war, David commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders her husband Uriah. Chapters 13-20 explore the consequences of David’s sin and the destruction that falls on his household as well as the nation. Absalom’s rebellion is at the heart of these chapters and the author once again presents another contrast. This time it’s between David and his son Absalom.

The books of Samuel conclude with chapters 21-24. These chapters are not in chronological order. Instead they’re ordered by a literary technique known as chiasm.  While David doesn’t die until 1 Kings 2, these chapters present a fitting conclusion to the books of 1&2 Samuel, including a psalm of David and his final words.

The Beginning and Ending of 1&2 Samuel

Hannah's song & David's psalm
Here is a list of some of the similiarities between Hannah’s song and David’s psalm.

Introductions to biblical books are very important for understanding the overall messages that God seeks to convey. It’s also instructive to compare the beginning of a book with its end, especially when that book is a narrative like 1&2 Samuel. One should ask what’s different at the end from the beginning? How does the end of the story reflect on the changes that have occurred since the introduction? These questions are very instructive when it comes to 1&2 Samuel.

1 Samuel begins with a family crisis that is resolved by Hannah giving birth to Samuel and fulfilling her vow of dedicating him to the Lord. The climax of this story finds Hannah offering a Psalm of praise to the Lord at the beginning of chapter 2.

As we read her words of praise, however, it becomes clear that Hannah’s words are not simply about her own situation. They’re related to God’s ways of dealing with His people. They speak of His sovereignty and power as He raises people up and brings them down. Her psalm ends in 2:10 by speaking of God’s “anointed” and “king.” Of course, there’s no king at this point in the story and, so, Hannah’s prayer anticipates the future. Her words are, in fact, prophetic and introduce a messianic theme that leads to God’s covenant with David (2 Sam. 7). This covenant informs the rest of the OT and anticipates Israel’s future messiah, a descendant of David. If we pay close attention to her psalm of praise, we’ll find that it actually provides a blueprint for the stories that follow in the rest of the book.

As we approach the end of the book in 2 Samuel 22, we find a psalm of David (as noted above). A comparison with Hannah’s psalm reveals many similar words and phrases. In fact, the theme of David’s psalm is the same as Hannah’s—God’s power. The difference is that, while Hannah’s psalm looks forward and proclaims the things God will do, David’s psalm looks back on what God has done.

Many have also noted that David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan, which occurs in the middle of the book (2 Sam. 1) has a similar theme. And so the beginning, middle, and end of Samuel have important psalms that talk about power.

Just as Hannah’s psalm is preceded by an introductory story, so David’s psalm is followed by some concluding material. This type of structure where something begins and ends in a similar way is known in literary circles as an inclusio. Think of it like a set of bookends or a parenthesis that blocks off a portion of text.

To summarize, by looking at the beginning and ending of the books of Samuel, we’ve learned that power is a key theme to the book. To be more specific, we’ve learned that God’s sovereignty is a truth that determines the outcome of the story. While 1&2 Samuel affirm that Israel is God’s king and His power is absolute, it also includes God working in Israel through His anointed king.

Key Texts in 1&2 Samuel

1&2 Samuel Key texts
The four key texts of 1&2 Samuel

Our last point of discussion is to note some of the key texts in 1&2 Samuel. An important question to ask is, “How do we know when we’re getting the message that God wanted to communicate through His Word, as opposed to making the text say whatever we want?

One of those ways is by becoming sensitive to what I call key texts. A key text might be a phrase within a verse, or perhaps a verse, or even a group of verses, that when you read them communicate an important truth that explains the story. In the case of the books of Samuel, there are certain texts that seem to jump off the page and say, “This explains in a nutshell what you’ve been reading about!”

In my opinion, there are four key texts in Samuel that summarize the major themes and purposes of the book. These four texts can be broken down into what I would call the main key text, which is then supported by the other three key texts.

1. The main key text of 1&2 Samuel is one we’ve already mentioned in the previous section. It’s Hannah’s psalm, or as some call it, Hannah’s prayer which is found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

As we’ve seen, the theme of this psalm praises God for His power. Hannah declares that the Lord is in control. She says that the Lord raises up and brings down, the Lord kills and makes alive. This theme of power shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the books of Samuel are about the establishment of the monarchy, which is an expression of the exercise of human power. But Hannah’s psalm declares to us from the beginning that though humans may struggle for power with one another, ultimately it’s God’s power that matters. Hannah also announces in the final verse that God exercises power by giving strength to His anointed. Her psalm explains the contrasts in the book. The contrasts we spoke of when outlining the contents. Through Hannah’s words we understand why Samuel is raised up and Eli and his sons are brought down. Why Saul is brought low and David is exalted.

Very simply, Hannah’s prayer is the basis that explains everything that happens in 1&2 Samuel. Although we’ll meet many fascinating and compelling characters in 1&2 Samuel, Hannah’s prayer reminds us that God is the main character of the book.

2. The next key text, and first supporting text is found in 1 Samuel 2:30. When God rebukes Eli through a prophet, God tells him, “Those who honor me, I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed.” These words are important because they let us know that God is not arbitrary. Hannah said “God raises up and God brings down.” We might ask, “On what basis?” Does God act arbitrarily? Is there no rhyme or reason why He does what He does? 1 Samuel 2:30 provides the reason why some are brought low, while others are exalted. It has to do with whether they honor or despise the Lord.

This statement matches the teaching of the Law where God promises to bless the faithful and judge the rebellious (e.g., Deut. 27-28). However, the picture isn’t this “black and white.” 1&2 Samuel gives ample evidence that God’s grace and mercy are important elements that must be factored into the equation.

3. The third key text, and second supporting text, is found in Samuel’s rebuke of Saul in 1 Sam. 15:22-23. There Samuel says, “To obey is better than sacrifice and to heed than the fat of rams.” Throughout 1&2 Samuel an emphasis is placed on true obedience vs. outward, ritualistic observance. God is looking for genuine worship, not outward show. There are many stories that reflect this important theme, including the contrast in the first two chapters between Eli and Hannah (as well as Eli’s sons and Samuel).

4. The fourth, and final key text (and third supporting text), is 1 Sam. 16:7. When God calls Samuel to go to the house of Jesse because He’s chosen a king from among his sons, He has to rebuke Samuel to not look at the outward appearance, as is common for humans to do. God tells Samuel that He doesn’t look on the outward appearance, but He looks on the heart.

The word “heart” is an important word in 1&2 Samuel. It occurs fifty-one times. Not only are there many stories that teach the lesson to not be fooled by outward appearance, this verse also connects closely with the other key texts. For example, God isn’t interested in outward ritual, but inward obedience of the heart. It’s the person with a genuine heart who honors God and this further explains God’s motivation in raising up some while bringing others down (1 Sam. 2:35; 13:14).

All four of these key texts work hand in hand and explain every story that is recounted in 1&2 Samuel.

Conclusion

Some would argue that the main point of the books of Samuel is the establishment of the monarchy, or, more specifically, the establishment of the Davidic monarchy. As we’ve seen, the theme of God’s anointed one is certainly an important theme in these books. However, one of the problems that can develop from this approach is simply looking at 1&2 Samuel as a historical source (“This is what happened long ago”). Of course, there are also many skeptics who would say this is an imaginative history. I would disagree and contend that these books contain genuine history, but we sell these books short if we only see them as history.

The four key texts noted above, and the way each of these texts interlock with the overall storyline, shows that 1&2 Samuel is much more than a nice story or ancient history. The message conveyed (and summarized in these 4 texts) is still very contemporary. In a world where the use and abuse of power is still a common theme, we need to know where real power lies. In our search for significance we need to realize that the honor we seek to achieve for ourselves is relatively meaningless and very fleeting. But in honoring the Lord, there is the promise of attaining everlasting significance as He promises to “honor those who honor Him.” This theme is continued in the NT where believers in Jesus are promised to share in His glory (e.g., Rom. 5:1; 8:30). Finally, the importance of integrity (the heart) and not focusing on outward appearance (or religious ritual without true content) is a message definitely needed in our society which is so image conscious but often lacks true depth and authenticity. The storyline, and culture that these books emanate from, may indeed be ancient, but the messages conveyed in 1&2 Samuel are very contemporary. These are books that definitely need to be taught and preached in the church today.

For a more indepth treatment of 1&2 Samuel check out my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press (e-book version available here), Barnes & Noble, and other internet outlets.

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Looking Like a Leader

1 Sam. 1:9 offers a very impressive introduction of Eli as leader.
1 Sam. 1:9 offers a very impressive introduction of Eli as leader.

The impressive introduction of Eli in 1 Samuel 1:9b often goes unnoticed by English readers. The reason is that many of the Hebrew words are capable of more than one translation. The NKJV represents a typical translation: “Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the Lord.” Eli’s name means “exalted” and the “seat” he is sitting on is the usual word for “throne.” The fact that Eli sits by the “doorpost of the tabernacle,” may recall the command in Deuteronomy 6:9 to write the commandments “on the doorposts of your house.” This might suggest that Eli sits by the doorpost of the tabernacle as one who oversees the keeping of the Law. Finally, the word translated “tabernacle” is better translated “temple” or “palace.” Keeping in mind the double-meaning of these words, we could translate 1 Samuel 1:9b as “Now Exalted the priest was sitting on the throne by the doorpost (as law-enforcer) of the palace of the Lord.” This translation leaves us with a very different impression of Eli! The words “throne” and “palace” also introduce the theme of kingship and demonstrate that 1 Samuel 1 anticipates this important theme in the books of Samuel.

Ancient kings were often depicted as taller than the people. Hence the significance of Samuel's words in 1 Sam. 10:23-24.
Ancient kings were often depicted as taller than the people. Hence the significance of Samuel’s words in 1 Sam. 10:23-24.

Saul is also introduced with glowing words. After learning that Saul’s father Kish is a “mighty man of power,” 1 Samuel 9:2-3 describes Saul as “choice” and “good.” In fact, he is described as “better than all the children of Israel,” and taller than all the people from his shoulders upwards. English versions often translate the word “good/better” as “handsome.” I have used a more literal translation because it allows for a certain amount of ambiguity. Is Saul “good/better” in only a physical sense, or is he perhaps “good/better” in a spiritual or moral sense as well? The reason this is important is because later in the story when the Lord rejects Saul as king, Saul is told, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (emphasis mine). Later when Saul is pursuing David and David spares his life, Saul acknowledges that David has done “good” to him (1 Sam. 24:16-20). By this point in the story, we have come to know that Saul’s “goodness” is only related to his physical looks, not to his spirituality. However, at the beginning of 1 Samuel 9 all of this awaits discovery. All we know at the beginning of Saul’s introduction leaves us with a good impression of him. Thus Saul and Eli both have positive introductions, leaving the reader impressed with their good qualities. Both introductions leave the reader hopeful that God has found a good and competent leader. The negative qualities of each are only discovered as one continues reading.

Leaders Who Corrupt the Worship of God

Eli and his sons were corrupt leaders who stole from the people and from God. Picture taken from http://randalldsmith.com/1-samuel-226-36-the-portrait-hall-eli-and-the-ignorance-excuse/
Eli and his sons were corrupt leaders who stole from the people and from God. Picture taken from http://randalldsmith.com/1-samuel-226-36-the-portrait-hall-eli-and-the-ignorance-excuse/

Just as Eli and Saul both present initial favourable impressions as leaders, their character flaws come into sharpest focus in the same way–through corrupt worship of Yahweh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 describes the corrupt practice of Eli’s sons regarding the abuse of the sacrifices brought to the tabernacle. Not only do they steal from the worshipper (1 Sam. 2:13-14), they steal from God (1 Sam. 2:15-16)! Eli’s crime is twofold: 1) He does not effectively discipline his sons for their sacrilege (1 Sam. 2:22-25; 3:13); and 2) He participates in eating the stolen sacrifices (1 Sam. 2:29). When God accuses Eli of honoring his sons above Him, He says that Eli and his sons have made themselves fat with the “head of every offering of My people Israel.” I have highligted the word “head” because of its importance in the story of Saul’s sin below.

Similarly, Saul is also convicted of sin in regards to sacrifice. In 1 Samuel 13:7-10, Saul succombs to the pressure of events and offers sacrifice, instead of waiting for Samuel as directed. When God commands Saul to destroy the Amalekites, Saul again fails by sparing Agag, “along with the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good” (1 Sam. 15:9). According to Saul, the purpose was to bring them back and sacrifice them to the Lord (1 Sam. 15:15, 21). When Saul speaks of the people sparing the “best” of the animals in 15:21, the word he chooses is “head,” the same one used in describing the sin of Eli! Samuel’s response is classic and announces a key theme of 1&2 Samuel: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams”(1 Sam. 15:22).

In Search of Better Leaders

Both Eli and Saul are rejected with two separate words of judgment. Both men are told that God will seek for a leader "after His own heart."
Both Eli and Saul are rejected with two separate words of judgment. Both men are told that God will seek for leaders “after His own heart.”

When the Lord sends a Man of God to pronounce judgment on Eli and his sons, he states, “Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever” (1 Sam. 2:35). Similarly, when God rebukes Saul for his disobedience Samuel says, “The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Furthermore, this man after God’s heart (David) will receive a “sure house” (1 Sam. 25:28; 2 Sam. 7:16), like that promised to the faithful priest of 1 Samuel 2:35. The parallels extend beyond the wording. Eli receives two words of judgment (1 Sam. 2:27-35; 3:11-14), and so does Saul (1 Sam. 13:11-14; 15:13-29). In each case it is the first words of judgment that contain the similar language about one “after God’s heart.”

Leaders Who Receive a Similar Judgment

God disposes of the leaders Eli and Saul in similar ways.
God disposes of the leaders Eli and Saul in similar ways.

Part of the judgment visited upon Eli is that he is told that both of his sons will die on the same day (1 Sam. 2:34). In 1 Samuel 4 Israel is attacked by the Philistines. Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas are both killed on the same day as prophesied (1 Sam. 4:11). But the tragedy doesn’t end there. Eli himself dies when he hears the news that the ark of God was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:18). Ironically we are told that when Eli heard the news, he “fell off the seat backward,” broke his neck and died. This seat is the same one mentioned in 1 Samuel 1:9b which is usually translated “throne.” In other words, just as God will later dethrone Saul, here he dethrones Eli. Along with the deaths of Eli and his sons, his daughter-in-law also dies giving birth (1 Sam. 4:19-20). Most importantly, Israel experiences a devastating defeat at the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:10).

Drawing attention to the details surrounding Eli’s death may cause the reader to recall that the circumstances surrounding Saul’s death are eerily similar. Note that, like Eli and his sons, Saul and his sons die on the same day (1 Sam. 31:2-5). The battle is not only against the same foe–the Philistines–but the Philistines are said to gather at Aphek (1 Sam. 29:1), just as they did in the days of Eli (1 Sam. 4:1)! As in the days of Eli, Israel experiences an overwhelming defeat (1 Sam. 31:7). As Saul’s end nears the narrator informs us, “The battle was heavy against Saul” (1 Sam. 31:3, my translation). When Eli dies, the narrator states that he was “old and heavy” (1 Sam. 4:18). Finally, just as Eli falls from his “throne” (a sign of his leadership), so an Amalekite brings David Saul’s crown and arm bracelet (symbols of his leadership–2 Sam. 1:10).

Better Leaders and Better Days

God replaces ungodly leaders with godly ones. Samuel replaced Eli and David replaced Saul.
God replaces ungodly leaders with godly ones. Samuel replaced Eli and David replaced Saul.

If you haven’t noticed these similarities before, you may be wondering about their significance. At the beginning of 1 Samuel, Hannah offers a song of praise to Yahweh (1 Sam. 2:1-10). In this song she praises the Lord’s sovereignty and describes how He operates among people. We could sum up the words of Hannah’s song in the words of James 4:6, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Through their disobedience both Eli and Saul bring judgment down upon themselves and their houses. Their rebellion is similar and so their judgment is similar. God had raised both them and their houses to positions of supreme authority and leadership in Israel, but their sin brought ruin on them and their houses. Just as Hannah had said, the Lord “brings low and lifts up” (1 Sam. 2:7). In each case, however, the Lord doesn’t leave His people leaderless. In place of Eli, He raised up Samuel (and later the priesthood of Zadok–see 1 Kings 2:27, 35), and in the place of Saul, the Lord raised up David.

For more information on Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at Amazon UK / USA and WestBow Press.

Identifying the Biblical Narrator’s Voice

Identifying the Biblical Narrator’s Voice

Over 50% of the Bible consists of narrative.
Over 50% of the Bible consists of narrative.

What do the biblical books of Genesis, Joshua, 1&2 Kings, Nehemiah, Matthew, John, and Acts all have in common? At the most basic level, they are all narratives––stories about God’s interactions with people. As every reader of the Bible is aware, many other biblical books fall into this same category. Indeed, narrative material composes more than half of the Bible. Even some books whose main genre is something other than narrative (e.g., prophetic books which contain large amounts of poetry), still contain narrative (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea). This means that one of the major ways in which God decided to communicate with people is through the medium of story. Perhaps this is because everyone loves a good story, and because stories can be understood by people of all ages (although at different levels of meaning, depending on maturity). Because much of the Bible is presented in story form, this means that it contains all of the elements of a good story including: plot, characters, and a narrator’s voice. People often read the Bible without giving any thought to these, and other, ingredients of a good story. However, this article will attempt to show how paying careful attention to such details can provide a deeper understanding of biblical narrative. Specifically we will look at the critical role played by the narrator of a biblical text, and how identifying the biblical narrator’s voice can clarify a story, or even help prevent a misinterpretation. After discussing a few observations about the narrator in biblical stories, we will look at the story of Saul’s death related in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1. The two different versions of how Saul died has often confused people. Once we understand the role and function of the biblical narrator a solution to this problem will be more evident.

The Identity of the Biblical Narrator

Available at amazon USA / UK
Available at amazon USA / UK

In popular books, the narrator is often a device used by an author to tell a story. Therefore, the narrator and the author are usually two different people, unless it is clear that the author is telling the story in first person (I, we, me, etc.). Similarly, biblical narrative is usually told in the third person (he, she, they, or using a proper name such as “Moses said to God,” etc.). The Book of Nehemiah and the “we” sections of the Book of Acts are among the rare exceptions to this rule. “The narrator is a device used by authors to shape and guide how the reader responds to the characters and events of the story.” It is important to note that the biblical narrator “gives the impression of an all-knowing mind…a mind that in the context of the canon must be associated with God himself” (Tremper Longman III, “Biblical Narrative,” A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, p. 75). If the narrator’s point of view can be equated with God’s, then this means that statements by the narrator are always true. “Thus any statement made by the narrator about a character or event should be accepted as factual. If it stands in contradiction to a statement made by another character, then we can know that this character is lying, deceived, or misinformed” (see my discussion in Family Portraits, p. 9), or that the biblical author has some purpose in the apparent contradiction (see my article “How many sons did Absalom have?”). Understanding the role of the biblical narrator can be crucial for correctly interpreting a passage, and the story of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1, provides us with an excellent opportunity to put this knowledge into practice.

The Accounts of Saul’s Death in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1

According to the biblical narrator in 1 Sam. 31, Saul took his own life.
According to the biblical narrator in 1 Sam. 31, Saul took his own life.

In 1 Samuel 31:1-5 we read of the death of Saul and his sons. Verse 3 informs us that Saul was wounded by the Philistine archers. In verse 4 Saul pleads with his armorbearer to kill him, but he is too afraid to strike Saul and so Saul falls on his own sword. Verse 5 reads, “And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him” (NKJV). Notice that verse 5 confirms Saul’s death in two ways. First, the armorbearer “saw that Saul was dead,” and second, the armorbearer killed himself the same way that Saul had and, therefore, “died with him” (my emphasis). Before looking at the description of Saul’s death in 2 Samuel 1, it is important to notice that the account of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 is told by the biblical narrator. Based on our observations above about the narrator, this account should be viewed as a factual report of what happened. Indeed, there would be no reason to doubt it, if it were not for the fact that the story in 2 Samuel 1 seems to contradict it.

2 Samuel 1 rehearses the story of Saul’s death from David’s point of view. David has just returned from rescuing his wives and the families of his soldiers from the hands of the Amalekites (compare 1 Sam. 30 and 2 Sam. 1:1). David is in southern Judah in the town of Ziklag, which is a 3 day journey from the battlefield where Saul died (1 Sam. 30:1; 2 Sam. 1:2). A messenger comes to David to inform him that Israel has been defeated and Saul and Jonathan have been slain (2 Sam. 1:4). When David presses the messenger on how he can be sure that Saul and Jonathan are dead (1 Sam. 1:5), the young man relates the following story. He says that he was on Mount Gilboa and saw that Saul was badly wounded. It is what he relates next, however, that causes the reader to have what I refer to as a, “wait a minute” moment. Such a moment happens when what was previously read doesn’t seem to match the events of the current story. When the young man, who identifies himself as an Amalekite (2 Sam. 2:8), says that Saul asked him to kill him, we are reminded of Saul’s request of his armorbearer in 1 Samuel 31:4. When the Amalekite says that he complied with Saul’s request and killed him, we remember that Saul’s armorbearer had refused to do the same deed. These similarities are interesting and should cause a reader to compare the two accounts of Saul’s death. The real problem comes when we recall that the armorbearer had confirmed Saul’s death and then died beside him. Furthermore, the narrator never mentioned anything about an Amalekite being present at Saul’s death. On the other hand, the Amalekite has a pretty convincing story too because, he has Saul’s crown and bracelet in his possession (2 Sam. 1:10).

Therefore, who should we believe, or could both accounts somehow be true? Some commentators, attempt to harmonize the two stories by combining them. They reason that maybe Saul wasn’t completely dead (inspite of what the narrator says!), and that the Amalekite found him and finished him off. But this explanation has its own problems. For example, after stabbing himself, and his armorbearer believing he was dead (1 Sam. 31:5), did Saul really get back up off of the ground and lean on his spear (2 Sam. 1:6)? This would have to be the case for the Amalekite’s version to be accurate. Such details make the two stories difficult to harmonize.

Intentional Contradictions and the Danger of Artificial Harmonization

When a Bible-believer encounters what appears to be a contradiction in Scripture, the first impulse is to think of a rational explanation for it. Can the two passages be harmonized in some way? Can some other external circumstances explain away the contradiction? However, there are several problems with such attempts at harmonization. Forcing a harmonization can be like trying to fit a square block into a round hole. No matter how hard we try it doesn’t fit, but somehow we try to convince ourselves that it does! Second, whenever we consider “external circumstances” that are outside of the text, as a way of explaining the contradiction, we stop interpreting the text itself and enter the world of speculation. The world of speculation is a dangerous world because, by definition, it is something that cannot be proven. The problem with speculation is that one theory is as good as another. When we seek an explanation outside of the text, there are no longer any guidelines that confirm one explanation to be better than another. And let’s face it, sometimes speculation can lead to some bizarre explanations. However one might seek to defend speculation on a difficult passage, the biggest problem about trying to force an artificial harmonization is that we might be destroying the very thing that the biblical author intended! If the author intends for us to see a contradiction, then explaining it away will certainly lead to a wrong interpretation of the passage.

The Biblical Narrator and the Amalekite
The Amalekite's version of Saul's death contradicts the biblical narrator's version.
The Amalekite’s version of Saul’s death contradicts the biblical narrator’s version.

Recognizing that each account of Saul’s death employs a different speaker is the real solution to the problem. Is there a contradiction? Yes there is, but it is a purposeful contradiction. We have already established that the biblical narrator relates the first account of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31, whereas, it is the Amalekite who speaks in 2 Samuel 1. Since we have agreed that the biblical narrator always tells the truth, and since it is obvious that the passages are contradictory, then the Amalekite must, in this instance, be lying. He cannot simply be misinformed or deceived because he holds Saul’s crown and bracelet in his hands. Therefore he knows that Saul was already dead when he came upon him on the battlefield.

This conclusion is further confirmed by the biblical characterization of the Amalekites who are constantly portrayed as Israel’s enemies (e.g., Exod. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19; Judg. 6:3). Moreover, Saul had previously been charged with destroying the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2-3) in order to fulfill what God had spoken about them in Exodus 17:14 and Deut. 25:17-19. In this same story, Samuel refers to the Amalekites as “sinners” (1 Sam. 15:18). It should also not be forgotten that David had just returned from slaughtering the Amalekites because they had burned his town and carried away all of the women and children (1 Sam. 30; 2 Sam. 1:1). Therefore, the wider biblical context, as well as the immediate context within the books of Samuel, consistently portrays the Amalekites as the enemies of Israel. The negative depiction of Amalekites in Scripture provides further evidence that the Amalekite lied to David and his men. This is additionally confirmed in 2 Samuel 4:10 where David refers back to this incident and claims the Amalekite was looking for a reward (NKJV). David’s exposure of the Amalekite’s motive further unmasks his lie. This conclusion also highlights the problem of attempting to harmonize the two accounts. Are we really to take the word of an Amalekite “sinner” and combine it with, or believe it instead of, the infallible biblical narrator?

When all of this evidence is digested it becomes clear that it would be a grave mistake to harmonize the two accounts of Saul’s death. The biblical author has deliberately set two contradictory stories side by side (This is another indication that the contradiction is deliberate; the story of Saul’s death is still fresh on our minds when we hear the Amalekite’s version.). He uses the biblical narrator to present the real facts and follows it up with the contradictory story by the Amalekite. Why does the biblical author do it this way instead of simply telling us that the Amalekite was lying? First, it makes for a much more artful telling of the story. The reader must do some detective work to arrive at the correct conclusion. Second, the contradiction causes the reader to pause and reread both accounts. This not only encourages meditation on the two passages, but it makes the irony of an Amalekite reporting Saul’s death all the more delicious. Third, it contributes to a common theme in the books of Samuel which can be referred to as “looks can be deceiving.” The Amalekite “appears” to have killed Saul, after all, he has his crown and bracelet. In this story the “looks can be deceiving” theme backfires on the Amalekite. His deception ends up costing him his own life.

In conclusion, if we try to force these two passages to harmonize, we not only miss the art of the biblical author, we also miss the important messages he sought to convey. Therefore, we should be cautious about “solving” what appears to be a contradiction in the text before examining other possibilities. It may be that the biblical author has deliberately allowed a contradiction to occur in order to communicate a certain message.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel an Interview

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Available at Amazon, WestBow Press, Barnes & Noble and other sites
Available at Amazon, WestBow Press, Barnes & Noble and other sites

The following interview was conducted by my friend and colleague Lindsay Kennedy who is a teacher at Calvary Chapel Bible College York, and an active blogger of all things biblical. You can find his blogs and book reviews, as well as other information, at http://www.mydigitalseminary.com

1. You (almost) exclusively teach OT history (Genesis, Josh-Kings) at CCBCY (Calvary Chapel Bible College York). What first sparked your interest in the Old Testament?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree in biblical studies, a man by the name of Gerald Vinther came to teach during my junior and senior years at the bible college I was attending. He taught OT and the Hebrew language. His classes totally revolutionized my view of God and of the OT. Whether looking at Genesis or the Prophets, he demonstrated the consistency of God’s character between the Old and New Testaments. I discovered a God of grace and love in the OT who desired to have a relationship with His people, just like the God of the NT. My particular church tradition had emphasized the judgmental nature of the God of the OT and de-emphasized the significance of the OT. When we saw the character of God revealed in the pages of the OT, one of my classmates described it as being born-again…again! Since then I have fallen in love with the study of the OT and the God revealed in its pages. Because many Christians don’t know the OT and often have misconceptions about it, and the God revealed in its pages, I have found great joy in assisting others in seeing its beauty and truth, much like I was introduced to it years ago. By the way, this is why I give a special “thank you” in the preface of Family Portraits to Gerald Vinther, and also to my graduate professor in OT, John T. Willis who also had an important influence on me.

2. For as long as I’ve known you, you have been working on this book. What drove you to write Family Portraits?

I was drawn to the books of Samuel in graduate school and have continued to study them for many years. One of the things I noticed in my study was the theme of family and the prominence of four families within 1&2 Samuel (Samuel’s, Eli’s, Saul’s, and David’s). None of the studies or commentaries I have read bring out the significance of this particular theme.  Also, although many character studies have been done on David, Saul, and Samuel, few have been done on the other members of their family, and no book has sought to tackle them all as I do in Family Portraits.

I was also intrigued by the fact that character studies, if done correctly, can assist the student of 1&2 Samuel in understanding its characters in a way that a commentary approach can’t. The sustained reflection on a certain character, noting all the places where they appear in the text, often reveals insights that can be overlooked in a commentary. This approach actually modified my understanding of certain characters like Abner and Joab.

3. This is a book of character studies in 1&2 Samuel, yet surprisingly you have omitted sections on Samuel, Saul, and David. What can we learn from investigating the supporting cast in this story?

As I mentioned in the last question, a number of studies have been done on these three major characters, but very little has been done on other members of the “supporting cast”. In the Preface to Family Portraits, I compare character studies with an artist who paints a portrait. Although the artist may seek to focus attention on a certain person or object within the painting in order to convey his or her message, the person or object is enhanced by everything else in the painting, which might include various colors, shapes, objects, or people. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, is an example of this. While Christ is the focal point of the painting, the expressions and actions of the 12 disciples surrounding him add depth and detail to the portrait and meaning of the painting.

One of the techniques that the author(s) of 1&2 Samuel uses is contrasting various characters with other characters. For example, Hannah is contrasted with Peninnah as well as Eli. Samuel is contrasted with Eli and his sons. Jonathan is contrasted with Saul, and David is contrasted with Saul and Absalom. These are only a few examples of the many comparisons and contrasts made between characters in 1&2 Samuel. By studying the lesser known characters and their interaction with God and the major characters, we are able to discern some of the important messages that the author(s) was seeking to convey to his readers.

4. Family Portraits is unique because it incorporates both academic and devotional material in one place. Who did you have in mind when writing this book?

First let me say that I believe it is extremely important to combine an academic and devotional approach (by which I mean making practical application to our daily lives). I am glad to see that this approach is beginning to catch on in evangelical circles. Far too often books are either academic in nature with no application, or devotional with no solid scholarly foundation. The academic approach runs the risk of being irrelevant and a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, while at the same time making the Bible appear irrelevant to a modern reader. The devotional/applicational approach can run the risk of a passage meaning whatever a particular author wants or thinks it means, if not backed up with solid research and exegesis.

To answer your question more directly, Family Portraits is written for the pastor, teacher, Bible College or seminary student, and Christian who is interested in a more in-depth treatment of 1&2 Samuel. While some pastors and Bible college students may be familiar with Hebrew and some of the more technical aspects of Bible study, I have tried to be aware of those who don’t have this expertise.  I seek to explain unfamiliar terms and methods and refer to the Hebrew only when it illuminates an important point in the text. Admittedly this can, at times, be a delicate balancing act. Part of my desire is to introduce ideas and methods that the average layperson is unfamiliar with, in hopes that they will be challenged to go to the next level in their own study of the Bible.

5. What do you hope your readers will take away from Family Portraits?

First, and foremost, I hope that Family Portraits helps people to develop a closer relationship with, and greater understanding of, the God of the Bible. Character studies are an excellent vehicle for helping us to see ourselves and how the Word of God applies to our lives. In the characters of 1&2 Samuel we find traits that we admire and abhor, and hopefully learning (or being reminded of) these truths causes us to examine our own lives and seek God’s help in becoming the people He desires us to be.

Second, there are a lot of great books that deal with various aspects of 1&2 Samuel that the average Christian layperson will never to exposed to. In fact, the average layperson may never even know that these resources exist! Some of these Bible study methods and scholars provide wonderful insights into God’s Word. I hope that Family Portraits, in some small way, introduces them to these resources and scholars and encourages them to pursue a deeper study of the Scripture.

Finally, I am hopeful that Family Portraits helps to provide a model for studying Scripture with an academic rigor, but at the same time, with a pastoral heart. As I mentioned in the previous question, and also emphasize in my Preface and Introduction, I believe it is imperative that academic research and devotional application go together. Having said this, I admit my own inadequacy in combining these approaches and don’t pretend to have achieved complete success. I certainly need to continue to grow in both of these areas. Yet it is my hope that Family Portraits is at least an attempt that demonstrates the fruitfulness of this kind of approach.

To purchase a copy of Family Portraits click here.