A number of years ago I wrote a post that pointed out how the recognition and study of motifs within a biblical narrative can contribute to its understanding (see here). In that post I surveyed motifs found in Genesis (the Jacob story), Judges (the Samson story), and Samuel (Saul’s story). I also noted a number of other motifs in Samuel with the promise of one day writing about them further. It’s been a long time coming but that day has finally arrived. This post is an introduction to the topic. I will briefly discuss what a motif is and then note various motifs in Samuel that will be the subject of future posts.
What is a Motif?
If you google a definition of what a motif is you will find this useful definition: “A motif is a recurring symbol which takes on a figurative meaning. … In fact, almost every text commonly uses the literary device of the motif. A motif can be almost anything: an idea, an object, a concept, a character archetype, the weather, a color, or even a statement” (study.com). Bernard Aubert defines a motif very simply as a “recognizable pattern or unit” (The Shepherd-flock Motif in the Miletus Discourse, p. 16–for an online version of this book click here).
Brian A. Verrett points out that “A motif is to be distinguished from a theme. A motif is a thread, and a theme is the rope made of different threads” (The Serpent in Samuel, p. 8, n.54). Rachelle Gilmour states, “In each case the motif is a concrete image that points to an abstract meaning, even if this meaning changes over time or across types of literature. This is typical of the biblical narrative, which in general avoids explicit statements of abstract meaning, using instead a concrete image to represent it” (Gilmour, “Reading a Biblical Motif” p, 32). An example of what Gilmour is saying would be the use of “hand” in the biblical text. Hand is a very concrete image but it points to the abstract meaning of “power.” For example, when the Bible states that Israel was delivered into the hand of the Philistines, this means they were defeated by them and came under their control or power. “Hand” is, in fact, a motif in Samuel that we will be examining.
Motifs in Samuel
Motifs Addressed by Biblical Scholars
Bible scholars have long recognized the use of motifs in Samuel. In my previous post I reviewed a book by Brian A. Verrett entitled, The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif (see my review here). In his book Verrett seeks to demonstrate that the Samuel narrative repeatedly casts characters as serpents (p. 8). Other motifs in Samuel that have been discussed by scholars include, the exodus, beauty, displaced husbands, food provision lists, and allusions to the patriarchal stories in Genesis. Several, or perhaps all of these motifs, have probably never occurred to a casual reader of the books of Samuel. The value of beginning to recognize these, and other motifs, is the way they enrich the meaning of the narrative. Being sensitive to motifs will also cause the reader to slow down and ask why a certain motif continues to recur. Thus creating a learning opportunity. Searching for motifs also increases the pleasure in reading.
Other Motifs in Samuel
There are many other motifs in Samuel. Here I offer a list which is not meant to be complete by any means. In future posts, I will be examining some of these motifs.
Sword and spear
Eating and not eating
Clothing, especially robes
Angel of God
Seeking and (not) finding
Some motifs found in the books of Samuel also occur in other books of the Bible. My purpose is to narrow the focus to only 1&2 Samuel. I will identify some of these motifs and ask how they function in Samuel. How is our reading of the text enhanced by noticing these motifs and inquiring about their significance? In my next post, we will start from the bottom up. I will be looking at the significance of the motif of “feet” in Samuel.
As the title suggests, this recent book by author Brian A. Verrett, advocates that the messianic theme found in the books of Samuel is enhanced by tracing a serpent motif (on the subject of biblical motifs, see my post here). The serpent referred to is the serpent of Genesis 3. In particular Genesis 3:15, viewed by many as the first messianic prophecy in Scripture: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,and between your offspring and her offspring;he shall bruise your head,and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV).
This motif is not readily apparent to most readers of the English Bible, but by an examination of various Hebrew words, as well as looking at what the text of Genesis 3 might have in common with certain passages in the books of Samuel, Verrett seeks to establish his case. In Verrett’s own words, “This book has a two-fold purpose: (1) demonstrate that Samuel contains a serpent motif and (2) demonstrate that this motif’s significance within Samuel is to present the seed of David as the promised seed of the woman from Gen. 3:15 who will defeat the serpent and reign as king in the new creation” (p. 143).
In his introductory chapter, Verrett demonstrates that previous scholarship has suggested a serpent motif within the books of Samuel. He also notes that the books of Samuel utilize various motifs noticed by scholars (I myself am planning a series on this blog related to various motifs in the books of Samuel–click here for posts currently available).
In chapter two Verrett looks closely at Genesis 3, examining the story and its vocabulary. His main objectives are to “demonstrate that both the OT and NT contain a serpent motif that derives from Gen 3,” and to “develop a paradigm to determine allusions to the serpent by noting those words, images, and concepts that the text associates with the serpent in Gen 3” (p. 10). Some of his conclusions are (1) that the seed of the woman is a singular individual (i.e. the word “seed” is not used in a corporate sense); (2) by examining the words of judgment placed on the serpent, the woman, and the man, one can expect that a text using these images might be alluding to the serpent. Verrett concedes that the words referring to the serpent’s judgment have a “higher chance” that a biblical author is referring to the serpent. He does a convincing job establishing that there is a serpent motif that runs throughout the OT & NT, thus opening the door for the possibility that this motif occurs in Samuel as well.
In chapters 3&4 Verrett seeks to establish that a serpent motif exists in Samuel. His primary focus is on Goliath (chapter 3) and passages dealing with Nahash (chapter 4). Verrett contends that several factors combine to demonstrate that Goliath represents the serpent. Words and images that suggest this include Goliath’s scaly armor and the four-fold mention of bronze (armor & weapons). The word “bronze” comes from the same Hebrew root as the word for snake. Finally, Goliath’s death suggests connections with the serpent. His falling face down suggests that he eats dust and his beheading parallels the serpent’s head being crushed. As an aside for those who read this blog, Verrett agrees that David struck Goliath in the knee, not the forehead, as I argue in most post “How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?”
The Ammonite King Nahash seems to hold the most obvious potential for a serpent theme, since “nahash” in Hebrew means “snake.” Nahash is the king defeated by Saul in 1 Samuel 11. His opposition to Israel and Israel’s anointed one (Saul), along with his name make this a possibility. Nahash’s name also appears in 2 Samuel 10 which speaks of his death and the war created by his son Hanun when he insults David’s ambassadors. Verrett argues that Hanun is the “seed of the serpent,” since he is the son of Nahash. The theme of nakedness and shame and his opposition to David (Israel’s anointed) further suggests the serpent motif (pp. 84-85). Nahash is mentioned 2 final times in 2 Samuel 17:25 and 27. According to 2 Sam. 17:25, Nahash is the grandfather of Amasa. Amasa becomes the general of Absalom’s army in his revolt against David. Verrett argues that Amasa’s descent from Nahash and the description of his death, which includes him falling on his “belly” and writhing like a snake, suggests that he is a seed of the serpent (pp. 89-91). Verrett also suggests that Absalom is “serpentine” but doesn’t dwell on this identification, making only cursory observations (Absalom deceives people, he is opposed to David). I found this section dealing with Amasa and Absalom to be less than convincing and will speak of it in my critique below.
In chapters 5-7 Verrett deals with the second purpose of his book which is to demonstrate that the seed of David is the promised seed of the woman who will defeat the serpent and reign over a new creation. In chapter 5 he pulls together all the “serpent” material in Samuel explored in his earlier chapters (3&4) and seeks to show how they relate to one another. This is one of the most insightful chapters of the book. Verrett points out that Saul’s fall begins after his defeat of Nahash (which might have raised hopes that he was the promised seed), demonstrating that Saul is not the promised seed of the woman. David’s victory over the serpentine Goliath gives hope that he is the promised seed. But following his victory over Hanun (the son of Nahash), the story relates David’s fall, thus demonstrating that he is not the promised seed of the woman either. Therefore, the serpent motif in Samuel momentarily raises the reader’s hope that the fulfillment of Gen. 3:15 is on the horizon. However, hope turns to be disappointment when the reader learns that neither Saul nor David is the promised deliverer. This, in turn, leads Verrett to discuss 2 Sam. 7:11b-17 in chapter 6–a passage that promises David an eternal throne and a descendant who would sit upon it.
In chapter 6, Verrett carefully examines 2 Sam. 7:11b-17, concluding that Solomon is not the promised descendant who would build the Temple, but that it refers to a future priest-king (Jesus). Along with his discussion of 2 Sam 7, he also looks at whether 2 Chronicles pictures Solomon as the fulfillment (his answer is “no”). He also connects 1 Sam 2:35 and the prophecy of a faithful priest with 2 Sam 7, arguing that these passages share similar language and indicate that the promised priest is also the same person as the promised coming king. To bolster his argument, he examines Zechariah 6:9-15, stating that this passage too anticipates a priest-king who is the “Branch” of David (thus an allusion to the Davidic covenant in 2 Sam 7). Finally, he argues that “Hebrews 3:1-6 also understands the faithful priest of 1 Sam 2:35 to be the seed of David in 2 Samuel 7:11b-17” (133).
Chapter 7 is a close examination of David’s “last words” recorded in 2 Sam 23:1-7, and other passages that Verrett believes are dependent on it (Ps. 72, various passages in Isaiah, Jer. 23:5-6 and Zech. 6:9-15). His interpretation of 2 Sam 23:1-7 is that David is speaking of his seed who will reign in righteousness over a new creation (3-4) while defeating the serpent (6-7–he understands the mention of “Belial” to refer to the serpent of Gen. 3). Chapter 8 is a five-page summary bringing the study to a conclusion.
Verrett is to be congratulated for a very thorough study of the serpent motif in Samuel. The book demonstrates a good working knowledge of the books of Samuel, as well as an acquaintance with the pertinent scholarly literature. The book is also well written and easy to understand. One does not have to be a scholar to appreciate the many insights offered, although this book is definitely for the more mature student, pastor, or teacher. Among the strengths of this book is an awareness of a serpent motif in Scripture, and a greater sensitivity toward the messianic theme of the books of Samuel.
While Verrett has convinced me of the possibility of a serpent motif in Samuel, I must say with some regret, I am not totally persuaded. At times I was left with the impression that Verrett wanted to prove his thesis so much that he may have gone overboard and found connections where there are none. One example is Verrett’s contention that Habakkuk 3:13-14 is “a poetic portrayal of the David and Goliath narrative” (p. 60). I had never read these verses and caught any notion of a reference, or even an allusion, to David and Goliath. After reading Verrett’s interpretation, I must still confess that I don’t see it. I have similar feelings about his connection of 2 Sam. 23:6-7 with 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1, although I see the parallels he is trying to make between these passages.
One glaring weakness in Verrett’s presentation, in my opinion, is regarding Absalom and Amasa. One would think that if the writer of Samuel was attempting to use the serpent motif in the story of Absalom’s rebellion, he would have used language and imagery much more obvious and convincing with regards to Absalom. Why would the writer focus on a relatively minor character like Amasa and picture him as the seed of the serpent, when a presentation of Absalom in this light would make a more profound impression? This doesn’t rule it out as a possibility, but there are other problems regarding Amasa. Although Verrett, to his credit, deals with the textual problem in 2 Sam. 17:25 which depicts Amasa as a descendant of Nahash, this Scripture is much disputed. It asks a lot to base your theory on a disputed passage. I must also take issue with Verrett’s interpretation of Joab. Joab is pictured as a very unsavory person in 2 Samuel. His murder of Amasa is vicious, deceitful, and cowardly. Yet in this passage Verrett pictures Joab as the hero and David as the villain! Quote: “At this point in the narrative, Joab appears more like the seed of the woman than David does” (p. 113). This is a misunderstanding of Joab’s portrayal in 2 Samuel. (For an in depth treatment of Joab’s character, check out my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel). One final problem with Verrett’s thesis is his assertion that the covenant promise of 2 Samuel 7 refers only to the promised seed of the woman. While this is clearly a messianic text and is interpreted this way in the NT, it’s hard to ignore 2 Sam. 7:14 which talks about David’s descendants committing sin. Again, to his credit, Verrett addresses this verse, but all that he can come up with (and it’s all that can be said) is that the Old Greek (OG) leaves open the possibility that David’s descendant might not sin (p. 127). This is not a strong argument and damages his assertion that this passage only speaks about the coming messiah.
In spite of my critique of what I perceive to be some shortcomings of The Serpent in Samuel, this is an excellent book. The reader will learn much from it. I am grateful for Verrett’s effort, and scholarship and I highly recommend it as a source that will inform and challenge the reader.
Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for this free review copy. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.
The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif is available at Wipf & Stock, and Amazon USA / UK
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&2 Samuel is a story about 4 main families (a point often overlooked in many commentaries and studies of these books).
A summary of the contents of these books.
How the beginning and ending of 1&2 Samuel contributes to understanding its main themes.
Key texts that summarize important theological points being made.
A Story About 4 Families
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
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
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.
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.
In a previous post on “gaps” (see Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives), I wrote about the importance of recognizing gaps in biblical literature. Some gaps exist because the inspired author had no interest in filling in the information. At other times, however, gaps are an artistic way in which the author draws us more deeply into the story by providing tantalizing clues which we are expected to investigate and draw conclusions about. I believe that such is the case regarding the High Priest Abiathar’s defection to David’s son Adonijah just before Solomon is crowned king (1 Kings 1-2). Although Abiathar had always been loyal to David, when David was on his deathbed he chose to side with Joab and Adonijah against Solomon, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah (one of David’s captains). The obvious question is “Why?” I believe some of the gaps in the story can be filled in to successfully answer this question. In my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, I seek to do that. Below is an excerpt from my book which seeks to provide an answer to the mysterious actions of Abiathar. If you’d like to follow along in your Bible, some of the key verses for the following story are: 1 Kings 1:7, 19, 25, 42; 2:26–27, 35.
Excerpt From “Family Portraits”
In his old age Abiathar makes the fateful error of aligning himself with the wrong man for the throne. It appears from 1 Kings 1–2 that Solomon was the choice of (both) David and God for the throne (1:17, 29–30; 2:15, 45). A look at other characters [in 1&2 Samuel] teaches us that, not only does God honor those who honor him (1 Sam. 2:30), but those who go against his anointed experience the consequences. Abiathar is an example of this. His association with God’s anointed, David, brought him blessing, but his association with Adonijah and his rejection of Solomon, the Lord’s chosen, brought judgment down on his head (1 Kings 2:26–27).
To understand why Abiathar joins Adonijah’s attempt to gain the throne from Solomon involves a little reading between the lines (due to gaps!). The text does not explicitly state Abiathar’s motive, and yet, by examining the passages that speak about him, it is possible to suggest a motive. Other passages which speak of Abiathar show him to be a loyal follower of David, who carries the ark of God (2 Sam. 15:24–36; 19:11). However, these passages also reveal that Abiathar was not the only high priest in David’s service. Zadok is also mentioned as high priest along with Abiathar, and seems to have eclipsed him in importance. Not only does Zadok’s name always appear before Abiathar’s in these texts, but when David flees from Jerusalem, it is striking that David directly addresses Zadok but never speaks to Abiathar (2 Sam. 15:24–29). It seems that Abiathar went from being David’s only high priest (during his fugitive days–see 1 Sam. 23), to playing second fiddle to Zadok during the kingdom years. It is natural to suppose that, under such circumstances, Abiathar could easily succumb to envy.
Scripture provides meager information regarding this dual high priesthood. Zadok’s first appearance in the narrative follows the conquest of Jerusalem, where he is mentioned among David’s officials (2 Sam. 8:17). Textual evidence suggests that he joined David when the kingdom was unified following Ish-bosheth’s death (1 Chron. 12:23, 28). Zadok may have been appointed high priest to appease the northern tribes and strengthen the fragile unity between north and south. Thus, this unusual situation may have resulted in the anomaly of having two high priests during David’s reign. Whether David preferred Zadok for political, religious, or other reasons, we are not told. Since Zadok was a “newcomer” to David’s regime, having formerly shown loyalty to “the kingdom of Saul” (1 Chron. 12:23), it is possible that Abiathar resented his growing importance. Abiathar’s loyal ties to Judah and Zadok’s ties to the northern tribes provide a further plausible explanation for their different allegiances at the time of Solomon’s accession.
It seems likely that Abiathar was aware of David’s oath to make Solomon king in his place (1 Kings 1:17). Yet it is clear that Solomon’s inner circle of power consisted of Nathan, Benaiah and Zadok. For Abiathar this would have meant that he, and his son Jonathan, would continue to be subordinate to Zadok. Perhaps he even feared that Zadok would become sole high priest. As a result, it is easy to see how siding with Adonijah and the “old Judahite regime”—which would recognize him as sole high priest—would be extremely tempting. And it seems he succumbed to this temptation. With Joab and David’s eldest living son, Adonijah, it must have seemed like a foolproof plan.
From this small exercise of reading between the lines, we learn an important lesson about accepting the role that God has assigned us. Grasping for power and importance is a pitfall for many. It is particularly sad to see power and status pursued within the church, and yet, as fallible human beings, like Abiathar, we sometimes succumb to this temptation. Abiathar’s example teaches us the importance of contentment. It is far better to have less power and importance and be in the will and blessing of God, than to strive for what God has not ordained for us. Abiathar’s striving took him out of God’s will and brought God’s judgment down on him. Ironically, in his desire to be the only high priest, he lost his position totally. He and his family were relegated to obscurity as he was forced to retire to his hometown of Anathoth. Like the others involved in the attempted coup, Abiathar was deserving of death. It was only the restraint of Solomon and the mercy of God that kept him from that fate (1 Kings 2:26). God is merciful, and will even show mercy when we step outside his will, but in our selfishness we can lose his best for our lives and must experience the consequences of our choices, like Abiathar.
It’s been a difficult few years for America. The lines of division have been drawn sharply and the recent Presidential campaign has accentuated that division. Sadly, hateful rhetoric from a bitterly fought campaign, has now spilled out into the streets of America in the form of protests and violence. We are all aware, however, that this violence is not new. The riots sparked by the shootings of black men and the deadly assault on police officers provide the terrible proof that America was already deeply divided. Does division originate from the bottom up or the top down? In other words, what is the source of division? Some maintain that it comes from divided families and communities only to explode on a national level. Others attribute it to leaders. Perhaps apathetic leaders only concerned with keeping the status quo. Or perhaps leadership that uses harsh divisive rhetoric. Interestingly, the story of King Saul in 1 Samuel addresses this question.
A case can be made that division comes from the top and the bottom of society. In fact, the books of Samuel testify to this truth. When values are forsaken, families are damaged and when families are damaged, communities, and eventually the nation, is damaged. However, corrupt leadership also has a profound effect. “As goes the king, so goes the nation,” could be one way of summing up the stories contained in both Samuel and Kings. These truths were brought home to me a number of years ago as I researched and wrote a book on 1&2 Samuel entitled, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. I was struck through my study that a book about leadership (i.e., kingship) was also a book about families. These two themes interact so closely in 1&2 Samuel that it is impossible to separate them.
What follows is an excerpt from my book Family Portraits. This excerpt is taken from the introduction of Saul’s family (pp. 100-102). It was written long before the recent election but some of the principles in it point to lessons that are timely. What I seek to do here is provide my original words (in italics) which I will then reflect on at the end of this post in light of the recent election.
The Divisiveness of King Saul
Saul’s family is introduced in 1 Samuel 9:1 with a four-person genealogy, reminiscent of the introduction of Samuel’s family in 1 Samuel 1:1. This similarity, as well as the narrator’s glowing introduction of Saul and his family, leads the reader to expect great things. Saul’s father, Kish, is described as a “man of valor” (“a mighty man of power”—NKJV), while Saul is twice described in positive terms—“handsome” (literally, “good”) and “taller than any of the people” (9:2). If outward appearance can be trusted, then 1 Samuel 9:1–2 holds out great hope. The discerning reader, however, has learned from Eli not to jump to conclusions too quickly.
While there are some storm clouds on the horizon, the story of Saul seems to get off to a good start (1 Sam. 9–11) before things go wrong (1 Sam. 13–31). Saul inspired the fierce loyalty of many, such as the Ziphites (23:19–24) and the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead (31:11–13). On the other hand, he could strike out violently against his own people (the priests of Nob—chap. 22), including members of his family (Jonathan, 20:30–32). As a result, even Saul’s children are torn between loyalty to their father and the “beloved” David (18:1–4, 20). Both Jonathan and Michal struggle with remaining true to their father while protecting David (19:11–17; 20:31–32). However, it must be said that Jonathan remains with his father even in death (1 Sam. 31:2); and, in spite of everything, David’s eulogy is a moving tribute of his loyalty to Saul (2 Sam. 1:19–27). Even those whom Saul pushes away are drawn to him! This tug-of-war, which results in great tensions, is an important theme in the story of Saul. Consequent divisions are not only evident in his family, but also in the nation he ruled. With the death of Saul the nation erupts in civil war (2 Sam. 3:1).
A reader can find him or herself with conflicting emotions about Saul. In spite of his failings, he evokes sympathy. Saul is not so much the sort of character you “love to hate” as the kind you “hate to love.” Interestingly, commentators are as divided over Saul as his own nation was. Some see him as a victim of a predetermined fate, while others see him as a man whose disobedience cost him a kingdom. Saul remains a divisive character to this day! Any treatment of his family must therefore reflect this truth. Saul’s ability to polarize not only extends to Jonathan, Michal and David; division follows his family even after his death. Abner and Ish-bosheth become alienated from one another (2 Sam. 3:6–11), as do Mephibosheth and Ziba (2 Sam. 19:24–27). Another descendant of Saul, Shimei, is a vocal supporter of the division caused by Absalom’s civil war (2 Sam. 16:5–13).
Jesus said, “every…house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt. 12:25). This truth is part of the reason that the house of Saul deteriorates from strength (1 Sam. 9:1) to weakness (2 Sam. 3:1). The main reason, however, is Saul’s failure to honor the Lord.
(2 paragraphs omitted from original)
Along with David, Saul and his family dominate the narrative of 1 Samuel chapters 9–31. David and his family are the main focus of 2 Samuel, yet Saul’s family continues to play an important role. Although a lot of material is devoted to the reign of Saul, we learn of God’s rejection of his kingship and dynasty rather quickly (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:28). This means that a major portion of the story focuses on how Saul and his family deal with this rejection, and how they treat his future replacement. This theme raises an important question that everyone must confront at sometime. How should we respond when someone is chosen or favored over us, especially when that person ends up in the position we once occupied? In Saul’s case it is not simply a matter of David being favored over him, but one in which he disqualified himself through sin. The narrative teaches us that a response of pride, envy, and a refusal to repent, leads to a dead end for Saul—quite literally!
This kind of attitude can lead one to strike out blindly against his own family (1 Sam. 20:33), contributing to its breakdown and destruction. Not only can such a mindset affect an individual, it can permeate a family. Thus all those who follow in Saul’s footsteps—Abner, Ish-bosheth, Michal, Shimei, and other descendants of Saul—meet a similar fate. Saul’s obsession to destroy David leads to the destruction of many in his family, not to mention the political chaos and destruction that accompanies it. How true it is that the one consumed with hatred ends up destroying him or herself as well as the ones he or she loves.
Hatred and bitterness will destroy a family (and a nation); but just because a family becomes consumed with animosity does not mean that every member must conform. The books of Samuel continually affirm our freedom to choose. No matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves, our attitude and response are still our choice. While Samuel has godly parents and follows the Lord, and David’s sons have a godly father but do not follow the Lord, Jonathan stands alone in these books as a godly son with an ungodly father. Ungodly parents are no excuse for children to continue down the same path. Each must make his or her own choice. Jonathan is an example to all that the cycle of ungodliness can be broken. This beautiful example, followed by his son Mephibosheth, is the silver lining in a family clouded with self-assertion and pride. While it is true that Jonathan’s loyalty leads him to die beside his father, his humility and selflessness point the way to a future for Saul’s family. Jonathan’s love and devotion to David turn the family’s fortunes from a path of hatred and death to one of life and hope. Jonathan’s example points the way for us as well.
Although I certainly have strong political opinions like most Americans regarding the recent election, my aim here is to note some of the principles enunciated above. These biblical principles can help guide our response to, not only this election, but future behavior.
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Saul looked good for the nation but turned out to be a disaster. The lesson of not being deceived by first impressions is an important message in 1&2 Samuel (I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. See HERE). Just because someone “looks good,” doesn’t mean they are. Conversely, sometimes people who make unfavorable impressions can surprise us. Admittedly, neither candidate in this recent election made a good impression. It was frequently stated that no matter which candidate won the presidency, they would go down in history as the most unpopular president ever elected. Now that the election is over, I suggest that we not jump to conclusions, but allow our judgment on the future president to be based on his performance. Does he keep his campaign promises? Does he treat others fairly? Does he seek justice? Does he promote the welfare of the country? Only the days ahead can give us clear answers to these questions.
There are two reactions to losing power. One reaction is the Saul reaction–cling to power no matter what the cost. Even with a divine word to the contrary, Saul held tenaciously to power. The result was violence against individuals (David) and families (the high-priestly family), and eventual civil war among the nation. One of America’s great traditions is the peaceful transfer of power. We were reminded of this the day after the election in President Barak Obama’s speech congratulating President-elect Trump on his victory (if you haven’t seen it or need a reminder, click HERE). This peaceful transfer of power was further symbolized by President Obama’s invitation to Donald Trump to visit him at the White House the following day. For those who believe Scripture, we know that God puts kings (or leaders) in positions of power (e.g., Daniel 4:17). The books of Samuel clearly announce this at the outset in the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:6-8. A peaceful transfer of power is best for all. It is far superior to Saul’s way, and it recognizes that a Greater Power has ordained the earthly powers. America would do well to continue this tradition.
Corrupt government harms a nation (I know how obvious this statement is, but you wouldn’t know it was obvious by the way most governments are run!). Saul is pictured as a leader who begins humbly and achieves a certain amount of success (1 Sam. 11). However, as Saul becomes more self-consumed his actions and policies prove detrimental to the nation of Israel. No human government is perfect, this is why Christians look forward to the rule of Christ. However, leaders should strive for “justice for all” as the America pledge of allegiance puts it. In fact, it is likely this American slogan is derived from biblical statements about the just king (e.g., 2 Sam. 8:15; Ps. 72).
We need more Jonathan’s! Jonathan wasn’t worried about “what he deserved.” His humble approach was more about what was best for the nation. He was content with the position God had placed him in. His concern wasn’t winning or losing, but seeing justice and righteousness prevail. Americans would do well to follow this example and relinquish the “entitlement mentality.” As John Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” As a Christian, it goes beyond even this, asking ourselves how we can reflect God in our attitudes and actions.
Beware of hateful intentions, words, and actions. Saul’s hateful response to those around him destroyed his family and caused havoc and destruction within the nation. Ironically, Saul struck out in hatred even toward those who were on his side! David was a loyal follower but became public enemy number one. Saul even threw a spear at his own son because Jonathan refused to condemn an innocent David (1 Sam. 20:32-33). All of this is evidence that hatred blinds people to the truth. Hatred destroys all in its path. If our nation is to survive, then we must be a nation that puts hatred behind us, seeking reconciliation and peace.
Consider Purchasing Family Portraits as a Gift This Christmas. Available at WestBow Press, Amazon USA / UK and various other internet outlets.