Tag Archives: 1&2 Samuel

Favorite 1&2 Samuel Commentaries

Favorite 1&2 Samuel Commentaries

From time to time I am asked by students and others what my favorite Bible commentaries are. I thought I would start with my favorite books to teach (1&2 Samuel) and list the commentaries that have had the greatest impact on me. In the future I will list favorite commentaries from other Old and New Testament books. I’ve decided not to limit myself to a certain number (5, or 10–although this particular post has 5!) because the number may be different with each book of the Bible. If you are interested in purchasing any of these commentaries, I have provided links to Amazon (USA =.com and UK =.co.uk) under the book images. In no particular order, here are my favorite 1&2 Samuel commentaries.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

1. Robert Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, The New American Commentary, (Broaman & Holman, 1996), 512 pp.

The New American Commentary is a solid evangelical commentary series. The NIV version is used, followed by a verse by verse commentary by the author. Bergen’s commentary begins with approximately a 40 page introduction to the books of Samuel. Like many modern commentaries, Bergen is sensitive to the literary art of the ancient biblical writer, which means he looks at the final form of the bibical text and focuses on its message. For me, the main strength of this commentary is Bergen’s knowledge of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and how the authority of the “Books of Moses” are reflected in 1&2 Samuel. At every turn, Bergen gives examples of how a knowledge of the Law of Moses deepens the reader’s understanding of 1&2 Samuel. For example, in the introductory material, Bergen provides two charts (historical interconnections and legal interconnections, pp. 47-50) which demonstrate the interconnections between the Pentateuch and 1&2 Samuel. In my opinion, one of Bergen’s weaknesses is that David can seemingly do no wrong (except of course in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah!). For example, when David asks the priest Ahimelech for bread and a sword, he lies to the priest by telling him that he is on secret business for the king (1 Sam. 21:2). To save David from an obvious lie Bergen suggests that the king David has in mind is Yahweh (p. 221). That’s a small criticism, however. Bergen’s commentary is sure to increase your understanding of the books of Samuel. I would give it 4 1/4 stars out of 5.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

2. J. Robert Vannoy, 1-2 Samuel, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, (Tyndale House, 2009), 452 pp.

Vannoy’s 1&2 Samuel commentary is also the work of an evangelical scholar. He begins with a 38 page introduction discussing such topics as date and occasion of writing in which he challenges some of the long-held presuppositions of some scholars regarding the so-called “Deuteronomistic History” (Many scholars contend that Deuteronomy was written in two instalments: 1] during the time of Josiah; and 2] during the exile). He argues that moving the date of Deuteronomy from the Mosaic era and placing it at the end of the kingdom period “has far-reaching implications for the literature of the Old Testament.” This, of course, includes the books of Samuel. Vannoy argues for an early date of writing for the books of Samuel (about 931 B.C. following the division of the kingdom, p. 9). Vannoy also approaches the text with a literary sensitivity. He calls attention to the structure of different parts of 1&2 Samuel and his comments are based on the final form of the text. This commentary uses the NLT. Each section consists of the NLT, followed by a “Notes” section which comments on significant Hebrew words and textual issues. Next is the author’s verse by verse commentary followed by “Endnotes.” Vannoy’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is his ability to relate the text of 1&2 Samuel to Christological concerns. For example, he states, “…while Christian interpreters should take their point of departure, as much as is possible, from the perspective of the original author and his audience, they must also read every narrative of Scripture in the ever-widening context of the growth of revelation and redemption as it is disclosed in the entirety of the Christian canon” (p. 10). I would give this commentary 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

3. Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, and 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Focus on the Bible (Christian Focus, 1999 & 2000), 336 pp. each.

If you’re looking for someone who knows all of the scholarly issues, is evangelical, and communicates in a common-sense, down-to-earth style, then Dale Ralph Davis is your commentator! These two Samuel commentaries form part of a six-commentary series by Davis, extending from Joshua-2 Kings. Davis is a former seminary professor (Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Ms.), and a current pastor (Woodland Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Ms.). His pastor’s perspective will speak to the average Christian who enjoys good commentary interspersed with homey illustrations (warning–be prepared to learn a lot of American Civil War history–a favourite topic of Davis’s illustrations).

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

Even though Davis is coming from a Reformed background, his commentary is balanced and it is rare to see (though not impossible) Calvinistic coloring bleed over into his interpretation. Davis wastes no time with introductory matters in his 1&2 Samuel commentaries; he allots all of 2 pages in each one! Instead, he dives right into the text. Even though reading both volumes amounts to a little over 700 pages of reading, Davis is one of my students’ favourite commentators. Some prefer his style (which is very colloquial) to that of other, more formal, commentators. To give you a flavor for Davis’s style, here are a few quotes: “Amnon has far more glands than brains” (2 Sam., p. 167). Speaking of Joab’s murder of Amasa, Davis writes, “It was business as usual. No need to cry over spilled blood. It’s merely a clinical matter for Joab” (2 Sam., p. 254). Davis is colorful, but he is also very knowledgeable. His 1&2 Samuel commentaries will definitely increase your understanding of these books. I would give Davis 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Available from Amazon USA / UK
Available from Amazon USA / UK

4. David Firth, 1&2 Samuel, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (IVP & Apollos, 2009), 614 pp.

Of all the commentaries I recommended to this point, Firth’s is the most comprehensive. This is due largely to the format of the Apollos Old Testament Commentary Series. Firth’s commentary consists of an original translation of the Hebrew text, followed by notes on the text, a section on “Form and Structure,” followed by the verse by verse commentary section, and finally, an “Explanation” section which consists of further reflections on the passage (for a fuller breakdown of the format followed by the Apollos OT series,  see my review of 1&2 Kings).  Usually a commentary that has notes on the Hebrew text explaining the author’s translation is very technical and only for scholars and those who know the original language. However, Firth’s textual notes are very readable and quite interesting. I often pulled out my yellow highlighter to note a point he was making. Firth’s commentary is solid and insightful with one exception: his interpretation of the David and Bathsheba episode (which he argues is not the best title for this incident, and he is probably right). Firth attempts to incorporate some sociological insights into why the incident happened using the values of honor and shame. Although a knowledge of cultural values can prove extremely enlightening (as I frequently argue in my posts on this blog), in this case I think that it has led Firth astray in his understanding of the narrative. Briefly, his argument is that David does not send for Bathsheba because she is beautiful (and he lusts after her), but in order to “claim authority from Uriah” and ultimately to kill him (p. 416). Firth says that the text gives no reason for David’s desire to kill Uriah and suggests that perhaps Uriah is a threat to David like David was to Saul. He emphasizes, however that this is only a supposition. In my opinion, this interpretation completely distorts things that we know about David and, perhaps most importantly, misses the parallels between David and his son Amnon (who clearly has a lust problem with his sister–2 Sam. 13). Other than this one unusual interpretation, I find Firth’s commentary to be very insightful and a rewarding read. I would give it 4 1/4 stars out of 5.

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

5. Robert B. Chisholm Jr., 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary (BakerBooks, 2013), 337 pp.

I won’t say a lot about Chisholm’s commentary here because I have reviewed it elsewhere (click here to see the review, click here to see an interview with Chisholm), and I will be reviewing the Logos Bible Software version of it in a future post. I will simply say that if someone wants a good introduction to the books of 1&2 Samuel, this is one of the best. It is clearly written, and Chisholm is a knowledgeable evangelical scholar. The book includes pictures, charts, and sidebars which are of the highest quality and add to the overall presentation. Chisholm seeks to provide readers with the “Big Picture” and key themes of 1&2 Samuel and he admirably succeeds. The only shortcoming of the book is its brevity and some of the “application sections” (not added by Chisholm, but by the publisher). The brevity, however, is part of the overall design of the “Teach the Text Commentary” series. The fact that I am using it as one of the main textbooks in my 1&2 Samuel class should let you know how highly I think of it. I would give it 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

The temptation at this point is to go on and name a few other favorite Samuel commentaries, but I believe this is a good stopping point and so I will leave you with these 5. Feel free to suggest your own favorite Samuel commentaries in the comments, or to ask me a question about these or others.

Family Portraits Video Interview

Family Portraits Video Interview

Family Portraits photo
Purchase your copy of Family Portraits

I hope you enjoy this short 4 minute interview on my Book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, conducted by Mike Neglia of Calvary Chapel Cork.


Family Portraits is available at WestBow press, and Amazon USA / UK as well as other internet sites (e.g., Barnes & Noble) in hardback, paperback, or ebook. It is also available at prepub price at logos.com


Robert B. Chisholm Jr.: An Interview on his 1&2 Samuel Commentary

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.: An Interview on his 1&2 Samuel Commentary

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

Robert B. Chisholm Jr. is department chair and professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the author of a number of books including: Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook; From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to using Biblical Hebrew; Interpreting the Minor Prophets; Handbook on the Prophets; A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Kregel Exegetical Library); and 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary Series, which will be our main focus in this interview. To see my review of 1&2 Samuel click here.

Hi Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. With your teaching schedule, book writing, and church work you clearly keep yourself busy! Would you begin by sharing with our readers as briefly as possible your background and journey to faith in Christ?
I trusted in Christ as my personal Savior as a child. I grew up in a Christian family; we attended a Baptist church. I went to Syracuse University with the intention of becoming a journalist, specifically a sports writer, but I had a spiritual awakening while a student there and the Lord, through the wise advice of my pastor, steered me toward seminary and biblical studies.

What specifically led to your interest in studying and teaching the Old Testament?
During my first year of seminary, my Hebrew professor encouraged me to pursue Old Testament studies. That little nudge was all I needed because I had always found the Old Testament, with its stories and prophecies, to be fascinating.

You clearly have a broad range of interest when it comes to the Old Testament. If someone had to pin you down to a favorite area or book what would you say and why?
I enjoy studying narrative literature (especially Judges and 1-2 Samuel) from a literary-theological perspective. The characters in these narratives are so human and we can learn a great deal about God and how he relates to his people by reading them.

How did the opportunity to write the commentary on 1&2 Samuel in the Teach the Text Series come about?
The Old Testament editor, John Walton, invited me to participate.

1&2 Samuel Teach the Text Commentary Series
1&2 Samuel Teach the Text Commentary Series

The Teach the Text Series has a particular format that its authors are required to follow. What appealed to you about this format and what did you find challenging about it?
The format is concise and focused on what is most important—that makes it readable and user-friendly. However, the challenge is to choose what is most important to discuss. I had to trim my first draft down by about 40%–it was painful to have to leave so much material on the cutting room floor.

It seems to me that one of the most challenging things about the Teach the Text Series is providing illustrations of the various units of the biblical text for pastors. Did you find this challenging and how did you go about finding illustrations and deciding what to include in the commentary? Another question along the same line is, do you have a specific system for keeping track of illustrations?
I did not choose the illustrative material. This was done by an editorial team under the direction of a sermonic editor. The suggested illustrations in the commentary tend to come from literature, film, and church history. In my own preaching I prefer to use illustrations from my personal life, pop culture, the daily news, and sports. But, obviously, these would not be suitable for a commentary.

One area of the commentary that I thought could have merited further treatment was the section on 2 Samuel 2:1-5:5. Being faithful to the format of the commentary, you treated this section in 6 pages. Is there a reason you didn’t break this unit into smaller sections so that more space could have been devoted to these chapters?
I agree with you that this section was treated too cursorily, but I had to divide the books into a specified number of units. Given the word count and format, there simply wasn’t enough space to cover everything adequately, so I had to leave much material from these chapters on the cutting room floor. I decided it was easier to “streamline” this section than some of the others in 1-2 Samuel.

One of the things I love about your commentary on 1&2 Samuel is the feature on each section of Scripture where you give the “Big Idea” and the “Key Themes.” If someone tried to pin you down to a few sentences and asked you “What is the Big Idea in 1&2 Samuel,” or “What is (are) the Key Theme(s),” how would you respond?
In its ancient Israelite context, 1-2 Samuel legitimates the Davidic dynasty by demonstrating that David was God’s choice as king, in contrast to Saul, whom God had rejected. Theologically, 1-2 Samuel demonstrates that God is at work for good in the life of his covenant community, even though they and their leaders are seriously flawed. Through the Davidic dynasty (ultimately Jesus) God will accomplish his purposes for his people.

Another feature I like is the information boxes that are set off from the rest of the commentary. These boxes usually include interesting information that add spice to the commentary. How did you decide which topics to include? Were there certain criteria you followed to say “this should be included,” or “it would be nice to have this but space doesn’t permit so I’ll leave it out?” How much of a part did the editors play in these decisions?
I tried to anticipate questions readers might have as they read the commentary. We put the material in a separate box in order to maintain continuity in the basic discussion while at the same providing more detailed discussion on certain key or problematic matters. I chose the topics; the editors offered feedback on the content.

John Martin - 1852
John Martin – 1852

I am currently writing a series of articles on my website entitled “Violence in the Old Testament.” This seems to be an important topic given the publications of books by the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Christians are often embarrassed about the violence in the Old Testament and many shy away from reading and studying it. I know this is a big topic but do you have any comments you’d like to share on this subject, especially as it relates to the books of 1&2 Samuel?
This is also a topic of great interest for me and I hope to do more writing on it in the days ahead. At the 2011 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I delivered a paper entitled: Fighting Yahweh’s Wars: Some Disturbing Acts of Violence in Judges-Samuel. It should be published soon; I’m still working on the logistics of where. I study six different episodes where God endorses violence. I am not as apologetic as some and prefer to give God the benefit of the doubt. It’s a messy fallen world filled with a lot of evil people and sometimes God rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, and enters into the fray as the just Warrior-King. Here’s the conclusion to my paper: A close reading of these six accounts reveals that in each case the act of violence involved the implementation of divine justice against the object. In two instances (Adoni-Bezek and Agag) an individual was treated in a way that mirrored his crimes against others. In four cases a people group (the Amalekites) or representatives of a people group (the Moabite king Eglon, the Canaanite general Sisera, the thirty Philistines murdered by Samson) were, at least from Yahweh’s perspective, the objects of violent acts of justice in response to crimes committed or intended (in the case of Sisera) against Israel. In Goliath’s case, David refused to view the Philistine’s taunt as simply a verbal assault against Israel’s army. Yahweh identifies with his people and so he was the ultimate target of the Philistine’s slander. Consequently, David’s victory over Goliath was an act of justice that vindicated Yahweh’s honor by punishing a blasphemer.
Though these violent acts are disturbing at an emotional level, they are, as acts of justice, gratifying at a deeper, more elemental level. Ultimately, it is not worth living in a world in which there is no justice. Such a place would be nothing more than a jungle in which superior strength breeds arrogance and evil, and the strong take what they want, dishing out pain and suffering with reckless abandon. But justice, to truly be justice, must be implemented fully and appropriately. To use a contemporary example, when the Harry Potter saga finally reaches its climax, Nagini, Bellatrix Lestrange, and, of course, Voldemort cannot just die; they must be killed the “right way” for justice to be satisfied and for some sense of moral equilibrium to be realized. Bellatrix cannot be pitied as long as the image of a dying Dobby persists in the mind’s eye.
So it is in the biblical story: Those who cut off the thumbs of others or make mothers childless eventually discover that what goes around comes around. Those who attack, oppress, and abuse Yahweh’s people eventually pay the price in “the right way.” Those who dare defy the living God and challenge him to step into the arena may end up a decapitated torso. And though the scene may make one want to vomit, in the end the image prompts a sigh of relief and more. As the psalmist declares: “The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then observers will say, ‘Yes indeed, the godly are rewarded! Yes indeed, there is a God who judges the earth!’” (Ps. 58:10-11) In conclusion I leave you with this scene: “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev. 19:11). Even so, come Lord Jesus!

What projects are you currently working on?
In addition to writing Bible studies for a ministry called Coaches Outreach, I am working on a two-volume commentary on Isaiah for the Kregel Exegetical Library Series (the same series in which my Judges-Ruth commentary appears) and two more commentaries on 1-2 Samuel, one for Zondervan’s Hearing the Message of Scripture Series and the other for Baker’s Bible Backgrounds Commentary. I’m also hoping to publish books on Genesis 2-3, Job 38-42, God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament (a biblical theology proper of God based on the OT), and the hermeneutics of prophecy, as well as some journal articles. So, as you can see, I enjoy writing and stay busy.

Bob I really enjoyed working through your commentary as I taught 1&2 Samuel this past semester. It was also a blessing to our students and I will use it for many years to come. Thank you for a job well done and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. May God continue to bless you as you seek to communicate His Word to others.
Thank you for the opportunity to chat and for your kind, encouraging words. All the writing I do has one goal—to help Christians understand and apply the Scriptures so that they might more effectively carry out the Great Commission. If the Teach the Text commentary on 1-2 Samuel contributes to that in some small way, then I will be satisfied.

For a list of some of Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s works click on the links here for Amazon USA / UK

Teach the Text Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Teach the Text Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

1&2 Samuel Teach the Text Commentary Series
1&2 Samuel Teach the Text Commentary Series

Robert B. Chisholm Jr., 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013).

General Observations on the Teach the Text Commentary Series

The “Teach the Text Commentary Series” was commissioned to help the busy pastor and to fill a void in commentaries that are both scholarly, and yet practical. The aim is to present the “big picture” of a biblical book by dividing it “into carefully selected preaching units, each covered in six pages” (p. ix). There are 5 main areas of focus within these 6 pages: 1) Big Idea; 2) Key Themes; 3) Understanding the Text (this is the longest section including such subjects as context, outline, historical and cultural background, interpretive insights, and theology); 4) Teaching the Text; and 5) Illustrating the Text (pp. xi-xii). It is important to keep this structure and the necessary restrictions in mind when evaluating each commentary in this series.

Such an approach is clearly not intended to be exhaustive. So is there room for a commentary series with this more generalized approach? I believe there is. My own classroom teaching experience has demonstrated to me the need for students to gain the “big picture” of a biblical book. It is important to be able to summarize the main themes and key ideas of a book. Oftentimes people read or study a biblical book and have no idea of how to summarize its main message(s). The “Big Idea” and “Key Themes” features of this series go a long way in aiding the reader to achieve this goal. Therefore, the structure of the Teach the Text Commentary series is not only helpful to the pastor, who may be consulting it for his weekly sermon, it is also beneficial for the beginning student.

Before making specific remarks on Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary, I would also like to add that the “Teach the Text Commentary Series” is attractively presented. Each hardback volume is printed on heavy-duty paper which is ideal for the many helpful maps, photos, and illustrations contained in each commentary.

Comments on 1&2 Samuel Commentary

Chisholm begins his commentary on 1&2 Samuel with a brief 7-page introduction. He summarizes these books by noting the three main characters (Samuel, Saul, and David) and by stating, “David is the focal point of the story” (p.1). Saul acts as a foil to David, while “Samuel’s support of David becomes foundational to the narrator’s defense of David” (pp. 1-2). The high point of the book is the Lord’s covenant with David, securing his dynasty and proving faithful even in the midst of David’s sin. Chisholm divides 1&2 Samuel into 7 sections based on “its major plot movements, revolving around the theme of kingship” (p. 4). His outline is as follows: 1) Prelude to Kingship (1 Sam. 1-7); 2) Kingship inaugurated (1 Sam. 8-12); 3) Kingship Fails (1 Sam. 13-15); 4) Kingship in Limbo (1 Sam. 16-31); 5) Kingship Revived (2 Sam. 1-10); 6) Kingship Threatened and Preserved (2 Sam. 11-20); and 7) Epilogue (2 Sam. 21-24). One potential weakness is that this outline is not clearly delineated in the commentary that follows. Perhaps Chisholm’s reason for ignoring this is because he does not find “clear-cut structural markers” in the text (p. 4), but sees the divisions above as related to plot development.

Chisholm packs a lot of information and insight into each 6-page unit of commentary. The information provided on historical and cultural background, though not found in every section, is very helpful for the beginning reader and student. Topics include foreign gods such as Baal or Dagon, divination, the Amalekites, or documents of the ancient Near East that have parallels with biblical material. This information enriches the presentation, as do the color photos that frequently accompany them. At times Chisholm includes side boxes that deal with special issues such as “The Problem of Genocide” or “The Legal Background of Tamar’s Request.”

Two characteristics of Chisholm’s exegesis that I found particularly helpful include his attention to certain words, and parallels and/or contrasts between biblical characters. Chisholm does an excellent job of paying attention to words or phrases found in 1&2 Samuel and demonstrating their connection with another incident in 1&2 Samuel (or the Former Prophets, meaning Joshua-2 Kings). For example, he notes that the expression “terror filled his heart” in 1 Samuel 28:5, in reference to Saul, only occurs one other time in 1-2 Samuel. It is found in the story of Eli’s demise as his “heart trembled over the fate of the ark of God” (p. 184). This kind of verbal connection suggests the author is comparing the circumstances of Saul and Eli. Similarly, Chisholm frequently points out similarities between incidents or characters in 1&2 Samuel with other biblical characters or incidents. One example is the similarities between the actions of Absalom in 2 Samuel 13-14 with Abimelech in Judges 9 (p. 252). This attention to biblical typology is extremely helpful when interpreting a narrative text (see my discussion in Family Portraits, p. 11).

Considering the constraints placed upon him by the commentary’s design (6 pages per literary unit), Chisholm’s overall treatment of the text of 1&2 Samuel is excellent. There is, however, one exception. Although 2 Samuel 2:1-5:5 can legitimately be viewed as a structural unit, treating it in the 6-page format does it a great injustice. This material is too important and too theologically rich to be skimmed over so briefly. Dividing this section by episodes, or even by chapters, would have been a better approach. This imbalance is all the more noticeable when the following section (2 Sam. 5:6-25), arguably less “meaty” than 2 Samuel 2-4, is given the full 6-page treatment. (For Chisholm’s reasoning on this see my interview with him which was conducted after this review.)

Perhaps the greatest challenge in writing a commentary of this kind is providing illustrations for the text. This is certainly a subjective task. Certain illustrations will ring true with some, while others will find them unhelpful. While I would not endorse the use of every illustration suggested in this commentary (and I’m sure the author would not expect me to! ), I do believe that Chisholm has done an admirable job in handling a difficult task (Another insight I learned from the interview with Chisholm was that he wasn’t responsible for any of this material). The editors themselves point out that this section of the commentary is intended to provide “general ideas” and to “serve as a catalyst for effectively illustrating the text” (p. xii).

In conclusion, Chisholm’s commentary achieves the aims of this series admirably. He is a scholar of high caliber and is a well-established expert on the entire corpus of the Former Prophets. Pastors, students, and others wanting to become grounded in the message of 1&2 Samuel will benefit greatly from this commentary. I used it for my own 1&2 Samuel class this past semester and will continue to do so in the future. I heartily recommend it to others.

(I am grateful to Baker Books for providing this copy of 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary Series, in exchange for a balanced review).

Important or Impotent: How Many Sons Did Absalom Have?

Important or Impotent: How Many Sons Did Absalom Have?

Did you know that 2 Samuel 14:27 states that Absalom had 3 sons, but in 2 Samuel 18:18 Absalom says that he has no son? In the previous article on Absalom’s hair I pointed out this apparent contradiction and promised to offer an explanation. The easiest way of explaining away the contradiction (frequently suggested by commentators) is that Absalom’s sons must have died prematurely. I believe this whitewashes the problem (the text gives no hint that the sons died) and obscures what the biblical author is seeking to accomplish.

Writing Technique in 1&2 Samuel

The author(s) of 1&2 Samuel seems to be fond of using inconsistencies in the story as a literary technique that causes the reader to pause and reconsider something stated earlier in the narrative. There are numerous examples of this, but perhaps the best is when Saul was commanded to wipe out Israel’s enemy, the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:1-3).

Samuel slays Agag
Samuel slays Agag

Although the story makes clear that Saul is disobedient in sparing the king of the Amalekites, Agag (15:9), he appears to be the only human survivor. Subsequently, he is put to death by Samuel (15:33), which seems to put an end to all of the Amalekites. However, in the chapters surrounding the death of Saul, we are not only reminded that he was disobedient by not wiping out the Amalekites (1 Sam. 28:18), but Amalekites appear all over the place! (1 Sam. 27:8; 30:1-18; 2 Sam. 1:8, 13). This often puzzles readers, and may appear contradictory. In fact, it is a masterful way of surprising the reader and driving home the message that Saul was far more disobedient than we realized!
This same writing technique is at work in the two statements about Absalom’s sons (or lack thereof). The first important observation is to notice where these statements occur. The author uses the two statements about Absalom’s children (2 Sam. 14:27; 18:18) to bracket the account of Absalom’s rebellion. As discussed in the last article, the notice about Absalom’s hair and children, is a statement of power and virility. It causes the reader to think of him as a mighty warrior and a formidable foe. The second statement (“I have no son”) occurs immediately after Absalom’s death and burial, and metaphorically reveals the truth of the matter: Absalom was not a mighty warrior, nor a real threat to the kingdom. He was not as important as he appeared; in fact, he was impotent.

Isn’t There Still a Contradiction About How Many Sons Absalom Had?

While this might seem like a plausible explanation as far as the literary technique goes, it still leaves the obvious questions: so exactly how many sons did Absalom have, and aren’t the two passages still contradictory? The answer to these questions is found in examining the two texts carefully. 2 Sam. 14:27 is an objective statement by the biblical narrator that Absalom had 3 sons and 1 daughter. A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation is: you can trust the biblical narrator because he always tells the truth (see my book Family Portraits, p. 9 for a brief discussion on this point). Therefore, we can be confident that Absalom did indeed have 3 sons and 1 daughter.
Notice, however, that the statement about having no son in 2 Sam. 18:18 is not made by the narrator, but by Absalom himself. Could Absalom be wrong? This hardly seems likely. Absalom would surely know how many sons he has, and so would all who know him, therefore, this too must be an accurate statement. But if the narrator and Absalom contradict each other, how can they both be right? I suggest we are asking the wrong question. The important question is not “how many sons,” but rather, at what time in his life did Absalom make this assertion? Although the narrator puts this statement after Absalom’s death and burial, it is clear that it happened  at some point in Absalom’s past. The author is merely reporting it posthumously. 2 Sam. 18:18 is actually very vague about when Absalom uttered these words. It simply says, “in his lifetime.” In other words, Absalom’s statement is taken from some unspecified time in his life. The statement should not be viewed chronologically, as if it had to have occurred after the observation in 2 Sam. 14:27. This can mean that when Absalom initially uttered it, it was true. In fact, it is obvious from this statement that Absalom used having no son as a justification for erecting a monument to himself. Later on, however, he fathers 3 sons and a daughter. So Absalom ends up with the best of both worlds: He gets a monument to himself plus, later on, 3 sons and a daughter!

Absalom appears important by having 50 men run alongside his chariot
Absalom appears important by having 50 men run alongside his chariot

This recognition reveals the hypocrisy of Absalom. A character study demonstrates that he is a master at making things appear other than they really are (see chapter 24 in Family Portraits).
The biblical author cleverly captures this by taking Absalom’s statement about not having a son out of its chronological context (which he tells us he is doing by the statement, “in his lifetime”) and putting it at the end of his life. The reader notices the contradiction between 14:27 and 18:18 and, by carefully examining the passages, concludes that Absalom is not what he appears to be. Absalom’s humiliating death and burial become conclusive proof of this fact, and all those who were beguiled by his charm and good looks now appear foolish. The message is sobering: we may be able to mask who we really are for awhile, but at some point, whether in life or in death, the truth will ultimately be revealed. Better to be honest and real while we live. Better to live with integrity, than to allow death to unmask the ugly truth about us. Thank heaven for a God who sees and accepts us just as we are, if we are only willing to remove the mask and let Him in.

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom's hair caught in a tree
Although the biblical text says that Absalom caught his head in the tree, it is probably a reference to Absalom’s hair.

Did you know that in the ancient Near East long hair was frequently a picture of a warrior’s prowess and strength? The most obvious example from the Bible is Samson whose long hair is explicitly connected with his strength (Judges 16:17). Samson’s long hair symbolized his separation to God (the true source of his strength––Judges 13:5) and when his hair disappeared, so did the Lord’s presence (Judges 16:20). But Samson is not the only long-haired warrior mentioned in Scripture. In fact, the man I have in mind is very Samson-like in some respects. He is spoiled, likes to burn other people’s fields (Judges 15:4-5; 2 Sam. 14:30), and is well-known for his long luxuriant hair (2 Sam. 14:26). His name is Absalom, one of David’s sons. Absalom had so much hair that when he cut it each year it was said to weigh between 4-5 pounds! (2 Sam. 14:26). We are familiar with Samson’s connection to hair, but why does the biblical author draw so much attention to Absalom’s hair? There are probably several reasons.

The Significance of Absalom’s Hair

The mention of Absalom’s hair prefaces the story of his rebellion against David. Since long hair was associated with strength, this could be considered an ominous sign, suggesting that Absalom will be successful in overthrowing his father. However, Absalom not only has a fertile head of hair, he is also quite fertile in other ways, having fathered 3 sons and 1 daughter (14:27). Earlier in the story, David’s potency as a father is also connected with the strength of his rule (see 2 Sam. 3:1-5). Therefore, the long-haired, and virile Absalom appears to pose a real threat to the kingdom of David. Add to this his good-looks and charming ways (2 Sam. 14:25; 15:2-6), and Absalom appears to be a winning candidate for the kingship. This is often the basis for choosing today’s politicians. If they look good, and have the ability to schmooze the people, then they are surely the right person for the job!

Looks Can Be Deceiving!

Absalom’s story is just one of many recounted in 1&2 Samuel that teaches us “looks can be deceiving.” In reality, Absalom is none of the things he appears to be. His desire to destroy his father tarnishes his good-looking image. In fact,  Absalom’s hair conspires with the branches of a tree to do him in (2 Sam. 18:9-10–the text reads “head” which in this case is another way of speaking of his hair). Far from being a strong warrior, Absalom proves to be quite inept. Even Absalom’s potency as a father is challenged at his death when we are told that he set up a monument for himself because he had no son (2 Sam. 18:18). Wait a minute! I thought Absalom had 3 sons? I will offer an explanation of this apparent contradiction in my next article, or, for a full treatment of this problem you can read the chapter on Absalom in my book Family Portraits (especially pages 364-365 and 379-380). Meanwhile, we should take the Bible’s advice seriously and not believe everything we see. Patience and discernment are important ingredients of wisdom, and time is a great revealer of the truth!

My Book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press and other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel
Available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and other sites

The following interview on my book “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel” 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.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and various internet outlets.


Anger: The Bible says, “The Nose Knows”

Anger: The Bible says, “The Nose Knows”

Does anger make your nose flare?
Does anger make your nose flare?

Did you know that the word “nose” is a common way of expressing anger in the Old Testament?  The psalmist speaks of the Lord’s anger by saying, “Smoke went up from His nostrils (Ps. 18:8–NKJV).  In Ezekiel 38:18 when Gog comes against the land of Israel, the Lord says, “my anger will rise up in my nose” (translation by E. Johnson, TDOT, vol.1, p. 351). In Hebrew thought, there is a connection between the nose and anger.

Elkanah’s Gift Reveals Hannah’s Anger

This observation can help us understand a phrase that has frequently puzzled Bible commentators.  In 1 Samuel 1:5 Elkanah is said to give Hannah “a portion for the nostrils.”  Our translations usually read something like “a double portion” (NKJV, NIV), indicating that Elkanah is giving Hannah an extra portion of the sacrificial meat.  However, the context makes clear that Hannah is very upset because Peninnah (the other woman!) provokes Hannah about her barrenness (1 Sam. 1:6).  Elkanah’s “portion for the nostrils” is to calm Hannah down and turn her frown into a happy face.  However, an ongoing problem like Hannah’s needs more than a superficial solution.  It is only when Hannah turns her problem completely over to the Lord, that “her face [becomes] no longer sad (1 Sam. 1:18).

The same is true for us.  Superficial human solutions never resolve deep needs.  Only the Lord can provide the permanent cure.  By the way, another expression used of the Lord is that He is “long of nose” (e.g., Exod. 34:6).  In English this is translated as “longsuffering” or “slow to anger.”  When your nose gets “short” or “out of joint” seek the Lord for a solution because He is “long of nose!”

For a deeper discussion of this issue and the lives of Elkanah and Hannah, check out my book––Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.