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Tallness: Motifs in Samuel

Tallness: Motifs in Samuel

Tallness
Robert Wadlow, the tallest man on record was considered a “gentle giant.”

Tallness has its advantages and disadvantages. A tall person will have less legroom on a plane or may have to duck their head when entering a doorway. Tallness is great for reaching things in high places or for being able to see above the crowd when watching a public event. Of course, these are all trivial advantages and disadvantages. On a more serious note, a recent study suggests that taller people (over 6 feet) may be more susceptible to COVID-19 (read here). Another study suggests that taller people are more susceptible to cancer, whereas shorter people are at a greater risk for diabetes. The article states, “For several years researchers have identified strange associations between height and disease” (Why Shorter People are at Greater Risk for Diabetes). At times, tall people may be considered intimidating (Why Tall People Feel So Intimidating). On the other hand, the tallest man on record, Robert Wadlow, was considered a “gentle giant” (see photo above).

Height in the Bible

In previous posts we have noted how the Bible uses physical language in a metaphorical way to communicate spiritual truth (e.g., feet, and head). The same is true with the ideas of height or tallness. Thus height can be literal, figurative, or both. Just as in real life, biblical imagery of tallness or things that are high, has both positive and negative connotations. For example, God is pictured as “high and exalted” (Isa. 6:1 ), or as “God Most High” (e.g., Gen. 14:22–Hebrew = El Elyon). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states, “Implicit in this imagery is an implied vertical hierarchy in which God and the unseen spiritual world that he inhabits are qualitatively ‘above’ earthly experience. We should not ignore the physical basis of such imagery: the ‘heavens are high above the earth,’ as the psalmist puts it (Ps 103:11), and the human imagination has always pictured heaven as being ‘up.’ God is therefore named as being ‘high’ in the Bible. This is encapsulated in the epithet ‘Most High,’ which occurs well over fifty times (NRSV). God is ‘high and lofty’ (Is 6:1; 57:7, 15), the one who is ‘high above all nations’ (Ps 113:4), and he dwells ‘in the high and holy place’ (Is 57:15)” (p. 384).

Temple Mount
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

In Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern thought, God, or the gods, often met with people on mountains or high places (Deut. 12:2). For example, God reveals Himself to Israel at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20), and later the temple is constructed on Mt. Zion (Ps. 48:1-2). Legitimate and illegitimate places of worship in the Old Testament are often described as “high places” (1 Sam. 9:12-14; 1 Kgs. 3:2-4; 11:7; 13:32). Not only is God “high” but he honors His people by lifting them up. The promise to Israel is, “. . . He will set you high above all nations which He has made, in praise, in name, and in honor, and that you may be a holy people to the Lord your God, just as He has spoken” (Deut. 26:19).

The Hebrew Root gbh (Tallness)

While the idea of height or tallness can be positive and negative throughout the OT, in 1 Samuel the picture is wholly negative. The Hebrew word we are looking at comes from the root gbh. It can be seen in the name of Saul’s hometown, Gibeah, which means, “hill” or “height.” Besides its occurrence in the name Gibeah, the root occurs 6 more times, all in 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 2:3 [2x]; 1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23; 16:7; 17:4). We will look at these passages in a moment, but first, more needs to be said about the negative connotations of this word in Scripture.

Tallness can equal arrogance
In the Bible when height is used in conjunction with the eyes or heart, it can be a reference to arrogance. Portrait–Leon Battista Alberti

Just as we might use the term “high” to refer to an arrogant person or attitude–“get off your highhorse,” “don’t be so high and mighty”–so too does the Bible. This negative aspect to the word is often connected with various parts of the body in Scripture. For example, the heart (Ps. 131:1), the eyes (Isa. 2:11), the spirit (Prov. 16:18), and the nose (Ps. 10:4), can all be said to be “high” (gbh). In all but one case (2 Chron. 17:6), this is a negative quality, variously translated as “proud,” “arrogant,” or “haughty.” Thus, while the word tallness, in and of itself, is a neutral term, context determines whether it carries the connotations of honor or arrogance.

Tallness in Samuel

Hannah's prayer
The words of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam. 2:3 set the tone for the meaning of “tallness” in 1 Samuel.

The first use of the Hebrew root gbh in Samuel is found in Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:3. It occurs twice in this verse and sets the tone for its usage in the rest of 1 Samuel. Most English versions translate the opening line of verse 3 similar to the NKJV which reads, “Talk no more so very proudly.” “Very proudly” is the English rendering of a double use of the word gebohah. When Hebrew uses a word two times in succession, it is for emphasis. Hence the use of “very” in English translations. We could translate Hannah’s words as “Talk no more proudly, proudly.” If we wanted to be very literal, however, we would translate these words as Robert Polzin does, “Do not multiply your words, ‘Tall! Tall!'” (Samuel and the Deuteronomist, p. 34). Another alternative is Keith Bodner’s translation, “Do not multiply your speech, ‘O Tall one! O Tall one!’” (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, p. 28). In other words, although the word here means “tall” it’s intended meaning is “proud,” thus the rendering by English translations. As noted by many, Hannah’s song enunciates many of the main themes of Samuel (see my post on the Theology of 1&2 Samuel). Therefore the allusion that tallness represents pride anticipates the introduction of certain people in 1 Samuel. To be precise, there are three people in 1 Samuel who are said to be tall–Saul, Eliab, and Goliath. Bodner sums up this same point with some clever wordplay of his own. He writes, “Even a cursory glance ahead in the story of 1 Samuel reveals that ‘tall’ is a big issue in this narrative. Physical height can be, at the very least, illusory, and breed a false sense of security. Saul’s outstanding attribute is that he is taller than all the people, and Goliath’s height instills great fear in the fighting ranks of Israel. Yet both will fall down (forward) at different times before the end of 1 Samuel” (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, p. 28).

Tall Saul

Tallness--Saul
Tall Saul was not all he appeared to be!

Saul is certainly the most significant figure of the above trio. From the moment we are introduced to Saul we are told, “From his shoulders upward, he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). This distinguishing characteristic, seems to be the one that most impresses Samuel. When Saul is chosen by lots to be king, we are reminded that, “he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward.” Samuel then continues by saying, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people” (1 Sam. 10:23-24). Ironically this “kingly” looking man was found “hiding among the supplies” (1 Sam. 10:22). This story already begins to hint that Saul is not all his physical appearance makes him out to be. This is confirmed later in the story in numerous ways. It is noteworthy that Saul, the tallest Israelite, cowers in fear when Goliath challenges Israel (1 Sam. 17:10-11). Saul’s lack of obedience (1 Sam. 15:11), his building of a monument for himself (1 Sam. 15:12), and his pleas for Samuel to honor him before the elders of his people (1 Sam. 15:30), all suggest a problem with pride.

Tall Eliab

David's anointing
David’s brothers, including tall Eliab are rejected in favor of him.

The next tall person we encounter in 1 Samuel is David’s brother, Eliab. After Saul’s rejection from being king, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king among the sons of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:1). As Samuel approaches Jesse’s sons, he comes to Eliab the firstborn and is convinced that the Lord’s anointed is standing before him (1 Sam. 16:6). Samuel is immediately rebuked by the Lord and told “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him” (1 Sam. 16:7). Once again Samuel is impressed by physical stature, but the Lord is not and offers a rebuke. Within the context, Eliab appears to be compared to Saul. He is said to be tall and that the Lord had rejected him–two things said of Saul as well. In the next chapter, Eliab opposes David’s inquiries about fighting Goliath (1 Sam. 17:28). In a subtle way, tall Eliab’s fear of fighting Goliath, once again compares him with Saul. Thus, for the second time in the narrative, tallness is rejected as a desirable quality. No doubt, the suggestion is once again that Eliab had a problem with pride (for more on Eliab, see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel).

Tall Goliath

Tallness--David vs Goliath
Tall Goliath did not intimidate David.

Obviously, the most famous, or infamous, tall person in 1 Samuel is Goliath. 1 Samuel 17:4-7 gives a detailed description of Goliath, including his height (see my other articles on Goliath, here, here, and here). Tallness appears in what is clearly a negative context here. Once again, the tall person doesn’t turn out to be what we thought he was. Goliath is cut down to size by the young shepherd boy David, proving he was not as intimidating as he looked. Goliath’s pride is evidenced in his defying the army of Israel and its God (1 Sam. 17:25-26). Finally, there is some irony in these stories involving David’s interaction with Saul, Eliab, and Goliath. When David is introduced in 1 Samuel 16:11 and 1 Samuel 17:14, a certain Hebrew word is used that most English versions translate as “young.” This is a correct translation, and no doubt the intended meaning. However, the Hebrew word also means “small,” and is used intentionally to create a contrast between “small” David and these other “tall” individuals.

Gibeah, Ramah, and Tallness

As noted above, Gibeah was the hometown of Saul, while Samuel’s hometown was Ramah (1 Sam. 15:34). We have pointed out that the word Gibeah comes from the Hebrew root gbh and thus means “height,” or “tall.” Since Gibeah means “height,” it is not unusual that this name could be used to refer to different cities in Israel that were on a hill. This, indeed, was the case. The Gibeahs mentioned in Joshua 15:57, Joshua 18:28, and Joshua 24:33, are all different places and none are to be equated with Saul’s Gibeah. Ramah is a word that also means “height” or “hill.” Just as there were a number of Gibeahs in ancient Israel, so there were also a number of places called Ramah. The verbal form of Ramah ִis rûm (pronounced “room”), and means “high” or “exalted.” It is obvious that rûm and gbh are synonyms. It is interesting that the verbal form rûm occurs 7 times in 1&2 Samuel and always has a positive meaning (1 Sam. 2:1, 7, 8, 10; 9:24; 2 Sam. 47, 49). Notice that it occurs 4 times in Hannah’s opening song. In fact, in its first appearance in 1 Samuel 2:1, it actually takes the form “ramah.” The point of this is that, although these words are synonyms, the root for the word Ramah, always has positive connotations, while the root for Gibeah always has negative connotations in the books of Samuel. Not only does the root word for Gibeah have negative connotations in Samuel, Gibeah itself is remembered as a place where a terrible crime took place that turned into a civil war in Israel (Judg. 19-21). In fact, the story of Saul chopping his oxen into 12 pieces and sending them throughout Israel (1 Sam. 11:7) is an echo of the story of the Levite chopping his concubine into 12 pieces in Judges 19:29. All of this seems to be a subtle way of communicating that godly Samuel comes from Ramah (a word referring to a good use of “height,” meaning “exalt”), while ungodly Saul comes from Gibeah (a word associated with a negative use of “height,” meaning “pride”).

Conclusion: The Motif of Tallness Brings a Heightened Awareness in Samuel

Tallness--Naram-Sin
The King of Akkad, Naram-Sin is depicted as towering over his enemies.

Once again by following a motif in the books of Samuel, we are given insight into the inspired author’s message. In her song, Hannah says that God will bring down the proud but lift up the humble (1 Sam. 2:6-8). The motif of tallness plays into this important theme of the book. Ancient people were smaller in stature and so a tall person would be impressive. Indeed, many of the portraits of ancient kings depict them as being taller than their subjects and enemies (the stele of Naram-Sin above is one example among others). The motif in Samuel turns this expectation on its head by stating that appearances can be deceiving (1 Sam. 16:7). Tallness becomes symptomatic of pride and arrogance. The books of Samuel teach, if you raise yourself up, be sure God will cut you down to size! But if you are lowly and humble, be encouraged for God will lift you up!

Head in a Book: Motifs in Samuel

Head in a Book: Motifs in Samuel

Head in a bookSomeone who has their “head in a book” is usually considered a studious person. Hopefully you have your head in various books of the Bible, including 1&2 Samuel. This post, however, is not about having your head in a book, but rather, the HEAD-motif in the BOOKS of Samuel. In our previous post, we looked at the significance of the motif of feet (see here). So now we’re moving from the bottom to the top. You could say we’re “headed in the right direction!”

The Use of Head in Modern Idioms

Like “feet,” “head” can be found in various expressions. We might have our “head in the clouds,” or have “a big head.” We could be a “hot head,” but hopefully “cooler heads will prevail.” How many phrases can you think of that use the word “head?” Before you “scratch your head,” trying to think of examples, let me give you a “heads up” and suggest you check out other idiomatic usages at The Free Dictionary. Because we use various idioms without “giving them a second thought,” it can be surprising how frequently we use words like, “head” or “feet” when communicating. The same is true in our reading of Scripture. We can easily pass over a motif being used by the inspired author because it seems so common-place to us. So let’s “put our heads together,” and see what we can learn by looking at the head motif in the books of Samuel.

R’osh in Samuel

heads
Two heads are better than one! Gloria and me in the English countryside.

The Hebrew word for “head” is r’osh. This word, or a word derived from this root, occurs sixty times in Samuel. There are twenty-seven occurrences in 1 Samuel and thirty-three in 2 Samuel. These occurrences are usually obvious in our English translations, but there are a few places where the word r’osh, or its derivatives, go undetected in our English Bibles. As was true of the foot motif, there is not just one meaning behind the usage of the head motif. I have discovered the use of r’osh in at least eight different ways in Samuel. I have used bold print to highlight the basic meaning in each usage. Here they are, in no particular order except for number 1.

  1. David and the Deuteronomist
    Polzin’s book is available at Amazon USA / UK.

    The most prevalent usage of the head motif in Samuel involves those who lose their head, or whose head is involved in their death. Out of the 60 uses of r’osh, 16 of them (27%) fall into this category. Notice the following quote by Robert Polzin in his book David and the Deuteronomist: ” …from the beginning of his career to the end, David’s character zone is intimately connected with the head as a locus of guilt and death. For one thing, David either wittingly or unwittingly, is constantly associated with the contemplated or actual beheading of his enemies” (p. 34). This includes Goliath (1 Sam. 17:46, 51, 54, 57), Saul (1 Sam. 31:9), Ishbosheth (2 Sam. 4:7, 8[2x], 12), Shimei (2 Sam. 16:9), and Sheba (2 Sam. 20:21-22). Not all of these are David’s doing (Saul and Ishbosheth), and in one instance (Shimei), he even prevents a beheading. Still Polzin’s conclusion is arresting as he states, “…blood flows upon and from the heads of David’s enemies more often than with any other character in the Bible” (p. 34). We should also point out that God does some beheading of his own. When the ark of God is placed in front of Dagon, the Philistines find their idol on the ground with his hands and head severed (1 Sam. 5:4)! Besides these instances, the Philistines worry about losing their heads if David and his men go to battle with them (1 Sam. 29:4–not obvious in the English translation), and twelve warriors of both Israel and Judah (24 in total), grab one another by the head and fall down dead together when each stabs the other in the side (2 Sam. 2:16). Finally, there is the story of Absalom whose head gets caught in a tree as he attempts to flee the battle against David’s men (2 Sam. 18:9). At least part of the answer to the significance of all of these beheadings and “head” problems can be answered by looking at the next usage of our motif.

  2. On seven occasions, the word r’osh is connected with kingship or leadership (1 Sam. 15:17; 19:20; 2 Sam. 10:16; 22:44; 23:8, 13, 18). It is quite natural for us to speak of a leader as the head of the government or of an organization. Polzin once again points out the significance of this language as he connects it to the usage in number 1 above. When commenting on the military contest of the 24 warriors who seize each others’ heads (2 Sam. 2:16), Polzin states, “This contest is about seizing headship over the tribes of Israel” (p. 34). This insight applies to Saul and Ishbosheth as well, who both lose their heads because they are not the legitimate head of Israel. The same can be said for Absalom who tries to usurp the throne of his father David and become head of Israel, but instead his head gets caught in a tree (2 Sam. 18:9).
  3. The books of Samuel also give voice to the familiar biblical theme of retribution found in the expression “return on your own head.” There are three occurrences of this phrase. When David hears of Nabal’s death, he says, “The Lord has returned the evil of Nabal on his own head” (1 Sam. 25:39). Similarly, when David executes the Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul, he says, “Your blood be on your head, for your own mouth has testified against you…” (2 Sam. 1:16). Finally, in his curse against Joab, David speaks of the blood of Abner and states, “May it fall upon the head of Joab…” (2 Sam. 3:29).
  4. Next I will look at what I will call the “literal” use of head, as referring to the physical body. This is a loose category because, technically all of the beheadings are literal and fit here as well. Furthermore, some of the literal uses also have other significances as we will see. Describing armament, we are told that Goliath had a helmet of bronze on his head (1 Sam. 17:5). The same story points out that Saul also possessed such protective gear (1 Sam. 17:38). The correspondence between Goliath’s and Saul’s helmet is important. It shows they both trust in their weapons and armor, rather than in God. When Michal deceives the troops of her father Saul in order to protect David, we are told twice that she takes an image and puts goat’s hair on its head and covers it up to make it look like David is lying in the bed (1 Sam. 19:13, 16). When David and Abishai sneak into Saul’s camp, we are told four times that the spear and the water jug they steal are by Saul’s head (1 Sam. 26:7, 11, 12, 16). The reference here is clearly to Saul’s vulnerability. Finally, we have the mention of the hair on Absalom’s head (2 Sam. 14:26 [2x]). This passage is designed to impress the reader with Absalom’s good looks and military prowess (see my article “Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head with Hair“).
  5. When someone wants to show honor, the head, or language about it, is common (see the episode on my podcast entitled: Honor & Shame for more details). In Samuel this is noted by Saul being placed at the “head” of the table (1 Sam. 9:22), or his anointing by Samuel (1 Sam. 10:1). Hannah’s request for a son includes her vow of consecration stating that “no razor shall touch his head” (1 Sam. 1:11). David conquers the king of Ammon and has his crown placed on his head (2 Sam. 12:30[2x]). The importance of giving the best part of an offering to the Lord is expressed in the phrase, “the head of the offering” (1 Sam. 2:29; 15:21). This one is easily missed in English translations which usually use a word like “best.” Finally, the Philistine king Achish says that he will make David, “the keeper of his head” (1 Sam. 28:2). This one is also easily missed in English and translates to being the king’s bodyguard, a position of honor and leadership.
  6. Ishbosheth loses his head
    When kings lose their head in the books of Samuel, it demonstrates that they are not the legitimate ruler!

    The opposite of honor, thus a reference to shame or mourning is intended in the passage about David’s flight from Absalom. There we are told that both David and the people with him “covered their heads” (2 Sam. 15:30 [2x], 32). The same is true in stories which speak of a person putting dust on their head. This is what messengers do when they are carrying a report of defeat from the battlefield (1 Sam 4:12; 2 Sam. 1:2). Saul’s loss of his crown in battle is also a symbol of dishonor (2 Sam. 1:10). Tamar’s act of putting ashes and her hand on her head, also speaks of her shame at what has happened to her (2 Sam. 13:19 [2x]). Beheading is the ultimate act of shaming a person. Thus, the passages in number 1 above also fit in this category.

  7. The Hebrew word r’osh is also missed in English translations which refer to the “top” of the spear (1 Sam. 17:7), the “top” of trees (2 Sam. 5:24), or the “top” of a mountain (1 Sam. 26:13; 2 Sam. 2:25; 15:32; 16:1). This might seem like an incidental use of the word, and indeed, it can be. However, our friend Polzin points out that its usage in 2 Sam. 15:32 and 16:1 contributes to the prevalence of this motif throughout 2 Samuel chapters 15-16 (pp. 161-163).
  8. The final way in which r’osh is used is in two idiomatic expressions. One of which is still in use today. When Saul threatens to kill Jonathan, the people rescue him and say, “There shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 14:45). In a different context, Abner says that he is not a “dog’s head” of Judah (2 Sam. 3:8). Clearly this is a derogatory expression and Abner is chiding Ishbosheth for treating him this way.

Headed Toward a Conclusion

As I noted in the conclusion of the foot motif, the categories I have suggested above are not set in stone. They merely point to ways in which this motif is used in the books of Samuel. The categories have a certain amount of fluidity as I have noted above. While this motif occurs in various ways and in different contexts, it is clear that one of its primary uses is in regard to kingship. After all, these are books about the establishment of the monarchy. All of the beheadings that surround David are one way of suggesting that he is Israel’s rightful king. It also suggests that, when it comes to power, people have a way of losing their heads! This motif also contributes to the theme of honor and shame which I have identified elsewhere as a significant theme in the books of Samuel (see The Theology of 1&2 Samuel, or my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel–see the link below). Finally, the biblical theme of “reaping what you sow,” also known as retribution (see #3 above), is emphasized through the use of this motif in Samuel. There are many motifs remaining in the books of Samuel. We will look at more in the future. Until then, keep your head up!

For a more in depth study of the books of Samuel, purchase a copy of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

 

The Theology of 1&2 Samuel

The Theology of 1&2 Samuel

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

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

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

A Story About 4 Families

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

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

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

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

Overview of Contents of 1&2 Samuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning and Ending of 1&2 Samuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Texts in 1&2 Samuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Looking Like a Leader

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

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

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

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

Leaders Who Corrupt the Worship of God

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

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

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

In Search of Better Leaders

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

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

Leaders Who Receive a Similar Judgment

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

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

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

Better Leaders and Better Days

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

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

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

Identifying the Biblical Narrator’s Voice

Identifying the Biblical Narrator’s Voice

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

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

The Identity of the Biblical Narrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intentional Contradictions and the Danger of Artificial Harmonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

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.