The next several chapters discuss Israel’s transition from a confederation of tribes into a strong unified monarchy under Saul, David, and Solomon. Along with the establishment of the Davidic dynasty, these chapters discuss the beginnings of a more centralized system of worship signaled by the foundation of a permanent Temple in Jerusalem.
The books of Samuel continue our discussion of the Deuteronomistic History. 1 and 2 Samuel were originally one work. The Greek translators of the Bible separated it into two parts, with the death of Saul marking the end of the first part. This chapter focuses specifically on 1 Samuel, which recounts the events that led up to the establishment of the monarchy and the reign of Saul, the first king. The authors of Samuel used a number of independent sources, which often duplicate or contradict one another. For example, there are three conflicting narratives that describe Saul’s selection as king of Israel. Scholars have identified other independent traditions as well, including the “Song of Hannah,” the “Ark Narrative,” and the “History of David’s Rise.” This liberal integration of sources demonstrates the Deuteronomistic historians’ interest in preserving variant traditions instead of producing a polished and ideologically uniform narrative.
The narrative opens with the birth of Samuel and a description of his early life. It soon becomes clear that he is a leader acceptable to God at a critical point as Israel continued to experience difficulties as a nation. The powerful Philistines were threatening Israel and had even managed to capture the ark. After the Israelites repent, their property and territory are restored; however, Samuel’s sons are also corrupt, leading to the selection of Saul as king. Much of Saul’s career is spent fighting the Philistines, and it is within this context that David comes to the fore. As a favorite of the people and the royal court, David soon becomes a threat to Saul, who forces him to flee. The book ends with the Israelites being defeated by the Philistines and Saul having failed to check the Philistine advance.
The main character at the beginning of the book of Samuel is Samuel himself. He is a highly idealized character like Joshua, and there are few instances where his personality shines through. Also like Joshua, it appears that Samuel was originally a local leader whose activities were expanded by the Deuteronomistic historians to include the entire nation of Israel. Overall, Samuel’s character should make the reader recall the image of Moses: He is a prophet, priest, and judge over his people. Also like Moses, Samuel intercedes with God on Israel’s behalf, and he reveals the divine word to them.
Saul is the most complicated figure in the text. He is not an idealized figure, and the reader gets a glimpse of both his positive and his negative qualities. In the beginning of the narrative, he is pictured in a positive light. He is both chosen by God as king and acclaimed by the people because of his military prowess. However, once David appears, Saul’s depiction becomes highly negative. God rejects Saul, and he then becomes erratic and homicidal. Ultimately he becomes a military failure who loses territory and, in the end, his life to the Philistines.
The last major character is David, who is presented as an overwhelmingly positive figure. The reason for this is that the main source used by the Deuteronomistic historians was the “History of David’s Rise,” a propagandistic piece that was meant to explain and justify David’s ascent to the throne. David is chosen by God to replace Saul, and his victories over the Philistines rival those of the king, which provokes his anger. Overall 1 Samuel anticipates the greatness that will come for David later on in the Deuteronomistic History.
Although the book of Samuel is presented as a historical account of the establishment of the monarchy, the lack of corroborating evidence makes it difficult to determine whether the events described have any historical validity. However, even if the details are not precise, Samuel’s narrative may demonstrate how the transition from tribal confederation to monarchy was gradual and complicated. Historical records from the ancient Near East show that the traditionally strong powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia were in a state of weakness. This led to the rise of several smaller independent nation-states, perhaps including Israel itself. Moreover, factors including population expansion in Israel and the continued encroachment of the Philistines led to the rise of a centralized government.
Beyond the lack of historical documents relating to these events, the specific characteristics of the monarchy in Israel are difficult to determine because the differences between Israel and its neighbors were so slight at this period. At most Israelite sites, there is also no recognizable difference in material culture or organizational patterns. In addition, the chronology given in Samuel is not secure. However, based on a scholarly reconstruction of events, it is possible to date the rise of the monarchy to the end of the eleventh century BCE.
Although the historical details are in doubt, 1 Samuel does tell us a great deal about the existence of certain institutions in ancient Israel. The text demonstrates the continued centrality of tribal affiliations and the family structure. Men often had more than one wife, and women in general were considered the property of their fathers and husbands. The text also discusses the patterns of succession for ancient Israel. As with much of the ancient Mediterranean, the eldest son usually was the primary heir. This pattern was also followed in the priesthood and the judiciary, as both were largely hereditary positions. Third, 1 Samuel mentions that Israel developed a professional army at this time. In the past, Israel’s defense was in the hands of a voluntary militia that were called up when needed. The continued threat of the Philistines made a standing army necessary, a trend that was continued after Saul by David and his successors.
Perhaps the most interesting insights involve the role of religion at this period. As we saw in the book of Judges, worship centered around local shrines. The only location that seems to enjoy a wider importance is Shiloh, where the ark was located. This would have made this site an important pilgrimage destination in the period before the ark was relocated to Jerusalem. 1 Samuel also provides information concerning the role of prophets in the early monarchic period. Beyond their primary role as communicators with the divine, many functioned as seers who could solve immediate issues with their powers or interpret divine will through the reading of signs.
Implications for Our Study
Although 1 Samuel may be more of a theological representation than a true historical account of the events surrounding the establishment of the monarchy, the text is still one of the most dramatic parts of the Bible. It provides us with a description of the events that led to the rise and fall of Saul, and it sets the stage for David’s kingship. Most importantly, it helps us to contextualize the reasons for the establishment of the monarchy. At the same time, 1 Samuel demonstrates that the evolution of Israel from confederation to monarchy was not immediate and that the replacement of old systems was gradual and not always complete.