Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – 1 Samuel

KINGSHIP

The book of 1 Samuel (and 2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles and much of the prophetic writing, as well as Deuteronomy and Judges) is largely about the place of kingship in Israelite society. What is the proper relationship of kings to God? To prophets? To priests? Saul visits necromancers, threatens prophets, and kills priests. Yet he won many battles against the Philistines and expanded Israel’s borders. Was he a good and faithful king? Yes and no. King David killed his enemies (and former friends) and was a man of bloodshed who was disqualified from building the temple because of his violence (1 Chronicles 28:3). Was he a good and faithful king? Yes and no. 

Hannah’s song describing how God lifts up the lowly and casts down the proud sets the stage for much of the kingly narratives, and much of Christian thought about rulers throughout the centuries. Yet, warrior kings are well known among the saints. Vladimir the Great, Wenceslaus I and Eric IX of Sweden are famous Christian saints, who ruled and expanded their territories through bloodshed. What are we to do with the legend of Vlad III of Wallachia? He was a Christian king protecting Christian lands from Ottoman invaders. But he was also profoundly brutal, both in his torturous killings of Ottoman Muslims and Saxon Christians. The book of 1 Samuel is eager to point out that military success alone, even when in support of people who seem to have God’s favor, does not make a good king. Indeed, violent, expansionist reigns seem to have little to do with a positive evaluation of a monarchy in Scripture (See the discussion of the militarily and economically successful, but sacrilegious kingship of Omri in 1 Kings 16). 

So, how do Christians think about civic leaders in light of the examples of Saul, David, and subsequent kings? Should we look for a leader who will write a copy of Scripture each year (Deuteronomy 17:18)? One possible response is Martin Luther’s “Two-Kingdom Doctrine” of a Holy Spirit-led Church responsible for forming Christians and a secular government responsible only for restraining absolute evil. The monarch is responsible for civil rule, but need not, necessarily, be a follower of God to fulfill her/his responsibilities. One [but not the only] Reformed response is Transformationalism, that is, the belief that the Kingdom of Heaven should influence and transform earthly kingdoms to reflect God’s preferences and sensibilities. Various churches around the world have different degrees of comfort identifying with the rulers of the countries in which they find themselves. As an example of those who are all-in for mixing God with statecraft, famously, Russian Patriarch Kirill called President Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine “a holy battle.”

Hannah’s song remains an important key for thinking about righteous national leadership, according to Scripture. God lifts up the lowly, brings down the proud, breaks the bows of the mighty and feeds the hungry. God will give strength to the king – but only so long as the king behaves righteously.     

CLERGY ABUSE

One of the recurring issues in 1 Samuel is the corruption of religious professionals. Hophni and Phinehas stole from the sacrifices and offerings, sexually assaulted their co-workers, and threatened violence against worshippers who did not go along with their evil activities (1 Samuel 2). What is profoundly worse, is that Eli, after hearing about his sons, who were also his subordinate priests, did not stop Hophni and Phinehas from continuing their abuse. Attending worship, for both lay people and those who worked at the holy place, became a dangerous activity because of abusive clergy who were not reined in or fired, even after repeated warnings and confrontations. 

In the same way, Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah, took bribes and perverted their rulings. When the people rose up to say that they did not want to be led by such wicked men, and wanted a king instead, Samuel was upset that they wanted a king – not that his sons were dishonest and unjust religious rulers (1 Samuel 8:1-6). 

Far too often, throughout history, religious leaders, including clergy, have succumbed to desires for wealth, power, and sex instead of humbly pastoring God’s flock. Martin Luther was horrified by the ways that the late Medieval church allowed for the enriching of religious figures, power politics, and all kinds of sexual debauchery among the clergy. Certainly, Luther was not the first to speak up against these issues. And certainly, Protestants have more than their fair share of abusive clergy and religious leaders.  

Even in the 21st century, there are stories of some pastors and priests abusing their positions for money, power, or sex. First Samuel speaks to this ongoing, evil dynamic to acknowledge that clergy abuse is real, it is not new, and God is always against it. 

If the story of Eli tells readers anything, it is that overseers who do not participate directly in the evil of clergy abuse, but after hearing about it fail to stop it, are held just as guilty as those who committed the abuse themselves.      

WOMEN IN MINISTRY

Though often skipped over, the women in various forms of religious activity shape and ground the book of 1 Samuel. Hannah seems to invent silent prayer (previously, all prayer was spoken aloud). It was Hannah’s vow to God that eventually led to the birth of Samuel, the character after whom this book (and the next) is named. And Hannah’s song after she found out that she was pregnant with Samuel is the frame through which most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible can be understood: 

There is no one like God.
Those who exalt themselves will be brought down.
God will lift up the lowly.
Those who contend with the LORD will be terrified.
God will take care of the needy and poor. (1 Samuel 2)

Hannah’s song is a crucial influence for Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The theology of these songs has been shaping Christian interpretation of who God is and what God does for centuries.  

Hannah’s son Samuel, whom she dedicated to serve the LORD at Shiloh, will eventually be called to witness against Eli and his sons for their evil behavior, including sleeping with the women who guarded the entrance to the tent of meeting (1 Samuel 2:22). These women are largely mentioned in passing, here, and in Exodus 38:8, when they donated their mirrors to construct the basin for holy water in the tabernacle precinct. 

Patriarchal interpretation has suggested that these women were some sort of temple prostitutes. The verb describing what the women did at the entrance of the tent, however, indicates some sort of military gathering. Perhaps the women stood guard while the male priests and heads of families presented their offerings. 

Later in the text, Abigail prevents David from acting on his baser instincts when Abigail’s husband, Nabal, refused David’s request for hospitality. In Jewish tradition, Abigail’s appeal to David – that when he becomes king, he will not wish to have been stained by unnecessary bloodshed – earned her recognition as one of the seven women prophets in the Hebrew Bible. 

Abigail, Hannah, and the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting are crucial parts of the story of 1 Samuel, and models for female religious leaders of the New Testament, such as the prophets (Anna in the temple), apostles (Mary Magdalene and Junia), deacons (Phoebe), and preacher/teachers (Priscilla). 

The places and roles of women in the church can still be controversial in many Christian settings. But 1 Samuel carries examples of women who led and innovated in theology, wisdom, and religious devotion.