Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – 1 Samuel


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.     


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.      


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. 

David vs. Goliath

The “David vs. Goliath” matchup is one of the most common cultural tropes in the Western world. Of course, this is built on familiarity with the story from 1 Samuel 17 in which a young shepherd boy defeats a seasoned military champion who intimidated entire armies. In sports, fans frequently choose to root for an underdog against a team who seems to have a better chance of winning. A famous example was the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” when the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, composed of college athletes, defeated the seemingly invincible Soviet team that had absolutely demolished them at a previous meetup less than two weeks prior. In the world of British football (soccer), Leicester City became known as “Giant Killers” in their 2015-2016 season when they fought back from near relegation the previous season to top the Premier League. 

But the “David vs. Goliath” trope is by no means limited to sports. In electoral politics, an incumbent with a sizable campaign “war chest” is frequently posited as a Goliath against some upstart David. In international conflict, the major powers with advanced economies and militaries are often seen as Goliaths by countries with less power. These countries risk displeasing larger, more powerful neighbors at their peril. This modern-day usage of David vs. Goliath in the field of international realpolitik is probably closest to the story of David vs. Goliath in 1 Samuel. Goliath was not just an accomplished soldier, but he was decked out in expensive and extensive military gear (1 Samuel 17:4-7). By contrast, the Israelites did not even have blacksmiths or artisans skilled in metallurgy, because the Philistines wanted to maintain their scientific and military advantage over their neighbors (1 Samuel 13:19-22). David vs. Goliath, even in the Bible, was not just the story of a little boy against a giant, but of an intentionally disadvantaged people triumphing over those with more resources and advantages. The resonance of the story of David vs. Goliath remains, accordingly, a powerful metaphor for when those with less triumph over those with more assets and power.

Hannah’s Song & The Magnificat

As she narrates the overall plot themes for 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, Hannah describes a God who raises the lowly and then casts down the proud (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, and their heirs all experienced elevation, and as a result of their sin – usually in abusing others or idolatry-of-self – they experienced serious consequences. Even Hannah’s son, Samuel, rose as a great prophet but failed to ensure a dynasty for himself because of his wicked, corrupt sons. Hannah made a strong theological claim that this raising of the lowly and humble, and casting down of the arrogant is an intrinsic part of who God is. God breaks weapons. God fills empty bellies with food and empty wombs with children. God lifts the poor. God brings down the rich. This sense of God as the cause of great reversals is not unique to Hannah, however.  

Mary’s song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), proclaims the same theology as Hannah had centuries earlier. God scatters the proud, and lifts up the lowly [importantly, Mary herself]. The hungry are fed and the rich are sent away empty. The proud and self-exalting are in danger from God who upsets the order of things. In an interview with The Christian Century, theological firebrand David Bentley Hart proclaimed: “When you look at the Magnificat, you just have to say, ‘My goodness, the mother of God was a Bolshevist!’” Though intentionally overstating the political alignment, the intention of this claim must not be dismissed out of hand. Both Hannah and Mary know something about the God who miraculously provided children who would save – in different ways, to be sure – God’s people. God intervenes in history to bring down the proud and lift the lowly. Providing children who will grow up to serve God by insisting on God’s justice and mercy is indicative of God’s pleasure in undermining the status quo. 

Jesus continued Hannah and Mary’s theme of reversal by introducing his ministry in terms of restorative justice, borrowing words from the prophet Isaiah, to proclaim: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

In the history of Christianity, especially in liberation theology movements, Hannah and Mary’s notion of God bringing down and lifting up, largely based on economic status, remains strong. Liberation theologians use the socio-economic lens of 1 Samuel 2 and Luke 1 to support God’s “preferential option for the poor” that insists that Christians must follow Christ in bringing good news to the poor. Hannah’s theology of reversal undergirds restorative movements in Christianity to this day.