Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 1 Samuel

The book of Samuel as history

Samuel looks like history, but as one reads through it, it becomes obvious that it is very different from the history we are accustomed to reading. Accounts in Chronicles and other biblical sources are sometimes presented differently in Samuel, and are often flatly contradicted. Even within the books of Samuel there are discrepancies and contradictions. This difficult issue is somewhat eased by the recognition that no biblical book is written with contemporary canons of history. Rather than disparage the biblical author’s supposed failure to conform to our ideas of history, we should try to determine the theological motivation in presenting these stories this way.

Canonical setting

The books of Samuel occupy somewhat different places in the Hebrew canon and that of modern English Bibles. In the Hebrew Bible the books of Samuel are considered part of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). In English Bibles the books of Samuel are considered part of the Historical Books. Ruth has been placed after Judges and before Samuel because of this historical understanding.


The chronology of the books of Samuel is a major problem. In general, only approximate dates can be given: the events recorded in Samuel span approximately 100 years; the capture of the ark is usually placed in the middle of the 11th century B.C.E.; Saul reigned as king from 1020-1000 B.C.E.; and David reigned from 1000-960 B.C.E.

Deuteronomistic History (DtrH)

In 1943, Martin Noth argued that the books from Joshua through Kings (excluding Ruth, which is part of the Writings in the Hebrew Bible) formed a single literary and theological work. It presented the history of Israel from the Exodus from Egypt to the Babylonian exile, based upon the theological perspectives of the book of Deuteronomy. While subsequent debate regarding the date and editing of this extensive work continues, many scholars think there were at least two separate editions–one in the seventh century B.C.E. during the reign of Josiah, which emphasized the unconditional nature of the promise and a positive view of kingship, and one in the sixth century, during the exile, when the conditional nature of the covenant and a negative view of the monarchy due to the failure of Israel’s kings had become painfully evident. The history was written to explain why Israel had experienced exile; it traced the downfall of Israel and Judah to the people’s apostasy and failure to obey the covenantal stipulations as presented in Deuteronomy, and God’s consequent handing them over into the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.


Samuel has an unusual number of “doublets,” instances where the same story seems to be told twice, sometimes in different circumstances or with conflicting results:

Historicity of David

The rather large number of discrepancies and inconsistencies in the text of Samuel and Kings has suggested to a number of recent historians that the so-called “United Kingdom” of Saul, David, and Solomon, as well as these individuals, never existed. For these historians, what we have in the books of Samuel and 1 Kings 1-11 is, rather, a fictionalized account, put together in the postexilic period, to encourage the politically demoralized exiles in Babylon or the recently returned people of Judah. Most scholars reject this “minimalist” view. Their decision to do so has been somewhat strengthened by the archaeological discovery of the Moabite Stone of King Mesha and, recently, an inscription discovered at Tel Dan, both dating to the ninth century B.C.E., which refer to the “house [that is, “the dynasty”] of David.”

Mental Health and Spirit Possession

First1 Samuel is a fascinating book that has long been a focus for thinking about mental health and Scripture. In the past, interpreters have argued that the evil spirit from the LORD with which Saul was afflicted might be some sort of mental/emotional health issue. The text seems to be arguing very much the opposite – that this is not a natural phenomenon that can – and does – occur to anyone, but that God is specifically intervening spiritually to influence events in Saul’s life. 

On the other hand, 1 Samuel 21:13-14, has an indigenous, non-spiritual description of cultural portrayal and understanding of mental illness. This undermines interpretations that claim that all mental/emotional illnesses were understood as spiritual afflictions in the pre-modern era. If anything, 1 Samuel is careful to distinguish spiritual activity and depictions of mental illness.  

In the Gospels, too, Scripture seems to parse out spiritual afflictions from physical afflictions. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus heals both spiritual and physical afflictions, treating them as separate issues. In Matthew 4:24, those who suffer seizures or paralysis are treated separately from those experiencing demonic activity. Later, in Matthew 17:14-18, a demon apparently causes seizures. Even the same symptoms may have differing spiritual or physical causes, according to the gospels. 

Christians of goodwill can and will disagree about the levels of spiritual activity in the modern world. There is nothing in Scripture that says that all mental illnesses are misunderstood spiritual afflictions. And there is nothing in Scripture that says that all spiritual activity is misunderstood mental illness. One of the takeaways should be to always seek out professional diagnosis. David deceived Achish and his men by feigning mental illness in 1 Samuel 21. Jesus’ disciples were unable to help the boy who suffered seizures in Matthew 17, because they were trying to heal him (v. 16) rather than exorcise the spirit (v. 18), which is why they were unable to drive it out (v. 19). 

It may well be that an affliction is spiritual in nature. But we should go to trained mental/emotional/behavioral health professionals for a diagnosis first. 

Parallels with 1 Chronicles

There are extensive parallels between Samuel and 1 Chronicles, because the Chronicler used the books of Samuel (and 1-2 Kings) as his primary source. For example, 1 Samuel 31:1-13 is paralleled in 1 Chronicles 10:1-12. Far more such parallels occur in 2 Samuel and Chronicles (see the notes to 2 Samuel).

The Philistines

Throughout the books of Samuel, Israel’s greatest threat came from the Philistines, a people from islands in the Aegean Sea who settled along the southern coast of Canaan after being repelled by Ramses III in a series of sea battles in the Nile Delta (1190 B.C.E.). There, they occupied some of the region’s richest land and controlled the lucrative coastal trade route. The Philistines’ military success is directly attributable to their monopoly in the manufacture and use of iron weapons (1 Samuel 13:19-23). In the absence of any written records, the probably pejorative biblical account of the Philistines becomes determinative. In the Bible, the Philistines are depicted as warlike, rather coarse, and uncircumcised; they worshiped Dagon as their national god in addition to other Canaanite deities such as Atargatis and Baal-zebub. Politically, they were organized as a federation under five “Serens” (Greek, tyrannoi, “tyrants”), who ruled in their five major cities (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza). The Greek historian Herodotus named the whole area “Palestine” after the Greek form of their name (palestina, 450 B.C.E.).

Sources in Samuel

A number of sources or traditions may lie behind the books of Samuel. The following have been variously analyzed by scholars but their general extent is recognized by many:

  • boyhood stories of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-3)
  • an ark narrative (1 Samuel 4:1-7:2; possibly connected to 2 Samuel 6:1-5)
  • negative stories about Saul, or monarchy, or both, associated with Mizpah (1 Samuel 7:3-12; 8:1-22; 10:17-27; 12:1-25; 15:1-35)
  • positive stories about Saul, or monarchy, or both, associated with Gilgal (1 Samuel 9:1-10:16; 13:1-14:46; possibly 1 Samuel 11; 15; 28; 31)
  • the so-called “Court History/Succession Narrative” (2 Samuel 9-20; 1 Kings 1-2)
  • an “Appendix,” intrusive to the “Succession Narrative” above, consisting of two narratives, two lists, and two poems (2 Samuel 21-24)
  • Various lists and archival material, including Saul’s family (1 Samuel 14:47-52), David’s sons born at Hebron (2 Samuel 3:2-5), David’s sons born in Jerusalem (5:13-16), David’s cabinet (8:15-18), a second listing of David’s cabinet (20:23-26), David’s warriors (23:8-19), and a second listing of David’s warriors (23:24-39).

What kind of book is Samuel?

Recent interpretation rejects the designation “history” for Samuel, at least in its modern connotation of that which is produced by a critical historian as a factual description of events in the past. Designations such as “historical story” or “theological interpretation of history” are much more common. Clearly there is a telling, or retelling, of the story in a chronological sequence, whether accurate or imposed. The authors/compilers freely rewrote, edited, and fashioned materials and traditions of varying types into a coherent presentation of the monarchy designed to make a theological point.

Why are there two books of Samuel? 

Originally the books of Samuel were a single work. The Masoretic notes at the end of 2 Samuel give a total of 1,506 verses for both books and indicate that 1 Samuel 28:24 is the middle verse of the book (singular in Hebrew). Samuel was divided into two books when it was translated into Greek. The Greek translation actually includes the books of Kings as well, as indicated by the titling of Samuel-Kings as 1-4 Basileiai (1-4 Kingdoms/Reigns). This larger context is crucial and must be kept in mind at all times.