Lesson 5 of5
In Progress

Theological Themes in 1 Samuel

The ark

The significance of the ark of the covenant varies in the different Old Testament traditions. Here in Samuel, the Deuteronomic tradition is somewhat different from that in Kings (see the notes there), because the Deuteronomists are here incorporating earlier traditions (1 Samuel 4:2-7:2). This rather fanciful story relates the capture of the ark by the Philistines and its “adventures” in Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron, where various plagues befall its captors including the vanquishing of Dagon, their national god (chapters 4-5). Upon its return, the people of Beth-Shemesh learned of the ark’s holy power; looking inside violated its holiness and resulted in their death (chapter 6). Following its transfer to Kiriath-Jearim (6:21-7:2), it remained in obscurity until David, realizing the powerful symbolism it held for the tribes, moved it to his new capital and sanctuary in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).

Blueprint for kingship

First Samuel 8:10-18 warns against the people’s choice of a king, who will be more interested in royal autocracy than in the Deuteronomistic blueprint (Deuternomy 17:14-20; see 1 Samuel 12:3). That blueprint may provide the “rights and duties of the kingship” that Samuel presented to the people (1 Samuel 10:25).

Canaanite religion

The indigenous religion of the Canaanites was a constant threat to the Israelites. In Samuel the following were especially troublesome:

  • Baal/baals (“lord”): the chief god of the Canaanites, essentially a fertility god (1 Samuel 7:4; 12:10; 2 Samuel 5:20-21)
  • Dagon: the fish/grain god of the Philistines (11 times in 1 Samuel 5:2-7)
  • Astartes: a Canaanite fertility goddess (1 Samuel 7:3, 4; 12:10; 31:10). In Hebrew, this name is deliberately misspelled “Ashtoreth” by using the vowels of the Hebrew word for “shame.”
  • mediums (28:3)
  • animism: the worship of inanimate objects, such as stones (6:14, 18; 20:19; 2 Samuel 20:8), trees (10:3; 14:2; 22:6; 31:13), and high places (9:12-14; 10:5; 22:6; 2 Samuel 1:19, 25)

Ephod

This word designates different objects in the Old Testament. In the Priestly materials it refers to the High Priest’s ornate, distinctive liturgical garment (Exodus 28:6-14). In Samuel, however, it is a short tunic worn as a priestly vestment (1 Samuel 2:28; 14:3; 22:18; 2 Samuel 6:14). In 1 Samuel 23:6-10 and 30:7-8, the “ephod” seems to be a cultic object used to obtain oracles, though these texts are probably corruptions of the word “ark” (aron).

Hannah’s song as theological prologue

Despite all the twists and turns of its long literary history, 1 and 2 Samuel are theologically structured as three cycles of stories, each based upon a key figure in the institution of the monarchy in Israel: Samuel (1 Samuel 1-12), Saul (1 Samuel 13-31), and David (2 Samuel 1-20). These cycles, relating the rise of kingship, are framed by magnificent psalms of praise or thanksgiving, one from Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and two from David (2 Samuel 22:1-23:7). At the heart of each is a theological statement concerning God’s justice in humbling the proud and exalting the humble (1 Samuel 2:5-8; 2 Samuel 22:26-28). Thus, Saul, brought down by God, becomes the illustration of what kingship should not be; David, raised by God from obscurity to unparalleled wealth and power, becomes the model of what kingship, dependent upon God’s grace, should look like; and Samuel becomes God’s prophetic mediator, the one who acts on God’s behalf to usher in the monarchy demanded by the people, while, at the same time, keeping the truth that God is ultimately Israel’s king.

Ideal boundaries of the promised land

The ideal boundaries of the promised land were only realized in the reigns of David and Solomon: north–from Tyre on the coast to Dan; east–bounded by the Arabian Desert; west–bounded by the Mediterranean Sea; southeast–bounded by the river Arnon, east of the Dead Sea; south–bounded by a line running from the river of Egypt on the coast to Kadesh-barnea and on to the Arabah, the valley south of the Dead Sea.

Nazirites

Samuel is dedicated as a Nazirite (nazar in Hebrew means “to dedicate”) from birth (1 Samuel 1:11, 22). Nazirites, according to Numbers 6:1-21, observed certain principles, such as refusing to cut their hair, drink wine, come in contact with a corpse, and eat religiously inappropriate food.

Repentance

The books of Samuel have been interpreted as providing three models of repentance as seen in the portraits of Samuel, Saul, and David.

  • In 1 Samuel 3, Samuel condemned the wicked priests at Shiloh. Following the return of the ark of the covenant, he called upon the people to turn away from the gods of Canaan and turn back to God. Following their confession and repentance at Mizpah, God responded by granting them victory and peace (7:2-14).
  • In 1 Samuel 15, Saul provides a negative example of repentance. Though he says the words “I have sinned” (vv. 24, 30), he offers excuses, becomes defensive, and reveals his insincerity.
  • After being confronted by Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7), David repents in the same words as the people and Saul, “I have sinned” (12:13), but without Saul’s excuses, becoming an exemplary illustration of repentance.

Reversal of fortune

In line with Hannah’s articulation of the theme that “The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (1 Samuel 2:7), Samuel is peppered with passages of unexpected reversals of fortune at the hand of the Lord:

  • The priests of the house of Eli are brought down while the young boy Samuel is raised to the office of prophet (3:11-4:1).
  • Saul was a Benjaminite, from Israel’s smallest tribe, yet he became king (9:21; 10:1).
  • As king, however, Saul is rejected by God (13:13-14; 15:22-23).
  • David, youngest son of Jesse (16:10-11) and, as Saul’s son-in-law, inferior in rank to Saul’s son Jonathan, is chosen king (2 Samuel 2:1-4).
  • As king, however, David is punished for his adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:7-14) and loses power to his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15-17).
  • Absalom, in turn, dies, returning David to power and grief over his loss (chapter 18).


Not even David is free from the working out of Yahweh’s reversal of fortune. The end of his reign is one of increasing strife in his family and a loss of political control. For the Deuteronomistic editors such lessons were applicable to those that had sat on the thrones of Israel and Judah, as well, and ultimately explained God’s sending of Assyria against the north and Babylon against the south.

The role of prophecy

The books of Samuel present the prophets as those who announce God’s word and reveal the divine will. This is seen in the major prophetic speeches that carry the plot by occurring at crucial moments in the narrative. In 1 Samuel:

  • the announcement of the fall of the house of Eli by “a man of God” (1 Samuel 2:27-36)
  • God announces the fall of the house of Eli to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:11-14)
  • Philistine “prophets” advise their leaders how to return the ark to Israel (1 Samuel 6:2-9)
  • Samuel’s interpretation of Israel’s demand for a king (1 Samuel 8:7-18)
  • Samuel is directed to anoint God’s choice as king (1 Samuel 9:15-16)
  • Samuel’s address prior to Saul being chosen king by lot (1 Samuel 10:17-19)
  • Samuel’s farewell speech at the beginning of the monarchy (1 Samuel 12:6-17, 20-25)
  • Samuel’s rejection of Saul (1 Samuel 15:10-11; 17-31)
  • David speaks the word of the Lord to Goliath (1 Samuel 17:45-47)
  • Gad’s warning to David (1 Samuel 22:5)

Seven

There are many significant “sevens” in Samuel: Hannah refers to herself as a mother of seven (1 Samuel 2:5); the ark of the covenant is in Philistia seven months (6:1); Saul obediently waits for Samuel seven days before disobeying (10:8; 13:8); seventy men are killed at Beth-Shemesh (10:27); elders of Jabesh ask for seven days of respite before surrendering (11:3); seven of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel before David is chosen (16:10); Jabesh-Gilead fasts for seven days at the death of Saul (31:13); David rules Judah in Hebron seven years and six months (2 Samuel 2:11; 5:5); and seven of Saul’s sons are executed (21:6, 9).

Three

The number three is unusually prominent in Samuel, appearing more than forty-five times, often symbolizing totality, wholeness, or completeness as in other biblical settings. The most important in this regard are: Hannah gives birth to three sons after being barren (1 Samuel 2:21); the three men who meet Saul after his anointing come with three kids and three loaves (10:3); David hides three days (20:5, 19); Jonathan shoots three arrows as a signal (20:20); David bows to Jonathan three times (20:41); an Egyptian brought to David had not eaten for three days and three nights (30:12); three of Saul’s four sons die (31:2; see 1 Chronicles 8:33); the “Three” champions in David’s troops (2 Samuel 23); the famine lasts three years (21:1; 24:13); God offers David three choices, each with a duration of three–years, months, days (24:12-13).

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