The Book of Samuel

The Book of Samuel tells of the rise of the Davidic monarchy


Samuel is the third book in the Neviim (Prophets), the second section in the Hebrew Bible. In English Bibles, the book is usually divided into First and Second Samuel, but in Jewish tradition, Samuel is one book. 

Samuel is both a historical and literary work. It begins with the leadership of the prophet Samuel, the last of the pre-monarchic rulers of Israel, and continues with the narratives of King Saul and King David. Most of the book focuses on the rise and fall of King David. Since there is no extra-biblical attestation for the events in the book, it is not considered “historical” by critical scholars. Nevertheless, the book records a critical period in Israelite history, the transition from charismatic leadership, with leaders appointed at times of need, to an established, dynastic monarchy, politically uniting the Israelites. 

book of samuel

Infant Samuel,
by Joshua Reynolds, 1723

It is clear from the archeological remains at Hazor and Gezer that a strong monarchy existed in Israel during the 10th century B.C.E. (the period corresponding to the reign of Solomon, son of David). The historicity of the Davidic house cannot reasonably be doubted since the discovery in 1993 of the Tel Dan inscription, which dates from 841 B.C.E. and mentions “[Ahaz]iah, king of the house of David.”

Appointing a King

Samuel portrays the inherent tension in Israelite monarchy–the tensions between obedience to God and practicality, between acting in accordance with moral imperatives and acting with political expediency. The first example of this appears in I Samuel 8, when the Israelites demand that Samuel appoint a king. The demand is anchored in practicality: “So that we too may be like all other nations, that our king may lead us and go before us and fight our wars” (8:20). Samuel had both practical objections to this plan (the king will abuse his taxation and expropriation powers) and objections of principle (“the Lord your God is your king,” I Samuel 12:12).

God orders Samuel to appoint Saul as king, but tension between obedience and political expediency erupts almost as soon as Saul is anointed. Saul’s principal task was to fight the Philistines, the coastal people who sought to conquer the territory of Israel in the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.E. Samuel ordered Saul to wait for him at Gilgal , so Samuel could offer a sacrifice before the war began (I Samuel 13:8-9). Saul waited seven days, but, watching the Israelites melt away day after day, he resolved to take matters into his own hands and offered the sacrifice himself. For this act of insubordination, Samuel says to Saul: “Your kingdom shall not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (13:14).

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.

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