We are beginning a new study of the books of Samuel. I have chosen these books simply because they continue the story of the history of Israel following our studies of Joshua and Judges. Let me say, first, that the books of Samuel originally were one undivided work; and in the Hebrew, they still are. It was only with the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, that both Samuel and Kings were divided into two parts. English Bibles have followed the lead of the Septuagint. Therefore we have first and Second Samuel and first and second Kings.
As we studied Joshua we saw the people of Israel enter, conquer and settle the promised land, something Moses envisioned but did not live to share in. But then as we studied Judges we saw a decline in the people’s commitment to the Lord and to each other. A recurring cycle developed in which the people strayed from the Lord, which led to their being overcome and oppressed by other nations. Then they genuinely would repent, which led to the Lord’s raising up of a judge who would deliver the people until the next apostasy.
Because of the constantly recurring apostasy, a radical change in government was necessary if the nation was to continue successfully. The books of Samuel reveal to us how the Lord brought about the necessary changes. The term usually associated with the government of Israel prior to the time of Samuel is the term “theocracy.” Under the concept of theocracy God is the ruler, at least in theory. And God appointed the leaders: first Moses, and then Joshua, followed by the judges. But Israel didn’t listen to the Lord very well; and the theocracy deteriorated into a situation where every man was doing what was right in his own eyes. So change was necessary.
The change came with the appearance of Samuel on the stage of history, a man of huge importance to the development of Israel as a nation. Samuel served a triple role. First, he succeeded Eli as the priest of Israel. As we read these volumes, we will find Samuel offering sacrifices on several occasions (e.g., 1 Sam. 7:9). So Samuel was a priest.
Then second, Samuel was the last of the judges, that is, the last one charismatically called by God to deliver and/or lead the people (1 Sam. 7:15). Samuel’s deliverance and leadership was more political and religious than military in nature, but he was a judge just the same.
And finally, third, Samuel was the first great prophet (3:19-20). There may have been prophets in Israel previous to Samuel, but unlike Samuel, they didn’t exert any lasting influence on the nation. From the time of Samuel on, prophets sustained the spiritual life of the people and made known God’s will to the nation and her rulers. Indeed Samuel elevated the office of prophet to a status like that of the already existing office of priest.
Now Samuel didn’t originate the idea of a single person holding more than one office. Eli, who raised Samuel and trained him at the tabernacle, held two offices. He was both a priest (1:9) and a judge (4:18). Samuel was a priest, a prophet and a judge.
Now then, the books of Samuel tell the story of the great change I spoke of earlier. Samuel not only developed the office of prophet in Israel, he also led the nation to a fundamental change of government. He led the nation from theocracy to monarchy, specifically a dynastic monarchy, where one of the king’s sons succeeds to the throne at the king’s death. Thus three men dominate these volumes: Samuel the last judge and first great prophet, Saul the first king, and David the great king.
Turning to the subject of authorship and date, no one knows who the author was. As for when the books were written, the best we can say is that they were not written before the division of Israel into two kingdoms at the death of Solomon, because the phrase “kings of Judah” is used in 1 Sam. 27:6; and there were no “kings of Judah” until the period of the two kingdoms. But one cannot get any more specific than that.
As for the dates of the events in the two books, that is an easier matter, though we cannot date them with absolute precision. There are secular, as well as biblical king lists, historical texts, and the like that enable scholars to date the events fairly closely. Most scholars would agree that the books of Samuel span the years from about 1050 to 970 B.C., with David taking the throne about the year 1000 B.C.
A great deal of scholarly effort has been expended on a search for the written sources of the author, or to establish the process of composition of the books. But little it has come of it. It just doesn’t seem possible to find answers those questions.
Another issue that has caused considerable debate is that of the text of the books of Samuel. The Hebrew text frequently differs from the earlier-mentioned Greek translation called the Septuagint, which was completed by the first century A.D. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest available Hebrew texts were dated in the ninth or tenth-century A.D. The issue here is that there are copies of the Greek translation that date back to the third and fourth centuries A.D. Thus the Greek text may represent a Hebrew text that is older and more accurate than the oldest Hebrew texts that were available for many years. Thus on occasion, translators of the books of Samuel have had difficulty deciding whether the Greek or the Hebrew manuscripts have the more accurate reading.
Then when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, Hebrew copies of the Old Testament were found among them. Thus with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, scholars suddenly came into possession of Hebrew texts of these biblical books that date back to first-century B.C. or the first-century A.D., a thousand years older than the Hebrew manuscripts previously in hand. But it didn’t solve the problems.
The Dead Sea Scrolls frequently agree with the Septuagint, which has led some scholars to rely heavily on it for translation of these books. But the Dead Sea Scrolls also differ from the Septuagint at quite a few places; and so certain other scholars urge extreme caution in relying on them for translation. Thus the debate goes on.
Now then, I want to return to the place of these books in the over-all revelation of the Old Testament. You will recall that a refrain appeared in the last chapters of the book of Judges: “there was no king in Israel” (18:1; 19:1; 21:25). And the result was: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
The judges were leaders whom the Lord called out on an occasional basis. They ordinarily did not lead or rule over the entire nation of Israel. Rather they delivered and guided certain tribes or groups of tribes. There never was a successor named; and thus the political situation always deteriorated after the death of a judge.
Therefore it is understandable why the people began to long for a king. Under the judges, Israel never had anyone in charge of the nation-as-a-whole. That meant there was no national policy about anything, nor any political stability. The people of Israel observed that other nations had kings. And the advantages were obvious. A king whose son would succeed him provided the stability and order that was lacking in Israel. Moreover a king could develop national policies, both foreign and domestic. And he could command a standing army, something Israel had not had since the days of Joshua.
Of course the down side is that it takes lots of tax money to support a king and court, a government, and an army. But the people of Israel evidently were willing to take on the tax burden in order to have the advantages noted.
In the English Bible the book of Ruth also speaks to this matter of the larger context. As the book of Judges suggests the need of a king, the book of Ruth directly speaks to the future history of Israel’s greatest sovereign, king David. Boaz and Ruth, the key characters, were important ancestors of the king; and the book of Ruth ends with a genealogy of David. Then the books of Samuel not only tell the story of the institution of the monarchy, they tell the story of David, Israel’s ideal king. And I need not remind you that David also was a kind of forerunner to the Christ, the King of Kings, who was born in Bethlehem.