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The Core Curriculum


630 BCE – 540 BCE

  David and Saul (1878), by Ernst Josephson (Wikimedia Commons) David and Saul (1878), by Ernst Josephson (Wikimedia Commons) Originally a single work divided by the editors of the Septuagint, 1st and 2nd Samuel recount the beginnings of monarchial rule in the Kingdom of Israel.  Although the two books are named after the prophet Samuel, Samuel himself appears only in part of 1st Samuel and dies in the middle of the narrative (1 Samuel 25:1).  The better-known portions of the narrative concern the loss and recovery of the Ark of the Covenant, the reign of Saul, first king of the Israelites and the rise of King David, including his slaying of the Philistine champion Goliath and Saul’s subsequent jealousy.  The narrative of David’s reign continues in 2nd Samuel, which presents Saul's successor as the paradigm of a wise and just ruler with whom God makes a new covenant promising an everlasting dynasty.

An influential theory (though not universally accepted) first proposed by the scholar Martin Noth holds that the two books of Samuel, along with Joshua, Judges and 1st and 2nd Kings, stem from a single literary work.  Known as the “Deuteronomistic History” due to its thematic associations with Deuteronomy, this work recounts the early history of Israel from the death of Moses to its conquest at the hands of the Babylonians.  The Deuteronomistic History would thus have been completed during the so-called “Babylonian Exile” (586-538 BCE), the period when the Israelites were exiled from the Promised Land.  Characteristic of the Deuteronomistic History is its explanation of historical events through the theological themes of Deuteronomy, particularly regarding the rewards and punishments resulting from obedience and disobedience towards God. Most famously, the Deuteronomistic History accuses Israel of bringing on its own demise through its failure to live up to the terms of its covenant with God.

In this account, 1st Samuel picks up the Deuteronomistic narrative at a crucial turning point in Israel’s history, the transition between the period of judges and the period of monarchs. Prior to this time, the political organization of Israel was more akin to a loose confederation of tribes than a single nation. Particular heads of families governed the affairs of their own tribe, the tribes themselves being connected only through their shared commitment to the covenant with God. The book of Judges relates how the tribes would unite in the face of military threats and follow a judge appointed by God.  Judges exercised a temporary rule of a primarily military nature, leading the Israelites under God’s direct guidance until victory was won and the people saved, after which Israel would revert to a confederacy. 

As told by 1st Samuel, Philistine incursions made the old system of judgeship untenable. Sweeping east from the Mediterranean, the Philistines took most of the lands the Israelites had conquered and threatened their economic survival.  An older stratum of the text (9:1-10:16; 11; 13-14) presents the Israelites’ response of seeking a hereditary monarch to rule them as not only the pragmatic option, but ultimately as the divinely sanctioned one.  Israel could not face the threat of the Philistines disunified, and the corruption of Samuel’s sons made his preferred solution of a hereditary judgeship seem an unattractive one.  Instead, God chooses Saul to lead the Israelites as a hereditary monarch and thereby end the chaos of the period of judges.

Over this layer of the text is placed a narrative much more suspicious of monarchy that reflects the concerns of the Deuteronomistic editors during the Babylonian Exile (7-8; 10:17-27; 12; 15). In this narrative, monarchy is presented not as the best option in a bad situation but as the choice on the part of the Israelites to be “like other nations” (8:5).  The later addition to 1st Samuel thus interprets the transition to monarchial rule from the perspective of Deuteronomy’s concerns regarding disobedience towards God as a rejection of divine guidance.  It also alters the narrative in ways that subtly critique monarchial rule itself.  Rather than being divinely chosen for rule, Saul is appointed by the all-too-human means of a lottery.  And Samuel warns the Israelites regarding the abuse of power and oppression that could result from their choice (8:11-18). Thus, 1st Samuel presents two conflicting views of monarchy that must be held in tension with each other, reflecting the intense controversy surrounding the transition to monarchial rule in Israel.


Written by Daniel del Nido, Core Lecturer, Religion, Columbia University


Works Consulted: 

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha.Fourth Edition. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010

The Harper-Collins Study Bible Including Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books with Concordance. Revised Edition. Ed. Harold W. Attridge. New York: Harper One, 2006

Encyclopedia Britannica: Books of Samuel (

Jewish Encyclopedia: Books of Samuel (

Collins, John H. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014

Schmidt, Werner H. Old Testament Introduction. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell and David Reimer. Fifth Edition. New York: de Gruyter, 1995

Walzer, Michael. In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012