What makes 1 Samuel special?
1 Samuel is the first half of one long book that was split in two because it was too long to fit on one scroll. (2 Samuel is the second half.) Together they tell of the lives of Samuel, Saul, and David—three people who were chosen by the Lord. But the real story in these books is how all three, in spite of their human flaws, helped to make Israel a strong nation.
Why was 1 Samuel written?
1 Samuel tells how God chose the earliest kings in ancient Israel. For two centuries the Israelites had been loosely organized as a group of twelve tribes ruled by temporary leaders, called judges, chosen by God in times of need. (See the Introduction to Judges.) Samuel, the last of these leaders, had to deal with God because of Israel’s request for a new kind of leader—a king like the ones that ruled other nations (8.5,19,20). But some people saw the request for a human king as going against Israel’s ancient belief in God as king (Exod 15.18; Deut 33.5). 1 Samuel presents the views of both sides: 8.1-22 (against); 9.1—10.16 (for); 10.17-27 (against); 11.1-11 (for); 11.12—12.25 (against).
God reluctantly agreed to let Israel have a king. God knew it would bring big changes to the people of Israel, and that not all of the changes would be good ones. After choosing a king, God reminded Israel and its king that they must still keep their solemn promise to obey the Lord (Gen 17.7-9, Exod 24). But Saul did not obey and did not want to be replaced by David, the new king chosen by God. As David himself would later learn, even kings must obey the Lord.
What’s the story behind the scene?
The two books of Samuel cover just over a century of Israel’s history from 1080 to 970 B.C., from Samuel’s birth to David’s death. Judges tells how Israel slid into lawless confusion after conquering the promised land. Judges ends by saying “Israel wasn’t ruled by a king, and everyone did what they thought was right” (Judg 21.25). Besides internal turmoil, Israel also faced a constant outside military threat from the aggressive Philistines, who lived on the Mediterranean coast just west of Israel.
But this would soon change. 1 Samuel opens with a loosely organized group of twelve tribes trembling before their Philistine enemies. By the end of 2 Samuel, however, David is described as the king of a unified and powerful nation. The story of Israel’s religious growth during the same time is also impressive. 1 Samuel describes how the Israelites gathered several times a year to worship and offer sacrifices to the Lord. As 2 Samuel closes, Jerusalem has become the center of worship, and David has built an altar at the place where his son Solomon would later build a magnificent temple.
How is 1 Samuel constructed?
The book can be divided into three major sections, one for each of its main characters—Samuel, Saul, and David:
- Samuel (1.1—7.17)
- Samuel’s childhood (1.1—2.10)
- Samuel at the sacred tent (2.11—4.1)
- War with the Philistines (4.2—7.2)
- Samuel leads Israel (7.3-17)
- Saul (8.1—15.35)
- Israel pleads with Samuel (8.1-32)
- Saul becomes king (9.1—11.15)
- Samuel’s reminds the people to worship and obey the Lord (12.1-25)
- Saul disobeys the Lord and is rejected (13.1—15.35)
- David (16.1—31.13)
- The Lord chooses David (16.1—18.5)
- Saul turns against David (18.6—19.17)
- David runs away (19.18—27.12)
- Saul and his sons die (28.1—31.13)
This part of 1 Samuel begins and ends in Ramah, Samuel’s home town. It describes Samuel’s life and service to God. As the last of the judges and as a priest who becomes a prophet, Samuel carries out God’s will in choosing and rejecting kings as Israel struggles with becoming a monarchy.
Born in answer to the prayers of his childless mother Hannah, Samuel’s early life points to his later service to God as a priest, leader, and prophet.
Samuel at the Sacred Tent
War with the Philistines
The Philistines capture the sacred chest during a war with the Israelites. As the leader of the Israelites, Samuel inspires hope among the people.
Samuel Leads Israel
This part of 1 Samuel also begins and ends in Ramah, Samuel’s home. Israel asks for a king like the ones that ruled other nations. Saul is chosen, but fails in the end.
Israel Pleads with Samuel
When the Israelites ask for a king, Samuel reminds them that God is king in Israel.
Saul Becomes King
Samuel’s Reminds the People to Worship and Obey the Lord
Saul Disobeys the Lord and Is Rejected
Following Samuel’s speech on what kings should do, the story gives several examples of Saul’s failure and his disobedience to the Lord.
This third and last part of 1 Samuel moves the story away from Ramah as Saul continues to falter and David is being prepared to be king.
The Lord Chooses David
Samuel pours oil on David’s head to show that God has chosen David to be king. David has courage and faith in God, while Saul’s fear and anxiety continue to grow.
Saul Turns against David
Jealous of David’s success, Saul plots against him and tries to have him killed.
David Runs Away
Saul pursues David in a jealous rage, and David escapes time and again. Finally, David escapes by joining the Philistines and agreeing to help them fight against Israel.
Saul and His Sons Die
Samuel’s ghost predicts Saul’s death in a battle with the Philistines.
Questions about 1 Samuel 1.1—7.17
1. Samuel was an important figure in Israel’s history, but most of the first two chapters tell his mother Hannah’s story. Why do you think that is?
2. Hannah gave her very young son Samuel to be raised by the priest Eli. How difficult would it have been for her to make that decision? Why? (2.21-26)
3. The twelve tribes of Israel were living in the land promised to them by God (Gen 17.8). Why did they continue to face threats from their neighbors?
4. What were Eli’s strengths and weaknesses as a priest and as a father? How did these affect the Israelites? (1.1—2.35)
5. The Philistines became afraid when they heard the sacred chest was in the Israelites’ camp. If they were afraid, why do you think they captured it? (4.6-11) Why did they return it? (5.1-13) What was the the importance of the sacred chest to the Israelites?
6. What examples of the power of prayer do you find in 1 Samuel 1–7?
Samuel and Saul, bas relief carving from the Freiburg Cathedral, Freiburg, Germany, around 1300. The people of Israel wanted to be like the nations around them and to have a king who would rule them and lead them into battle. At first the Lord gave the prophet Samuel a message to warn the people about what a king would do to them, but when the people continued to ask for a king the Lord agreed and led Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, to Samuel. Although this Gothic carving doesn’t show the prophet pouring oil on the kneeling Saul’s head, the “hand of God” reaching down from heaven is the artist’s way of showing that the Lord chose Saul to be Israel’s leader. (See chapters 8–10.)
Questions about 1 Samuel 8.1—15.35
1. The behavior of Eli’s sons led to his replacement as a leader (2.12-17; 22-25; 3.11-18). By contrast, how did the behavior of Samuel’s sons affect Samuel’s leadership? (8.1-5)
2. The Israelites wanted to be like other nations and be led by a king (8.5,19,20). What reasons did they give? Why was it hard for them to trust in God alone? (12.19,20)
3. Samuel indicated that Saul was to be Israel’s king by pouring oil on his head, but then almost immediately reminded the people not to put all their trust in a king. Why do you think he did so? (11.14,15; 12.1-23)
4. Saul offered a sacrifice to the Lord instead of waiting for Samuel (13.7-15). What did that say about Saul’s character? How did Saul react to Samuel’s angry response?
5. Read 15.1-23 and the mini-article called “Holy War (The Lord’s Battles),” p. 286. How did the Israelites’ understanding of holy war relate to their being God’s chosen people?
6. Samuel was a priest, a prophet, and a judge. Pick an incident that shows his strengths in each role. How are these roles similar? How are they different?
7. Read 15.22. Rewrite this verse in your own words to make it more meaningful in today’s culture.
Questions about 1 Samuel 16.1—31.13
1. God told Samuel, “People judge others by what they look like, but I judge people by what is in their hearts” (16.7). According to 1 Samuel what was in David’s heart that prepared him to be the future king? (16.18)
2. In chapters 17, 24, and 25 David fought against various enemies. What do the different ways he treated these enemies show about his character?
3. Describe in your own words the role David and Jonathan’s friendship played in the up-and-down relationship of King Saul and David (18.1-4; 19.1-8; 20.1-42; and 23.14-18).
4. David has the chance to kill Saul several times, but each time he spares the king’s life. What differences do you see between the incidents in chapters 24 and 26?
5. Jonathan put loyalty to David, the future king, above loyalty to his own father, the ruling king. Why do you think Jonathan acted in this way? What does loyalty mean to you? When is it justified? When is it misplaced?
6. Even after David knew he would one day be king of Israel, he did not always seem to act in the best interest of Israel (see, for example, chapter 21). How do you think he would have explained his actions to others? How would he have explained them to God?
7. What do you think were David’s best qualities as a leader? What were his worst qualities? Describe the qualities you look for in a leader.
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