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The two Books of Samuel (Hebrew: Sefer Shmuel ספר שמואל) are part of a series of Old Testament books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) that constitute a theological history of the Israelites which affirms and explains God's law for Israel under the guidance of the prophets. According to Jewish tradition the book was written by Samuel, with additions by the prophets Gad and Nathan; modern scholarly thinking is that the entire history (called the Deuteronomistic history) was composed in the period c.630–540 BCE by combining a number of independent texts of various ages.
Samuel begins with the prophet Samuel's birth and God's call to him as a boy. The story of the Ark of the Covenant that follows tells of Israel's oppression by the Philistines, which brings about Samuel's anointing of Saul as Israel's first king. But Saul proves unworthy and God's choice turns to David, who defeats Israel's enemies and brings the Ark to Jerusalem. God then promises David and his successors an eternal dynasty.
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The childless Hannah vows to Yahweh that if she has a son, he will be dedicated to Yahweh. Eli, the priest of Shiloh (where the ark of the covenant is located), blesses her, and a child named Samuel is born. Samuel is dedicated to the Lord as a Nazirite, the only Nazirite beside Samson to be identified in the Old Testament. Eli's sons, Hopini and Phinehas, prove unworthy of the priesthood and are destroyed by God, but the child Samuel grows up "in the presence of the Lord."
The Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh and take it to the temple of their idol Dagon, who recognises the supremacy of Yahweh. The Philistines are afflicted with plagues and return the ark to the Israelites, but to the territory of the tribe of Benjamin rather than to Shiloh. The Philistines attack the Israelites gathered at Mizpah in Benjamin. Samuel appeals to Yahweh, the Philistines are decisively beaten, and the Israelites reclaim their lost territory.
In Samuel's old age, he appoints his sons as judges, but they are unworthy, and so the people clamour for a king. God reluctantly accedes and gives them Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul defeats the enemies of the Israelites, but commits sins against Yahweh.
Yahweh tells Samuel to anoint David of Bethlehem as king, and David enters Saul's court as his armour-bearer and harpist. Saul's son and heir Jonathan befriends David and recognises him as rightful king. Saul plots David's death, but David flees into the wilderness, where he becomes a champion of the Hebrews. David joins the Philistines, but continues secretly to champion his own people, until Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle. At this point, David offers a majestic eulogy, where he praises the bravery and magnificence of both his brother Jonathan and King Saul.
The elders of Judah anoint David as king, but in the north Saul's son Ishbaal rules over the northern tribes. After a long war Ishbaal is murdered hoping for reward from David, but David has them killed for killing God's anointed. David is then anointed King of all Israel. David captures Jerusalem and brings the Ark there. David wishes to build a temple, but Nathan tells him that one of David's sons will be the one to build the temple. David defeats the enemies of Israel, slaughtering Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, Syrians and Arameans.
David commits adultery with Bathsheba and plots the death of her husband; for this God punishes him, saying that the sword shall never depart from his house. For the remainder of his reign there are problems: one of his sons rapes one of his daughters, another son kills the first, his favourite son rebels and is killed, until finally only two contenders for the succession remain, one of them Bathsheba's son Solomon. 1 Kings then relates how, as David lies dying, Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan ensure Solomon's elevation to the throne.
1 and 2 Samuel were originally (and still are in some Jewish bibles) a single book, but the first Greek translation, produced in the centuries immediately before Christ, divided it into two; this was adopted by the Latin translation used in the early Christian church of the West, and finally introduced into Jewish bibles around the early 16th century CE. The modern Hebrew text (called the Masoretic text) differs considerably from the Greek, and scholars are still working at finding the best solutions to the many problems this presents.
According to Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud (Bava Basra 14b, 15a) the book was written by Samuel up until 1 Samuel 25, which notes the death of Samuel, and the remainder by the prophets Gad and Nathan. Critical scholars from the 19th century onward have rejected this idea. Martin Noth in 1943 theorized that Samuel was composed by a single author as part of a history of Israel, the Deuteronomistic history, made up of (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). Although Noth's belief that the entire History was composed by a single individual has been largely abandoned, his theory in its broad outline has been adopted by most scholars.
The most common view today is that an early version of the History was composed in the time of king Hezekiah (8th century BCE); the bulk of the first edition dates from his grandson Josiah at the end of the 7th, with further sections added during the Babylonian exile (6th century) and the work substantially complete by about 550 BCE. Further editing was apparently done even after then: for example, the silver quarter-shekel which Saul's servant offers to Samuel in 1 Samuel 9 almost certainly fixes the date of this story in the Persian or Hellenistic periods.
The 6th century authors and editors responsible for the bulk of the History drew on many earlier sources, including (but not limited to) an "ark narrative" (1 Samuel 4:1–7:1 and perhaps part of 2 Samuel 6), a "Saul cycle" (parts of 1 Samuel 9-11 and 13–14), the "history of David's rise" (1 Samuel 16:14-2 Samuel 5:10), and the "succession narrative" (2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2). The oldest of these, the "ark narrative," may even predate the Davidic era.
The sources used to construct 1 & 2 Samuel are believed to include the following:
The Book of Samuel is a theological evaluation of kingship in general and of dynastic kingship and David in particular. The main themes of the book are introduced in the opening poem (the "Song of Hannah"): (1), the sovereignty of Yahweh, God of Israel; (2), the reversal of human fortunes; and (3), kingship. These themes are played out in the stories of the three main characters, Samuel, Saul and David.
Samuel answers the description of the "prophet like Moses" predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15–22: like Moses, he has direct contact with Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, acts as a judge, and is a perfect leader who never makes mistakes. Samuel's successful defence of the Israelites against their enemies demonstrates that they have no need for a king (who will, moreover, introduce inequality), yet despite this the people demand a king. But the king they are given is Yahweh's gift, and Samuel explains that kingship can be a blessing rather than a curse if they remain faithful to their God. On the other hand, total destruction of both king and people will result if they turn to wickedness.
Saul is the chosen one, a king appointed by Yahweh, God of Israel, and anointed by Samuel, Yahweh's prophet, and yet he is ultimately rejected. Saul has two faults which make him unfit for the office of king: he carries out a sacrifice in place of Samuel (1 Samuel 13:8–14), and he fails to complete the genocide of the Amalekites as God has ordered (1 Samuel 15).
One of the main units within Samuel is the "History of David's Rise", the purpose of which is to justify David as the legitimate successor to Saul. The narrative stresses that he gained the throne lawfully, always respecting "the Lord's anointed" (i.e. Saul) and never taking any of his numerous chances to seize the throne by violence. As God's chosen king over Israel David is also the son of God ("I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me..." – 2 Samuel 7:14). God enters into an eternal covenant (treaty) with David and his line, promising divine protection of the dynasty and of Jerusalem through all time.
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