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The Story of Israel

Unit 3A


Israel under Samuel

Read 1 Samuel 1-7

Originally the Hebrew books of 1 and 2 Samuel were one scroll, covering the history of the first two kings of united Israel. They were probably compiled from earlier sources (such as the book of Jashar, 2 Sam. 1:18) about the same time as the two books of Kings (originally one scroll) during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century. The author is unknown.

We begin with the birth of Samuel, whose barren mother’s plight reminds us of Sarah, Rachel, and the mother of Samson. The text calls his father an Ephraimite, but 1 Chronicles 6:25 records Samuel’s genealogy as a Levite, which makes sense as he became a priest. Apparently this Levite family lived in the region of Ephraim (remember Levites did not have their own territory but lived among the other tribes).

At this time the tabernacle was at Shiloh, 20 miles north of Jerusalem (which remained under pagan rule until the time of David).

Eli is the present high priest and judge of the territory (4:18). The text says that Eli sits outside the tabernacle (some translations wrongly say “temple”) beside the doorpost, so at this time the tabernacle may have been a more permanent structure, since it did not have to travel through the desert anymore (see 3:15).

Eli sees Hannah praying with her lips moving and thinks she is drunk. Hannah, whose name means “grace,” calls upon Yahweh Sabbaoth, Lord of hosts or armies, the first use of this term in the OT. She promises that if God grants her a son, she will dedicate him to the Lord as a Nazirite (see Num. 6, and Samson). God answers her prayer and Samuel is born, whose name means “God heard.”

In 1:24 the Hebrew text describes Samuel as a na’ar, which indicates a young child who will become prominent, “on the rise.” Moses was called the same (Ex. 2:6). Hannah’s wonderful prayer in ch. 2 resembles that of Mary when she heard that she would give birth to the messiah (Luke 1). Note that verse 10 mentions the king; however, Israel will not have a king for several years. This may indicate that the prayer we have was adapted by others many years later.

One student wrote this comment: “I love the story of Hannah. Even though she did not have a child, her husband loved her anyway. But she becomes upset by the taunting of the other wife. Notice that the person whose opinion mattered was her husband, but she focused on the opinion that did not matter and neglected the opinion that did matter. How often do I focus on what the world or people say about me rather than God? How many times has God had to say to me, ‘Aren’t I worth more than anyone in this world? Isn’t my favor more important than theirs?’ When we allow our focus to shift from God to the world, we think we are missing something. But when we focus on God, we see ourselves through his eyes and realize that we have all that we need in Him.”

Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were wicked; the text literally calls them “sons of Belial” (2:12), in other words, sons of the devil (in the Dead Sea Scrolls, written hundreds of years later, Belial is called the King of Evil and the Prince of Darkness). Hophni and Phineas took advantage of the sacrificial offerings, claiming the fatty parts for themselves which were supposed to be dedicated to God (Lev. 3:16). They slept with women who came to the tabernacle. God tells Eli that his line of priests will end, and he will raise up another. The immediate fulfillment of this promise comes with Samuel, but in 1 Kings 2:27, 35 the author mentions Zadok as the new priestly line, whose descendants are noted in many scriptures for their faithfulness to the descendants of King David. Samuel’s sons turned out badly as well.

Eli seems to have been a good mentor for Samuel growing up, but both Eli and Samuel’s sons were notorious sinners. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Does the example of these two families prove the proverb wrong? No, we must understand that a proverb is a generalization based on practical wisdom and life experience. In most cases, parents who raise their children well will see the benefits in their children’s lives. But there are always exceptions. A proverb does not offer a guarantee or promise, but a reasonable prediction.

In 2.28, Eli wears the “ephod” which was a vest holding the Urim and Thummim, some type of objects used to reveal God’s will about certain matters (Ex 28). Some think these were two stones, black and white, signifying yes and no, by which means God would answer the priest’s questions, but the Bible doesn’t give a description of them.

In ch. 4 the Israelites make a crucial mistake in trying to use the ark of the covenant as a military weapon. When they are defeated, the Philistines capture the ark, and kill the two sons of Eli. When he hears the news about the ark, Eli falls and breaks his neck. Archaeologists have determined that not long after this time, around 1050 BC, Shiloh was destroyed by enemies, an event which God mentions as an example to his people in Psalm 78:60-1 and Jeremiah 7:12-14.

The Philistines soon come to regret their capture of the ark. God causes their idol to Dagon to fall down before the ark, then He inflicts them with tumors (the King James Bible calls them hemorrhoids). Some scholars believe this might have been bubonic plague because rats, common carriers of the plague, are mentioned (6:4-5). They send the ark back to Israel to the town of Beth Shemesh (named after a pagan sun god) where unfortunately the people do not respect the ark’s holiness, and God strikes them down. The ark is moved to Kiriath Jearim where it will stay for 20 years until David moves it to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).

The people mourn their losses, and Samuel tells them to get rid of their idols and repent before God. Ashtoreth (7:3-4) was a Babylonian fertility goddess, also known as Ishtar, similar to the Canaanite Athirat (see note in unit 2b). The site of worship changes from Shiloh to Mizpah. Once the people are again loyal to God, He helps them defeat the Philistines.


Samuel and Saul

Read 1 Samuel 8-13

When Samuel’s two sons prove to be poor leaders, the people request that Samuel appoint a king. In fact, in Judges 9, Gideon’s son Abimelech had attempted to be Israel’s first king, but his rule was short and disastrous.

Samuel says that Israel already has a king in God, and warns them that a king will draft their sons into the army and will begin to raise taxes on their food and property. Nevertheless, they continue to cry out for a human king. They want to be like other nations (8:20) whereas God wanted them to be different from all the other nations.

Samuel anoints Saul from the small tribe of Benjamin. The Hebrew text uses two different words for “king” or “leader.” Saul is called “nagid” in 9:16, a military leader, whereas God remained Israel’s “melech” or king (some English translations don’t make this distinction clear).

Once Saul has been privately anointed, God gives a sign of his special role by causing him to prophesy (10:10-11). At first the people do not accept him until Samuel confirms it.

In ch. 11 Saul makes allies of the people of Jabesh Gilead, coming to their rescue. This town was on the east side of the Jordan river near the land of the Ammonites. The Benjaminites had old ties with this town from the time of Judges 21, taking some of them as wives. After Saul dies, these people honor him by burying his body (1 Samuel 31). The text gives large numbers for the armies of Israel and Judah, but probably the word translated “thousand” should be “units” or “battalions” so that the text should read 300 units of undetermined size (see 1 Sam. 17:18 for a similar translation).

In ch. 12 Samuel, after leading Israel for many years, gives a farewell speech. He reminds them of their history and what the Lord has done for them, encouraging them to remain faithful. He calls on God to send a sign of rain during the wheat season which was usually dry.

Israel’s new king does not begin his career on a high note. He disobeys Samuel and conducts a sacrifice himself, which should have been offered by a priest. So from the beginning, Samuel tells Saul that his family will not remain on the throne after his time as king.

Ch. 14-15 (which you do not have to read) describe further battles of Israel and its enemies.


Saul and David

Read 1 Samuel 16-20

God directs Samuel to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king. At first, Samuel wants to select David’s older brothers because they are impressive looking, but God tells him that He has chosen David not for his outward appearance but for his heart (although vs. 12 does say that David was handsome as well). Too often we judge others and even ourselves by worldly standards: how attractive they are, how wealthy or successful or popular.

In 2 Cor. 5:16 Paul writes, “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” Earlier, before he accepted Jesus as the Messiah, Paul had judged Jesus according to worldly standards: a poor man without a home, unmarried, condemned for blasphemy to die by the worst means the Romans could devise, in other words, a total failure. Paul rounded up his followers as criminals. Yet seen through the eyes of faith, Jesus was the triumphant Son of God and his followers the holy church of God. We cannot allow the world’s values to determine our perspective.

God’s spirit leaves Saul, and he is troubled. The “evil” spirit described in the text could also be translated “troublesome” and does not necessarily mean a demonic being, but more likely what we would call severe depression today. David is summoned to the court to play for Saul to calm his nerves.

The name “Goliath” has been found on pottery (pictured here) near the Philistine city of Gath. While unlikely to be the giant of the Bible, it confirms that the name was common in that time. Goliath is a form of Greek name, which makes sense if the Philistines originally came  from Crete (see unit 2b).

Some biblical manuscripts give Goliath’s height as over nine feet tall, but other copies from the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are older thus probably more accurate) list his height at about six feet nine inches. In any case he was a large man and a formidable opponent. With God’s help, however, the young David easily defeats the giant.

In 17:54 the text describes David taking the head of Goliath to Jerusalem. This event must have occurred years later when he was king, for David does not take over the city of Jerusalem until later in 2 Samuel 5. The author looks ahead to a future event. David must have kept the skull as a war trophy.

In 17:55 Saul asks who this David is, what’s his family background, as if he doesn’t know him. This seems to indicate that these chapters are not in chronological order. Saul possibly made David his armor bearer (16:21) after he defeated Goliath.

David becomes best friends with the king’s son Jonathan, but his military successes cause Saul to become jealous. The king tries to kill David, the first of many attempts. The text says that Saul was prophesying (18:10) but a better translation would be Saul was “raving like a madman” when he threw his spear at David (likewise in 19:23). In ch. 20, Jonathan and David swear allegiance to each other, despite the king’s hatred. Jonathan sends a signal to David to warn him that Saul still intends to kill him, and David escapes.

In 19:9 it says that “an evil spirit from the Lord came on Saul,” similar to ch. 16. We shouldn’t think of this as some type of demonic possession. A better translation might be “harmful disposition.” Saul’s jealousy made him upset and angry. Sometimes God may use our own faults to punish us. We saw this in the case of Samson’s affair with Delilah which led to his blinding.

Read Psalm 59, “Deliver me from my enemies, O God,” which was written when Saul sent men to kill David in his home (1 Sam 19).


David runs from Saul

Read 1 Samuel 21-22, 24-26, 28, 31

Running from Saul, David stops at the tabernacle which is now at the town of Nob. He requests the bread usually left for the priests. Ahimelech, who is a descendant of Eli, gives it to him, since the men have kept themselves ceremonially clean by not sleeping with women while in the king’s service. David also retrieves the sword of Goliath. Next he hides among the Philistines, pretending to be insane. Read Psalm 34 which he wrote during this time.

As a rebel to the king, David becomes leader of an outlaw band of about 400 men. He asks the king of Moab to take in his parents, descendants of Ruth the Moabite. A spy named Doeg tells Saul that David had been to Nob. Saul has all the priests of Nob and their families slaughtered for helping David. Psalm 52 was written about this time.

In ch. 24 David has the chance to kill Saul while he is in a cave “using the restroom.” When Saul hears David calling to him and saying that he had spared his life, Saul momentarily repents, but not for long. David does this again in ch. 26.

Samuel’s death is mentioned briefly in 25:1.

David meets a woman named Abigail whose wisdom saves her foolish husband from David’s anger. When the husband dies later, David takes Abigail as his wife.

In ch. 28 Saul goes to visit a medium (literally a ghost-wife) to ask her to call back Samuel from the dead, since God will no longer answer his requests. Visiting a medium was against the laws that Saul himself had made. The woman is shocked when Samuel appears, so this seems to be due to God’s intervention, not her supposed powers. Samuel tells Saul that the next day he and his sons will die in battle against the Philistines.

Chapter 31 records the death of Saul who takes his own life after being mortally wounded. The people of Jabesh Gilead, whom Saul had rescued years before (ch. 11), take his body and give him proper burial.


Read Psalm 6

Some people who know only a few psalms such as “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Ps. 23) may think that psalms are always about praise, but many psalms deal with dark periods in the life of the author. David wrote many (but not all) of the psalms. This one was written during a time when he feared his enemies, and he asks God for protection. He might have written these words while running from Saul.

This psalm raises an interesting question about what Jews during the OT times understood about the afterlife. Verse 5 says, “Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” The word for grave in Hebrew is Sheol, the realm of the dead.

Sheol is not the same as Hell. According to OT Jewish belief, everyone goes to Sheol when they die. Samuel tells Saul that he will join him in the land of death (1 Sam 28:19). In the OT, the grave knows no distinctions; both the righteous and the wicked share the same dreary fate (Job 3:17). The Jews at this time did not understand a distinction between heaven and hell as taught in the fuller revelation of the NT.

According to the OT descriptions, Sheol is a place of darkness and gloom (Job 10:21-22, Ps 88:12). Sometimes Sheol is described symbolically as a hungry monster who is never satisfied (Isa 5:14, Hab 2:5, Ps 49:14), but most often the word is translated simply as the grave.

In Psalm 6 and other texts, the dead in Sheol know nothing (Eccl 9:5, 10). They cannot praise God (Ps. 6:5, 30:9, 88:10-12, 115:17; Isa 38:18).

The OT doesn’t say that a person’s “soul” goes to Sheol. Those in Sheol are never referred to as souls (nephesh) or spirits (ruach) but rephaim (Job 26:5; Ps 88:10-11; Prov 2:18, 9:18, 21:16; Isa 14:9, 26:14, 19), thus sometimes called “the weak or helpless ones” (former Lipscomb Bible professor Clyde Miller in his commentary on Psalms, 308).

Sheol is not the same as the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory, which isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. That term first appeared in the 12th century.

From these passages, we see that in OT times, the people did not have a clear understanding of an afterlife. There are only two passages in the OT which mention the resurrection of the dead:

“But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise. Let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning. The earth will give birth to her dead.” (Isaiah 26:19)

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan 12:2)

Apparently, for his own reasons, God did not reveal to his people fully about the afterlife until the New Testament times when the doctrine of resurrection was well known. Instead of Sheol, Jesus teaches about the resurrection with the assumption that his audience is familiar with the idea. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul provides the most comprehensive explanation of the resurrection.

So Christians do not need to fear the dreary place called Sheol. We look forward to Christ’s return when we will be raised in new bodies to meet him.


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