1 & 2 Samuel: A Kingdom Comes
by David Firth, T&T Bloomsbury, £14.99
‘The process of reading involves a dialogue between the text and the reader,” says David Firth at the start of his multi-layered investigation into how the two Books of Samuel have been read over generations. Perhaps the most narratively thrilling books of the Bible, 1-2 Samuel have long enchanted, perplexed and delighted readers with their panoramic canvas of battles and royal succession.
Starting with the birth of the prophet Samuel to a barren woman, 1 Samuel charts that decisive moment in the history of Israel when kingship begins and priestly rule ends. After the warring years of Judges, the people ask Samuel for a king. Samuel is not enamoured of kings and his list of depredations the people will suffer under one reads like the transcript of a modern despot’s rule. God is also uneasy with kingship but the people continue to demand it; so God, through Samuel, grants them their wish and Saul is anointed as Israel’s first king.
It’s an inauspicious beginning. Saul is portrayed as a haunted, possibly mentally unbalanced man who rejects God’s commands and can only be soothed by the sweet stirrings of David’s harp. The harrowing decline of Saul is juxtaposed against David’s meteoric rise.
David’s is one of the most profoundly human stories in the Bible, replete with family antagonism, treachery and prophecy. He is both hero and villain, a deeply compelling and conflicted character whose fate is almost Shakespearean in its complex morality. The text charts his ascent: slaying Goliath, his rebellion against Saul, the years as leader of a guerrilla band, his consecration as king and his adulterous reign.
As books, 1-2 Samuel have everything: politics, love, friendship, betrayal and a moral sting in the tail. It’s as if in answer to God’s distaste for kings, the narrative, in its unflattering portrait of Israel’s first two monarchs, delivers a resounding “I told you so”.
Firth brings Samuel to life, teasing out the complexities, incongruities and hidden mysteries of the text. He asks the fundamental question of interpretation: what genre does Samuel belong to? The answer is anything but simple. Samuel has traditionally been categorised as history. The Septuagint placed Samuel with the former prophets, Joshua and Judges, designating it as part of the historical sequence relating the formation of ancient Israel. The Septuagint also presents 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings as a single book, entitled 1-4 Kingdoms. Yet, as Firth rightly warns us, Samuel “contains history, but is not history itself ”.
Firth then looks at Samuel in relation to prophecy, asking whether the book is recounting Israel’s past in order to present a message to its present. He draws heavily on Robert Alter’s groundbreaking The Art of Narrative (1981) to explain how the book’s structure reflects its theological concerns. There’s a section on interpreting Samuel allegorically, such as in Chrysostom’s reading of David as an example of faith and the various ways it can be read as a prefigurement of the New Testament.
For those who like textual analysis, there’s a short chapter on the differences between the variant texts of Samuel and what this means theologically, followed by an immersive look at Martin Noth’s theory of a Deuteronomistic History and how the Books of Samuel sit at the centre of it.
Firth has a fluid style that renders even the most abstruse academic wrangling comprehensible. He allows us a glimpse of the richness of Samuel. On one level, it’s a story of ancient tribal structures giving way to the modern monarchy. But in the stories of Saul and David, it’s also a warning to history about human weakness, the leaders we choose and the limits of secular power.
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