musings from my rich inner world…

History from a Perspective

As a general rule most readers approach a text differently depending on its perceived genre.  When reading a poem we often assign value to alliteration, wordplay, meter and the author’s ability to convey maximum imagery or meaning in a succinct form.  Novels are evaluated for their settings, character development, narrative technique and other literary attributes.  When presented with a research article or a nonfiction book we may look for coherent and convincing argumentation or a clear exposition of a body of facts.  In addition, the reader must make a decision about how to read the material.  Will the information presented be taken at face value or critically examined and perhaps questioned?

[Instructor’s Comment:  Good intro.]

When turning our attention to the Bible these same issues arise.  The scriptures comprise a number of genres including parables, law codes, poetry, proverbs, correspondence, calls to action and narratives that describe events of long ago.  While some of these genres are easily discerned and appreciated, others may prove more difficult to detect or evaluate.  To illustrate this point we will examine the Deuteronomistic History in broad detail and then focus on the birth of the Israelite prophet Samuel as told in the book that bears his name.  Though the story told in the text is familiar to many, we will primarily deal with the way in which scholars propose the text came into its current form.

1 Samuel is found in what scholars believe to be a larger composition known as the Deuteronomistic History (DH) which encompasses the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings (McKenzie 398).  The DH material takes its name from the book of Deuteronomy and its distinctive covenant language that describes God’s blessings on Israel in return for Israel’s observance of the law.  Most scholars believe that an editor or group of editors known as the "Deuteronomists" (Dtr or Dtrs) assembled DH from many different sources into a continuous theological narrative that describes the Israelite conquest of Canaan under Joshua and continues through the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  Passages containing language characteristic of the Dtrs that repeat the overall theme of cause and effect as defined by the terms of the original Deuteronomic covenant hold together and reinterpret the sources, written in many different times and places.  Scholars believe that the narrative was created in exile as a theological attempt to explain the causes of the military defeat of Judah, the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent deportation of the people to Babylon.

David Jobling asserts that the first 12 chapters of 1 Samuel are actually an extension of the preceding book of Judges within the DH (43).  He points out that the First Judge Cycles (Judges 2:11-16:31) have no way of dealing with the issue of leadership succession.  Thus, at the end of each vignette, the judge dies and there is no immediate champion of the people to rise up.  The Israelites attempt to solve this problem toward the end of the cycle by naming Gideon’s son, Abimelech, as his father’s successor to rule over the people.  While this attempt at succession ends disastrously, it is Israel’s first flirtation with the idea of a king.  The Last Judge Cycles are then picked up beginning in Judges 17 and continue through Samuel’s military victories in 1 Samuel 7 (Jobling 50).

Scholars believe that the material presented in what is now 1 Samuel was originally made up of several older sources including a cycle of stories celebrating Saul and a similar cycle known as the "History of David’s Rise" (HDR) in praise of David[1] (McCarter 19-21).  In an early stage of redaction, these two narratives were stitched together by an unknown editor who introduced the idea Yahweh divinely chooses and deposes kings through a chosen mediator.  Scholars have come to call this redaction layer the Prophetic Tradition because of the introduction of the prophet as a pivotal role in the monarchic tradition.  Introduced as the last in the series of judges, Samuel eventually transitions to the role of the first of the major prophets who speak on God’s behalf (McCarter 20), anointing Israel’s first two kings and pronouncing God’s judgment against Saul when the spirit of the Lord moves on to favor David.[2]

It is impossible to identify with any certitude the various layers of redaction found in the DH; however, Figure 1 below is my attempt at constructing one possible representation of the various strata referenced by Jobling and McCarter.


Fig. 1. Strata within the Deuteronomistic History relating to the Samuel narrative.

Fig. 1. Strata within the Deuteronomistic History relating to the Samuel narrative.
(Click to enlarge)

Having laid out an overview of how these various sources may have come together, we can finally focus on the birth narrative of Samuel.

Though obscured in the English translation, the author of the birth narrative found in 1 Samuel makes several puns on the Hebrew root šʾl which means "to ask or petition" as in 1:17, 20 and 27.  In 1:28 as Hannah presents her son to Eli for consecration and service to Yahweh, she is quoted as saying, "Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord" (NRSV).  In both the word lent and given the Hebrew echoes again the root šʾl.

The redactor of the Prophetic Tradition reports that Hannah has chosen the name Samuel (šmwʾl) for her son because she had asked (šʾl) for him from God (1:20).  However, in his notes on this passage McCarter explains that the etymology given for Samuel’s name explains it as though it were šemēʾēl, "He-who-is-from-God," rather than šemûʾēl, "His-name-is-El," as presented in the text.  Is there an explanation for this discrepancy?

McCarter points out that the Hebrew phrase, hûʾ šāûl lĕyahweh (usually translated "it was from Yahweh that I requested him"), found in the dedication can also be rendered "He is dedicated (Saul) to Yahweh" (62).  This translation, taken together with the multiple word-plays in the passage on the root šʾl make the case that the birth narrative was not originally written about Samuel, but rather about Saul.  [Instructor’s Comment:  interesting]  Like the stories of Isaac, Jacob/Esau, Joseph and Samson before him, Saul’s birth narrative describes Yahweh’s role in opening the womb of a woman who has been unable to conceive – a sign reserved for figures of special destiny within the narrative.  McCarter suggests that the author of the Prophetic Tradition altered the Saul Cycle in order to avoid any allusions to Saul being ordained by God from birth as a king over Israel (62).

Source critics suggest that Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 1-10) was most likely added to the narrative at an even later layer of redaction.  While the poem reflects a tone of thanksgiving that might be appropriate to Hannah’s state of mind, it is also a psalm of national thanksgiving (New Oxford 401, commentary) which presupposes the existence of a monarchy that had not yet developed within the narrative history of the book.  McCarter suggests that the text was actually written sometime in the monarchical period, as early as the ninth or late tenth century BCE (96) and only later inserted into this particular story as an expression of Hannah’s joy.

When studying the birth narrative of Samuel from a theological perspective, readers are often encouraged to read the history in the text to derive its meaning.  At the most immediate level we find comfort in the idea that in difficult circumstances God answers the prayers of even the lowly and marginalized.  Zooming out we find lessons to learn in the faith of Samuel and his obedience to the voice of God.  And at still a more macro level we begin to question whether Israel (and by extension today, the Church) needs an earthly leader who will champion the people or whether it is better to simply put one’s trust in God to be the champion and provider in every situation.  All of these seem like reasonable positions to take based on the text at hand.  But how should the history of the text affect the way in which it should be taught or preached?  Should it make any difference that Saul’s birth narrative may have been co-opted by the Prophetic Tradition to establish a place for a class of prophets who will stand between the people and God?  Should it matter to us that perhaps at the same time Saul is painted as an inept and unprepared foil to Samuel and David that he may simply be the device of a school of thought that seeks to deny the validity of judges as leaders for ancient Israel?  More broadly, should the explanations offered by the Deuteronomists as they sat in Babylonian captivity and attempted to understand the fall of Israel and seeming loss of divine protection be allowed to affect our perceptions of the story today?

Unless a preacher has already worked through general historicity issues and gained the trust of her congregation, it seems foolhardy to stand up and announce that the Samuel birth narrative was borrowed and reworked for the agenda of the Prophetic Tradition.  [Instructor’s Comment:  But that doesn’t mean it can’t influence a sermon.]  In light of the various layers of redaction that have brought this story to us, several points may require explanation when the text is taught.  If it is true that the birth narrative is borrowed from the Saul cycle, then the preacher walks a fine line between preaching with integrity and doing more harm than good if sufficient care is not taken to unpack the text.  A sermon that utilizes Hebrew skills, form or redaction criticism or even socio-historical methods will likely stumble into matters of historicity that cannot be sufficiently addressed in a 10- to15-minute homily.  The wise pastor of a lectionary-based community may choose to preach the epistle passage that day.

Ideally a bible study would be used as a more fruitful arena for exploring the various dimensions of the passage.  A smaller, more informal venue would allow the teacher to interact with students, gauge responses to new information and attempt to explore the various aspects of the text in a manner that encourages learning and focuses faith beyond the need that the text be literally true.  There are several areas of consideration that seem immediately worthy of exploration.

It seems important to teach the distinction between the historical setting of the piece and the actual history of how the text came to be.  All too often those who even bother to read these texts assume that they are a factual historical account, relayed by eyewitnesses to the events themselves.  This assumption often complicates critical study.  The reader, invested in God’s direct intervention in the lives of the Israelites as conveyed within the narrative, often perceives intellectual discussion as an attempt to destroy faith.  Understanding that the narrative was assembled from separate, pre-existing sources and reinterpreted through the lens of the Babylonian captivity should allow us a certain objective distance from which to evaluate the text.

Once we are able to clearly distinguish between the story in the text and the story of the text, perhaps we can begin to appreciate each of the various stages for what they are.  Perhaps we may even empathize with the people at each stage of the redaction process.  From the macro level we may explore the motivations of the Deuteronomists.  The hardships of exile and the loss of their homeland would most certainly have been hard for the people of Judah.  It seems logical that they would look for reasons for their defeat and deportation.

Moving back through time, perhaps we can even empathize with those who felt the need for a monarch when their small nation was beset on all sides by rival military powers.  The idea of a king with a centralized government and standing army may have provided some reassurance in the face of marauding neighbors encroaching on the land.

Finally, tracing the text sources even further back, perhaps we can find some pity for the shadowy character whose life became the basis for Saul – a man lifted up as a tribal chieftain to champion his people, only to be brought low again by a narrative that required his incompetence as a catalyst for raising David as the great messiah of the Golden Age of Israel’s history.

[Instructor’s Comment:  a nice ending]

[1] Scholars believe that HDR was originally written as an apologetic to defend the outsider David against accusations of murder and treachery in his ascension to Saul’s throne.

[2] The tradition of prophetic intervention in the affairs of monarchs will continue throughout the narrative with the introduction of Nathan during the reign of David and the narratives of Elijah and Elisha found in Kings.

Works Cited

Jobling, David.  1 Samuel.  Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry.  Ed. David W. Cotter.  Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998.

McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr.  1 Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes & Commentary.  The Anchor Bible Series.  New York: Doubleday, 1980.

McKenzie, Steven L.  "1 Samuel." The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  3rd ed.  Ed. Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford, Eng.:  Oxford University Press, 2001.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd ed. Ed. Michael D. Coogan.  Oxford, Eng.:  Oxford University Press, 2001.

Instructor’s Comments

A thoughtful, independent piece. Good use of resources. Clear that you enjoy historical/diachronic dimensions of texts and research. You’re good at it, too.

A few questions:

– Is the issue really genre, as your intro suggests? Is genre different than historical setting? Or perhaps better stated, what were your conclusions about the genre of the Deuteronomistic History?

– We’ll work more on the "how to share this stuff," but perhaps it would help to reflect on how the broad idea of retrospective readings might influence a sermon.

– I like your closing comments about Saul.

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