The Division and Naming of the Book
Though 1–2 Samuel are two books in modern Bibles, they originally were one book. Due to their length, they were divided into two books in the Greek translation called the Septuagint (also known as the LXX). The Septuagint named the books 1 and 2 Kingdoms (or Reigns), along with what we now know as 1–2 Kings being 3 and 4 Kingdoms (Reigns). The Hebrew book of Samuel was first divided into two books in AD 1517 with the first Rabbinic Bible, and eventually this became the norm.
The name for the book can cause some confusion. Due to the practice of naming books after their author in other instances in the Bible, some may think that the prophet Samuel was the author of the book. This is not the case, however, as Samuel dies in the first half of the book (1 Sam 25:1). The book may have been named after him because he was the first main character in the book and was clearly a significant figure in Israelite history. His ministry formed a transition from the era of judges to that of kings. Samuel uniquely served as judge, priest, and prophet. He looms large in political events, religious proceedings, and military exploits. Following Samuel’s tenure, others did not multitask in this way: prophets served as prophets, priests as priests, etc. Samuel not only occupies the central role for the beginning of the book, his statements and actions set out the plan of what follows. He anointed the first two kings of Israel (1 Sam 9; 16), expounded on the role and character of kingship (1 Sam 12), and prophetically announced the end to Saul’s kingship and God’s special choosing of David as king (1 Sam 13:14). Thus, the naming of the book after Samuel is appropriate.
Like many other Old Testament books, the book of Samuel is anonymous and does not name anyone as its author. Some early Jewish traditions held that several prophets contemporary with the events wrote the book. This opinion was likely based on the book of Chronicles which refers to sources for David’s reign written by the prophets Samuel, Gad, and Nathan (1 Chr 29:29). While it is indeed possible that prophets contributed to the book, the book itself makes no such claim, and even Chronicles does not suggest the book was written totally by one of these prophets.
Regarding sources for the book, Samuel itself notes “the book of Jashar” as a written source employed by the author (2 Sam 1:18), and the administrative lists clearly reflect reliance on a written source as well (2 Sam 8:15–18; 20:23–25; 23:8–39). Scholars have further posited some hypothetical source material that was utilized by the author, including larger literary blocks often referred to as the ark narrative (1 Sam 4–7:1); the history of David’s rise (1 Sam 16–2 Sam 5); and the succession narrative (2 Sam 9–20; 1 Kgs 1–2).1
Similarly, the beginning of 1 Samuel is often thought to rely on early Shiloh traditions (esp. 1 Sam 1–3), and the end of 2 Samuel relies on other materials forming concluding appendices (2 Sam 21–24). Some scholars have further suggested that some of the sources were characterized by their pro-kingship stance (e.g., the story of Saul’s anointing and his deliverance of Jabesh Gilead in 1 Sam 9; 11:1–11), while other sources were anti-kingship (e.g., Samuel’s warnings about kingship in 1 Samuel 12).2
While the exact demarcation of different sources in Samuel is debated (and resists a scholarly consensus), it seems clear that a later author used a variety of older sources in writing the book, though most of these sources are no longer available to us.
Occasion for Writing
Determining the occasion for the writing of Samuel must consider the fact that the book is part of a larger, continuous storyline recounting the history of Israel from the time Israel entered the land to the time they were expelled from it (Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings). Together these books form a grand, connected narrative of Israel’s history that evaluated that history in light of the teachings and theology of Deuteronomy. For this reason, scholars often refer to this larger story as the “Deuteronomistic History.” The occasion for the writing of this history was the traumatic experience of the Babylonian exile, when much of the population of Judah was taken to Babylon after Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed in 586 BC by Nebuchadnezzar. The beleaguered exilic community had a crisis of faith at this time and wrestled with fundamental questions. How could this happen? Why were they in exile? What about God’s promises to David and the patriarchs? What does this mean for their faith and religion? During this crisis of faith, God inspired the author of Joshua–2 Kings to compose an epic narrating Israel’s story.
Though the author is anonymous, scholars refer to this author as “the Deuteronomist” (or “Dtr” for short) because the history he compiled was informed by the theology of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy addresses “all Israel” (Deut 1:1; 5:1; 11:6; 13:12; 18:6; 21:21; 27:9; 29:1; 31:1, 7, 11; 32:45; 34:12) as a single people of God in covenant with a single God—Yahweh. Furthermore, Israel is to worship at a single sanctuary—“the place the LORD your God will choose” (e.g., Deut 12:5; 14:24; 16:6; 18:6; 26:2; 31:11)—which later is revealed as Jerusalem. Though not a great focus in the book of Samuel, the choosing of this place is initiated with David’s conquest of Jerusalem (2 Sam 5) and the securing of the Temple Mount (2 Sam 24).
Another important aspect of the theology of Deuteronomy is its theology of “retribution” which became a guiding principle for the author of this history of Israel. This retribution theology maintains that obedience to God’s covenant will result in blessing, while disobedience will result in punishment. This can especially be seen in the list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28.
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: (Deut 28:1–2)
On the other hand, “if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” (Deut 28:15). This perspective is summed up well near the end of the book:
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Deut 30:19–20)
With Deuteronomy’s theological principles in place at the beginning of the history, Israel’s story unfolds and the reader is left to see whether Israel will be faithful and experience blessing in the land or whether they will be unfaithful and experience expulsion from the land. Thus, the book of Deuteronomy “appears as the hermeneutical key and the ideological basis for reading and understanding the following history.”3
Deuteronomy’s theology is clearly reflected in Samuel’s statements: “If you are returning to the LORD
with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD
and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam 7:3); and “do not turn away from the LORD
, but serve the LORD
with all your heart. . . . But be sure to fear the LORD
and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will perish” (12:20, 24–25).4
This theology is expressed not only in speeches of the prophet but in the events that unfold within the story. Thus, the history as a whole answers the questions of the exilic community based on Deuteronomy’s theology: the exile occurred because of their disobedience to God’s covenant; God’s promises have not failed; the people have failed and Israelite kings failed; and God is true to his word and he will bring his eternal covenant to fulfillment.