“Arise, go seek the asses,” says the King James Version of First Samuel 9:3. I thought the verse was pretty funny when I was 12. Honestly, I still think it’s funny.
First Samuel tells the story of the prophet Samuel as well as of the first king of Israel, Saul, and of the rise of David, who would eventually become king. The events the Old Testament book describes are said to have occurred around 1050 B.C., more than 3000 years ago.
It also describes talking to the dead via a medium or witch.
This post provides a short summary of 1 Samuel and points out seven interesting things about the book.
Three-Paragraph Summary of 1 Samuel
Elkanah had two wives. Peninnah would taunt Hannah about her inability to have children. Eli, the priest, saw Hannah mouthing things to herself and thought she has drunk. When he confronted her, she explained she was praying (she prayed to God for children). Hannah and Elkanah conceived, and she gave birth to Samuel whom she dedicated to serve God and who trained under Eli. Eli’s sons worked at the tabernacle and would sleep with women who worked there and stole people’s sacrifices, much to Eli’s distress. God told Samuel as a young man that Eli and his sons would soon be punished, and God eventually caused their death.
Samuel was highly respected among the tribes of Israel. They had been in Canaan for over 100 years with no king, and the people decided they wanted one. Samuel said no, but God told Samuel to say yes and had Samuel anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. Samuel indicated he would essentially retire, but he did not. As an aside, the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant (containing the 10 Commandment tablets), returning it when the Ark caused plagues among them.
Saul’s relationship with Samuel and God soured, with Saul sometimes not doing what Samuel said, and God stopped favoring Saul and even made things harder. This made Saul frustrated (and a bit nuts). God had Samuel anoint David as the future king. David was very popular. He had a good relationship with Saul’s children, too, and Saul, after keeping David close, tried to kill him. David escaped, with the aid of Saul’s children, and fled to the wilderness with a band of followers and continued to evade Saul. Saul eventually died in battle (one account says by suicide) along with all of his sons, except one who was disabled. Soon after, David became king.
The date of the book’s writing and editing and its author are unknown. Most scholars recognize that the text was likely pieced together from multiple sources and authors and that it has been edited several times.
Here are 7 interesting things about First Samuel–
1. The literal reading of verse 13:1 is “Saul was a year old when he became king and he reigned over Israel for two years.”
Nearly all scholars note that a number was omitted at some point from the first part of the verse (Saul was a tall young man before he became king, see verse 9:2).
There are many corruptions throughout 1 Samuel in that words are missing, varying manuscripts of First Samuel have been found that say different things, and several events in First Samuel are described twice in different ways.
2. 1 Samuel 9:3 (KJV) says “And the asses of Kish Saul’s father were lost. And Kish said to Saul his son, ‘Take now one of the servants with thee, and arise, go seek the asses.'”
Saul was looking for his dad’s donkeys when he met Samuel the prophet, who would anoint Saul king of Israel.
3. 1 Samuel 17:40-51 tells the familiar story of David killing Goliath, but 2 Samuel 21:19 says that it was Elhanan who killed Goliath.
2 Samuel 21:19–
“Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”
There are also two different stories about Saul becoming king (1 Sam 9:15-10:9 vs. 10:20-24); two different stories of how David and Saul met (1 Sam 16:14-23 vs. 17:31-37, 55-58); and two different stories of Saul throwing a spear at David (18:10-11 vs. 19:9-10). There are several other stories told twice in different ways.
4. David and Jonathan loved each other.
1 Samuel 18:1-4:
“And it came to pass … that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. … Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle. And David went out whithersoever Saul sent him ….”
When Jonathan died, David lamented, in 2 Samuel 1:26:
“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
5. The Bible describes a witch who brings back the ghost of the dead to have a conversation.
Can we talk with the dead today? First Samuel reports it happening after Samuel died:
“Then the woman said [to Saul], “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.” … The woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the ground.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a robe.” So Saul knew that it was Samuel …
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for … God … answers me no more, … so I have summoned you to tell me what I should do.” Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? … [T]he Lord will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me….”
(1 Samuel 28:3-25).
6. David and his men (before he becomes king) act a bit like gangsters.
For some time, David and a large group of men traveled together in sparsely populated areas, evading Saul. They needed food and supplies. So David sent 10 of his men to visit a wealthy man, Nabal.
David said to his men “Go … to Nabal, and greet him in my name. Thus you shall salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”
Is this nicely asking for help or a protection racket — nothing has happened to your shepherds, we need payment?
When David heard Nabal declined his request,
“David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And every one of them strapped on his sword; David also strapped on his sword; and about four hundred men went up after David ….”
7. David is married to at least two women at the same time before he becomes king.
“David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel; both of them became his wives.” (1 Sam 25:43).
1 Kings 15:5 tells us, “David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”
First Samuel is a fascinating book, raising many more questions than it answers.
Do such missing items in the text or different descriptions of the same event lessen the credibility of the Bible? No, just the opposite. No corruptions in a 2500+ year old text—in a time when there were no copy machines, type-writers, or climate-controlled storage facilities—would fairly call its authenticity into question. And the presence of what is likely multiple descriptions of the same event suggests that the writers tried to faithfully preserve the oral traditions of those events in writing for others to read, rather than trying to smooth it all out.
David is an ancestor of Christ and his rise is often viewed as a major turning point in the anticipation of Jesus, the messiah.
(The picture is one I took at night in January of the base of the Temple in Jerusalem, the city of David.)
Sources & Notes
Generally, Introduction and Part 1: The Jewish Study Bible 2d ed. 2014. Oxford: University Press (Tanakh Translation); see generally also The HarperCollins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Harold W. Attridge, ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006); John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Fortress, 2014).
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7: See the verses cited in the section and the sources cited above.
6: 1 Samuel 25. My fantastic Old Testament professor at Wake Forest University, Dr. Neal Walls, is the one who suggested this “racket” type view to me.
All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version (except for 1 Samuel 9:3, which is from the King James Version).
(Updated: Added the middle paragraph of the conclusion after some questions and comments I received.)