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Why do the books of Samuel pack such broad appeal? Taken together as a single narrative, they certainly offer something for everyone: kings and prophets, great battles and greater heroes, action and romance, loyalty and betrayal, the mundane and the miraculous. In Samuel, we meet Saul, David, Goliath, Jonathan, Bathsheba, the witch of Endor, and other unforgettable characters. And we encounter ourselves. For while the culture and conditions of Israel under its first kings is vastly different from our own, the basic issues of humans in relation to God, the Great King, have not changed. Sin, repentance, forgiveness, adversity, prayer, faith, and the promises of Godthese continue to play out in our lives today. Exploring the links between the Bible and our own times, Bill T. Arnold shares perspectives on 1 and 2 Samuel that reveal ageless truths for our twenty-first-century lives. Most Bible commentaries take us on a one-way trip from our world to the world of the Bible. But they leave us there, assuming that we can somehow make the return journey on our own. They focus on the original meaning of the passage but don’t discuss its contemporary application. The information they offer is valuablebut the job is only half done! The NIV Application Commentary Series helps bring both halves of the interpretive task together. This unique, award-winning series shows readers how to bring an ancient message into our postmodern context. It explains not only what the Bible meant but also how it speaks powerfully today.
About the Author
Bill T. Arnold (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is director of Hebrew studies and professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of Encountering the Book of Genesis, and coauthor of Encountering the Old Testament, and A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. He and his wife, Susan, have three sons and live in Lexington, Kentucky.
Read an Excerpt
1 & 2 Samuel
By Bill T. Arnold
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Zondervan
All right reserved.
1 Samuel 1
There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3 Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Elkanah her husband would say to her, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?"
9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the Lord's temple. 10 In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. 11 And she made a vow, saying, "O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head."
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."
15 "Not so, my lord," Hannah replied, "I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief."
17 Eli answered, "Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him."
18 She said, "May your servant find favor in your eyes." Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, "Because I asked the Lord for him."
21 When the man Elkanah went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, 22 Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, "After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always."
23 "Do what seems best to you," Elkanah her husband told her. "Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the Lord make good his word." So the woman stayed at home and nursed her son until she had weaned him.
24 After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. 25 When they had slaughtered the bull, they brought the boy to Eli, 26 and she said to him, "As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. 27 I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. 28 So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord." And he worshiped the Lord there.
First Samuel 1-7 narrates the ministry of Samuel during one of the most critical moments of Israel's history. The first section (chs. 1-3) legitimizes Samuel by describing the holy events surrounding his birth and his sensitivity to God's call during his childhood. The emphasis on the righteousness of Samuel and his family is heightened by contrasts with Eli and his wicked sons, the priests of the tabernacle at Shiloh. The second section (chs. 4-7, the so-called "ark narratives") describes the early wars between Israel and the Philistines and again shows the importance of Samuel's ministry.
Modern scholarship has speculated about a variety of sources for 1 Samuel 1-7. It is possible that the historian has combined three traditions: (1) Shiloh traditions highlighting Samuel (1 Sam. 1-3); (2) an ark narrative (1 Sam. 4-6, more precisely 4:1b-7:1); (3) a chapter on the leadership of Samuel as judge in Israel (1 Sam. 7, or 7:2-17).
But it is also obvious that the author of the book intends us to read these chapters together. They contain a clear structural coherence that is intentional from the start. (1) In chapters 1-3, Samuel arrives during a time in which Israel was experiencing peace. This unit reveals the sins of the house of Eli and the righteous character of Samuel and his family, and it mentions the "ark of God" for the first time in these books (1 Sam. 3:3). Its overarching concern is doubtless to provide the background for Samuel, the one who will deliver Israel in the coming crisis. (2) The second unit (4:1b-7:1) describes the Philistine crisis itself, in which the Philistines commanded a decisive military advantage over the Israelites. Without a single reference to Samuel, the ark narrative tells of the punishment of the house of Eli and the loss of the ark to the Philistines. (3) In the final section (7:2-17), Samuel is reintroduced into the narrative as the one who leads Israel to repentance and deliverance. Regardless of the sources used by the historian, the literary structure of the canonical form of the text is the focus of our interpretation.
Samuel is one of those great Bible figures who seems larger than life. In terms of Old Testament history, he was an important transitional figure at one of the most important turning points in the life of the nation, namely, the rise of Israelite kingship. Ever since Moses had led the nation out of Egypt, the Israelites had been a loosely organized confederation of tribes governed as a theocracy. God was their king, and he ruled through designated human leaders. During the centuries prior to Samuel, the tribes were independent, joining only temporarily for purposes of joint military forays organized and led by divinely appointed judges. Now in 1 Samuel 1-3, Samuel is introduced as an important step from theocracy to monarchy. He is a judge like others in the book of Judges. But he is also a prophet, like those great prophets who would later play an important role in Israel's history. Samuel was forging new territory for Israel.
As we know from the concluding unit of the Judges (Judg. 17-21), the period in which Samuel was born was one of great moral apostasy. During this time everyone did what was right in his or her own opinion (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). The nation seemed to be adrift without a moral conscience, nor did it have any external moral compass to give definition to righteousness. The leadership was perverse, and the people were wicked. It was obvious to the author of Judges that the nation was headed for total disaster unless God provided a righteous king to lead the people.
Thus, 1 Samuel 1 introduces Samuel by relating the unique circumstances of his birth. The narrative emphasizes the devotion and ethical character of Samuel's parents, which provides a stark contrast to the apostate and degenerate nation of Israel at this time. Clearly, God has special plans for Samuel. His birth is a momentous event in salvation history, separating the period of the judges from that of the kings.
Background of Hannah and Her Problems (1:1-8)
The opening unit of this chapter introduces Samuel's family. The details of geography and family heritage (1:1-2) are clues that Samuel was born to propitious circumstances, and these details anticipate the significance of his birth. The fact that Elkanah's long line is preserved in the sacred traditions indicates that Samuel is from aristocracy. In fact, the Chronicler gives the added detail that Samuel's line is from the Kohathite family of Levitical priests (1 Chron. 6:26-27, 33-34), who were originally responsible for caring for the ark of the covenant (Num. 3:31). Nor is Elkanah's polygamy a problem (1 Sam. 1:2), since such practices were not uncommon in the Old Testament. Indeed, Hannah's inability to conceive children may well have given rise to the need for a second wife.
This opening paragraph contains several features that illustrate the righteousness of Samuel's parents. Elkanah is depicted as an upstanding Israelite who cares deeply for his family and carefully attends to his religious commitments. (1) He gives himself faithfully to the proper worship of Yahweh at great personal cost and sacrifice ("year after year this man went up," 1:3). The law of Moses mandated regular trips to the tabernacle to worship (Deut. 16:16), and Elkanah is a faithful Israelite, concerned to fulfill his vows to Yahweh. The yearly festival in view here is likely the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrated at the end of each summer (Lev. 23:33-43), though it may also have been a private, personal pilgrimage distinct from the regularly prescribed requirements. (2) Elkanah carefully and generously distributes meat to his family, likely a common practice during the festivals in which certain sacrifices were offered (1:4). (3) Finally, Elkanah loves Hannah deeply, despite her unenviable position as a barren wife (1:5, 8).
The concluding statement of verse 2 sets up the painful situation for Hannah: "Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none." In the ancient social setting, the most important role for a wife was to bear children. Men of financial means needed to have a male heir to continue the line, and barren wives suffered the embarrassment and shame of seeing another wife provided for their husbands, as Hagar did for Sarah and Bilhah for Rachel. Elkanah's impressive past (1:1) will find a future in Peninnah's children rather than through his favorite wife, Hannah. Hannah's intense pain is exacerbated by the insufferable cruelty inflicted on her by her counterpart, Peninnah: "Her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her" (1:6). This is a perpetual burden for Hannah, since it recurs each year at the time for the festival in Shiloh (1:7).
The passing reference to the ruling priestly family is a subtle reminder that the nation has strayed far from God (1:3): "Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord." The next few chapters reveal just how apostate the priestly leadership has become. But even as this becomes clear in the narrative, it is equally clear that Samuel has been prepared from birth to lead the nation back to God.
Hannah's Prayer (1:9-18)
While at the Lord's temple for the festival at Shiloh, Hannah weeps and prays earnestly, making a vow to Yahweh. In despair, she turns to Yahweh for help. Her years of barrenness have convinced her that any children born to her will be nothing short of a miraculous gift from God. Therefore, she vows to return such a precious gift to God forever, if he will only answer her cry. Her vow also promises that "no razor will ever be used on his head" (1:11), which implies the so-called "Nazirite" vow.
The term nazir ("Nazirite") is defined in Numbers 6, where a man or woman can make a special vow of separation to Yahweh. The vow involves a period of time in which the Nazirite abstains from wine and other products of the vine, uses no razor on his or her head, and avoids contact with dead bodies. Numbers 6 probably regulated and standardized an already ancient Semitic institution. After the period of separation was over, Numbers 6 prescribed a ritual for terminating the vow. Interestingly, in the case of Samson (Judg. 13) and Samuel, the vow does not appear to be temporary but permanent. Thus, Hannah is offering her unborn child as a permanent Nazirite, whose life will be wholly and exclusively God's.
The encounter between Eli and Hannah contains an ironic twist. Eli represents the corrupt and apostate leadership of the priesthood and Hannah the simple faith that issues from suffering and pain. Yet Eli mistakes her earnestness for drunkenness. The spiritual leader of the nation is unable to discern the spiritual significance of this woman's struggle. In the end, he recognizes in her the faith he was supposed to represent (1:17). After she has poured out her soul to Yahweh (1:15), she finds a new peace with herself and her circumstances. She is able to eat and is no longer disconsolate (1:18).
The Birth of Samuel (1:19-20)
These verses reveal a quick answer to Hannah's prayer. After their return trip home, Elkanah "lay with Hannah his wife," which in Hebrew is simply he "knew" her. The original language is graphic at this point. Elkanah knows her and Yahweh remembers her, as he remembered Rachel when he opened her womb (Gen. 30:22). God's remembering someone in the Old Testament (zkr) does not mean that he has forgotten them, only that his memory is consistent with his promises and that he will take action (Ex. 2:23-25). Such language emphasizes his faithfulness when confronted with the earnest need and prayer of his people.
Birth narratives play an important role in biblical literature. They generally have specific features, all of which are present in Samuel's birth narrative. (1) The birth of the child marks a turning point, or at least some significant episode in Israel's history. (2) The narratives usually reveal something of the baby's character or future role in Israel's history. (3) Individuals whose births are announced in such a way are the solution to a dire problem. (4) Finally, such birth narratives always emphasize the providential significance of the new character's name.
As an example of such birth announcements, the arrival of Isaac was the answer to Abraham's and Sarah's barrenness, and as the child of the ancestral promises, Isaac's birth was a linchpin of ancestral faith (Gen. 21:1-4). The birth of Moses was the eventual salvation of the Israelites from Egypt (Ex. 2:1-10). The birth of Samson announced a new period of Israelite dominance of the Philistines (Judg. 13:2-5, 24-25). Isaiah could even predict the future birth of Immanuel, who would inaugurate a new messianic age (Isa. 7:14-17). Clearly the birth of Samuel into such circumstances marked for the narrator the dawning of a new day in Israel. The birth narratives of Jesus, of course, stand in this biblical tradition as the ultimate turning point in salvation history (Matt. 1:20-25; Luke 1:31-33).
Excerpted from 1 & 2 Samuel by Bill T. Arnold Copyright © 2003 by Zondervan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.