June 22, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The First Book of Samuel

John F. FinkFor the next three weeks, the biblical readings in the Office of Readings are from the First and Second Books of Samuel. These books should be read as one continuous story, but you don’t have to do it all at once.

This week, I’ll discuss the first book.

Read these books as if they were an interesting novel, although they are presented as part saga and part history. However you read them, they are undoubtedly among the most fascinating stories in the Old Testament.

In these books, we see the transformation of Israel from a confederation of tribes into a nation with a monarchy. The main characters are the prophet-judge Samuel, and kings Saul and David.

The Office of Readings skips the first 15 chapters. You miss a lot if you don’t read them. They contain stories about Samuel’s birth and youth, the loss and return of the Ark of the Covenant, Samuel as a successful military leader in battle against the Philistines, the establishment of the monarchy with Samuel’s anointing of Saul, Saul’s and Jonathan’s wars, and the ultimate rejection of Saul as king.

Chapter 16, where the Office of Readings begins, starts with Samuel anointing David as king to replace Saul. Saul doesn’t know that, though, and at first he befriends David, making him his armor-bearer.

Then comes the story that almost everybody knows—the fight between David and the Philistine giant Goliath, who stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall. This story, when first written, obviously had no connection to earlier events because David is shown as a young shepherd unknown to Saul.

It’s a classic “underdog” story in which the weak defeats the strong. We see the contrast between Goliath’s size, but the slow movements of a giant clad in armor, and David’s quick movements and skill with a slingshot. The story shows David’s faith in God and the qualities he must have for kingship—courage and military skill.

David is put in charge of Saul’s soldiers and “carried out successfully every mission on which Saul sent him” (1 Sm 18:5). But when the people make more of a fuss over David than they do of Saul, Saul becomes jealous and tries to kill David.

Thinking that the Philistines would kill David, Saul offers David his daughter, Michal, in marriage in exchange for the foreskins of 100 Philistines. David returns from battle with 200 foreskins and counts them out for Saul. Thus, David marries Michal.

Chapters 19 through 27 cover Saul’s pursuit of David, and David’s successful escapes. David is aided by Saul’s son, Jonathan, and his daughter, Michal. He also receives support from the priest Ahimelech, and this support results in Saul’s slaughter of the priests of Nob.

Twice during this time, Saul falls into David’s hands, but each time David spares Saul’s life because he considers Saul to be God’s anointed.

Between the two accounts of David’s sparing Saul’s life, we have the story of David and Abigail, who becomes David’s second wife. David spares the life of Abigail’s husband, Nabal, who refused David’s request for provisions for his men. †

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