The book of 1 Samuel follows the lives of Samuel, Saul and David. Samuel represents a new line of priests, with Saul and, after Saul’s demise, David representing a new line of king.
We start with Samuel, born to a previously barren mother and then given to the local priest to be raised under God. That priest, Eli, eventually angers God to the point that God revokes the promise of Aaron’s family line (of which Eli is a part) being the priesthood. “‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.'” (1 Samuel 2:30). God breaking his covenant with the Levites results in Eli’s death, the ark being stolen (temporarily) by the Philistines and Samuel’s ascension to the top of Israel’s priestly ranks.
This reminds me of God wanting to destroy the earth again after Noah, or of God arguing with Moses over whether or not to kill the Israelites after they escaped Egypt. I understand the idea of being rewarded for obedience and punished for rebelling, but the idea of God “changing his mind” on previous decisions puzzles me. But more on this later.
The Israelites ask Samuel to select a king for them. The king God reveals is Saul, and his reign begins soon after.
Saul loses God’s favor quickly. While fighting the Amalekites, Saul receives these instructions from God: “‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul does defeat the Amalekites, killing every man, woman and child except their king. But Saul’s army also takes cattle and sheep, which Saul says are to be sacrificed to God. Because of this, God “regrets” having made Saul king and rejects him as king over Israel. To repeat: because Saul did not kill every living thing, he was rejected.”Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord?” (1 Samuel 15:22).
This mentality calls back to the man who took plunder from Jericho and his entire family was stoned to death. I struggle to see a reasoning behind which enemies live and who die, or even in what battle. Some cities should be absolutely destroyed, some you can plunder, some only the animals are spared. It’s so arbitrary, and the punishments so punitive, that “obedience” serves no other purpose than for the sake of obeying.
Another puzzling addition is that God regrets making Saul king, implying God made a wrong choice. God certainly changes his mind about Saul, with him starting as “God’s anointed” but ending tormented by “evil spirits”. So God is all-knowing, but changes his mind? God has a plan, but also has regrets? Samuel tells Saul, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). This line comes a dozen verses after God states his regret for making Saul king, and rejecting him as such. Then half a dozen verses later we see again, “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 21:35). Assuming God is the “Glory of Israel,” aren’t these two statements completely at odds with each other?
The third main character in the book is David, who wins Saul’s favor by famously killing the giant Philistine Goliath with a sling and a rock. David serves as Saul’s right-hand man and wins battle after battle, growing Saul’s empire. By all accounts David is a ferocious warrior, but this eventually causes Saul to disdain him.
“As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”
Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:7-9)
This offers a glimpse into where power comes from in this world; the more you killed the more you were either feared or revered, and therefore your fame and potential for power grew. Saul believes David will try to overthrow him. This is in part because of God’s rejection of Saul as king, and also due to David’s incredible talent as a warrior. Saul offers David his daughter’s hand in marriage, hoping the dowry will be David’s downfall.
They repeated these words to David. But David said, “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only a poor man and little known.”
When Saul’s servants told him what David had said, Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.
When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed,27 David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. (1 Samuel 18: 23-27)
Among the barbaric things I’ve read thus far, asking for 100 foreskins and receiving 200 foreskins ranks fairly high. The initial request shocked me, but the fact that David doubles it shows me that bloodlust may be his second love, behind his faith in God.
Saul, undeterred, continues to plot against David, to the point that David flees Israel. Saul pursues him and, twice, David has the chance to kill Saul but refuses. After the second time Saul pledges to leave David be, and David resides in Philistine lands. While living there, David continues to wage war on a small scale to keep favor with the local ruler.
When Achish asked, “Where did you go raiding today?” David would say, “Against the Negev of Judah” or “Against the Negev of Jerahmeel” or “Against the Negev of the Kenites.” He did not leave a man or woman alive to be brought to Gath, for he thought, “They might inform on us and say, ‘This is what David did.’” And such was his practice as long as he lived in Philistine territory. (1 Samuel 27:10-11)
It’s telling that David’s “practice” for years was raiding, plundering and killing. This is our hero, the one known for killing “tens of thousands” and leaving no man or woman alive, but because he refuses to kill Saul, his king, he is held in high regard.
Later the Philistines attack Israel and Saul goes to meet them on the battlefield. Seeing he is outnumbered, Saul consults a “medium” who conjures up Samuel’s ghost. This struck me as strange because it is essentially forbidden to use a medium or perform “magic” in Israel. It is explicitly outlawed in the Bible and the medium herself is at first afraid to perform the ritual. Only after Saul assures her he won’t kill her does she do it. The act is moot anyway, because Samuel’s ghost rebukes Saul and tells him he will die. The next day the Philistines rout the Israelites and Saul falls on his sword, setting the table for David, who had actually wanted to march against Saul’s army but was denied the chance.
I had heard of David as a man after God’s own heart. David certainly has faith in God and obeys his commands, as proven by not killing Saul, God’s anointed, when he had both reason and opportunity to do so. But David also revels in bloodshed and death. Moreover, David had no qualms about going against Israel as long as he didn’t have to harm Saul personally. The preservation of one chosen person while causing harm to the rest of the Israelites certainly lines up with God’s actions in the Old Testament thus far. While David may not be a good man, he is certainly a man who understands God.
Thank you for reading,