(Some Thoughts on the Structure of the Book of Samuel)
I begin my Intermediate Biblical Hebrew 1 course at Penn (HEBR 153 for those of you who are thinking of signing up) by having the students read 1 Samuel 1. We read slowly and carefully, and I give them the option of using the 40-page workbook for this chapter that starts off the Readings in Biblical Hebrew textbook by Ben-Zvi et al. that once served as the textbook for this course. It’s a story that’s intrinsically interesting, but also gives me the opportunity (1) to see how the students’ grammar chops are; (2) to introduce them to the reference tools—dictionaries, concordances, and grammars—hat they should be using to read the Bible carefully; and (3) to advance my secret agenda: The Bible’s more complicated than they told you in Sunday School. One of the complications, as I show them clearly by the time we read Hannah’s conversation with Eli in vv. 14–18, is that this particular chapter is not straight history. It is the beginning of a work of what my teacher Moses Shulvass (ז״ל) used to call belles-lettres. Nowadays, we call it literature.
But I keep things simpler to start with. The very first thing I show them is how different the beginning of 1 Samuel is from the books that precede and follow it. I first noticed this while preparing the essay that became “Three Biblical Beginnings,” which serendipitously found its way into a book edited by my friends Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid with the unfortunately deconstructive name Beginning/Again. The book of Joshua begins with the words “After the death of Moses”; Judges begins with the words “After the death of Joshua”; and 2 Samuel begins with the words “After the death of Saul.” 1 Samuel, by contrast, begins with the words, “Once upon a time there was a man….”
I don’t say anything further about this until we get to Hannah’s promise that, if she is given a child, “No razor shall touch his head.” This is one facet of the rule of the Nazirite found in Numbers 6, and—together with the “once upon a time” beginning of the book—it provides a clear link to the story of Samson in Judges 13. Perhaps this seems to the students like the “answer” to the unusual beginning of the book. At any rate, no one has ever asked the obvious question. But I have sometimes wondered about it myself: Why doesn’t 1 Kings begin with the words “After the death of David”? Instead, David does not die until the end of chapter 2 of that book, the famous “Godfather” scene.
One might have thought that scene would make a fine ending to the book of Samuel. Instead, the book ends with a series of apparently disconnected appendices that clearly do not proceed in any kind of chronological order. (Their arrangement, however, is so obviously chiastic—see the commentaries for more—that it could hardly be a coincidence.) It is a traditional truism that אין מוקדם או מאוחר בתורה (one should not assume that the Bible tells events in chronological order), and the Book of Judges has clearly rearranged things to show a deterioration in Israel’s political system, culminating with the announcement in Jud 21:25 that “in those days there was no king in Israel, so everyone did whatever he wanted.”
Samuel, of course (the book and the man) provides the transition the Deuteronomic History needs between the period of the judges and that of the kings—or more precisely, between the period of the book of Judges and the beginning of the reign of Solomon. For the transitional period includes the reigns of Saul and David, each of whom has a kind of claim to be Israel’s first king. (Like so many readers and historians before me, I’m ignoring here Abimelech of Judges 9, who is actually the first Israelite king mentioned in the Bible.) But why aren’t the last two chapters of David’s life placed at the end of the book of Samuel so that 1 Kings could begin—a la Joshua, Judges, and 2 Samuel—with the words “After the death of David”?
There’s one more feature of 1 Samuel 1 that generally surprises my students, but this is a feature that doesn’t become clear until the very end of the chapter. The first hint comes in the more than usually unsatisfying explanation Hannah gives for naming the boy Samuel:
Because I requested him from the Lord [me-YHWH sheiltiv] (1 Sam 1:20).
The word sheiltiv (“requested”) in this phrase is just one of seven occurrences in the chapter of the root שאל, which in various guises can mean “ask, lend, request, borrow.” The culmination comes in v. 28, where Hannah declares, “As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”
The words “he is lent” translate the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול, and usually when I press the students for another translation they grope for a more felicitous English phrase. When I taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I often found it easy to perform a magic trick. I would open the classroom door, find someone passing by, and ask then for help translating the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול. They would always innocently oblige with the most obvious translation of those words: “He is Saul.” (See my previous post, שאל in 1 Samuel 1.)
There are many gifts for the literary-minded reader in this chapter, but one can understand the surface facts of the story without getting any of them. As Mozart once wrote to his father about his piano concertos, “There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.” But here at the end of 1 Samuel 1, our author demands that even the least learned readers recognize that the name of Saul resounds while the story of Samuel’s birth is being told. Anyone who wants to understand how the Bible is telling the story of Israelite history must grapple with this literary demand.
There’s another question that the story of Hannah raises, though it probably strikes most academic scholars of the Bible less as a question and more as a datum for understanding the prehistory of the book of Samuel. That is the location of the action in 1 Samuel 1, the scene of Elkanah’s annual pilgrimage: “the House of the LORD at Shiloh.” It’s well known that when David decides to build a Temple, the Lord responds indignantly (via Nathan’s dream):
From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. (NJPS, 2 Sam 7:6)
Unless the Lord was trying to hide His house at Shiloh from the tax authorities, this is a clear contradiction. Is “the house of the Lord” in 1 Samuel 1 simply a reference that some clumsy later editor neglected to fix? The author of 1 Samuel 1 is anything but clumsy. It would have been easy to continue in the vein of 1 Sam 1:3, where we are told that Elkanah would go up every year “to offer sacrifice to the LORD of Hosts at Shiloh.” No need to mention a house. But our author does so, not once but twice (vv. 7 and 24).
This contradiction—it has only now occurred to me—is not (merely) a discrepancy in stitching together two sources. It is a literary datum that explains to me why David’s death occurs at the beginning of the book of Kings and not at the end of the book of Samuel. Samuel is a story of transition, perhaps even usurpation. Just as Samuel, the last of the judges, will be replaced by Saul, the man whose name echoes in the story of his birth; just as Saul will be invisible in Israelite history the way he is here in 1 Samuel 1, being replaced by David, the eventual founder of the Israelite dynasty; so too Shiloh will be replaced. And that is exactly what the end of the book of Samuel shows us:
Gad came to David the same day and said to him, “Go and set up an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” David went up, following Gad’s instructions, as the LORD had commanded. Araunah looked out and saw the king and his courtiers approaching him. So Araunah went out and bowed low to the king, with his face to the ground. And Araunah asked, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David replied, “To buy the threshing floor from you, that I may build an altar to the LORD and that the plague against the people may be checked.” And Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take it and offer up whatever he sees fit. Here are oxen for a burnt offering, and the threshing boards and the gear of the oxen for wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to Your Majesty. And may the LORD your God,” Araunah added, “respond to you with favor!” But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. And David built there an altar to the LORD and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. The LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague against Israel was checked. (NJPS, 2 Sam 24:18-25)
And this is not just a temporary location for emergency sacrifice:
Then Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where [the LORD] had appeared to his father David, at the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (NJPS, 2 Chr 3:1)
It is the location on which the Jerusalem Temple would be built—the Temple to which (according to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History) all legitimate Israelite sacrifices must be brought. This is the Davidic Temple, the Temple that would replace Shiloh as David replaced Saul. I’m convinced that the book of Samuel ends with this episode to indicate just that. It is as if the fate of Shiloh is linked to that of Saul in 1 Samuel 1. Saul will die in 1 Samuel 31, the middle of the book of Samuel, but Shiloh—implicitly—will be made invisible in 2 Samuel 24, the final chapter, just as Saul was in the first chapter. If only Shiloh were spelled with an א as שאול (Saul) is, I’d be absolutely certain.