From Tribal Confederation to Monarchy: 1 Samuel

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The first book of Samuel marks the transition of Israel from a fractious coalition of tribes to a monarchy with a central government in Jerusalem. The story begins with the birth and calling of the prophet Samuel and continues with the call to kingship and the reigns of Saul and David. This is the story of state formation, the centralization of power and of worship, and the establishment of a new political, military, and social order.

The Calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-3)

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From the closing words of the book of Judges and the opening chapters of 1 Samuel we know that the Israelites are both leaderless and disconnected from God. The closest thing they have to a national leader is the priest Eli, who with his sons runs the shrine at Shiloh. The Israelites’ political, military, and economic prosperity depends on their faithfulness to God.  So the people bring their offerings and sacrifices to God at the shrine, but the priests make a mockery of interaction with God. "Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels...for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt" (1 Samuel 2:12, 17). They are untrustworthy as human leaders, and they do not honor God in their hearts. Worshipers find that those who should direct them toward an experience of worship are instead stealing from them.

The Perils of Inherited Authority

Somewhat ominously for a nation about to become a monarchy, the first thing we observe is that inherited authority is inherently dangerous for two reasons. The first is that there is no guarantee that descendants of even the greatest leader will be competent and faithful. The second is that being born to power is often a corrupting influence itself, resulting all too often either in complaisance or—as the case of Eli’s sons—entitlement. Eli performs his work as a sacred charge from God (1 Sam. 2:25), but his sons see it as a personal possession (1 Sam. 2:14). Growing up in an atmosphere somewhat analogous to a family business, they expect from a young age to inherit their father’s privileges. Because this "family business" is God's own shrine—giving the family a claim to divine authority over the populace—his sons' malfeasance is all the more injurious.

Third-Generation Leadership (Click to Read)

Not only have Jean Bartell Barber and her brother been true to their grandfather's original vision for Bartell Drugs, they have made the pharmacy chain better than it's ever been. In an interview conducted by Ethix's Al Erisman, Barber discusses how the family business has maintained its culture of service in the midst of challenges in the pharmaceutical world presented by online competition, technological changes and governmental regulations.[1]    

Family businesses and political dynasties in today's world have parallels to Eli's situation.  The founder of the business or polity may have brought great good into the world, but if the heirs view it as a means for personal gain, those whom they are meant to serve suffer harm. Everyone wins when founders and their successors are faithful to the original, good purpose. The world is a better place, the business and community thrive, and the family is well provisioned. But when the original purpose is neglected or corrupted, the business or community suffers, and the organization and the family are in jeopardy.

The sad history of inherited power in governments, churches, businesses, and other organizations warns us that those who expect to receive power as a right often sense no need to develop the skill, self-discipline, and attitude of service needed to be good leaders. This reality perplexed the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. "I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19). What was true for him is true for us today. Families that gain wealth and power from the success of an entrepreneur in one generation often lose these gains by the third generation and also suffer devastating family quarrels and personal misfortunes.[2] This is not to say that inherited power or wealth always leads to poor outcomes, but that inheritance is a dangerous policy for governance. Families, organizations, or governments that do pass authority via inheritance will do well to develop a multiplicity of means to counteract the perils that inheritance entails. There are consultancies and organizations that specialize in supporting families and businesses in inheritance situations.

God Calls Samuel to Succeed Eli

If not his scoundrel sons, who would succeed Eli as priest? First Samuel 3:1-4:1 and 1 Samuel 7:3-17 reveal God's plan to raise up young Samuel to succeed Eli. Samuel receives one of the few audible calls from God recorded in the Bible, but notice that this is not a call to a type of work or ministry. (Samuel had been serving in the house of the Lord since he was two or three years old, and the choice of occupation had been made by his mother. See 1 Samuel 1:20-28 and 2:18-21.)  Nonetheless it is a call to a task, namely to tell Eli that God has decided to punish him and his sons, who are soon to be removed as God’s priests. After fulfilling this calling, Samuel continues to serve under Eli until he is recognized as a prophet in his own right (1 Sam. 4:1) and succeeds Eli after Eli’s death (1 Sam. 4:18). Samuel becomes the leader of God's people, not because of self-serving ambition or a sense of entitlement, but because God had given him a vision (1 Sam. 3:10-14) and the gifts and skills to lead people to carry out that vision (1 Sam. 3:19-4:1). See Vocation Overview for more on the topic of calling to work.

"Jean Bartell Barber: Third-Generation Leadership," Ethix 81, July 11, 2012, http://ethix.org/2012/07/11/jean-bartell-barber.

Missy Sullivan, “Lost Inheritance” in Wall Street Journal Money, March 8, 2012, accessed at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324662404578334663271139552, May 21, 2014.

The perils of treating God like a good luck charm (1 Samuel 4)

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It’s not clear whether the corruption of the leader, Eli, causes the corruption of the people or vice versa, but chapters 4-6 depict the disaster than befalls those who are poorly governed. Israel has been engaged in a centuries-long struggle against the neighboring country of the Philistines. A new attack is made by the Philistines, which routs the Israelites, resulting in 4,000 casualties (1 Sam. 4:1-3). The Israelites recognize the defeat as a sign of God’s disfavor. But instead of examining their fault, repenting, and coming to the Lord for guidance, they try to manipulate God into serving their purposes. They fetch the ark of the covenant of God and charge into battle against the Philistines, assuming that the ark will make them invincible. Eli’s sons lend an aura of authority to the plan. But the Philistines slaughter Israel in the battle, killing 30,000 Israelite soldiers, capturing the ark, slaying Eli’s sons and causing Eli’s own death (1 Sam. 4:4-19). 

Eli’s sons, alongside the leaders of the army, made the mistake of thinking that because they bore the name of God’s people and possessed the symbols of God’s presence, they were in command of God’s power. Perhaps those in charge believed they could actually control God’s power by carrying around the ark. Or maybe they had deceived themselves into thinking that because they were God’s people, whatever they wanted for themselves would be what God wanted for them. In any case, they discovered that God’s presence is not a warrant to project God’s power, but an invitation to receive God’s guidance. Ironically, the ark contained the greatest means of God’s guidance—the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 10:5)—but Eli’s sons did not bother to seek any kind of guidance from God before attacking the Philistines.

Can it be that we often fall into the same bad habit in our work? When we are faced with opposition or difficulty in our work, do seek God’s guidance in prayer or do we just throw up a quick prayer asking God to do what we want? Do we consider the possible courses of action in the light of scripture, or do we just keep a Bible on our desk? Do we examine our motivations and assess our actions with openness to transformation by God or do we simply decorate ourselves with Christian symbols? If our  work seems unfulfilling or our careers are not progressing as we hope, is it possible that we are using God as a good luck charm, rather than following him as the master of our work?

The opportunities that arise from working faithfully (1 Samuel 5-7)

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The Philistines fare no better with the ark than the Israelites did, and it becomes a dangerous property for both sides until it is retired from military use and Samuel calls Israel to recommit themselves to the Lord himself (1 Sam.  5:1-7:3). The people heed his call and turn back to worshipping the Lord, and Samuel’s career expands rapidly. His role as priest soon grows to “judge” (meaning a military governor) and he leads the successful defense against the Philistines (1 Sam. 7:4-13). His roll soon encompasses holding court for legal matters (1 Sam. 10:16). Behind all his tasks lies his calling to be "a trustworthy prophet of the Lord" (1 Sam. 3:20).

Skilled, dependable workers who are true to God’s ways often find their work overflowing their job descriptions. In the face of ever-expanding responsibilities, Samuel's response is not, "That's not my job." Instead, he sees the crucial needs in front of him, recognizes that he has the capacity to meet them, and steps in to resolve them. As he does so, God increases his authority and effectiveness to match his willingness.

One lesson we might take from this is to respond to God with a willingness to serve as Samuel did. Do you see opportunities in front of you at work that, strictly speaking, don't fit your job description? Do your supervisors or colleagues seem to expect you to take further responsibility in areas that aren't formally part of your job? These are often chances for growth, development, and advancement (unless your supervisors do not appreciate your taking on additional responsibility). What would it take for you to step forward into these opportunities? Similarly, you may see needs around you that you could help meet if you had the trust and courage to respond. What would it take to develop your trust in God and to receive the courage needed to follow his leading?

The final account of Samuel’s governance (1 Sam. 7:15-17) says that he went on a circuit of the cities of Israel year by year to the cities of Israel, governing and administering justice. The chapter closes with, “And he built there an altar to the Lord.” His civic and military services to Israel were founded on his life-long faithfulness and worship of the Lord.

Samuel’s sons disappoint (1 Samuel 8:1-3)

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As Samuel ages, he repeats Eli’s error and appoints his own sons to succeed him. Like Eli’s sons, they turn out to be greedy and corrupt (1 Sam. 8:1-3). Disappointing sons of great leaders is a recurrent theme in Samuel and Kings. (The tragedy of David’s son Absalom occupies the bulk of 2 Samuel chapters 13-19, to which we will return. See "David's Dysfunctional handling of family conflict leads to civil war (2 Samuel 13-19)".) It reminds us that the work of parenting is as challenging as every other occupation but far more emotionally intense. No solution is given in the text, but we can observe that Eli, Samuel, and David seem to have given their troubled children many privileges but little paternal involvement. Yet we also know that even the most dedicated parents may face the heartbreak of wayward children. Rather than laying blame or stereotyping causes, let us simply note that parenting children is an occupation requiring as much prayer, skill, community support, good fortune, and love as any other, if not more. Ultimately to be a parent—whether our children bring delight, disappointment, or some of both—is to depend on God’s grace and mercy and to hope for a redemption beyond what we see during our lifetimes. Perhaps our deepest comfort is to remember that God also experienced a parent’s heartbreak for his condemned Son, yet overcame all through the power of love.

The Israelites ask for a king (1 Samuel 8:4-22)

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Seeing the unsuitability of Samuel’s sons, the Israelites ask him to “appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” This request displeases Samuel (1 Sam. 8:4-6). Samuel warns the people that kings lay heavy burdens on a nation.

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. (1 Sam. 8:10-17)

In fact, the kings would be so rapacious that eventually the people would cry out to God to save them from the kings (1 Sam. 8:18).

God agrees that asking for a king is a bad idea because it amounts to a rejection of God himself, as king. Nonetheless, the Lord decides to allow the people to choose their form of government, and he tells Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them" (1 Sam. 8:7). As biblical scholar John Goldingay notes, "God starts with his people where they are; if they cannot cope with his highest way, he carves out a lower one. When they do not respond to the spirit of Yahweh or when all sorts of spirits lead them into anarchy, he provides...the institutional safeguard of earthly rulers." Sometimes God permits institutions that are not part of his eternal purpose, and the monarch of Israel is one of the most glaring examples.

Both God and Samuel showed great humility, resilience, and grace in allowing Israel to make choices and mistakes, learning from the consequences. There are many institutional and workplace situations where leadership must adjust to people's poor choices, yet at the same time try to provide opportunities for growth and grace. Samuel's warning to Israel could easily serve as a warning to nations, businesses, churches, schools, and other organizations of today's world. In our fallen world, people abuse power, and we have to adjust while at the same time doing what we can to change things. Our aspiration is to love God and treat other people as God commands in the law given to Moses, which God’s people have had an extremely hard time doing in every age. 

The Task of Choosing a King (1 Samuel 9-16)

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Saul chosen as Israel’s first king

God's first choice to be king is Saul (c. 1050-1010 B.C.), someone who looked the part—he literally stood "head and shoulders above everyone else" (1 Sam. 9:2). Furthermore, he won military victories, the main reason for having a king in the first place (1 Sam. 11:1-11). In the beginning, he served faithfully (1 Sam. 11:13-14), but he quickly became disobedient to God (1 Sam. 13:8-15) and arrogant with his people (1 Sam. 14:24-30). Both Samuel and God became exasperated with him and began to look for his replacement (1 Sam. 16:1). But before we measure Saul's actions against 21st-century leadership expectations, we should note that Saul simply did what kings did in the ancient Near East. The people got what they asked for (and what Samuel had warned against), a militaristic, charismatic, self-aggrandizing tyrant.

How are we to evaluate Israel's first king? Did God make a mistake in leading Samuel to anoint young Saul as king? Or was the choice of Saul an object lesson to the Israelites not to be seduced by outward appearances, handsome on the outside but hollow on the inside? In asking for a king, the Israelites showed their lack of faith in God. The king they received ultimately demonstrated that same lack of faith in God. Saul's primary task as king was to assure security for the Israelites from attack by the neighboring Philistines and other nations. But when faced with Goliath, Saul's fear overcame his faith and he proved unequal to his role (1 Sam. 17:11).  Throughout his reign Saul similarly doubted God, seeking counsel in the wrong places, and finally dying a suicide as his army was routed by the enemy (1 Sam. 31:4).

David chosen to succeed Saul

As Samuel searches for Saul's replacement, he nearly makes the mistake of judging by appearances a second time (1 Sam. 16:1-4). The boy David seems inconsequential to Samuel, but with God's help, he finally recognizes in David God's choice for Israel's king. On the surface David does not project the image of gravitas people expect in a leader (1 Sam. 16:6-11). A little later in the story, the Philistine giant Goliath is similarly dismissive (1 Sam. 17:42). David is a non-traditional candidate for reasons beyond his youth. He is a last son in a society based on primacy of the first-born. Moreover, he is ethnically mixed, not a pure Israelite because one of his great-grandmothers was Ruth (Ruth 4:21-22), an immigrant from the kingdom of Moab (Ruth 1:1-4). Though David has several strikes against him, God sees great promise in him.

As we think about leadership selection today, it’s valuable to remember God’s word to Samuel: “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). In God's upside-down kingdom, the last or the overlooked may end up being the best choice. The best leader may be the one nobody is looking for. It can be tempting to jump at the initially impressive candidate, the one who oozes charisma, the person that other people seem to want to follow. But high self-confidence actually leads to lower performance, according to a 2012 Harvard Business Review article.[1] Charisma is not what God values. Character is. What would it take to learn to see a person’s character through God’s eyes?

It is significant that David was out doing his job as shepherd, conscientiously caring for his father's sheep, when Samuel found him. Faithful performance in the job at hand is good preparation for a bigger job, as in David's case (1 Samuel 17:34-37, see also Luke 16:10; 19:17). Samuel soon discovers that David is the strong, confident, and competent leader the people craved, who would "go out before [us] and fight [our] battles" (1 Sam. 8:20). Throughout his career David keeps in mind that he is serving at God's pleasure to care for God's people (2 Sam. 6:21). God calls him "a man after my own heart" (Acts 13:22).

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “Less-Confident People are More Successful,” Harvard Business Review, July 6, 2012, accessed at http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/less-confident-people-are-more-su/ on May 23, 2014.

David’s rise to power (1 Samuel 17-30)

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Unlike Saul who had begun his reign soon after Samuel anointed him (1 Samuel 11:1), David has a long and difficult apprenticeship before he is acclaimed as king at Hebron. His first public success comes in slaying the giant Goliath, who is threatening Israel's military security. As the army returns home, a throng of women begin singing, “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). This enrages Saul (1 Sam. 18:1). Rather than recognizing how both he and the nation can benefit from David's capabilities, he regards David as a threat. He decides to eliminate David at the earliest opportunity (1 Sam. 18:9-13). Thus began a rivalry that eventually forces David to flee for his life, eluding Saul while leading a band of brigands in the wildernesses of Judah for ten years.

When given opportunities to assassinate King Saul, David refuses, knowing that the throne is not his to take. It is God's to give. As the Psalms express it, “It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” (Psalm 75:7). David respects the authority God has given Saul even when Saul acts in dishonorable ways. This seems like a lesson for those today who work for difficult bosses or are waiting to be acknowledged for their leadership. Even if we sense we are called by God to a particular task or position, this does not authorize us to grasp power by contravening the existing authorities. If everyone who thought God wanted them to be the boss tried to hasten the process by seizing power on their own, every succession of authority would bring little more than chaos. God is patient, and we are to be patient, too, as David was.

Can we trust God to give us the authority we need, in his time, to do the work that he wants us to do? In the workplace, having more authority is valuable for getting necessary work done. Grasping at that authority prematurely by undercutting a boss or by pushing a colleague out of the way does not build trust with colleagues or demonstrate trust in God. At times it can be frustrating when it seems that it's taking too long for the needed authority to come your way, but true authority cannot be grasped, only granted. David was willing to wait until God placed that authority in his hands.

Abigail defuses a crisis between David and Nabal (1 Samuel 25)

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As David’s power grows, he comes into conflict with a rich landowner named Nabal. As it happens, David’s band of rebels against Saul’s rule has been encamped in Nabal’s area for some time. David’s men have treated Nabal’s shepherds kindly, protecting them from harm or at the very least not stealing anything themselves (1 Sam. 25:15-16). David figures this means Nabal owes him something, and he sends a delegation to ask Nabal to donate some lambs for a feast for David’s army. Perhaps realizing the weakness of his claim, David instructs his delegation to be extra polite to Nabal.

Nabal will have nothing of it. Not only he does he refuse to give David anything for the feast, he insults David publicly, denies knowing David, and impugns David’s integrity as a rebel against Saul (1 Sam. 25:10). Nabal’s own servants describe their master as “so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.” David immediately sets out with 400 armed men to slay Nabal and kill every male in his household.

Suddenly David is about to commit mass murder, while Nabal cares more about his pride than about his workers and family. These two arrogant men are unable to resolve an argument about sheep without spilling the blood of hundreds of innocent people. Thank God, Nabal’s wise-hearted wife Abigail steps into the fray. She quickly prepares a feast for David and his men, then rides out to meet David with an apology that sets a new standard for courtesy in the Old Testament (1 Sam. 25:26-31). Yet wrapped in the courteous words are some hard truths David needs to hear. He is on the verge of shedding blood without cause, bringing on himself a guilt he could never escape.

David is moved by her words and abandons his plan to kill Nabal and all his men and boys. He even thanks Abigail for diverting him from his reckless plan. “Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand! For as surely as the Lord the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male” (1 Sam. 25:33–34).

The incident shows that people need to hold their leaders accountable, although doing so may come at the cost of great personal risk. You don’t have to have authority status to be called to exercise influence. But you do need courage, which fortunately is something you can receive from God at any time. Abigail’s intervention also demonstrates that showing respect, even while making a pointed criticism, provides a model for challenging authority. Nabal turned a petty argument into a life threatening situation by wrapping a minor dispute in a personal insult. Abigail resolves a life-threatening crisis by dressing a major rebuke in a respectful dialogue.

In what ways may God be calling you to exercise influence to hold people in positions of higher authority accountable? How can you cultivate a godly attitude of respect along with an unwavering commitment to telling the truth? What courage do you need from God to actually do it?