Note: these are unedited notes. My
preference is that we cover this material as a class discussion rather
than as a lecture, and discussion may head off in a very different
Note also that in the the Hebrew Bible, Joshua, Judges I and II Samuel
and I and II
Kings are all included among the "neviim," the prophets. These
are called the "former" prophets, while Isaiah, Jeremiah etc.,
called the "latter" prophets. In Christian Bibles, these books
included among the "histories." Both classifications
suggest, though, that I and II Samuel and I and II Kings might also be
viewed as a series
prophets" designation certainly works. There's
something of the "thus saith the Lord" voice in these books as
well. Prophets like
Samuel and Nathan are prominent in these books. By the time we
get to the 2nd half of I Kings, the focus had shifted to the prophets,
especially Elijah and Elisha.
designation works too. These books include many of the
elements historians look for: chronology, accounts of change over time,
exploration of cause and effect, and an exploration of human choices
and their consequences.
In some ways,
the "tragic" definition doesn't completely fit.
Aristotle specificially said a tragedy was supposed to in the form of
dialogue, not of narration. But these books do have the
features Aristotle insisted were central to tragedy including
characters of sufficient magnitude,themes of sufficient magnitude,
heroes with tragic flaws, and (sometimes at least), a sense of
When preparing the I Samuel--II Kings material for the exam, be sure to
include your own thoughts on the readings. Be sure to make it
clear what *you* think is the best genre description of I and II
Samuel. Best viewed as history? Prophecy?
Tragedies? Elements of all three?
In the Douay version of the Bible, I and II Samuel are
called I and II Kings. This means that, what Protestants call I
and II Kings are, in some Bibles, designated as III and IV Kings.
Hebrew Bibles just have Samuel (I and II Samuel by Protestant
reckoning) and Kings (I and II Kings by Protestant reckoning).
Watch out for potential confusion!
Both the "Kings" title and the "Samuel" titles are appropriate for I
and II Samuel. "Kings" calls our attention to the leadership
question. One of the central themes these books deal with is the
question of government. The writer, possibly the same man who
wrote Judges, clearly sees the problem when men don't have a strong
central government. Judges talks about what happens when everyone
does what is right in their own eyes. The result is a mess!
The writer recognizes a near-univeral historical pattern.
Anarchy gives way to autocracy, the rule of one strong man.
Perhaps this is better than anarchy, but monarchy has plenty of
disadvantages as well. The writer here is giving us a treatise on
monarchy (or, at least, on leadership in general), and the "Kings"
title recognizes that.
The "Samuel" designation works as well for two reasons. The spirit of
Samuel dominates the two books--even though his death is toward the end
of I Samuel and he doesn't appear in 2nd Samuel at all! Also,
Samuel's name means, "God hears," and, from first to last, there
is a constant theme that God hears--and that he intervenes in human
Still, despite that fact that either title is appropriate, I'd be
tempted to choose a different titles, e.g., "The Tragical History of
Saul" for I Samuel, "The Tragical History of David" for 2nd
Samuel, or perhaps "The Tragical History of the Nation of Israel" for
the two books together. Except for the fact that they presented
as narratives, they have many of the characteristics of tragedy
including characters of sufficient magnitude brought low by "hamartia"
(sin/tragic flaw), themes of sufficient magnitute, and catharsis, a
kind of redemption for the tragic heroes and an inducement for the
reader to have a change of heart.
I Samuel certainly has protagonists of sufficient magnitude.
Israel as a whole
In looking at I Samuel as tragedy, it's worth considering the following
Questions about Hannah:
- What makes these characters of sufficient magnitude?
- What is their tragic flaw, if they have one?
- What is the "cosmic conflict" that faces each one? Is there
any resolution/catharsis for each story?
Questions about Eli:
- Why does the author of Samuel start with the story of
- If Elkanah loves Hannah, why does he also have another wife?
- Why can't Hannah accept childlessness when her husband
doesn't seem to mind?
- Does Hannah want a son just to devote him to the Lord, or
does her desire have something to do with her rival wife?
- Why would Hannah make the bargain she does with God?
Does the writer believe that God honors this kind of bargaining prayer?
- What is Hannah's theology?
Questions about Samuel:
- What are Eli's strengths?
- Why are Eli’s sons so evil? Why doesn't Eli restrain
- Why do Old Testament priests in general seem to have trouble
with their sons?
The Tragedy of Saul:
- What are Samuel's greatest strengthts?
- How does the personal life/public life theme continue in
Samuel? Why does he have problems with his sons?
While one could write a tragedy featuring any of the the figures
above, Saul really seems like the protagonists of Greek tragedy.
He has many strengths. He has the physical appearance one would
wnat in a King. He's a humble man, and a dutiful son. He
respects religion. He isn't ambitious for himself. He comes
up with a clever way of uniting Israel to save some of their fellow
Israelites. He shows mercy to those who didn't want him to be
Saul's mistakes are understandable. He's been waiting for Samuel
for a week. His army is inhiding and falling apart. Samuel
is late: who knows if he'll ever show up? So Saul makes the
sacrifice himself. Only then does Samuel show up--and immediately
flies off the handle. Poor Saul!
The problem here is that Saul is uusing the outward aspects of religion
for secular purpose, thinking that getting outward forms right is going
to lead to success. Remember also that God is speaking through
Samuel, and that, perhaps, makes a difference. Samuel had seen
sons of Eli using their religious poition for their own selfish ends,
eventually taking the Ark into battle. A guarantees of victory,
right? No. This leads to their deaths, to the deaths of Eli
and the loss of the Ark. His daughter-in-law names her baby
Ichabod: glory has departed.
And then there are Samuel’s own sons. Who also used religious externals
for their own purpose. Saul seems to be following same path! No
wonder Samuel is angry, just as Tiresias gets angry with Oedipus and
Creon. Here I think Samuel could have handled things more gently:
but he doen't know how.
Note that Saul can’t seem to let go of the idea that religous
externals are the key to success. Note his vow that all are to
fast to guarantee victory. A good idea, right? We fast, God will
bless us! Well, no. Notice that Saul is ready to kill his
own son because he is *so* convinced the externals must be adhered
too--but they are externals of his own making!!
And then there's Saul's disobedience with the Amelekites..
Why does Saul spare Agag and the oxen? It's religious externals
of his own making once again. Look at the great sacrifice we
make! God will be on our side for sure! What’s wrong with
this policy? Well, think back to Gideon's ephod--and to the
Danites in the book of Judges.
Note Saul’s excuse (16:24) “I feared the people and obeyed their
voice.” What’s wrong with that as a principle of leadership?
Saul insists that Samuel stay and worship. “Honor me before
the people.” And Samuel does! Then he abandons Saul—but
goes away mourning until the day of his death. *Why?
Now the tragedy of Saul really unfolds. The Lord depart
from him an an "evil spirit from the Lord" troubles him. The
"evil spirit from the Lord" is a bit of a puzzle. The Hebrew word
is "ra'ah" and it simply means "bad." We might say Saul is in a
bad mood. But there seems to be something more. Saul is
perhaps being driven by the "evil" sprit into doing what's very hard to
do--give way to another leader graciously.
Note the potential healing for Saul. David's harp soothes his
spirit. David also helps Saul be defeating Goliath. Great!
Jonathan and David are great friends. What should Saul’s reaction to
David be? Support him, and, eventually, step aside. But
Saul can’t--or at least doesn't.
Note how close Saul comes to making the choices that would have been
good for himself, his kids, and Israel as a whole. Merab, Saul's
daughter, loves David. And Saul starts to arrange a match.
His grandkids would be on the throne? But Saule doesn’t follow
And then Michal, his other daughter, wants David. Saul follows
through this time: but then (18:28) Saul saw and knew that the
Lord was with David, and that Michal Saul’s daughter loved him.
And Saul was yet more afraid of David, and Saul became David’s enemy.
He throws a javelin at his son for siding with David! He kills priests
for siding with David! Instead of fighting the Philistines and
Amalekites, Sayk wastes energy hunting David! And, particularly
cruel to both his daughter and her husband, Saul takes Michal from
David and gives here to Phaltiel!
Twice David spares Saul's life, and yet still Saul can’t quite let go
though in the end he blesses David and realizes David will prevail (26:
25). But David despairs: deserts to Philistines.
Saul is left alone. No voice of God. Neither by umim or
thumim will God answer. Saul wants Samuel--so despartely than he turns
to necromancy. Note Samuel’s answer: why turn to me when the Lord
is departed from you? You’re doomed: and not only that, you’ve
destroyed your people along with you.
And Saul almost gets it right. He won’t eat. This time not
doing things just for outward appearances. Falls on his face to
pray. But he’s persuaded to get up and eat. And once more
he fights the Philistines. Entirely under his own strength—and he
loses. Jonathan too dies.
"How are the mighty fallen," mourns David--a theme Aristotle
particularly associates with tragedy.
And that brings us to the traged of David.
The story of David at first reads much like a fairy tale.
poor shepherd boy, youngest son of a large family. He does
many brave deeds and wins the love of a princess, Michal, daughter of
The king, however,
is jealous of David and sets him an impossible task. You want to marry
Michal? Fine. Bring me a hundred foreskins of the
as a bride price. David welcomes the challenge and soon produces
the required foreskins. Saul grudgingly consents to the marriage,
and Michal and David live happily ever after.
Well, not quite. Saul, now even more jealous, tries again
to kill David. Michal, risking her father's displeasure and her
life, contrives to help David escape. Then Saul does the cruelest
thing he could possibly do to David. He takes David's princess
and gives her to someone else, Phalti the son of Laish.
This is a crushing blow to a man's ego. When the woman he
up in bed with another man, something goes haywire in his mind, and
on the whole David is a good man, he cannot escape the consequences of
this deep hurt.
Notice that one of the first things David does while he is
Saul is to find another wife. He chooses Abigail, a beautiful and
clever woman, who should have been able to take Michal's place in
life. But David is clearly not content. He soon takes
wife, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess. Still not enough. II Samuel
3 lists four more wives, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and Eglah.
But are David's problems really the result of losing Michal?
Notice David's conduct during the civil war that followed Saul's
David little by little had gained the upper hand in this long war, but
Saul's son Ishbosheth, backed by the very able commander Abner, was
up a fierce and determined resistance to Davidian rule. Finally,
however, Abner had had enough of Ishbosheth and decided to make
to David. David's reply to Abner's message is fascinating, "Thou
shalt not see my face, except thou first bring Michal, Saul's daughter,
when thou comest to see my face." To Ishbosheth himself David is
equally insistent, "Deliver me my wife Michal
which I espoused to me for a hundred foreskins of Philistines."
There is a civil war going on. David has a chance to end
it and consolidate
his rule. But he won't even negotiate unless he gets his wife
first. Poor diplomacy, but very much in accord with what lies
in a man's heart.
David does finally get his wife back, but not to live happily
David's ego had been too badly wounded for the relationship to
This is clear in the next exchange the Bible records between Michal and
David has brought up the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.
Michal has seen
him dancing joyfully at the head of the procession and for some reason
finds David's display of emotion embarrassing. She greets David
stinging words, "How glorious was the King of Israel to day who
himself to day in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of
the vain fellows shamefully uncovers himself." In other words,
you made a fool out of yourself."
David, not surprisingly, is angry, and insists that his dancing
the Lord. The writer of II Samuel concludes this episode by
us that because of this "Michal had no child unto the day of her
Most infer from
this that God punished her with childlessness as a result of her rebuke
to her husband. It seems to me more likely that it is really
who punished her by refusing ever to sleep with her again. And
men are so touchy, and their egos are that fragile.
But David was not finished with his cruelty to Michal. On
occasion, it was necessary for David to choose for execution some of
descendants to settle a blood debt. David could have chosen
he wanted, but five of the seven he chose were children Michal had been
raising for one of her relatives. Again, it's clear that David is
going out of his way to hurt Michal. And yes, men are so
and their egos are that fragile.
And then there's the story everyone knows, the story of David
David, no doubt still hurting as a result of the problems with Michal,
sees Bathsheba bathing. He sends for her, gets her pregnant,
to deceive her husband into thinking the child is his own, and then,
in this, arranges the death of the husband.
Through all this, David doesn't even seem to realize he's doing
wrong. Nathan the prophet drives it home. He appears before David
with a story. There were two men, one rich, one poor. The
man had many flocks and herds, while the poor man had only one ewe lamb
which he loved as a daughter. A traveler arrived at the rich
house, and since the rich man didn't want to kill any of his own
to provide for the guest, he took the poor man's lamb and slaughtered
As David heard the story, he became furious. "The man who
this thing ought to die!" he shouted.
Nathan turned on him and simply said, "Thou art the man."
And David wakes up to the appalling thing that he has
done. Why did
he do it? It seems to me clear that the root cause is the bad
to his ego when he lost Michal.
Now David differs from Saul here. He (finally) recognizes
his sin, and goes to God directly. But he can’t escape
consequences! The Amnon/Tamar
story and David's failure to do anything about it. Shows one
problem. And this leads to the conflict with Absalom. Once
again, there's a theme similar to the Samuel/Saul story. David
loves Absalom, but he keeps himself distant, ends up alienating his
son. He almost loses both throne and life, and the civil war
which follows ends only with the death of his son. More war after
than as well.
Any catharsis? Well, two things it seems to me.
There's the beautiful Psalm in II Samuel 22 with these
also hast lifted me up on high above them that rose up against me: thou
hast delivered me from the violent man.Therefore I will give thanks
unto thee, O Lord,
among the heathen, and I will sing praises unto thy name. He is the
tower of salvation for his king: and sheweth mercy to his anointed,
unto David, and to his seed for evermore.
And then there's
this from II Samuel 23:
of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men
must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light
of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as
the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after
rain. Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an
everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all
my salvation, and all my desire, although he make it not to grow.
Note the standard of what a ruler should be like, David's
admission that he *hasn't* been what he should have been, and that fact
that God is faithful anyway.
In addition to David, there are some relatively minor
characters, important to overall theme. The stories of Absalom,
Joab, and Ahithophel might (if elaborated) make for good tragedies.