Why Read the Old Testament

Why Read the Old Testament?


Over the last two weeks I’ve been looking at the new NIV Zondervan Study Bible. While this is not a review per se, my first impressions are that the Bible is very promising: great articles, helpful study notes, and full color on every page.1

In his article “Introduction to the Old Testament,” T.D. Alexander provides a compelling description of the Old Testament’s role in the biblical storyline:

The Bible is built around a grand story that starts in Genesis with the divine creation of the earth and ends in Revelation by anticipating the coming of a new earth. The OT contributes to this story by explaining the origin and nature of the human predicament, which, in essence, is our alienation from God. From the early chapters of Genesis onward, the OT describes how God sets about redeeming and restoring creation after the tragic rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Not only is God’s redemptive activity evident throughout the OT, but by pointing forward to Jesus Christ, the OT introduces the ultimate means by which the tragic consequences of human sin will be reversed. (p. 3)

Alexander then goes on to provide a brief summary of the Old Testament narrative. He concludes this section, writing:

While the grand story of the OT moves through a series of distinctive stages, these stages are closely linked to one another as God’s plan of redemption unfolds. From the Garden of Eden to the return of the exiles from Babylon, God is at work, seeking to restore to himself an alienated humanity and to reclaim the earth from the powers of evil. In all of this, the OT prepares for events that come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. With good reason the NT cannot be fully understood without an intimate knowledge of the OT. (p. 6).

What a great reason for reading the Old Testament! Sure, the stories seem bizarre, the names unpronounceable, and the genealogies monotonous; for the Christian, the Old Testament is required reading, helping you better understand the events and writings of the New Testament. Moreover, as Alexander writes in the last paragraph, in the Old Testament we see God at work, bringing restoration and reconciliation to both mankind and the entire cosmos.

  1. Now if they could only work on the size. My copy—which is the Personal Size—makes the ESV Study Bible look thin! 

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theology of space in jonah

Theology of Space in Jonah


This past Sunday we hosted a Children’s Worker Training at church. In the training, Pastor Gary provided a sample lesson on Jonah 1. As we all reflected on Jonah fleeing from God by heading away from Nineveh, I noticed how much detail the author of Jonah puts into the narrative, especially in terms of space and location. After doing some more reading1 I realized that much of the movement in space in Jonah is communicating some powerful theological truths.

Falling from God

In Jonah 1:1–2, God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it. This is a command for Jonah to physically travel there, heading north and then east from Israel to arrive in the Assyrian capital. Instead, Jonah heads west to Joppa, where he finds a ship that will carry him farther west to Tarshish2. But notice also that Jonah travels down; twice in Jonah 1:3 the text says Jonah went down—first to Joppa and then to the boat.

Once on the boat heading west, a giant storm strikes the boat, terrifying the hardened sailors. Yet Jonah was not among them, as he was sleeping in the hold. Once again, the text describes Jonah as moving downward “into the inner part of the ship” (Jonah 1:5). The Phoenician captain orders Jonah to arise and to worship his god, but Jonah believes it is futile. Instead, Jonah orders the sailors to throw him overboard into the deep of the Mediterranean. When they do this in Jonah 1:15, Jonah is again falling deeper into the earth, away from the presence of God.

Crying from the Depths

While in the watery deeps, as far as he could physically go, Jonah was rescued. A giant fish—appointed by God—swallowed Jonah and kept him for three days. In the midst of this behemoth rescuer, Jonah finally prays for the first time in this book. Spanning most of Jonah 2, this prayer is rich in spatial language. Jonah notes that God sent him to the depths—to the very roots of the mountains (Jonah 2:6). Yet from the depths God hears Jonah’s cry and rescues him from the same depths.

In this prayer, Jonah is no longer fleeing God, but is in communion with Him. In the depths of the sea, Jonah finds a divinely appointed place of worship. From this organic temple/method of deliverance, Jonah’s prayer is heard in God’s heavenly temple (verse 7), and God provides the salvation he needs (verse 9).

Also worth noting in Jonah 2 is the lone line of narrative at the end. In verse 10, the narrator says that the fish vomited Jonah out “upon the dry land.” Keeping with the movements in the rest of the book, Jonah is no longer descending into earth. Instead, in one mighty belch he finds himself in the same space he was in Jonah 1:1—on dry land and about to hear from God.

Towards the Center of It All

God repeats his command for Jonah to go to Nineveh in Jonah 3:2; the wording is nearly identical to Jonah 1:2. Only this time, Jonah listens. Rather than running from Nineveh, Jonah heads directly towards it. Jonah arrives in Nineveh, and begins to venture into the city, preaching his message of condemnation as he goes3. Jonah—or at least the message that Jonah brought—eventually arrived in the center of Nineveh, where the king of Nineveh ruled. His response to this message echoed the response of the entire city: repentance and begging God for mercy (Jonah 3:7–9).

Arise and Judge

In Jonah 4 the narrative focus returns to Jonah. He is very angry that Nineveh repented and God relented (4:1). In verse 5, the text describes Jonah as traveling further east; he wants to get a good vantage point from where he hopes to watch Nineveh’s destruction.

While I couldn’t find any evidence in commentaries, I wonder if the author intended for verse 5 to read as if Jonah climbed an elevation to view Nineveh’s destruction. Viewing from an elevation—even if just a hill or slight rise to the east of the city—would have given him a better view of the anticipated destruction. Moreover, in continuation of the role of space in this book, it would serve as further movement by Jonah. In this case, he would have risen above the city; having served as judge and found the city guilty (4:2), he now awaited the carrying out of the sentence.

Using a divinely-appointed plant, worm, and wind, God yet again demonstrated to Jonah that divine compassion and love exceeds human understanding of justice and revenge. Even though Jonah fought to change the situation, God would have mercy on the repentant Gentiles.


In the first half of the book, Jonah tries to flee the presence of the Lord. Not only does he run in the opposite direction from Nineveh, he also descends deeper and deeper into the earth. With the ancient worldview believing that God lived in the physical heavens above, Jonah’s journey down to the sea, into the hold of the ship, and into the sea can be seen as Jonah trying to get as far away from God’s presence as physically possible.

Yet Jonah found that was impossible. In the depths of the sea, God was there—and He rescued him! Jonah discovers the truth found in the Psalter:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 139:7–8)

Later, we find out why Jonah is fleeing God: he knows that if Nineveh will repent, God will forgive them; Jonah thinks they deserve judgment and not mercy. In this way, Jonah tries to take the place of God, climbing to a vantage point to watch the hoped-for destruction. But this turns into another lesson for Jonah, as God uses the plant to show how much he cares for Nineveh.

  1. After the training, of course. 

  2. The identity of Tarshish is unknown; it would have been west on the Mediterranean.  

  3. While Nineveh was a great city, it was not so massive to take 3 days to travel. The ancient walled city was only 1–3 miles in breadth. Likely the narrator is referring to the cities and towns in the Nineveh region—what we would now call the Greater Metropolitan Area. Another compelling explanation for why Jonah’s journey took so long is because he preached his message to every home he encountered, jumping into his prophetic role with gusto. 

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failure of sons in the book of samuel

The Failure of Sons in the Book of Samuel

At the end of 1 Samuel 7 we see a summary of Samuel’s ministry (1 Samuel 7:13–17). He has judged Israel for years, he has subdued the Philistines, and he has even led the nation in a victory at Ebenezer.

Yet when we get to 1 Samuel 8, we see that his sons are duds. At the beginning of 1 Samuel 8, we are transported into the future: Samuel is advanced in age and he sets up his two sons to serve in his place. Yet these two sons prove to be clones of Eli’s sons:

But his [Samuel’s] sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. (8:3 NIV)

Instead of following in the footsteps of their famous father, they follow the path of Eli’s sons. These men cannot provide leadership to Israel; you can’t have a judge who perverts justice!

This should not surprise the reader of the Old Testament—several times in the text the sons of great leaders follow a path of dishonesty and corruption. The failure of Eli’s sons lead to the emergence of Samuel. The grandson of Moses set up idols in Dan. Joshua and all the judges were all one-time leaders; there was never a passing of leadership by generations in a family.

In 1 Samuel 8, the people react to Samuel’s sons by crying out for a king. Much is made of them desiring a king to be like other nations, but there is probably an additional desire for stability in leadership. With a dynasty, Israel would always know who their leader would be, instead of waiting for one to arrive.

Yet these future dynasties found Samuel don’t fare much better. Saul and his sons die the same day on Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31). David’s lineage is a great mess in 2 Samuel, filled with incest (2 Samuel 13:1–22), infighting (2 Samuel 13:23–39), and an attempted military coup by the heir apparent (2 Samuel 15).


Family lineage does not fare well in the book of Samuel. Sons fail to live up to the reputation and faithfulness of their fathers. In the book of Samuel, we see several times in which the nation cannot put her trust in these sons.

But there is a glimmer of hope: in 2 Samuel 7, a son is promised to David. This son will be taught by God, will be like a son to God, and will reign forever. This son will succeed where all other sons have failed. He will be the true king and true son—the Lord’s chosen one (Messiah).

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battle between yahweh and dagon

The Spiritual Battle between Yahweh and Dagon

When we talk about Old Testament narratives, we often focus on the people and places found within the stories. Samson did this, David did that. Yet we cannot forget that within the Bible there is always a spiritual dimension to these stories. God is found working in each narrative; sometimes behind the scenes, and other times right out in the open.

In the conflicts between the Philistines and Israel—found in Judges and 1 Samuel—there is a greater spiritual battle taking place. On Israel’s side is Yahweh, who rescued them from Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. On the side of the Philistines is Dagon, the mightiest of all the Philistine gods.1 In Judges and 1 Samuel, three conflicts between Israel and the Philistines can be seen as a struggle to find the stronger god.

Samson vs. Dagon

In Judges 16, the mighty Samson’s hair is cut, his strength leaves him, and he is captured by the Philistines. Samson’s eyes are gouged out and he is taken to the Philistine city of Gaza.

In Gaza, Samson is put on display in the temple of Dagon (Judges 16:23). The Philistine leaders gathered for a religious feast to Dagon, and the captured Samson served as proof of Dagon’s might and his faithfulness to the Philistines (v. 24).

While performing for the Philistine leaders, Samson calls to God one last time, asking for a final burst of strength (v. 28). Gripping the supporting pillars of Dagon’s temple, Samson collapses the temple, killing himself and all the Philistine leaders.

In the midst of a festival to Dagon, while also celebrating a conquered foe, Yahweh proves his power. Yahweh has an agent of his infiltrate the fortress of Dagon his enemy, so that he could bring it down from within. In the battle between Yahweh and Dagon, the score is 1–0.

Capture of the Ark

The next conflict between Dagon and Yahweh occurs at the start of 1 Samuel. The armies of Israel and the Philistines face off at Aphek, with the Philistines having the early upper hand (1 Samuel 4:2). Israel sought to turn the tide of the battle, so they called for Eli’s sons to bring the Ark of the Covenant. To them, the Ark was a talisman: a relic whose presence within the camp would bring them God’s favor.

But that’s not how God works. The resulting battle was a wipeout, with all Israel either laying dead on the battlefield or running all the way home (1 Samuel 4:10). Eli’s sons are killed, and the Ark is captured.

Ironically, it is the Philistines who recognize the true power of Yahweh. When they hear that the Ark is in Israel’s camp, they pass along this warning:

Woe to us! Woe can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. (1 Samuel 4:8)

When the Philistines return from the battle, they place the Ark in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1).2 In the ancient cultures, it was common for a victorious army to bring the image of a vanquished deity into their own gods temple.3 This proved tangible proof of the conquering god’s power over the fallen one, just as the conquering army was stronger than the defeated one. It was also seen as a way to commandeer the power of the conquered deity: in this case, the Philistines viewed that Dagon would absorb Yahweh’s power into his own.

But this symbolism of Dagon ruling over Yahweh’s Ark did not work out for the Philistines. The day after installing the Ark in Dagon’s temple, Dagon’s statue is found prostrate, as if it were worshipping Yahweh’s Ark. The priests quickly remedy this embarrassing situation, but the next day it gets worse: Dagon is broken and bowing before the Ark. Dagon is beheaded, and his head and hands are found almost out the door.4

The power of Yahweh is felt outside the doors of Dagon’s temple: both Ashdod and Gath would physically feel the power of Yahweh against them (1 Samuel 5:6, 9).5 By the time the Ark reaches Ekron, the Philistines want to get rid of this prize of war.

Eventually it is decided that the Ark must return to Israel. Yes, this means giving the enemy a prized possession, but the Philistines have learned firsthand that Yahweh cannot be contained or controlled. There is to be no god before Yahweh, and that includes Dagon—even inside his own temple! And if Dagon cannot protect them, who will? Dagon: 0, Yahweh: 2.

David vs. Goliath

The third battle between Dagon and Yahweh is the most famous: the battle between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The story is simple: the massive Philistine soldier Goliath is killed by the young Israelite shepherd boy David. But the underlaying spiritual battle between Yahweh and Dagon is the battle we are more concerned about.

For 40 days, Goliath challenged anyone from Israel to come and fight him. This was representative battle—common in the ancient world—in which one soldier from each side would fight to the death. The winner would prove that the gods were on his side, as well as on the side of his army. So the battle was not really between two soldiers, but between the two gods whom the soldiers represent.

When an Israelite finally accepts Goliath’s challenge, it is not Saul the Israelite giant and king, but rather a young shepherd boy named David. Goliath is offended at the choice, and he begins cursing David in the name of his god Dagon (1 Samuel 17:43). David, too, sees this battle as spiritual warfare: Goliath has committed blasphemy—a capital offense—and David will be the one to carry out the sentence (1 Samuel 17:26).

In a scene that echoes 1 Samuel 5, the representative of Dagon falls prostrate before and is beheaded by the representative of Yahweh. Yahweh is again proven greater than Dagon, winning this battle before the other could even make a move. Dagon: 0, Yahweh: 3.


When we discuss the Old Testament narratives, we must remember to pay attention to the action behind the scenes. These three stories point to the greater battle between Yahweh and the Philistine god Dagon. And in these stories, Yahweh vanquishes his foe handily.

  1. Not much is known about Dagon; he could have been the god over grain, or even a fish-god (think merman). He was the father of Baal, who is the most significant false god in the Old Testament. 

  2. Remember, they couldn’t use the temple of Dagon in Gaza, since it lay in ruins. 

  3. This is also seen in the Samson story, with Samson serving as a representative of Yahweh. 

  4. Keith Bodner provides a rich description of this account: “It is as though Dagon was attempting to flee (from his own house!), yet the torso is pulled back, but the hands remain—because the ’hand’ of the LORD is heavy on the hands of Dagon.” (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 52)  

  5. The identity of these physical afflictions is unknown: tumors, bubonic plague, and even hemorrhoids have been suggested. The final suggestion is captured in the most amazing way by the King James translators: “they had emerods in their secret parts.” 

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Hannah's Prayer

Hannah’s Prayer: A Hymn of Cosmic Praise

In the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, the reader is immersed in a domestic dispute: the children of Elkanah’s one wife is making Hannah, his barren other wife, jealous. But the narrator does not describe Hannah’s mood in trite terms; the lack of a child is a painful void in Hannah’s life.

Barrenness in the Bible

Barrenness is a burden endured by several women in the Bible: Sarah (Genesis 16:1), Rachel (Genesis 30:1), Manoah (Judges 13:2), and the Shunammite (2 Kings 4) in the Old Testament, and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7) in the New Testament. In each story, God is shown to be the Giver of Life, providing a child when all hope seems lost. Like these other stories, Hannah’s son is an unexpected, but much appreciated, gift from God.

Hannah’s Prayer: God is Faithful

When Hannah brings little Samuel to Shiloh to serve God, she prays a joyous prayer to God. Recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, this prayer is a testimony to the faith found in Hannah. Moreover, it highlights the faithfulness of God. Echoes of this prayer can be found in Psalm 113 and in the Magnificat (Mary’s prayer in Luke 1:46–53).

Several lines in this prayer serve as overarching themes in the book of Samuel. First, Hannah’s poetic prayer, describing how she exults in the Lord (1 Samuel 2:1), echoes the poetry and psalms of David. Second, Hannah describes the lowering of the proud (2:3–4) and the exalting of the anointed (v. 10). These actions are not done by people, but rather by God himself (v. 7). This theme plays out several times in Samuel:

  • Downfall of Eli & sons / Exalting of Samuel
  • Downfall of Samuel’s sons / Exalting of Saul
  • Downfall of Saul / Exalting of David
  • Downfall of Goliath / Exalting of David

Curiously, the word translated as “his anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10) appears in the Bible for the first time here. So Hannah’s prayer introduces the theme of the Lord’s anointed mere chapters before David is anointed.

The theme of God being the author of death and life is also introduced here (1 Samuel 1:6). God takes the life from several main characters in this book: Eli & sons, Saul, David’s unnamed son (2 Samuel 12), and David’s son Absalom (2 Samuel 18). Yet God also gives life: Hannah is given Samuel plus 5 additional children (1 Samuel 2:21)!

Hannah’s Prayer: God Has No Equal

The entire structure of Hannah’s prayer is a testimony to the faithfulness and incomparability of God. Hannah first gives personal reasons (1 Samuel 2:1–3) for God’s faithfulness: God has saved her! She moves on to historic accounts (2:4–8b) of God’s faithfulness: time and time again God has delivered his people! Finally, she moves to a cosmic view (2:8c–10) of God’s faithfulness: God rules the cosmos, and who can stand in his way?


Hannah’s prayer is a celebration of God’s faithfulness in her life by giving her a son. But, more importantly, it is a powerful psalm of praise to the cosmic God who is faithful to his people. This prayer properly sets the stage for the rest of the narrative in 1 Samuel.

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failure of dan and grandson of moses

The Failures of Dan and the Grandson of Moses


At the end of the book of Judges, the story moves away from individual judges and, instead, turns to random sins throughout the tribes. In Judges 18, the narrator describes the sins of the tribe of Dan.

Failures of Dan

In Judges 18:1, the narrator reveals that Dan is looking for an inheritance among the tribes. This means land. They were looking for their spot to settle in the Promised Land. This is not because they were not given an inheritance, but that they never captured it.

In Joshua 19:40–46, Dan is assigned specific cities to be their possession. If you have read the book of Judges, some of these villages may sound familiar: they are all within Philistine territory. So Dan’s land possession is occupied by the Philistines!

We can assume that Dan tried to capture this territory and failed(( Joshua 19:47; Judges 1:34)), leaving Dan without land. It also leaves the Canaanites and, later, Philistines in their villages, within striking distance of the center of Israel—an issue that will continue to haunt Israel in 1 Samuel.

Returning to Judges 18, the narrator describes how the tribe strikes for the northern region of the Promised Land. There they find the town of Laish, which they conquer and rename Dan, claiming it as their new inheritance.

As the Danites establish their new city, the narrator describes their new system of worship:

And the people of Dan set up the carved images for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. (Judges 18:30)

Who is this man?

That’s right, Jonathan—a direct descendant of Moses—is installed as the Levite in charge of the idols in the city of Dan. This is how far the tribes have fallen since the glory days of the Exodus: the descendants of Moses have become the personal priests of a rogue tribe, and will offer sacrifices to these idols.

Later Jewish scribes were so horrified at this failure by a descendant of Moses that they intentionally inserted a N (nun) into the name, so it reads Manasseh. Modern English translations note this in the footnotes, but KJV retains the misspelling in the text.


The author of Judges is providing a compelling argument for not only faithful, centralized leadership; he is arguing for faithful leadership that can survive generations. Israel can’t survive a cycle of good and bad leaders; they need a succession of leaders who are faithful to God and will lead the people in the ways of the Lord. As we see in 1 Samuel, this does not happen with Eli or Saul, but it has a chance with David.

This story also places Dan as an early center of rebellion within Israel. Later in Israel’s history, Dan hosts one of the two golden calves created by Jeroboam to keep people from worshipping in Jerusalem.

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The Downfall of Shiloh

The Downfall of Shiloh in the Bible

The Downfall of Shiloh in the BibleAs we continue through the book of 1 Samuel, we see Hannah and her family going to Shiloh. This yearly pilgrimage by Elkanah and company was to the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, which was housed in Shiloh. Shiloh becomes an important location in the story of Samuel, the son promised to Hannah. To better understand how Shiloh fits into the storyline of 1 Samuel, we need to look at the history of Shiloh in the Bible.

Location of Shiloh

Shiloh was part of Ephriam’s territory, in the northern hill country of Israel. It is south of Shechem, Mount Gerizim, and Mount Ebal, and to the north of Mizpah and Bethel. Shiloh was situated on a road between Bethel and Shechem, used by travelers in this hill country (Judges 21:19).

Shiloh in Joshua

In Joshua 18:1, Shiloh is first mentioned as a centralized meeting place for Israel during the northern conquest. They set up the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, making Shiloh the first center of worship in the Promised Land. Shiloh is where Israel met to divide up the land among the tribes (18:10) and make further war plans (22:12).

Shiloh in Judges

In the book of Judges, the events at Shiloh take a turn for the worse. In the first few generations of Israelites living in the land, a rival worship site has already been established. Located in Dan to the north, this rival site housed idols carved by Micah. In Judges 18:31, this site is said to last as long as Shiloh housed a temple. Just as Israel created an idol while in the presence of the Lord (Exodus 32), so too this generation creates a false worship center to rival the true one at Shiloh.

Shiloh makes another, more tragic appearance in Judges. After the tribe of Benjamin is nearly decimated during a civil war (Judges 20), the rest of Israel looks to provide wives for the remaining men. So they turn to Shiloh, where virgin women had gathered to celebrate a festival of the Lord (Judges 21:19). The men from Benjamin kidnap the virgins celebrating at Shiloh and marry them, thus keeping the tribe of Benjamin alive.

Shiloh in 1 & 2 Samuel

At the beginning of 1 Samuel, we are introduced to Eli and his sons, who are the priests ministering before the Lord. The Ark of the Covenant remains in Shiloh, though a more permanent temple structure may have been built to house it1. This is where Samuel is taken when he is weaned from his mother (1 Samuel 1:24). He is left under the care of Eli, who serves as a surrogate father.

It is at Shiloh that the Lord first speaks to Samuel (1 Samuel 3). He gives word to Samuel about the pending judgement against Eli and his sons. This is not the only time the Lord would speak to Samuel at Shiloh, and word spread of this throughout Israel (1 Samuel 3:19–21).

Shiloh is where Eli dies. During the battle of Aphek (1 Samuel 4), Israel wanted to use the Ark of the Covenant as a talisman against the Philistines. So Hopni and Phinehas brought the Ark from Shilo to the battlefield. When they were killed, the Ark was captured by the Philistines, and Eli dies back in Shiloh when he hears of its capture (1 Samuel 4:18). When the Ark is returned by the Philistines, it is stored in Kiriath-jearim instead of Shiloh (1 Samuel 7:1–2).

Shiloh in Later Stories

Once the Ark of the Covenant is removed by Hopni and Phinehas, Shiloh falls out of the biblical narrative. All during the stories of Saul, David, and the later kings, and not one mention of Shiloh. It is as if it fell off the face of the earth.

At some point, Shiloh was destroyed. Some think it was by the Philistines, with a date of destruction around 1050 BC2 This destruction is used by both a psalmist (Psalm 78:60–72) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:12, 14; 26:6, 9) as an example to the rest of Israel. If God would destroy Shiloh—the first center of worship in the Promised Land—because of sin—could not the same happen to the rest of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem?

Summary of Shiloh in the Bible

For a brief moment in Israel’s early history, Shiloh was a central place of worship for the nation. It was where the Ark of the Covenant was housed, and where the Lord first spoke to Samuel. Yet the sins of Eli, his sons, and others—unnamed and forgotten to history—led to the destruction of Shiloh. What was once a center of worship became but a memory in Israel’s history.

  1. 1 Samuel 1:9 mentions doorposts 

  2. “Shiloh” in New Bible Dictionary, p. 1094. 

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The Overlapping Narratives of Judges and 1 Samuel

Overlapping Judges and 1 SamuelAs mentioned before, the end of Judges seems to set the stage for the book of Samuel. Judges ends with the tribes of Israel in a state of chaos: facing constant external invasions and even internal battling. The constant refrain at the end of Judges longs for the stability of a future king.

Into this fray steps Samuel. While the first few chapters of 1 Samuel only cover his childhood, Samuel serves as a bridge between the judges and the monarchy. But is life really so cut and dry? Is there room for overlapping stories between these two books?

In his commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel, Peter Leithart argues for precisely this: there is overlap between Eli, Samson, and Samuel. He does this by placing each of the three individuals in the context of the greater conflict between Israel and the Philistines occurring at the time. As Judges 13:1 suggests, this conflict lasted 40 years. Leithart proposes that the 3 separate battles led by these men can fit in this 40 year window.


The main battle under Eli’s leadership is the battle at Aphek (1 Samuel 4), in which the ark is captured and Eli and his sons die. The ark is taken to Ashdod, where it is placed in the temple of Dagon. But a plague affects the town, as well as any other Philistine village the ark was taken. Eventually, the ark was returned to Israel, as described in 1 Samuel 6.


Twenty years after this battle, Samuel leads Israel in a definitive victory over the Philistines. Held close to the site of the last battle, the victory at Ebenezer (1 Samuel 7) signaled the end of Philistine oppression during the leadership of Samuel. And, according to Leithart, this would be the end of the 40 years of Philistine oppression mentioned in Judges 13:1.


The editorial comment in Judges 13:1 introduces the 4 chapters devoted to Samson. He is born during the occupation by the Philistines, and he judges Israel for 20 years (Judges 15:20). His main battle with the Philistines would be at his death, when he collapses the Gaza temple of Dagon on the collective heads of the Philistine leadership (Judges 16:23–31). Leithart argues that, assuming Samson was 18–20 when he began leading Israel, the collapse of the Gaza temple would have been near the end of the Philistine occupation, around year 39. This would place the bulk of Samson’s narrative after the battle of Aphek and before Samuel’s victory at Ebenezer.


This harmony of Judges and 1 Samuel proposed by Peter Leithart is novel, and to my knowledge no commentary on Samuel has engaged with yet. This view does help the reader place these disjointed narratives within the larger context of Israel’s battle with the Philistines. It also introduces a greater narrative of conflict—that between Israel’s God and Dagon, the god of the Philistines. This is a conflict that is introduced in Samson’s story, highlighted in the days of Eli and Samuel, and drawn to a definitive conclusion in the battle between David and Goliath.

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The Humble Beginning of the Book of 1 Samuel

humble beginning book of samuelSeveral times in the Bible a story starts in an inauspicious manner. Sure, the Old Testament is filled with stories of kings, prophets, and people of great valor. But scattered throughout the text, there are other narratives with much more humble beginnings.

Consider the beginning of 1 & 2 Samuel. In the course of these books, the reader will learn about the rise of a kingdom, the struggle between gods, and the start of a dynasty. God will speak, strike people down, and completely shape the path of a nation. Yet the book begins with “There was a certain man from Ramathaim…” (1 Samuel 1:1). The domestic struggles of a family from Ephraim in the north serve as unlikely introduction to this great story of kings and kingdoms.

This pattern of unlikely characters is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. The young son of an insignificant family in Israel is found hiding in a winepress; Gideon is hailed as a “mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12) by the angel, whose words come true in Judges 7. The barrenness of a Danite (Manoah’s wife) begins the birth narrative of Samson, the slayer of the Philistines (Judges 13:2). The travel log of a family fleeing a famine in Bethlehem starts the story of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 1:1)

In each of these cases, someone on the fringes of Israel’s society: insignificant and even forgotten. But God uses these humble roots to form the foundation of a new story. And in each of these stories, God uses the character to have an unexpected impact on the nation.

Isn’t this the case of Israel?

God brings a people enslaved in Egypt to freedom, and then gives them a land they can call their own. But this is not because they deserved it. God reminded them of their relative insignificance on the world stage in Deuteronomy 7:

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. (Deuteronomy 7:7, NIV)

Just like the stories mentioned before, the humble beginnings of Israel serve as the foundation for a great story.

The reason for all these humble beginnings can be found in Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2: it is God’s nature to do so.

He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

and has them inherit a throne of honor.

It is God’s nature to redeem and restore the broken, the poor, and the powerless. Not because they deserve it, but because God is gracious and merciful. I don’t know about you, but this is life-giving news to me!

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Context of the Book of Samuel

context of Book of SamuelWhen I walk into a bookstore, I love seeing a series of books in order. The covers line up perfectly, the titles are facing the same way, and sometimes even a pattern emerges. More importantly, however, is the order in which you read the stories. To the author and editor of a series, this is the way it is meant to be read. If a reader starts reading halfway through a series, he or she will miss out on the backstory, the events that shaped the main character’s journey, and the context in which the current story resides.

The same is true for the Old Testament narrative books. There is a continuous narrative of Israel, dating back to the founder (Abraham) and continues to the exile at the end of 2 Kings. The bulk of this narrative1 deals with Israel taking and living in the Promised Land.

As we have seen before, there are several ways to order the books of the Old Testament, including the Hebrew and Protestant orders. One place where the order differs between the two is found in the order of these history books. In English Bibles, the story of Ruth is situated in between Judges and the book of Samuel. In the Hebrew order, however, Samuel comes right after Judges, with Ruth found in the Writings.

How does this order affect how we read the book of Samuel? I would argue that the book preceding Samuel—either Judges or Ruth—has a direct impact on the context of how we read Samuel; these stories draw out different parallels or connections. Here is how the order of the canon affects how we read Samuel.


In our English Bibles, the book of Samuel is preceded by Ruth. This is the story of a young, poor Moabite widow who moves to Israel and is looking for a husband. At the end of the short book, it is revealed that she is an ancestor to David, the future king of Israel.

Although his name appears only as the very last word of the book, the story of Ruth is more about David than Ruth. In this way, it sets the canonical stage for David, a main character in 1 & 2 Samuel and one of the most important figures in the Old Testament.

But there are other similarities to Ruth and the book of Samuel. In the first chapter of each book, the narrative zooms in to look at the domestic troubles of one family. For Ruth, the narrative looks at how Naomi and her two daughters-in-law handle the loss of all three spouses. For Samuel, the narrative shows Hannah’s struggle with feelings of jealousy and insignificance, brought on by her husband’s other wife Peninnah. God uses both situations to bring new life and a new leader for his people: Ruth will give birth to the grandfather of David, Hannah gives birth to Samuel. And in both stories, the narrator draws attention to the greater plight facing Israel; Ruth’s story highlights the famine in Israel, while the birth of Samuel coincides with the failure of Eli’s sons (1 Samuel 2:12).


But what about Judges? How does Judges fit with Samuel?

Even better than Ruth.

The book of Judges describes the few hundred years after the conquest of the Promised Land described in Joshua. Unlike the previous leadership transition, there is no record of Joshua appointing a successor. In the leadership vacuum, a succession of local leaders—called judges—step in to lead for a time. When a judge dies, a new threat emerges from an outside invading force. The resulting conflict leads to a new judge appearing, and helps lead the people out of oppression.

Only the leadership and character of the judges diminishes over time. In the beginning we see great judges like Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah; by the end the hopes of the nation are pinned on the playboy with an anger problem: Samson. And after the last judge, the whole nation turns to anarchy: tribes are moving to their own land, people are cutting up their concubines, and tribes are battling one another. In the last few chapters, a common refrain appears: these were the days before the kings. Four times in the text2 the reader is reminded that these were the days before the monarchy. This is a later editorial remark, explaining how the times of the judges3 were akin to the wild, wild West days in American history: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25). The hope implied in this statement is that the monarchy would bring stability, a centralized government, and peace from external enemies.4

The ending of Judges segues directly into the beginning of 1 Samuel. In this book, Samuel serves as a transitional leader, recognized as both the final judge as well as kingmaker. Like many other judges, Samuel brings the nation peace after defeating an invading force (1 Samuel 7:5–14). He also acts as an itinerant arbiter (1 Samuel 7:15–16).

Which One?

I think the narrative story flows better when Judges and Samuel are next to each other. Ruth provides important historical context, especially for the introduction of David, but it feels more like an aside or narrative interlude when placed in between Judges and Samuel. Regardless of where you prefer placing these books, it is important to see how each book fits within the greater story of Israel’s time in the land—and ultimately in God’s greater story of redeeming his people.

  1. Referred to as the Former Prophets; others refer to these books as the Deuteronomistic History. 

  2. Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25 

  3. and their aftermath? 

  4. One interesting view, posed by Keith Bodner, reads the closing statement as ambiguous. “Does this” writes Bodner “suggest that once a king arrives in Israel things will be better? Or worse?” (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 3). 

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