context of Book of Samuel

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.

Ruth

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).

Judges

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). 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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