Composition of the Books of Samuel




Approximate date: 970-800s B.C.E. (Right, some conservative-moderate); before 586 B.C.E. (some conservative-moderate, some Left); mid-to-late 500s B.C.E. (some Left)

Time period: rise of Israel’s monarchy via the establishment of Kings Saul and David

Author: Samuel (Right); Israel’s court historians and further editors (conservative-moderate); Israel’s court historians or an unknown exile from the Southern Kingdom (Left)

Location of author: Land of Israel (Right, some conservative-moderate); Jerusalem, Babylon, and/or Land of Israel (some conservative-moderate, Left)

Target audience and their location: people of Israel during the Davidic and/or Solomonic monarchy (Right, conservative-moderate); Jewish religious leaders during the reign of King Josiah and/or Jewish exiles living in Babylon or returning from Babylon (Left)

reproduced from A Survey of the Tanach for the Practical Messianic

Theological Summary: The Books of 1&2 Samuel are named for the Prophet Shmuel whom God used to establish Israel’s monarchy. It is largely an account of three individuals: Samuel as Israel’s last judge, Saul as Israel’s first king, and David as Israel’s greatest king. The Prophet Samuel anointed both Saul and David, and his role in this period of Israel’s history is similar to that of Moses several centuries earlier (Psalm 99:6; Jeremiah 15:1). The Books of 1&2 Samuel tell us a great deal about the human condition as lived out in the lives of political figures. 1&2 Samuel depict a type of kingship unique to the Ancient Near East, where kings were often absolute rulers. With the examples of Saul and David, we see that a delicate balance existed between Israel’s monarchs and the religious authorities,[1] making the king accountable to God.

Samuel was originally a single book, but became divided in two by the Third-Second Centuries B.C.E. by the translators of the Greek Septuagint.[2] This likely occurred because the Greek translation of the Hebrew required two scrolls instead of one.[3] The division of Samuel into two books started appearing in standardized Hebrew texts in the Fifteenth-Sixteenth Centuries C.E.,[4] possibly to accommodate Christians in Europe.[5] The division between 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel occurs naturally as King Saul dies and the reign of King David begins.

Throughout history this text has actually had a variety of names. The Septuagint originally used the designation Bibloi Basileōn or Books of the Kings for what we today consider 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings, dividing them into 1, 2, 3, and 4 Kings. This pattern was also followed by Jerome in his Latin Vulgate translation, as he designated them Libri Regum. Over time, however, the most common designation became 1&2 Samuel.[6]

In the Jewish canon the Books of Samuel are placed among the Former Prophets, and they appear right after Judges. In the Christian canon, following the order of the LXX, 1&2 Samuel are placed in the Histories.

Many hypotheses have been proposed for the composition of 1&2 Samuel. Jewish tradition in the Talmud ascribes authorship to the Prophet Samuel (b.Bava Batra 14b),[7] but exclusive authorship has extreme problems considering that the events of 1 Samuel chs. 25-31 and all of 2 Samuel occur after his death.[8] It is notable, though, that Samuel was a writer (1 Chronicles 29:29), and he may have had a hand in composing some of the sources that would have been used in a book that bears his name.[9] Some consider that the Prophets Nathan and Gad could have been later compilers of the sources for Samuel (b.Bava Batra 15a);[10] based on the testimony of 1 Chronicles 29:29:

“Now the acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the chronicles of Samuel the seer, in the chronicles of Nathan the prophet and in the chronicles of Gad the seer.”

Another possible source for Samuel includes what would have become 2 Samuel 9-1 Kings 2, the so-called “succession narrative.”

If Samuel, Nathan, and Gad composed various accounts of Saul and David’s kingships, these independent sources in Israel’s court history could have later been edited together.[11] Whoever was the ultimate author or editor of 1&2 Samuel would have needed access to records detailing the lives of Samuel, Saul, and David. It is fair for us to assume that Samuel and some of the other prophets had more influence on the text than is commonly assumed, even if they are not responsible for its final form.[12] Ultimately, many conservative scholars are forced to conclude that the author of Samuel must be considered anonymous,[13] with many placing it at the feet of Israel’s court historians.[14] Even though Jewish tradition ascribes authorship to Samuel, it is notable that the author does not identify himself in the text. Attributing the name of Samuel to these books comes as an attribution of honor.

There are some varied independent sources that may have been used in the composition of Samuel that are proposed by various conservatives. Some consider a non-extant Book of Jashar to be such an independent source (2 Samuel 1:18), even though Jewish scholarship largely holds “the Book of Uprightness” (ATS) to be the Torah. The author of Chronicles references “the account of the chronicles of King David” (1 Chronicles 27:24), as well as the chronicles of Samuel, Nathan, and Gad (1 Chronicles 29:29). Many of these potential sources probably included first hand accounts, and the author of Samuel demonstrates a knowledge of being an historian himself.

Chronologically, the events of 1&2 Samuel take place over a period of about 200 years, at the beginning of the Eleventh Century B.C.E. to the end of the Tenth Century B.C.E. Many conservatives advocate that Samuel was written at the end of David’s life, and prior to or during the reign of Solomon,[15] placing it at the end of the Tenth Century B.C.E. Some have noted that the text tends to favor the Southern Kingdom of Judah over the Northern Kingdom of Israel,[16] leading some conservatives to believe that Samuel was written in the Ninth Century B.C.E. after the division of Israel. Regardless of whether Samuel was composed in the Tenth or Ninth Century B.C.E., the audience that would have received this text would have a document legitimizing the reign of King David and his dynasty (1 Samuel 16:13).

As with many Biblical texts, there are some chronological uncertainties, and some events may not be given in a strict sequential order.[17] Some events are repeated not because they are different, but possibly because their perspectives are different or supplementary information is added later.[18] The Books of Chronicles often attempt to reconcile the differences. Some perceived differences may be on account of varied textual traditions where the Hebrew MT is incomplete.[19]

Liberal theologians today largely consider 1&2 Samuel to be among the so-called Deuterononomistic Histories (DH) of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, following the lead of Martin Noth.[20] There are a few conservatives who believe that Samuel reached its final form along with these texts,[21] possibly before the Babylonian exile, but often use “Deuteronomic” to describe the influence of Deuteronomy on the text, not that it was written after or during the exile.[22] Noth advocated that the DH were written to call Israel to repentance during the reforms of Josiah in the Seventh Century B.C.E. as a single work, recalling the “glory years” that the people should return to. Most liberals today continue to agree with Noth’s DH proposition, with some moderate variance.[23] Some liberals argue for literary unity of 1&2 Samuel, especially with 1&2 Kings,[24] and date the text immediately prior to, during, or after the Southern Kingdom’s exile to Babylon. Only a few liberals believe in a dating immediately after the time of David.[25]

Earlier liberals tried to import elements of the JEDP documentary hypothesis (see Genesis entry for a summarization of the JEDP documentary hypothesis) of the Torah into Samuel,[26] claiming that the (perceived) contradictions in Samuel can only be solved by understanding the sources behind the text, probably the same sources behind the Pentateuch. This view has largely died out in favor of Noth’s hypothesis of DH unity.[27] Conservatives have frequently responded to these views by asserting that there is unity of language and style throughout Samuel,[28] and that harmonization of the text can be accomplished by a closer reading.

Liberal positions on the historicity of 1&2 Samuel vary, with some believing that it presents an accurate portrayal, and others believing that the text has been grossly exaggerated to cast David in too positive a light.[29] Conservatives generally counter this by noting that 2 Samuel reflects on the largely dysfunctional nature of David’s family, and presents him as a human being with real human problems. It is notable that historically the rise of the Davidic monarchy took place when no major superpower overshadowed the Land of Israel, easily allowing Israel to become a regional force.

Both liberals and conservatives recognize that there are some serious textual problems in the Hebrew MT of Samuel,[30] with some considering it to be “the worst of the OT books,” even though “it is not evident to the ordinary reader” (IDBSup).[31] Samuel “has suffered from extensive textual corruption, particularly in the omission of words or phrases” (ISBE).[32] A notable one appears in 1 Samuel 13:1, where the MT simply says “Saul was … years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel two years” (NJPS). A few versions supply “thirty” (NASU, NIV) as a guess as to Saul’s age.

Some passages in various English translations of Samuel have to be supplemented with information from parallel texts in Psalms, Chronicles, and ancient versions such as the Greek Septuagint,[33] Dead Sea Scrolls, or even information from Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Notable among these sources is the LXX, which some consider to be “an indispensable source for the text of Samuel” (Flanagan and Brueggemann, ABD),[34] frequently expanding the text where the Hebrew leaves the reader puzzled by incomplete statements.[35] Many Christian Bibles will provide supplementary information from the LXX when the Hebrew is unclear, whereas Jewish versions will often just indicate textual difficulties in margin notes. The Septuagint version of Samuel likely reflects an older, non-extant Hebrew text that was considerably longer than the present MT.[36]

1 Samuel largely details the establishment of Israel’s monarchy led by a human king, and the events that necessitated it. The birth of Samuel (1 Samuel chs. 1-3) foreshadows the events which are to take place. The ark narratives (1 Samuel chs. 4-6) describe Israel’s battling with the Philistines, and how the Ark of the Covenant is stolen several times. Samuel as a judge of Israel (1 Samuel 7) calls Israel to repentance, and they experience victory over the Philistines.

After this takes place, the narratives of 1 Samuel chs. 8-12 describe the establishment of the monarchy, and how there is some tension. On the one hand, Samuel is told by God to give the people a king (1 Samuel 8:7, 9, 22; 9:16-17), but on the other hand Israel’s desire for a king is considered to be a rejection of God (1 Samuel 8:7; 10:19; 12:12, 17, 19-20). Moses himself had anticipated Israel’s desire for a human king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), but this was not to take place at the expense of Israel rejecting God as its Great King.

A Benjamite named Saul is brought to Samuel and is chosen to be Israel’s first king (1 Samuel chs. 9-10), and he begins his reign at Gilgal (1 Samuel chs. 11-12). Challenges arise when the people of Israel have to choose between ultimate loyalty to this new human king or to the Lord. Saul himself has difficulty as a king who must answer to God (1 Samuel chs. 13-15). He refuses to destroy the Amalekites at His command, and as a result is rejected as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 15:23).

1 Samuel concludes with God choosing David to be Saul’s successor (1 Samuel chs. 16-31), and the conflict that steadily arose between Saul and David. It culminates in the death of Saul and two of his sons, including David’s close friend Jonathan.

2 Samuel continues the narrative of David, and focuses extensively on his kingship. 2 Samuel chs. 1-4 detail how he is gradually accepted as king by the tribes of Israel. David captures the city of Jerusalem and makes it his royal residence (2 Samuel 5:13-16), later bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the city (2 Samuel 6; Psalm 132:3-5). David’s rule and influence expands from Egypt in the south to the Euphrates River in the north (2 Samuel 8). David is told by the Prophet Nathan that he is not permitted to build a permanent house for the Lord, as God is the One who would build him a house or dynasty (2 Samuel 7). The institution of the Davidic Covenant is a theme that we see emphasized numerous times by the Prophets who predict the coming of a King who will perfectly fulfill the role that David models.

2 Samuel chs. 10-20 detail the darker aspects of David’s reign. We see his sin of adultery with Bathsheba, the leniency he has toward his wicked sons and with family squabblings, and the rebellion of Absalom. 2 Samuel 22:31-51 ends with David praising the Lord.

The Books of 1&2 Samuel have much to teach us about God’s involvement in politics and what good government actually is. The dilemma that anyone faces is how one can be loyal to both God and the state, understanding how He is directly involved with human rulers as He is with the rise of Saul and David to power. These are two kings whose personal characteristics can be easily compared and contrasted. We can also see that although David is a very godly man, he is also a man of war and can easily fall prey to sin. The king’s family serves as a model—whether good or bad—to the nation. While 1&2 Samuel can often be viewed as “Sunday school” material, this text has a great deal to tell us about the human condition that cannot be ignored. “As a rule, human beings, not God, occupy the central stage, their lot being determined by their conduct” (Jewish Study Bible).[37]

The common themes seen in 1&2 Samuel are undoubtedly employed in the Apostolic Scriptures, and form a major part of the worldview of Yeshua and His Apostles. Even though Samuel is not directly quoted in the New Testament, its figures are mentioned quite regularly. 1&2 Samuel have proven to be a rich resource “for countless sermons, lectures, and lessons throughout the centuries” (EXP).[38] Both the Jewish and Christian theological traditions have always had a high regard for the message of Samuel.

When interpreting 1&2 Samuel today, it is very important that we keep in mind that this text represents a pre-exilic perspective of Israel’s monarchy and King David. We cannot forget the passing influence of Deuteronomy on the message of Samuel,[39] and the fact that Samuel helps lay the groundwork for the ideas of Messianism and an Anointed King who will save Israel.[40] The Books of Samuel are an excellent place to see Israel asserting itself as a regional power. The question they must continually answer in order to be a blessed power is whether or not they will obey God.

There is not a great deal of examination of all of 1&2 Samuel in today’s Messianic movement, even though it is an excellent place for one to see the “Torah in action” on a national scale with the establishment of Israel’s monarchy. Any Messianic handling of Samuel, however, will have to take into account varied literary factors, the role of the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls in complimenting the Hebrew MT, as well as the various historical criticisms against its message. It will also ask us many questions about loyalty not only to God and to state, but how we can balance loyalty to our native countries and maintain a high regard for Israel. Perhaps most importantly, Messianic Believers have a profound opportunity to teach on and learn about the human condition when examining Samuel, and how obedience to God is imperative to living a happy, productive life.

Bar-Efrat, Shimon. “First Samuel,” in Jewish Study Bible, pp 558-618.
_______________. “Second Samuel,” in Ibid., pp 619-667.
DeVries, Carl E. “Samuel, Books of,” in NIDB, pp 893-894.
Dillard, Raymond B., and Tremper Longman III. “Samuel,” in An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 135-147.
Flanagan, James. W., and Walter Brueggemann. “Samuel, Book of 1-2,” in ABD, 5:957-973.
Grizzard, Carol. “1 Samuel,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible, pp 391-438.
____________. “2 Samuel,” in Ibid., pp 439-477.
Harrison, R.K. “The Books of Samuel,” in Old Testament Introduction, pp 695-718.
Klein, R.W. “Samuel, Books of,” in ISBE, 4:312-320.
Payne, D.F. “1 and 2 Samuel,” in NBCR, pp 284-319.
Szikszai, S. “Samuel, I and II,” in IDB, 4:202-209.
Tsevat, M. “Samuel, I and II,” in IDBSup, pp 777-781.
Youngblood, Ronald F. “1,2 Samuel,” in EXP, 3:553-1104.


[1] Shimon Bar-Efrat, “First Samuel,” in Jewish Study Bible, 559.

[2] James. W. Flanagan and Walter Brueggemann, “Samuel, Book of 1-2,” in ABD, 5:957; Carl E. DeVries, “Samuel, Books of,” in NIDB, 893.

[3] Flanagan and Brueggemann, “Samuel, Book of 1-2,” in ABD, 5:957; Carol Grizzard, “1 Samuel,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 391.

[4] DeVries, “Samuel, Books of,” in NIDB, 893.

[5] S. Szikszai, “Samuel, I and II,” in IDB, 4:203; Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 695; D.F. Payne, “1 and 2 Samuel,” in NBCR, 284; R.W. Klein, “Samuel, Books of,” in ISBE, 4:313.

[6] Ronald F. Youngblood, “1,2 Samuel,” in EXP, 3:553.

[7] “Samuel wrote the book that is called by his name and the book of Judges and Ruth” (b.Bava Batra 14b; The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary).

[8] DeVries, “Samuel, Books of,” in NIDB, 893.

[9] Payne, in NBCR, 284.

[10] “Samuel wrote the book that is called by his name and the book of Judges and Ruth: But is it not written, ‘Now Samuel was dead’ (1Sa. 28:3)? Gad the seer and Nathan the prophet finished it” (b.Bava Batra 15a; The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary).

Cf. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 709; Klein, “Samuel, Books of,” in ISBE, 4:313; Youngblood, in EXP, 3:554.

[11] Klein, “Samuel, Books of,” in ISBE, 4:315.

[12] Youngblood, in EXP, 3:554.

[13] Dillard and Longman, 136.

[14] Klein, “Samuel, Books of,” in ISBE, 4:314.

[15] Payne, in NBCR, 284.

[16] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 709.

[17] Payne, in NBCR, 286.

[18] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 701-708.

[19] Ibid., 708.

[20] Klein, “Samuel, Books of,” in ISBE, 4:317; Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 697; Flanagan and Brueggemann, “Samuel, Book of 1-2,” in ABD, 5:959-960; Dillard and Longman, pp 139-140.

[21] Payne, in NBCR, 284.

[22] Youngblood, in EXP, 3:556-557; Dillard and Longman, 136.

[23] Flanagan and Brueggemann, “Samuel, Book of 1-2,” in ABD, 5:966.

[24] M. Tsevat, “Samuel, I and II,” in IDBSup, 777.

[25] DeVries, “Samuel, Books of,” in NIDB, 893.

[26] Szikszai, “Samuel, I and II,” in IDB, 4:204-208; Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 697; Tsevat, “Samuel, I and II,” in IDBSup, pp 778-780.

[27] Flanagan and Brueggemann, “Samuel, Book of 1-2,” in ABD, 5:959.

[28] DeVries, “Samuel, Books of,” in NIDB, 893.

[29] Szikszai, “Samuel, I and II,” in IDB, 4:209.

[30] Szikszai, “Samuel, I and II,” in IDB, 4:209; Youngblood, in EXP, 3:559-560.

[31] Tsevat, “Samuel, I and II,” in IDBSup, 777.

[32] Klein, “Samuel, Books of,” in ISBE, 4:313.

[33] Payne, in NBCR, 285.

[34] Flanagan and Brueggemann, “Samuel, Book of 1-2,” in ABD, 5:958.

[35] Dillard and Longman, pp 143-145.

[36] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 708, 717-718.

[37] Bar-Efrat, in Jewish Study Bible, 558.

[38] Youngblood, in EXP, 3:559.

[39] Youngblood, in EXP, 3:556; Dillard and Longman, 145.

[40] Dillard and Longman, pp 146-147.