Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, April 07, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (1-10)

Few people would disagree that the Bible is a great book.  Almost all public and academic libraries have several editions on their shelves.  Many people also have more than one edition in their own private libraries.  Maybe the whole Bible is a great book but does that mean every book in the Bible is great too?  Is the book of Samuel a great book?  Can someone read this section of the Bible on their own, without the help of scholarly aids and commentaries, and come away with the notion that they’ve encountered a Great Book?  Let’s start with the title.  Why is the book called Samuel and not The Story of David?  Without using commentaries we can make a good guess.  Every literate person is familiar with the story of David and Goliath.  Not as many people are familiar with the story of Samuel.  A lot of people don’t know who Samuel is, much less why he’s important.  Samuel is the end of the line of a long tradition in the history of Israel.  He was the last in the line of judges to hold political power before kings began to rule in Israel.  In fact, it was Samuel himself who oversaw the rise of Israel’s first king: Saul.  Next we should ask what kind of book is this.  Is it literature?  History?  Philosophy?  One of the problems in reading the Bible is how it should be read.  My King James Version has The Holy Bible stamped on the cover.  Reading it as a holy book gives different results from reading it as we would read any other book.  But by interpreting the text from a strictly secular perspective we can still make some judgments about it.  The writer of this book tells the story of Samuel in a straightforward and rather spare style, similar to Homer’s storytelling technique in The Iliad.  As secular literature, it’s a good story.  We’re introduced at the outset to a woman named Hannah.  She wants to have a child but so far has not been able to have one.  Hannah goes to Shiloh every year to worship “the Lord of hosts.”  There she runs into a priest named Eli.  Eli knows the joys of parenthood but he also knows its disappointments.  He has two sons of his own but they’re not very good sons.  They’re even worse as priests and Eli knows it.  But he blesses Hannah and soon she conceives and has her own son.  She names him Samuel.  Eli trains him to be a priest and Samuel turns out to be a good one.  It’s a good story, even as secular literature.  But meanwhile this story isn’t taking place in a vacuum.  As in all stories, it needs to be read in historical perspective.  The Israelites are in constant battles with the Philistines.  The fighting in Homer’s Iliad is written with much more detail, but the battles seem to have been much the same.  In those days men fought with spears and swords in a primitive, haphazard fashion.  The Philistines keep getting the better of the Israelites on the battlefield so one day they come complaining to Samuel.  By this time Samuel has taken over for Eli as priest, prophet and judge.  They tell Samuel, give us a king!  We want to be like other nations and have a king to lead us into battle!  The era of theocratic rule by judges is over.  Saul is crowned king and the era of monarchy begins.  This is good as literature, but is it good as history?  The book of Samuel seems to be something of a hybrid, again similar to The Iliad.  There really was a Trojan War and there were real kings and real battles with spears and swords.  We might call the book of Samuel “embellished” history.  Can the book of Samuel be read as philosophy?  It’s certainly not a treatise on ethics or political theory.  But if we think of philosophy as the love of wisdom then we can surely gain deeper wisdom by reading and pondering the lessons it has to teach.  The questions it poses are philosophical as well as spiritual in scope.  Why do good people sometimes have bad children?  Why do bad guys win battles and even prosper in this world?  Why do people worship different gods?  Why do people worship gods at all?  What qualities should we look for in spiritual leaders?  Do we need different qualities for our political leaders?  Should those two roles be kept separate?  What’s the best form of government?  These kinds of questions make the book of Samuel a very good book.  Maybe even a candidate for a great book.            


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