1 & 2 Samuel: A Kingdom Comes

by David Firth, T&T Bloomsbury, £14.99

 ‘The process of reading involves a dialogue between the text and the reader,” says David Firth at the start of his multi-layered investigation into how the two Books of Samuel have been read over generations. Perhaps the most narratively thrilling books of the Bible, 1-2 Samuel have long enchanted, perplexed and delighted readers with their panoramic canvas of battles and royal succession.

Starting with the birth of the prophet Samuel to a barren woman, 1 Samuel charts that decisive moment in the history of Israel when kingship begins and priestly rule ends. After the warring years of Judges, the people ask Samuel for a king. Samuel is not enamoured of kings and his list of depredations the people will suffer under one reads like the transcript of a modern despot’s rule. God is also uneasy with kingship but the people continue to demand it; so God, through Samuel, grants them their wish and Saul is anointed as Israel’s first king.

It’s an inauspicious beginning. Saul is portrayed as a haunted, possibly mentally unbalanced man who rejects God’s commands and can only be soothed by the sweet stirrings of David’s harp. The harrowing decline of Saul is juxtaposed against David’s meteoric rise.

David’s is one of the most profoundly human stories in the Bible, replete with family antagonism, treachery and prophecy. He is both hero and villain, a deeply compelling and conflicted character whose fate is almost Shakespearean in its complex morality. The text charts his ascent: slaying Goliath, his rebellion against Saul, the years as leader of a guerrilla band, his consecration as king and his adulterous reign.

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