Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.

See Important Quotations Explained


Israel’s next judge, Samuel, is born to Hannah, a previously barren woman. Hannah gives Samuel to Israel’s chief priest, Eli, to be raised as a Nazirite. The priesthood in Israel is in a general state of decline, and Eli’s sons are disobeying God’s laws. God declares that he will choose a new priest for Israel from outside Eli’s family and begins delivering messages to Samuel as a young man. Samuel becomes a recognized prophet throughout Israel, delivering God’s messages to the people.

During battle, the Philistines kill Eli’s sons and capture the Ark of the Covenant—Israel’s religious altar and symbol of God. Upon learning of the attack and robbery, Eli falls over and dies. The Ark is returned to Israel after it causes its Philistine captors to become terribly diseased. As the nation rejoices, Samuel persuades Israel to set aside its worship of local pagan deities, and God helps Israel thwart Philistine oppression for many years.

The Israelites demand that Samuel appoint a king for them so that Israel will be like other nations. Samuel is displeased, but God grants him permission to elect a king. God notes that by asking for a king, the people have not rejected Samuel; they have rejected God. Samuel warns the people that a monarchy brings certain drawbacks such as taxation, the conscription of armed forces, and the potential for tyranny, but the people are resolute.

God tells Samuel who should be king, and the following day, a man named Saul appears before Samuel, inquiring about some lost donkeys. Samuel pours oil over Saul’s head to anoint him as king, and God provides a series of mystical signs to assure Saul that he should be king. Saul, who is a head taller than the average man, pleases the Israelites as king and leads them in rescuing an Israelite outpost from invasion. Stepping down as Israel’s leader, Samuel encourages the people that, so long as they are obedient to God’s laws, God will not punish them for requesting a king.

Despite many military victories, Saul soon disobeys God. He tries to rush into battle by performing a ritual war sacrifice without the help of a priest. Later, Samuel sends Saul to fight the Amalekites, instructing Saul to destroy them completely and leave nothing alive. Saul, however, spares the Amalekite ruler and the best portion of their flocks, hoping to present them as sacrifices to God. Samuel rebukes Saul, claiming that obedience to God’s instructions is more important than religious sacrifice. He informs Saul that God will choose another man to be king of Israel. Saul pleads with Samuel, begging for forgiveness. Saul grabs for Samuel’s cloak, but the cloth tears—a symbol, says Samuel, of Saul’s broken kingdom.

God leads Samuel to the town of Bethlehem to choose a new king from Jesse’s family. Each of Jesse’s older sons are impressive, but God instructs Samuel to judge people not by their external appearances but, rather, by their hearts. Samuel anoints Jesse’s youngest son, David, a shepherd, as king, and God gives divine power to David. God withdraws his power from Saul, cursing Saul with psychological distress in the form of an “evil spirit” (16:14). David begins his rise to courtly status as a harp-player for Saul during the king’s emotional unrest.

The Philistines again threaten to attack Israel, this time taunting Israel with their new hero, Goliath—a giant more than nine feet tall. Saul and the Israelites tremble in fear, but David, arriving to deliver food to his brothers, offers to fight the giant. Refusing the king’s armor, David publicly invokes God’s help and kills Goliath with a single stone shot from his sling. The Israelites attack the retreating Philistines, and Israel returns home to the sound of women singing praises of David’s victory.

Saul is insanely jealous of David, who becomes an intimate friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan, and leads the Israelite troops to many more victories. After attempting to kill David with a spear, Saul sends David on a suicide mission to kill a hundred Philistine men and bring back their circumcised foreskins. David succeeds, and Saul grudgingly rewards David with his daughter Michal’s hand in marriage. Saul orders his household to kill David, but, with the help of Michal and Jonathan, David flees from Saul. David builds an army of unhappy and impoverished Israelites, and he is joined by a priest who is also fleeing from Saul’s destructive path.

Saul pursues David into the desert where David spares the king’s life twice. While Saul is urinating in a cave, David sneaks up behind him and cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe, scorning the opportunity to kill God’s “annointed” ruler (24:6). At night, David and his men sneak into the king’s tent and steal Saul’s spear while he is sleeping. On both occasions, David announces his deed to Saul, and Saul expresses remorse both times, begging for David’s mercy.

Still, Saul continues his pursuit, and David takes refuge with the Philistines, who show mercy to the great warrior and adversary of Israel’s king. Preparing to fight the Philistines, Saul is wracked with fear and consults a witch, bidding the spirit medium to conjure up the dead spirit of Samuel. Samuel’s ghost angrily warns Saul that he and his sons will die fighting the Philistines, ensuring the demise of Saul’s kingdom. David and his men head out to fight the Amalekites, and David succeeds in destroying the warring nation. In the meantime, Saul leads Israel into a losing battle with the Philistines, and Saul’s sons, including Jonathan, are killed. Saul commands his armor-bearer to kill him, but the boy refuses, and Saul falls on his own sword and dies.


The first book of Samuel tells the story of Israel’s transition from a theocracy, or state ruled by a religious leader, to a monarchy, or state ruled by a political leader. Israel starts out as a nation of loosely affiliated tribes led by priests and religious heroes, but it becomes a nation-state led by a centralized king. Each stage of this transition is depicted through the narrative’s three main figures: Samuel represents the old rule of the judges, Saul represents Israel’s failed attempt at monarchy, and David represents God’s ideal king. Although it seems logical that the rule of a single king would bring a sense of unity and cohesiveness to Israel, the opposite is the case. The move away from religious leaders divides religious and political life in Israel. Confusion about how religion and politics ought to relate to one another is the chief source of conflict in Samuel. Indeed, Saul’s gravest mistake as king is his attempt to carry out the sacrificial duties of the priesthood—a role that Samuel explicitly denies the political ruler.

God’s ambivalence regarding the monarchy escalates this conflict. On the one hand, God and Samuel are displeased at Israel’s demand for a king, because, as God claims, this demand represents Israel’s refusal to believe that God and his religious laws are adequate to rule the people. On the other hand, God willingly chooses Saul to be king, identifying Saul as the deliverer of his people. God reconciles this contradiction by distinguishing Israel’s status as a human institution from its status as a divine one. As Samuel’s warnings to Israel about the dangers of having a king suggest, God may bless the king, but he will not keep the king from committing the sorts of human errors and injustices that human rulers are prone to commit.

Saul’s demise as king is tragic because he makes such small, human mistakes. Like all tragic heroes, Saul possesses a fatal flaw: he is more concerned with earthly objects and human customs than with spiritual or religious matters. Saul’s plan to present the plunder from the Amalekites as a sacrifice to God earns Samuel’s criticism because Saul mistakes a human custom for religious devotion. This criticism is symbolized by the piece of cloth that Saul is left with when he grabs at Samuel. The cloth, like all things Saul considers important, is man-made. The war song of the Israelite women, which ignites Saul’s fury, further highlights Saul’s flaw: “Saul has killed his thousands, / and David his ten thousands” (18:7). The refrain, which is repeated throughout the Book of Samuel by both priests and Philistines, illustrates the fact that Saul evaluates his leadership by human standards, rather than religious standards.

In contrast, God favors David because David places a higher value on religious devotion than on the physical world. David’s inner virtue is Samuel’s criterion for anointing him as king, and the encounter with Goliath functions as a parable for the triumph of the spiritual over the physical. The giant, a symbol of brute human force, is defeated by the diminutive David, who refuses the physical protection of the king’s armor in favor of prayer, calling down God’s wrath on the irreverent Goliath. David’s repudiation of the physical world continues in his willingness to roam the desert on the margins of Israel, denying the opportunity to take the throne by physical force from God’s current anointed ruler. Like Abraham and Moses, David reinforces God’s ongoing preference for the unseen over the seen, the lesser over the greater, and inner faith over external circumstances. A commitment to these preferences seems to be the minimum religious requirement for the ideal Israelite monarch.