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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.

Analysis

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.