Samuel, Saul, and David Afresh; Jesus, Nah.

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of November 8. Enjoy!

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As with any historical text, understanding the Bible is a continuous process of consuming, defining, observing, reasoning and interpreting, both through one’s own lens and the perspectives of wiser thinkers and teachers. Such is especially the case when considering that the overwhelming majority of Bible readers around the world are at least one step removed from the original languages of the texts, to say nothing of their inherent detachment from the nebulous original manuscripts. Therefore, those reading the Bible only in English must be extremely careful of grasping too tightly to individual precepts or, in the case of biblical characters, identifying qualities and labels. In addition, these readers should be willing to defer to scholars who definitively comprehend the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible as well as its proper context. With these suggestions in mind, this reflection paper will explore the prevailing societal willingness and unwillingness to re-imagine biblical concepts and persons.

Rightfully so, Victor P. Hamilton is seemingly eager to embrace fresh, explanatory concepts for characters and events in 1 Samuel when encountering conflicting claims.  For example, he harmonizes the contradictory accounts of Samuel’s tribal background by suggesting that though Samuel was an Ephraimite by birth, descendants remembered him functionally as a priestly Levite.[1] This explanation is entirely conceivable, as later generations undoubtedly went through their own process of consuming, defining, observing, interpreting and reasoning with Scripture that engendered new conclusions. Moreover, those involved in writing and redacting 1 Samuel interestingly begin the account of Saul as a post-growth spurt “impressive young man,” rather than from birth (1 Sm 9:2 NIV). Accordingly, readers are not informed of any reasons Kish and his wife give Saul his name, but Hamilton is willing to fill this gap: just as Hannah asked for offspring, the Israelites asked for a king like the other nations. The names of both Samuel and Saul retain enough of the Hebrew framework of “ask,” sh’l, to fit this bill.[2]

Several chapters later in 1 Samuel, readers find the account of Goliath’s lyrical tyranny and David’s apparent bravery (1 Sm 17:4-54). Especially noteworthy, however, is that outside of 1 Samuel, David is not always named as the giant-slayer.[3] There is no easy way to account for the conflicting reports that Elhanan killed Goliath and possibly Goliath’s brother Lahmi, too (2 Sm 21:19, 1 Chr 20:5). Hamilton approaches this mixture of traditions by suggesting either that David had Elhanan’s assistance in battle, or that he-who-tamed-Goliath was always disputed, possibly by a false associative attribution of Elhanan’s deed to the future military leader and “national hero.”[4] If so, this apparently did not sit too well with the Chronicler, who credited Elhanan only with Lahmi’s head.

Hamilton displays an appreciable willingness to reinterpret biblical events and characters – both where discrepancies do and do not exist – in light of logic, thematic ambiguities and the perspectives of informed scholars. While the average Christian finds no problem with doing this for Samuel, Saul, or David, re-imagining Jesus is a whole different ballgame. This, despite the fact that he was an apocalyptic prophet who expected some of his followers to see the end of the age (Mt 16:28), admonished everyone to keep his Messianic identity a secret (Mk 16:29-30), never in the Synoptic gospels claimed equality with God and frequently spoke in intentionally ambiguous riddles.[5] Perhaps we should cease our willingness to so flippantly re-imagine Old Testament characters or also open up the floor to fresh perspectives about Jesus.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 213.

[2] Ibid., 215-216.

[3] Ibid., 262.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), xxi.

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