1 Samuel: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible
by Francesca Aran Murphy
Brazos, 336 pages, $34.99
He has never seen another field of study quite like it, says a political philosopher who follows biblical scholarship. The typical journal article offers a series of limitless speculations about historical context and literary identity, with lots of footnotes at the bottom of the page employing multiple ancient languages and a slew of modern ones. Flights of fancy undergirded by the methods of Wissenschaft: What is the nonspecialist to make of it?
It perplexes not just the rest of the academy but contemporary religious communities as well. Most modern commentaries tend to break down the biblical books into a number of conflicting voices and then provide readers with little or no help in reassembling the parts to any purpose. What once was considered the majestic word of God as spoken to man has become a cacophony of irreconcilable human voices.
In light of this sort of challenge to the theological coherence of Scripture, Brazos Press, under the leadership of First Things senior editor R.R. Reno, has put together a quite remarkable commentary series. Most books have been assigned to theologians. Biblical scholars have been assigned books in a testament not of their specialization, in the hope of freeing their thinking from a narrowly historical inquiry and setting their imaginations loose on themes of a more theological order.
In his editor’s forward, Reno states that the series is intended to show how Christian doctrine need not distort the exegesis while bringing the really important issues raised by the text into proper focus. The rule of faith functions more as a “habit of mind” than a propositional construct and leaves the Christian much room for creative exploration of what the text offers.
Francesca Aran Murphy, who teaches Christian philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, is not only an accomplished theologian but also one with a deep yet critical commitment to the interpretation of narrative and to narrative’s relationship to theological inquiry. (See, for example, her recent book God Is Not a Story.)
In her commentary on 1 Samuel, Murphy has consulted an excellent list of scholars with whom she is in constant conversation throughout the book—no small achievement for an outsider to the field. She has consulted the minimalists who believe that nearly all of 1 Samuel is the invention of the Persian period (Niels Lemche), those of a more archaeological bent who are more confident of the historicity of the source material (William Dever and Samuel Halpern), and a good selection of those who take the more “literary” approach that has become so popular over the past couple of decades (Robert Polzin, Robert Alter, David Jobling, and Samuel Exum).
Murphy argues, and shows through her own careful exegesis, that although 1 Samuel may come from varied sources, its final canonical form has narrative and theological integrity. It will come as no surprise that she often sides with Dever and Halpern with regard to the historical trustworthiness of the sources. She is influenced often by Polzin, but she is suspicious of Exum. Although at one time the theological guild was quite enamored of those who took a literary approach (hence the influence of Hans Frei and the so-called Yale School), it has become apparent that a return to the literary integrity of the biblical story does not guarantee a compelling theological reading.
It is impossible, in a brief review, to do justice to this commentary, given that it follows the many turns and eddies of the scriptural text itself. I will focus on one example in which a theological approach to Scripture, informed by the rule of faith, yields real results. In chapter 15, Samuel tells Saul to wage war against the Amalekites, a people that, according to Exodus 17, have an irrational hatred of Israel and desire to destroy her. Everything Saul captures must be put to the sword: herem, “the ban.” Saul, however, violates the command; he returns from battle with the choice animals and Agag, the Amalekite king, as a sort of trophy.
Samuel learns that God regrets his decision to make Saul king and intends to dismiss him from that office. With this knowledge Samuel upbraids the disobedient and doomed king. Saul at first protests his innocence but slowly, over the course of his conversation with the stern Samuel, comes to see his error. “I have sinned,” Saul confesses, “for I have disobeyed the command of the Lord.” These words of contrition have no effect on God’s removing Saul from office, however. Just a few verses later, Samuel sets out toward Bethlehem to anoint David as Israel’s next king.
Although this chapter raises many thorny issues, I will limit myself to the question of God’s character. Many modern readers of Samuel are troubled by the injustice of God’s actions toward Saul. Why, they ask, does David get off so much easier? His sin is equal to, if not worse than, Saul’s: To marry Bathsheba, the object of his unrestrained lust, he orders her husband, Uriah, sent to the front lines of battle, where he will be killed. Yet when David confesses his sin to Nathan the prophet, in words nearly identical to those of Saul (“I have sinned against the Lord”), he receives absolution. Why doesn’t God tear the kingdom from his hands as he did from Saul’s?
For Walter Brueggemann, perhaps the most prominent and well-published contemporary biblical theologian, this difference in treatment provides evidence of the many “incongruities in the life of [yhwh],” all caused by yhwh being “inordinately and irrationally committed to David.” This reading, of course, violates the rule of faith because it pictures God as fickle and untrustworthy. But can a theological reading do justice to the problem, or must it resort to some far-fetched rationalization? Isn’t Brueggemann’s take on the text’s simple sense more honest, more faithful to Scripture, even if contrary to inherited theological ideas?
Murphy provides an astute answer. To begin with, she notes that Brueggemann’s explanation has a long pedigree that reaches all the way back to the Manichean Faustus in the early fifth century. But the alternative reading has an equally long history. In response to Faustus’ declaration that God treated Saul unfairly, St. Augustine asserts, “the divine eye saw a difference in [David’s] heart.”
Augustine is not evading the literal sense. On the contrary, he is drawing attention to the way a proper interpretation understands that expressions of intentions, feelings, and thoughts are always personal and particular to circumstance. Just as “I’m on fire” means something very different when said by a baseball player during a hitting streak and a college student who has fallen madly in love, so the very same utterance (“I have sinned”) in 1 Samuel is patient of many different interpretations. Guided by the rule of faith, St. Augustine, and we, can find a coherence and depth in the biblical text that may elude other exegetes.
Although Murphy does not say it, an astute exegete can discern the differences in intention behind the identical words of contrition. Saul cares only for his personal honor or vanity, an inwardly turned mentality that will dog him for the rest of his life. Consider, for example, the meaningless nature of his next confession of sin, at the close of Chapter 24, when he regrets his murderous pursuit of David (“You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. . . . Now I know that you will be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand”). Yet the very next time we see Saul, he is pursuing David with a vengeance, without even the slightest change or remorse (1 Samuel 26). Saul is, as one says in Yiddish, a meshuggener.
David, on the other hand, takes a completely different approach to the words of judgment that Nathan pronounces against him: He takes it like a man. He does not protect his honor; in one of the most moving texts in all of Scripture, he greets his utter humiliation with honest dignity (2 Samuel 16:1–14). Rare is the king who can act like this.
In summary, when Augustine solves the apparent problem Faustus raises by noting that God saw a difference in David and Saul’s hearts, he is not simply importing a naive piety into the text or forcing a doctrinal reading on it. Just because both Saul and David say “I have sinned” does not mean that both own up to the full sense of what their sin entails. Instead of abstracting from the biblical text, discerning this difference requires us to attend carefully to the context in which these words are uttered.
In this brief episode Murphy shows the reader one of the dangers of straying from the rule of faith: a return to a Manichean suspicion of the God of Israel.
To be sure, there are some weak spots and occasional historical errors in this commentary, but Murphy is not a biblical scholar. I am a bit surprised that Karl Barth does not get more of a hearing, given how significant 1 Samuel is for his doctrine of election (it is often the focus of long, small-type excurses in his Church Dogmatics), or Brevard Childs, whose work would have helped Murphy flesh out her thesis.
Nevertheless, in this commentary Francesca Aran Murphy honestly and strikingly confronts the difficult puzzles the text throws before its readers and guides those readers to profound theological conclusions. Sometimes she is aided by premodern voices, from Origen to Calvin; at other times she is aided by unlikely modern figures such as the historian John Lukacs. But just as often she is guided by her own good sense for theological truth. The result of her careful reading is a commentary that will richly reward the Christian reader.
Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.