Syllabus for Summer Course on 1 Samuel

(Downloadable PDF)

J. Richard Middleton
Professor Biblical Worldview and Exegesis
Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan University

Required Reading for ALL Attendees

  1. We will all read the excellent literary translation of 1 and 2 Samuel by Robert Alter

Alter is a well-regarded Jewish scholar, and this translation is accompanied by very helpful commentary-type notes. (The edition listed here is the paperback edition; the hardcover was published in 1999 and is more expensive.)

  • Alter, Robert. The David StoryA Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York: Norton, 2000. ISBN-13: 978-0393320770

NOTE: You are encouraged to read Alter’s translation along with a relatively literal standard translation of the Old Testament, such as the NRSV, NIV, or ESV, for comparison.  It is also useful to consult the New English Translation (NET) and the New Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (NJPS) published in 1985 (not the old JPS 1917 version). With the NJPS you get to see the standard contemporary Jewish translation (equivalent to the NRSV or NIV for many Jews today); with the NET, you get detailed footnotes (more detailed than Alter’s) explaining the translation. Of course, if you can read Hebrew, you should also consult the Masoretic Text.


  1. Choose ONE of the Following Commentaries on the Book of Samuel

Beyond Alter’s volume, I recommend three excellent secondary sources on 1 Samuel. You should purchase at least one of them for regular use in preparation for the course (but all three are very helpful and insightful volumes).

Bodner is the rare evangelical scholar who is attentive to the interaction of the complex characters in the narrative. He is also a very funny writer, with lots of interesting and wry perspectives on what is going on in the text.

Brueggemann’s commentary on Samuel has become a standard; while not as in-depth as some Samuel commentaries, this is a very helpful work for thinking about how to preach or teach from Samuel (the Interpretation series is subtitled: “A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching”).

This is a beautifully written and insightful commentary by a scholar who has been working on Samuel all her life. An excellent guide to the nuances of the book.

NOTE: The above works are superior to many typical commentaries on Samuel in that they avoid two pitfalls typically found in Samuel commentaries. First, some commentaries are highly technical in nature and do not address the theological or ethical issues in the text in any substantial way. None of the three recommended works is overly technical and they all address the text’s theology and ethics. Second, some commentaries are superficial and naive in their reading of Samuel, making unwarranted pious assumptions (imported from outside the text), which can prevent the reader from attending carefully to the complex portrayals of power on display in the text. In sum, the three recommended works all read the text carefully with sensitivity to real human motivations and the conflict this often brings in times of crisis.


Additional (Optional) Bibliographic Resources (For your interest only.)

Below is another good translation of 1 and 2 Samuel (with translation notes) by a different Jewish scholar (though I personally prefer Alter’s volume):

NOTE: Some commentaries on Samuel also provide their own literal translations of the text; these include the commentaries in the Anchor Bible series (1 and 2 Samuel by McCarter), the Word Biblical Commentary series (1 Samuel by Anderson), and the Old Testament Library series (First and Second Samuel by Auld). These commentaries (along with the notes in Alter and Fox) are particularly worth consulting on the many translation issues (and textual variants) that arise in 1 and 2 Samuel (and there are quite a few). Although the commentaries by McCarter, Anderson, and Auld can get pretty technical, don’t be afraid to consult them for their translations if you come upon something that puzzles you in the text.


Assignments for UDTS Students

  1. Introductory assignment on Hannah, Samuel, and Saul, with an outline of 1 Samuel 1–15 (10%). Due early in advance of the course, near the start of the Dubuque summer term.
  2. A course journal consisting in short reflection papers (basically thought experiments) on assigned sections of 1 Samuel (70%). Due in stages, up to one week prior to the beginning of the in-person week of classes.
  3. A final summative paper on what you have learned about biblical interpretation through the course (20%). Due one week after the in-person section of the course.

Beyond submitting assignments on time, students need to personally attend all of the on-site class sessions to receive credit for this course.

Grading of Written Assignments will be based on:
  • Accuracy, quality and comprehensiveness of content
  • Clarity and organization of ideas, logic and argument of the paper
  • Writing style, grammar, syntax, spelling, proofreading, and proper format
  • Interest and relevance of material


Detailed Guide to Written Assignments for UTDS Students

(Precise dates for each assignment will be provided to enrollees.)

1.  Introductory Assignment (10% total)

Each of these two introductory assignments is worth 5% of the total course grade.

  • What Do I “Know” about Hannah, Samuel, and Saul?

You are asked to write 300-400 words (total) on what you know (or think you know) at the outset of this course about Hannah, Samuel, and Saul. Give a brief summary of what kind of person you envision each of them as, and say something about their role in the story of 1 Samuel (since Saul and Samuel have a greater role in the story, you might focus more on them).

  • Analytical Outline of 1 Samuel 1–15

Each student will construct their own outline of 1 Samuel 1–15 (two pages maximum), following the guidelines (and sample outlines) that will be provided.

2.  Course Journal of Seven Short Reflection Papers (70%)

Each student will write seven concise yet substantial reflection papers, each of which is worth 10% of the final course grade. (Each paper should be double-spaced, 600-800 words, in Times New Roman 12-point font = about 2–3 pages.) Since these reflection papers are meant to be concise as well as substantial, don’t think that you can write them as a stream of consciousness. You need to take notes and think about the topic, then formulate your observations and argument precisely and carefully.

Following are the topics for the seven reflection papers.


God, Eli, and Samuel as Characters in the Narrative (1 Sam 2:274:1a)

Assuming you knew nothing previously about God, Eli, and Samuel except what you can find in 1 Samuel 2:274:1a, provide a sketch of each character, giving chapter and verse references to back up each point you make. Don’t worry if your character sketches don’t match what you had previously thought, or even if they aren’t fully “orthodox;” this is an exercise in close reading of the text to see what it explicitly says (and also what it implies). This requires attending to how the characters are depicted by the narrator, especially in their verbal interactions with others (and noting what the “man of God” says about YHWH). If what you come up with does not match what you previously thought, reflect and then comment (briefly) on the significance of this.


Theological Function of the Ark Narrative (1 Sam 46)

The account of the momentous leadership changes in Israel just gets going in 1 Samuel when it is interrupted with the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines and its subsequent return (1 Samuel 46). This is your opportunity to reflect on the theological significance of the ark narrative. Why is it placed here in the text? How might its placement be significant? What does it contribute to the developing story? Who are the main actors in the story? What does it tell us about God that we need to know at this point in the book? How does this help us think about Israel’s leadership (both before and after the ark narrative)? This is an exercise in narrative analysis and theological reflection. (You might read some commentaries and other works on these chapters to stimulate your thinking—they might help you think outside the box; yes, it’s a pun. However, make sure that the assignment represents your own thinking on the matter.) 


Samuel’s Response to the People’s Request for a King and to God’s Instructions (1 Sam 8)

In chapter 8 the people speak to Samuel; Samuel speaks to God; God speaks to Samuel; and Samuel speaks to the people (this speech cycle occurs twice). Paying careful attention to these two speech cycles, explain any slippage you detect between what Samuel hears and what he reports (either to God or to the people). This requires a close reading of the text (including comparing various translations). Based on what you notice, analyze what you think Samuel’s attitude is to the people’s request for a king and what his attitude is to God’s instructions to give them a king. Why do you think he has this attitude?


The Secret Anointing and Samuel’s Instructions to Saul (1 Sam 9:2510:8) 

Saul is a young and somewhat inept country farmer, with no public or administrative experience, who is chosen by God for leadership in Israel. After having been anointed as king in private by the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 9:25—10:1), he is given a series of three “signs” that will come to pass sometime in the future (1 Sam 10:26), followed by a pair of seemingly contradictory instructions from the prophet (1 Sam 10:78). Imagine you are Saul, a new pastoral intern, somewhat out of your depth, and that Samuel is a seasoned pastor or district superintendent, who is mentoring you for your new position. Try to explain your feelings/thoughts in response (1) to the fact that the anointing was secret (no-one else knows you are now pastor), (2) to the three signs, and (3) to the concluding instructions. What might be the effect of this experience on your psyche? Would it give you confidence, or confuse you, or something else? Explain why you think this. Note: This is meant to be a creative assignment, so have fun with it (while taking it seriously). Further questions for thought: What do you think Samuel is up to? Why does he treat Saul the way he does? (Note: The only explicit instruction God gives Samuel is that he is to anoint Saul king; the actual way Samuel goes about this is his own decision. Is the apostle Paul’s comment on the freedom of prophets in 1 Cor 14:32 relevant here?)


The Theology and Rhetorical Effect of Samuel’s Speech (1 Sam 12)

Samuel gives what is often described as his “farewell speech” after Saul’s confirmation as king one chapter earlier (though he doesn’t actually go away after this). You are asked (1) to describe and analyze Samuel’s theology as manifested in this speech (you might touch on his view of God, kingship, covenant, responsibility, grace, prayer, etc.) and (2) to reflect on the rhetorical effect of this speech (along with the miracle Samuel performs) on Saul and on the people as they embark on the journey of kingship together—does his speech have the potential to contribute to the success or failure of the new endeavor (which God approved in chapter 8)? If you have time or space in the paper you might also reflect on Samuel’s possible motivations for giving this speech, in so far as you can detect them from the narrative.


Samuel’s Critique of Saul and its Aftermath (1 Sam 1314)

Sometime after a successful battle against the Ammonites (Saul’s first decisive act as king), in which he rescues the townspeople of Jabesh-Gilead (1 Sam 11), Saul finds himself hopelessly outnumbered in a battle with the Philistines (1 Sam 13). This battle is retaliation for an act of bravado by Saul’s son Jonathan, when he attacked a Philistine outpost (1 Sam 13:3–4). Finding that most of his army is deserting, due to the overwhelming odds against them, Saul offers two sacrifices to the LORD. As soon as he has finished the first sacrifice, Samuel arrives and reprimands him for not keeping the commandment that the LORD commanded him. Since there is no explicit mention of any commandment the LORD gives Saul, either in this chapter or anywhere previous to this, try and explain what is going on here. What could Samuel be talking about? Try to explain the basis of his critique of Saul, given what the narrator explicitly says about both Saul and Samuel in 1 Samuel 13, and also given what you know of Samuel and Saul in the story so far. Is Samuel’s critique justified? Why or why not? If you have time, reflect on the possible relationship of Samuel’s critique of Saul to Saul’s bad judgment in chapter 14 (which endangers Jonathan’s life). Put yourself in Saul’s position and see if you can explain his actions in chapter 14 as a plausible consequence of Samuel’s critique in chapter 13.


In Defense of Saul (1 Sam 15)

In 1 Samuel 15 Saul fails a test that Samuel gives him (with the result that he is rejected by God from being Israel’s king). In this paper you should take either the point of view of Saul’s defense attorney or take Saul’s own (first-person) point of view and mount a sympathetic defense of Israel’s first king. You will need to comb the details of the chapter to find evidence for Saul’s innocence (if possible), or to find any loopholes or extenuating circumstances that should be taken into account. You do not have to agree with the position this defense takes (remember that a defense attorney does not even have to believe the client is innocent). This is an exercise in sympathetic reading of a typically despised character, by paying attention to possible mitigating (or contradictory) details in the text (and also to gaps in the text). Feel free also to draw on any relevant Old Testament texts outside 1 Samuel 15, if they are helpful to the case.


3.  Summative Paper on What You Have Learned about Biblical Interpretation (5%)

You are asked to write a relatively open-ended reflection paper where you synthesize what you have learned from the course about interpreting the Bible, especially Old Testament narrative texts. Among the topics you could address are new insights you have gained into biblical exegesis, challenges you still have, and how you might implement what you have learned in your life and/or ministry. The paper should be double-spaced 1000–1200 words in Times New Roman 12-point font (which works out to 4–6 pages.)

Further information will be given on the format for the written assignments and for how to submit the assignments digitally.