Friends, I’m excited to announce that my new commentary on 2 Samuel is now available. The volume is part of the Brazos Theological Commentary series, and journeys verse-by-verse through the colorful book of 2 Samuel, highlighting three major themes: God’s non-competitive transcendence, the play between divine and non-divine causality, and the role of Old Testament kingship.
Be sure to pick up your copy of 2 Samuel today through the Word on Fire Store:
Brazos Press has graciously allowed us to reprint my entire Introduction to the commentary, which you’ll find below. It provides a good primer for the rest of the commentary.
Introduction to 2 Samuel
The figure of King David has beguiled painters, poets, musicians, artists, and spiritual writers up and down the centuries. To appreciate the hold of this character on the imagination, one has only to think of the sculptures of David by Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini, paintings of David by Rembrandt and Chagall, literary portraits of the Israelite king by figures as diverse as John Dryden, Joseph Heller, and Robert Pinsky, and musical celebrations of David from Handel to Leonard Cohen. What accounts for this fascination? With the possible exception of Jesus himself, David is the most fully developed character in the Bible. The author of the “Samuel literature” (a term I will use throughout this commentary to designate the books of 1 and 2 Samuel construed as one text) allows us to see almost the entire arc of David’s life, from his boyhood preoccupations with the flock of his father, Jesse, through his adventure with Goliath, his struggle with Saul, his ascension to power as king, his establishment of empire, his terrible moral failing, his humiliation by his son Absalom, and his painful and conflicted old age. No other figure in the Old Testament—neither Abraham nor Jacob nor Moses nor Isaiah nor Jeremiah—is characterized with such thoroughness and psychological perceptiveness. I find myself in agreement with Robert Pinsky’s rejoinder to those who would suggest that David was but a literary invention. The former poet laureate of the Unites States argued that a story as textured and psychologically credible as David’s could only be grounded in a very real person vividly remembered.
Moreover, King David is one of the most pivotal persons in the entire corpus of scripture. He is the terminus of a trajectory that runs from Adam through Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and Samuel. Many of God’s promises to those patriarchal and prophetic figures seemed to come to fulfillment in David’s rule over a united Israel. At the same time, David looks beyond himself to a new David, one who would definitively fulfill what he himself left incomplete and unfinished. In a word, he is perhaps the cardinal point on which the biblical revelation turns both backward and forward.
One of the themes that emerges most clearly in 2 Samuel is that of kingship. On the biblical reading, the bad rule of Adam in the garden led to the disaster of the fall, and ever since that calamity, humanity has been in search of right rule. At the heart of the Old Testament sensibility is the conviction that God chose a people, Israel, whom he would shape according to his own mind and heart so that they might draw all of humanity into right relationship with God. Hence, they would be a kingly people. But this holy nation would endure only in the measure that they themselves were rightly ruled, and therefore the search for a righteous and godly king of Israel—an Adam who would properly govern a reconstituted Eden—became a preoccupation for biblical Israel. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, and Samuel were all, after a manner of speaking, kings of Israel, but they ruled to varying degrees of adequacy. Having united the northern and southern tribes, established his fortified capital at Jerusalem, and subdued the enemies of Israel, David would emerge as the most stirring and successful king of Israel.
Adam was not only a king; he was also a priest, which is to say, someone who affects a mystical union between divinity and humanity. After him, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel were also, to varying degrees of intensity, priests. Wearing the sacred vestment of the priesthood and dancing before the ark of the covenant, King David emerged as David the high priest and hence recapitulated and brought to full expression the priesthood of the work of his predecessors. Samuel’s anointing of David the shepherd boy could thus be seen as both a kingly and priestly designation. When the first followers of Jesus referred to him as Christos (“anointed”), they were appreciating him as David in full. The Christian reader will thus also see in David the most compelling anticipation of Jesus, the definitive priest-king. Though this sort of move is always hermeneutically dangerous, one could make a good case that the most important interpretive key for the New Testament is found in the seventh chapter of 2 Samuel: Nathan’s prophecy that the line of David would never fail and that a descendant of David would reign forever. Not only would this prophecy haunt the biblical tradition that followed it—look especially here at the prophets and the Psalms—but it would also decidedly influence the manner in which the Gospel writers came to understand the significance of Jesus.
Still another central motif of 2 Samuel is that of bad fathering and bad kingship. David is presented as Israel’s greatest, indeed archetypal, king, and at the same time his flaws are on clear, often disturbing, display. As many have pointed out, ancient authors tended to apotheosize political rulers, but the writer/editor of 2 Samuel, even as he extols David as a uniquely privileged agent of the divine purpose, ruthlessly exposes the king’s moral and political failures. David is indeed a new Adam ruling a restored Eden, but he is also, ethically and spiritually, a descendant of the Adam who allowed the garden to be compromised by the serpent. In this, he stands in the tradition of Eli and sets the tone for the long line of his decadent and wicked successors as king of Israel, bad governors who would preside over the splintering of the people and the weakening of the nation. This is still another way of signaling that Israel, even as it celebrates David, has to await another king.
The theme in 2 Samuel that I take to be most basic theologically is that of the noncompetitive transcendence of God. One of the distinctive marks of this text is that Yahweh rarely acts in a direct and interruptive way, involving himself as one competitive cause among many. Instead God is consistently portrayed as acting noninvasively through a bevy of ordinary and secondary agents. The events described in 2 Samuel could, almost without exception, be explained easily enough through recourse to psychological or political categories, and yet the author clearly supposes that God is, through it all, definitively working his purposes out. This noncompetitive co-agency of God and human beings represents a major breakthrough in the religious consciousness of Israel and thus makes 2 Samuel a milestone in the evolution of that consciousness. What grounds it, at least implicitly, is a keen sense of God as the creator of the universe and not an agent or element within the universe. Were God simply one being, however supreme, among many, then he would stand over and against other worldly things, jockeying with them on the same metaphysical plane. But as the creator of all finite things, God can relate to particular agents in a nonintrusive manner, acting through them but not violating their own causal integrity. God is certainly other, but he is, if I may borrow the language of Kathryn Tanner, “otherly-other,” and this very strangeness is what allows him to operate in and with human agents. We will see this dynamic over and over in the course of 2 Samuel.
When was this text written and by whom? The answer to both questions, unfortunately, is elusive. Most contemporary scholars more or less follow the suggestion made by Martin Noth in the 1940s that 1 and 2 Samuel comprise, along with the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and 1–2 Kings, a coherent historical and theological narrative. This suggests, of course, that they were written, or at least edited, essentially by one author. To be sure, every one of the texts in question includes elements from a variety of sources, but the Noth hypothesis proposes that a fundamental thematic, literary, and theological unity obtains across these books. But who this author was no one knows to any degree of certainty. The numerous allusions that he makes to other texts within the Hebrew biblical tradition imply that he was trained in the context of a fairly sophisticated theological and literary culture. This in turn would indicate that he was writing probably at a time of relative peace and after the Hebrew religious worldview had reached a high degree of maturity and complexity. Both of these conditions suggest that he was operating in the early Second Temple period following the return of the exiles from Babylon. Of course, the vividly detailed descriptions of the Davidic court in 2 Samuel have led others to speculate that the author is a much earlier figure, someone far closer to David’s own time. Since our purpose here is properly theological commentary, we can leave these historical and literary speculations to the specialists.
What we call 1 and 2 Samuel were originally one text, and so they appear as such in most Jewish Bibles to the present day. The division into two—largely a result of the length of scroll available to scribes—took place at the time of the Septuagint translation into Greek and was later adopted by most Latin translators of the sacred scriptures. In his Vulgate translation, Jerome refers to 1 Samuel as the Primum Regum (the First of the Kings) and 2 Samuel as Secundum Regum (the Second of the Kings). For the purpose of literary and theological commentary, therefore, it would be artificial in the extreme to treat 1 and 2 Samuel as two discrete texts. Common themes, literary devices, allusive patterns, and so forth abound.
When one considers the extraordinary number of memorable passages in 2 Samuel—David’s elegy to Saul and Jonathan, the king’s dance before the ark, the jealousy of Michal, the seduction of Bathsheba and its dreadful aftermath, Nathan’s “Thou art the man!,” the rape of Tamar, the rebellion of Absalom, David’s lament over his fallen son—and when one takes in the literary complexity, theological depth, and psychological insight contained in its pages, one can only agree with Robert Alter’s contention that 2 Samuel is one of the most impressive texts to come down to us from the ancient world.
Originally published in 2 Samuel by Robert Barron (2015). Used with permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.