One Nation Under God

1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1-8

After the death of Moses a new generation of Israelites enters Canaan, the land promised to Abraham. The book of Joshua relates a series of dramatic conquests, the most famous of which is the siege and sacking of Jericho. The book of Judges records tales drawn from the same period, and indicates that the conquest of Canaan was sporadic and not completely successful for some time. But it is clear that the people now have left the wilderness and settled, and that in Canaan the tribes are brought into closer alignment by confrontation with their warring neighbors. 

The book of Judges is most famous for its tale of Samson, who first defeats the Philistines and then is captured and tortured by them, but who finally gains revenge by toppling their temple with his tremendous strength. Judges concludes with a striking statement full of implications for the next chapter in the history of Israel: "In these days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25)

With settlement in Palestine the people of Israel begin a new way of life. They farm as well as tend their herds, develop orchards and vineyards, build and live in permanent dwellings. The land is divided up among the tribes and rules to solve property disputes are agreed upon. As each tribe develops in its own way, there is less unity among them than in the wilderness, and no one leader arises immediately to take the place of Moses as spokesman for God and all the people. However, as the tribes are pressed by the rising power of other peoples around them, they call for a king to unify them. Finally, God uses the respected elder, Samuel, to anoint Saul from the tribe of Benjamin as the first king of Israel.

The First King

In the book of Samuel there are two traditions concerning the appointment of Saul as king. The earlier source favors the idea of a king, seeing it as a natural development in the calling of Israel to be a great people. This earlier source is also likes Saul, who is disliked by the authors of the later source. The second version of the anointing of Saul as king reflects a later perspective on the evils of the reign of Israel's kings, and so Samuel is described as resisting the pressure of the people to anoint Saul as king of Israel. In this version God is personally offended by the desire of the people for a king. "They have rejected me," God complains, "from being king over them." (1 Sam. 8:7)

Saul is successful in his first battle with the Philistines and other peoples of Palestine, but the story tells us that by sparing the life of a defeated king Saul offends the Lord. Samuel slays the king whose life was spared by Saul and anoints David, the son of Jesse from Bethlehem, to be Saul's successor. David first proves his courage and prowess by defeating the giant Philistine warrior Goliath and then joins Saul's retinue as his armor bearer. With success on the battlefield, David's fame comes to rival Saul's. Therefore, despite David's marriage to Michal, the daughter of Saul, and the deep friendship between David and Jonathan, Saul's eldest son, Saul attempts to kill David. David flees into the wilderness and soon becomes the leader of the Israelites who have become disenchanted with Saul's rule.

Saul pursues David and his band of rebels in the wilderness, but fails to catch them. On two occasions in the story David has an opportunity to kill Saul but refrains out of respect for the Lord's anointing of Saul as king. Eventually, David joins the Philistines and is given rule over the town of Ziklag. From here David raids other tribes, increasing the wealth of his people and his reputation. When the Philistines attack the Israelites and kill Saul and his three sons, David is left behind for fear that in battle with his own people he might not remain true to his alliance with the Philistines.

David mourns appropriately over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, then contacts tribal leaders and arranges to be made king over Judah. Soon he and the remnants of Saul's armies are at war for leadership of the tribes of the nation. David triumphs, is made king over all the tribes of Israel, and after capturing the independent Canaanite city of Jerusalem makes it his capital. Realizing now that David represents a serious threat to them, the Philistines attack their old ally. David routes them and thus achieves supremacy for the nation of Israel over all of Canaan.

The House of David

As king of Israel David is celebrated primarily as a brave and successful warrior. In the story we hear little about his administration of the state, and the tales concerning his family largely concern the struggle among his sons to succeed him on the throne. Thus, the tale of David's love affair with Bathsheba is of considerable significance as well as human interest, for it portrays David not only as ruthless but as capable of sincere humility.

David desires Bathsheba, after seeing her bathing from the roof of his house, and has sex with her. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David calls her husband, Uriah, from battle and encourages him to return home for a night in order to be with his wife. However, Uriah refuses to break the religious sanction of continence laid down for soldiers engaged in combat, even when David gets him drunk. Frustrated by his failure to link Uriah with the pregnancy of Bathsheba, David sends orders to put "Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down and die." 2 Sam. 11:15) The next day Uriah is killed in battle. After Bathsheba completes the prescribed period of mourning, David marries her.

Then, the story tells us, the Lord sent his priest, Nathan, to confront David with his crime. Through Nathan the Lord condemns David's sin against Uriah and claims the life of the child conceived with Bathsheba. David repents of his sin, fasts for the life of the child, and after the death of the child worships God in the tabernacle. The tale is remarkable not only because it records the sin of David, but also because it reports that he accepted the judgment pronounced for God by Nathan. David's repentance shows that the king of Israel, though ruler of the people, is yet subject to the law of God as voiced by Israel's religious leaders.

While David is successful in forging a united people out of the tribes of Israel and in defeating neighboring tribes, his reign is soon threatened from within. After David's oldest son, Ammon, rapes his half sister, Tamar, Ammon is killed by her full brother, Absalom. As the eldest of David's sons, Ammon was in line to succeed David as king of Israel.

David's commander, Joab, persuades David not to kill Absalom but to allow him, as the second oldest son, to be David's successor. However, after a time Absalom revolts against David. Fearing that his son's revolt will succeed, David flees from Jerusalem into the wilderness. However, David's forces are successful in defeating the armies of Absalom, who is killed in battle. Great effort is required to reunite the tribes of Israel, and David's armies are soon at war with the Philistines again. At last, David defeats all of his enemies and leaves to his successor a kingdom that is far more unified and secure than when he ascended to the throne.

A Nation at Peace

With the help of his mother, Bathsheba, who was the favorite wife of David, Solomon is proclaimed king by David before his death, even though David's son, Adonijah, is next in the natural line of succession. With David's death Solomon consolidates his power by ordering the deaths of Adonijah and the other members of the court who supported him. Then we are told that Solomon marries the daughter of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to cement an alliance with that nation. Under Solomon the power of Israel reaches its peak. He marries women from other countries to establish peace with their peoples, and under his rule Jerusalem develops into a cosmopolitan city. Because of the peace between Israel and its neighbors, Solomon is able to devote his energy to the building of a temple in Jerusalem. Through the rule of David and Solomon Israel finally comes of age as a nation among nations and as a culture among the ancient cultures of the Middle East.

The story of Israel from the time of Saul up through the building of the temple is a marvelous story of struggle and success. Israel triumphs over enemies who threaten to conquer and destroy her. In doing so she evolves from a confederation of tribes into a nation with a king and a capital city. It is a classic story of warfare and intrigue, of powerful and cunning men who by deceit, good fortune, and the force of their own personalities bring together diverse peoples into a unified state.

The temple was a dream of David, but is built under the rule of Solomon. It symbolizes for the people the presence of God in their midst, a God who no longer abides in the tents of a people on the move, but a God who now has a permanent home even as the people have permanent homes. The marriage of Solomon to a daughter of Pharaoh is not only politically shrewd but reflects the new status of Israel. Once a tribal people subjugated by Pharaoh, Israel is now Egypt's equal. Solomon's use of forced labor to build the temple is another reminder that Israel is now a nation, with needs that will be met by taxes and conscription. The Israelites are no longer laboring for the glory of Pharaoh, but now for the glory of their own king.

To be sure the unity among the tribes is very precarious, and David's sons are soon at each other's throats in their efforts to succeed their father to the throne. The struggle to achieve succession to the throne reminds us of the story of Esau and Jacob and of Jacob's theft of his father's blessing. Once again the struggle among sons involves both a father and a mother, for even as Rebekah made it possible for Jacob to be blessed by Isaac, it is Bathsheba who persuades David to crown Solomon instead of his eldest living son, Adonijah. Leading priests are also involved in the struggle for power, taking sides with the pretenders to the throne and vying for their own places of influence. Some are successful, while others are put to death along with their unsuccessful candidates. The story of Israel up through the time of Solomon is not marked by the exemplary behavior of a people or its kings, but rather tells how a pilgrim people became a powerful nation.


The development of the nation of Israel is more history than legend, even as the tales of the patriarchs are more legend than history. However, some of the same themes are present in both. Success is not necessarily the result of merit but is more likely the result of cunning. As Jacob succeeded through deception, so David outwits his adversaries. Moreover, the successful are not necessarily the best individuals or peoples, but the more powerful and courageous. In all cases, however, the key to success is the blessing of God.

It is not clear whether this blessing comes before or after success. The anointing of Saul proves hollow as his power fails and he is defeated by the Philistines. Did God give up on Saul, or was God not a party to Saul's anointment at the hands of Samuel? Again it appears that God is on all sides -- with the Philistines when they aid David and defeat Saul, but against them when they threaten the life of Israel.

It is this complex involvement of God, however, in the tale of Israel that keeps us from drawing the simple moral that God is on the side of the "good guys." Does might alone make right? Not for long in the story of God's covenant with Israel. Are the successful free from God's judgment? David is judged by the priest Nathan for plotting to have Uriah killed so he could marry Bathsheba. Moreover, the revolt of Absalom drives David from the throne and leads to continued tragedy within his family. 

The story brings us back to the covenant between God and Israel. God promises to give Israel a home among the nations, but requires that the people keep the law given to Moses. As the Israelites were judged in the wilderness for their rebellion and lack of faith, so God will judge Israel for turning away to serve only its own national interests.

The story indicates some conflict about the crowning of a king over Israel. As we saw earlier in the book of Judges, the people clearly affirm their direct rule by God through the law. However, with the development of the nation-state comes the need for a king, representing God's power on earth among the nations. Through the king of Israel the will of God is identified with the political success of the nation. With the location of the capital of the nation at Jerusalem, the imagery expressing God's kingdom shifts from a setting akin to the garden of Eden to the heavenly city on Zion. 

Israel builds a great city with its tower reaching into the heavens. No ruler of Israel, however, anticipates that God will come down, as happened in the tale of the tower of Babel, to destroy the city and to scatter its people. But that prophecy will soon be given voice among the Israelites.


I Samuel 1 Birth and consecration of Samuel.

I Samuel 2:1-10 Song of Hannah.

I Samuel 3 Call of Samuel.

I Samuel 8-11 Saul chosen as king.

I Samuel 17 David and Goliath.

I Samuel 20 Friendship between David and Jonathan, Saul's son.

I Samuel 23:14-24:22, 26 David spares Saul's life.

II Samuel 11-12:25 David and Bathsheba, Nathan rebukes David.

I Kings 1 Solomon struggles for power.

I Kings 8 Solomon dedicates the temple. © Robert Traer 2016