Book Review: The First Book of Samuel, Part II

Tsumura, David Toshio. The First Book of Samuel. NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. (WTS Book Store) 

Part I can be found here.

III. Date and Authorship:

Once again, Tsumura provides an extensive discussion of past scholarship regarding date and authorship. Of course, there is very little to say about the author since the book is anonymous and Samuel dies before the narrative ends.

Tsumura first goes through several narrative blocks that have been discussed: The Ark Narrative (1 Sam 4.1b-7.1). Following Alter, Tsumura concludes that this particular narrative is the oldest part of Samuel. In general, it seems that Tsumura agrees with Alter more than anyone else in this section.

His discussion of the History of David’s Rise, next, is cynical (rightly so, I think) about whether the story was ever an independent narrative. Once again, Tsumura agrees with Alter, against the grain of most scholars who view it as an early independent narrative.

Succession Narrative
This section has received the most detailed analysis over the years because of “its high literary quality, presumed homogeny and historical value” (14). Beyond Tsumura’s discussion of other views, he concludes that the narrative is that its originated as a pro-Solomonic narrative written during that unified kingdom and later edited into the whole of 1-2 Samuel by the author.

Recent Approaches
While Tsumura deals with those who advocate a Deuteronomistic Author or editor, he is clearly more interested in discussing Holistic Literary Approaches to the text. This, of course, makes significant sense considering his focus on linguistics. Chiefly, he discusses Fokkelman’s massive four volume work on Samuel and its synchronic emphasis, dependent upon Saussure. His final criticism of this approach is that its too focused on the text’s linguistic code than on the author’s intent. Of course, much more could be said to expand his statement, particularly since authorial intent is not a given these days as a valid interpretive strategy, though Tsumura has dealt with that topic else where in his publications (cf., “Review of Larry L. Lyke, King David with the Wise Woman of Tekoa: The Resonance of Tradition in Parabolic Narrative (JSOTSS 255; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997),” Themelios 24/3 [1999] 48-49).

He also focuses on literary theory as presented by deconstruction as well, as it relates to Samuel studies, with very similar conclusions regarding the importance of seeking the author’s intent instead of a rampant intertextuality.

A new cynicism has developed where the texts are completely questioned, that we can only know what is dug up. Such scholars take a minimalist approach to the text, only accepting those facts that are verified by extra-biblical material. The past 15 years have challenged such an approach as several references to David, or the “house of David” have been attested.

Tsumura calls for a balance that recognizes the value of literary-rhetorical approaches and that it is extremely important to understand the author’s method and intentions in writing his history, but also the history involve in the text as well, which he calls a “Comparative and Contextual Approach.” He argues that many other ancient documents from the same era ought to be used in order to determine the date of the narrative units in 1-2 Samuel. He believes that other books listed in the OT were used in the editing and writing of 1-2 Samuel.

We can assume that 1-2 Samuel was composed as the culmination of long literary development which incorporated earlier works such as “the Book of Jashar” (2 Sam 1.18; also Josh 10.13), just as the Pentateuch quotes from the “the Book of the History of Man” (Gen 5.1) and “the Book of the Wars of Yahweh” (Numbers 21.14) (29).

Tsumura condemns the minimalist view, citing W. Hallo, “the historian of antiquity has no alternative but to use every scrap of evidence available” (28).

He also takes those who hold to a Deuteronomistic redactor to task with two points, ANE history writing and then also on linguistic data and the dating of texts. Based on the comparative approach, many words and phrases which have been attributed to a later Deuteronomist have been verified in parallel historiographies from Assyria and Babylon, which have consistent phraseology over hundreds of years from 1100 BC onward.

The “Deuteronomistic ” style has many parallels to Assyrian royal inscriptions. In the same way, it seems mistaken to claim that just because certain “Deuteronomistic” phrases appear in undeniably late Hebrew texts, any text containing these phrases must have been written about the same time (29).

There is also the evidence of very ancient words that would not have been understandably to a later Deuteronomistic redactor. They would have only been understood by an earlier editor. He argues that the word used in 1 Samuel 16.20

The term ḥǎmôr, literal “ass,” has usually been emended to … “homer.” However the word is better explained as a loan translation of the Akkadian dry measurement term imeru, literally, “ass.” A postexilic “redactor” would not have used such an obsolete term of measurement … since by his day the term “homer” had become the standard measurement. ” The Greek Translator in the 3rd or 2nd Century BC … evidently did not understand this … archaic term (30).

So what is Tsumura’s conclusion regarding the date of 1-2 Samuel. He believes several of the stories existed during the United Monarchy, including the story of Samuel, the story of Saul, the story of Saul and David, and even the story of David. He believes that the ark narrative might be old than even these. He concludes,

The final editors presumably did “no more with the inherited narrative than to provide some minimal editorial framing and transition (far less than in the book of Judges) and to interpolate a few brief passages” (31-32, citing R. Alter, The David Story, p. xii.).

Overall, I find his arguments convincing and he admits that his present conclusions are tentative and revisable as scholarship grows. This is probably one of the most admirable traits of this scholar. If only all Biblical scholars had such an attribute.

I also think that his arguments for the difficulties of the text lie, not in its poor quality, but in its age in comparison with other texts appears to be a valid, and indeed likely, option.

IV. Historical and Religious Background:

Tsumura’s following discussion is divided into three parts. The shortest and first section focuses on the Early Iron Age, CA. 1200-1000 B.C, the thrust of this first section is actually an introduction to the second, dealing with the relationship between Israel and the Philistines. Lastly the third section deals with Canaan and the Canaanites.

Israel and the Philistines

David Tsumura follows the theory of Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, who believes that the Philistines originated from the “Mycenaeanized Aegean” via Cyprus. He believes that eventually, by the peak of the Philistine prosperity, the Aegean uniqueness was gone (34-35).

At this point in his discussion of the Philistines, Tsumura generally summarizes those parts of Samuel that describe the Philistines. They maintained significant control over the native populations, especially the Israelites, as seen in 1 Samuel 4. But with Samuel becoming judge and prophet for the people, Israel began gaining ground (though in general, still quite subdued). Before Saul began his rule, the Philistines set up strategic outposts around the country (10.5, 13.17, 14.15). They used this outposts to both tax the land and maintain their monopoly over iron working. The Philistines prevented the Israelites from learning new skills with iron (13.19-21). In general, Israel was successful in the hill country but could not find victory on the plains, such as where King Saul died in 1 Sam 28-31.

Before David began his rule, the Philistine king, Achish “employed the ancient tactic of ‘divide and rule’ by supporting David against the House of Saul in Israel” (37). This failed, though, when David became Israel’s king. David destroyed Philistine control over the plains, although he was not able to conquer the Philistine coastal cities.

Canaan and the Canaanites

Tsumura, rightly in my view, considers an understanding of Canaanite religion essential for understanding the Book of Samuel. He also considers the use of evidence for Ugarit and Emar incredibly valuable for understanding Canaanite religion during the time of 1-2 Samuel (38-39).

The Canaanite pantheon contains roughly 30 gods and goddesses. At the top of the list is the Divine Ancestor. This explains well the cult of the dead and the witches forbidden by Saul, who conjured the dead spirits, who were also worshipped. Dagan is the third in the list after El, who has adopted by the Philistines as their national God (Judges 16, 1 Sam 5.2).

The Canaanite’s most popular god is next, Baal, who has a continuing affect on Israel through 1-2 Samuel and the rest of the historical books. He became the king of the deities by conquering the chaos of the sea and the power of Death (41). For this reason and others, worship of Baal was a continuous temptation for the Israelites from the very beginning. This was especially because of the Baal and Astartes fertility cult, which promised material blessing, a great temptation for an agrarian society such as Israel (42).

Regarding Canaanite religion is also the question of the role of the king and royal dynastic cults. 1 Sam 20.5 suggests that Saul presided over a New Moon celebration, “though there is no indication that Saul took any priestly role” (45). But it appears from 1 Samuel 13, that such a priestly role was a temptation to Saul, and it was forbidden by Samuel in the same chapter. But for the king in Ugarit, such priestly roles were necessary in Canaanite religion. “In ancient Israel, however, all blessings and protection came from the only god Yahweh himself; see 1 Sam. 2.6. Hence there was no need for the Israelite kings to induce divine blessings from their ancestors through cults” (46).


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