Question and Answer with Stephen B. Chapman on 1 Samuel

Learn more about 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture: A Theological Commentary

samuel bible commentaryA proponent of theological interpretation, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman (Ph.D., Yale University) has studied, lectured, and taught internationally in a variety of academic and church settings. His work focuses on the formation of the biblical canon, the nature of the Old Testament as scripture, the dynamics of biblical narrative, the challenge of biblical violence, and the history and use of the Old Testament within the Christian tradition and Western culture.

Dr. Chapman is the author of 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture, which was awarded 2017 Reference Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy (2016) and The Law and the Prophets (2000), as well as numerous essays. He coedited The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (2016) and Biblischer Text und theologische Theoriebildung (2001). He is an affiliate faculty member with Duke’s Center for Jewish Studies and Director of Graduate Studies for Duke’s Ph.D. program in religion. He serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Theological Interpretation and the monograph series Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures (Eisenbrauns). He is also an ordained American Baptist minister. His current project is a book on The Theology of Joshua for Cambridge University Press.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on 1 Samuel?

Like many people, I have been interested in the theological interpretation of scripture. My first book was a historical study of Old Testament canon formation. It struck me back then that if we could gain a clearer understanding of how the canon was put together, it might give us some cues about how best to read it today. (I still think so.) I had followed up that project with a number of methodological essays, but it increasingly seemed to me that I needed to tackle an entire book of the Bible. I had a hunch that the discipline of expositing an actual full-length text might cast a new light on the methodological issues at stake. That hunch proved to be truer than I suspected! The most challenging thing in the world, I discovered, is to explicate a biblical text from start to finish. At every turn there are temptations to deviate from its plain sense. The biblical interpreter must constantly decide what not to talk about. But I learned things about theological interpretation that I don’t think I could have learned any other way. I hope that the result may be a helpful exploration for others who are pursuing theological interpretation in the academy and the church.

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

From the outset I hoped to write my commentary as a stand-alone volume rather than as part of a series, because I wanted to revisit the basic questions of what a commentary is and what it is for. I worry that the typical commentary format does not help to open up the theological riches of biblical books, and perhaps even gets in the way sometimes. Commentaries usually read biblical books in discrete units and then offer abbreviated theological reflections on each unit. But this kind of approach often results in a series of interpretive fragments without a clear sense of coherence or focus. After reading such a commentary, I am left wondering what the biblical book is actually about. So I planned my commentary in three sections instead. In the first section, I engage preliminary questions about the historical and literary nature of the Samuel narrative. I also work closely with the conclusion of 2 Samuel, since 1 and 2 Samuel were originally a single narrative. A crucial aspect of my reading of Samuel is that the narrative characteristically withholds information in order to evoke interpretive questions, later providing additional clues to their answers. The best example of this narrative technique, which I call “retrospective disambiguation,” is how David finally speaks in 2 Samuel 22 and 23. David is notoriously tight-lipped throughout the Samuel narrative, and the narrator gives us little help when it comes to what is going on in David’s mind. But at the very end of the narrative the words pour forth from David, and they come toward the reader with the force of a great revelation. We finally learn what has been inside David the whole time, and it turns out to be the Psalms! For this reason, I argue that 1 Samuel can only be rightly understood against the backdrop of 2 Samuel 21-24.

In the second section of my commentary, I exposit 1 Samuel from start to finish. Although I do divide up the narrative in units in order to structure my treatment, I intentionally do not try to theologize each one. The idea is rather to see what 1 Samuel as a whole says and does first. What I am after in this section is the theology of 1 Samuel in its entirety. Then in the third section, I ask contextualizing historical and theological questions: What time period and/or Israelite tradition(s) might help to explain what 1 Samuel is doing? What are the points of connection between 1 Samuel and Christian theology? In this final section, I not only advance a theological construal of the Samuel narrative, I offer explicit reflections on the significance of 1 Samuel for followers of Jesus Christ.

I attempted to write the commentary with pastors and lay people in mind, as well as ministerial students and scholars. But the second section is probably the most approachable. I would be delighted if a pastor were to plan a sermon series on 1 Samuel, or if an adult Sunday School class were to work through 1 Samuel, using the second section of my commentary as a resource and guide.

I also tried to write for theologians – theologians who want to use the Old Testament more but don’t always know how to go about it. For them in particular, I would recommend my introduction and the second half of my final chapter, where I discuss Saul as a tragic figure who can function as an Old Testament type for Christ crucified.

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to 1 Samuel?

This commentary models a more literary approach to biblical interpretation than what is normally done. It also integrates the reception history of Samuel, both Jewish and Christian, to an extent that is unusual. However, the key contribution of the commentary’s content is to shift the theological focus from David to Saul. David has almost always been interpreted heroically in the Christian tradition, since he is considered a forerunner of Christ. And Saul has been correspondingly demonized. Against this tendency, I point out how the Samuel narrative does not develop a view of David as all good or Saul as all bad – but rather portrays both in shades of gray. This is because the difference between them is not a moral one, but a difference born of God’s sovereign choice. I point out that Saul does not start out bad but is instead mysteriously deficient, unable for some reason to achieve the spiritual connection to God that David somehow possesses more or less naturally. So Saul becomes a figure for the unelect, a tragic symbol of faith that has not found fruitful soil. The narrative never blames Saul for the fact that God did not give him the gift of faith, but it never releases him from responsibility either. I then treat Saul as an instance of what literary scholar Emily Wilson has called “the tragedy of overliving,” a tragedy about someone who did not die “on time” but lingers on, diminished and deteriorating. This framework is crucial for reading the second half of 1 Samuel, in which Saul has already been rejected by God but is still on the throne persecuting David. Nevertheless, I argue that Saul can be interpreted as a type for Christ just as much as David. If David can be said to represent Christ as Lord, then Saul can be understood as the crucified Christ, the Christ of Golgotha rather than Easter. From this vantage point, Saul also becomes a figure for Christians who struggle and suffer, those who know the dark night of the soul.

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write?

The first passage that comes to mind is 1 Samuel 28. Before I started looking into the history of this chapter’s interpretation, I had no idea just how much interest in it existed in the early church. The presenting problem, of course, is that in this episode Saul is able to raise Samuel from the dead with the assistance of a witch. So on its face, this narrative appears to provide a biblical warrant for the efficacy of witchcraft! There is accordingly an entire literature of interpretive commentary on this one chapter alone, and it is fascinating in all its passionate complexity. Just reading the various treatises on it is like attending a school of biblical interpretation. It is also a nice example of how modernity has forgotten certain things and can relearn them from the past. Most academic interpreters in contemporary North America are likely not too concerned about witchcraft as genuine spiritual threat, but early Christian interpreters were very worried about it – and they read 1 Samuel 28 in light of that concern, which opened up a dimension of the narrative that today is usually overlooked or even deprecated in a patronizing manner.

5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?

I was continually amazed by the beauty and nuance of this ancient text. I love the Bible. I love the way each word counts, the way the text expresses realities that resonate deep down inside me. Sometimes the Bible seems to put things into words which I know I have also felt but didn’t know how to express. The Samuel narrative is full of masterful craftsmanship. There are real textual difficulties, to be sure, but the text that we have received is much, much more than a series of technical problems. The narrative cajoles and prods and even shoves the reader along, and the reader realizes again and again that it is ultimately the character of God which is at the heart of the matter. Reading the Samuel narrative becomes a means of encountering God anew. I offer explicit Christological connections at the conclusion of my commentary, and in doing so I experienced once more the awesome mystery of Christ’s crucifixion and the way that Christ revealed for us what it truly means to be human before God. Finally, I was struck by how all the interpreters of the biblical text down through the ages form something like a living chain, a community of interpretation extending through time, and it was thrilling to imagine that in my own small way I was now a part of it.

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on 1 Samuel?

Everyone should read the section on Samuel in Karl Barth’s great excursus on election in his Church Dogmatics II/2, pp. 366-93. Barth reads the narrative with what he calls “Christian astonishment.” His typological interpretation was highly influential for me. Among older commentaries, I would single out Robert P. Gordon, I & II Samuel, Library of Biblical Interpretation (Zondervan, 1986) and H. W. Hertzberg, I & II Samuel, Old Testament Library (Westminster, 1964). Their historical content has become dated, but they deal with theological issues in a more insightful fashion than many newer commentaries. For a Christological interpretation of Samuel in a more traditional evangelical vein, I would recommend John Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader (Crossway, 2014). A gem of an essay on Samuel is A. B. Davidson, “Saul’s Reprobation,” in his volume titled The Called of God (T & T Clark, 1902), 143-61. Finally, for all biblical narratives, in the New Testament as well as the Old, I highly recommend the classic work by seventeenth-century Anglican bishop Joseph Hall, Contemplations on Historical Passages of the Old and New Testaments, 3 vols. (Nelson and Sons, 1860). This is an incredible treasure trove of riches – which you can now download very cheaply on your Kindle! – and one that all pastors and biblical interpreters can use to great advantage.

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

My current book project is The Theology of the Book of Joshua for the “Old Testament Theology” series published by Cambridge University Press. Along with my colleagues Tremper Longman and Nathan MacDonald, I coedit the monograph series “Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures,” published by Eisenbrauns. Over the next few years, I will also be editing “Touchstone Texts,” a new series of exegetical explorations of key biblical passages, sponsored by Baker Academic. An updated edition of my dissertation, The Law and the Prophets, will be released by Baker this coming year. I continue to teach in the Divinity School at Duke University, where I also direct the PhD program in religion.


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