Originally, with 1 and 2 Kings, one book in Hebrew but divided first into two, then in the LXX into four; this arrangement has been generally continued. The books were named ‘of Samuel’ because Samuel is the first major character to appear. In the Hebrew canon they are numbered among the books of Former Prophets, not on the ground of the books’ content but on the supposed authorship, along with that of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, being that of prophets. The work has been compiled and edited by the Deuteronomic school, probably about 560 BCE, but many units of material have been utilized. There are local traditions preserved at shrines (e.g. Mizpah) and also from a group deriving from Shiloh (1 Sam. 1–3), some of which concern the fortunes of the Ark. Some of the stories, such as the account of Absalom’s rebellion (2 Sam. 15–18), may reflect popular legend rather than recorded history.
There seem to be two sources describing the accession of Saul: in one he is presented unsympathetically, the prophet Samuel is the hero, and God regrets having established the monarchy; a second set of narratives (1 Sam. 9: 1–10, 16; 11: 1–15) offers a more attractive portrait of Saul—he is a charismatic figure of great promise, and excels in battle, having the support of the people, including those of the central highlands where the population was moving towards a developing centralization.
Some of the narratives about David—e.g. the account of the Ammonite war in 2 Sam. 10: 1–19—read like a contemporary description. Other David stories, unfavourable to David, suggest that in trying to wrest the throne for himself from Saul he came near to wrecking the institution of monarchy itself. These stories must have been assembled by a collector not later than the time of Solomon. The Succession Narrative (most of 2 Sam. 9–20, and 1 Kgs. 1–2) describes the intrigues of David’s sons and the final triumph of the Solomon party. There is the incredibly poignant lamentation over the death ‘of my son Absolom; would I have died instead of you’ (2 Sam. 18: 33) and also three poems in 2 Samuel: the elegy over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, David’s last words, and a variant of Ps. 18 which is inserted into 2 Sam. 22.
The Deuteronomic editors have stamped their theological interpretation on 1 and 2 Samuel. The affairs of the nation have been guided by God, especially through David. But even David committed sins; and for these he was punished, as was Eli, at the beginning of the book. But the nation prospered and expanded under David because he was chosen by God and responded. He captured Jerusalem and under him it began to be the centre of the nation’s worship. It was there God had chosen ‘to put his name’.
Although among the Dead Sea scrolls there are Hebrew texts of 1 and 2 Samuel, it is surprising that where the standard Hebrew text diverges from the LXX, it is the latter which is followed at Qumran, which is important testimony to the reliability of the LXX.