June-August 2016 Background
Today we begin a 13-week study in 1 Samuel.
Placement within the Bible
The Hebrew Bible has the same books as the English Old Testament, but they appear in a different order.
- Law (Torah, Pentateuch) — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
- Former Prophets — Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings (not Ruth)
- Latter Prophets — Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
- Writings — Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs (Solomon), Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles
The books of 1 and 2 Samuel form one book in the Hebrew Bible, as do 1-2 Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles. Each was divided into two books in the Greek translation (Septu<gint) or later.
The books from Joshua to 2 Kings form a continuous historical narrative. Hence, they are sometimes called the Primary History.
The events in 1 Samuel likely occur in the 1105 B.C. to 1010 B.C. period. The book was put in its final form sometime after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 B.C. But the human author(s) likely drew on sources written earlier by Samuel and others.
Historians and archeologists use the term Late Bronze Age to refer to the period from about 1550 B.C. to about 1200 B.C. in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This period is characterized by the use of bronze weapons. It was a relatively stable and prosperous period with centralized kingdoms and empires across most of the region — the Mycenaeans in Greece, the Hittites in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and Syria, the Mittani, Assyrians, and Babylonians in Mesopotamia (modern-day Syria and Iraq), and the Egyptians. This was, in some sense, the first period of internationalization, involving travel, trade, war, and diplomacy among the various kingdoms.
Then around 1200 B.C. something happened. Large numbers of people began to migrate. We don’t know why, but they were possibly driven by a combination of disruptions such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, climate change, drought, famine, invasions from outside the region, internal unrest, etc.
Some of these migrating groups probably had the new iron and steel weapons that outmatched the traditional bronze weapons; many probably combined these with new battle techniques (massed infantry with javelins) that made the elite chariot-based armies less effective. (Aside: The charioteers were skilled marksmen with composite bows. They wore 30-40 pounds of bronze armor. If a chariot’s horse could be disabled with a javelin, then the heavy armored charioteers were no match for lightly armored foot soldiers.)
Over a period of a half-century most of the major cities near the Mediterranean were destroyed and the empires collapsed from a combination of the onslaught of the newcomers and the failures of their internal systems. Egypt survived an attack of the Sea Peoples, a collection of these migrating peoples, but withdrew within its borders in a weakened state.
So for 200 to 300 years after 1200, the Eastern Mediterranean region consisted primarily of tribal homelands and small city states. There were no super powers, but there were many warlords and marauding bands (terrorists) Literacy declined. Trade declined. ,/p>
Western civilization essentially “hit the reset button”. The collapse of the centralized states made space for others such as the Israelites to thrive. The Classical Greek and seafaring Phoenician civilizations also rose from the ashes of the older civilizations.
The exact time of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and Conquest of the Promised Land is unknown, but it may have occurred near the time of the Bronze Age collapse (or possibly a couple hundred years earlier). In its first centuries, Israel consisted of a loose confederation of 12 tribes—one for each of the sons of Jacob—excluding Levi (whose descendants were priests) but including Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim.
Geographic and geopolitical context
Let’s consider the geography of ancient Israel. See the map in back of Personal Study Guide.
- There is the Mediterranean coastal plain to the west.
- There are hills and small mountains in the center, with several large valleys running east and west. The most important is the Valley of Jezreel.
- There is the Jordan Rift Valley to the east. This is an area below sea level, with the Jordan River connecting the Lake of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south.
- East of the Jordan Rift Valley is the Transjordanian Highlands, including the regions of Moab, Edom, Ammon, Gilead, and Bashan.
- In the north are the Phoenician (Canaanite) city states and Syria.
- In the south is the Negev desert.
The Israelites primarily occupied the hilly regions. The Philistines, probably some of the Sea Peoples of Greek origin, held the fertile Mediterranean coastal plain and were pushing into the Jezreel Valley.
Throughout much of this period, the Israelites and the Philistines were in conflict. The Israelites considerably outnumbered the Philistines (maybe 300,000 to 30,000), but the Philistines were prosperous and well organized. They had iron and steel weapons and the Israelites did not.
The Israelites had no central government and no standing army. But when danger arose that affected more than one tribe, God would call out a “judge” to lead a combined army and/or handle the disputes or spiritual crises.
Often the job of an Israelite judge was to rally the tribes against Philistine expansion. Remember the story of Samson, one of the last judges. He rallied the Israelites militarily but failed to rally them spiritually.
As we will see in 1 Samuel, the Israelites began to call for a stronger central government — a king. Our study of 1 Samuel examines the transition from a loose confederation to a monarchy and the problems along the way.
A key theme of the book is the need to honor God whatever the circumstances.