1 and 2 Samuel – A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Review)

Published: RTR 74, no. 3, 2015

1 and 2 SAMUEL. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible
By David H. Jensen (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 325pp., $US40.00.
ISBN 9780664261788

One has high hopes for a commentary in a series entitled, ‘A Theological Commentary’. Will this be one of the few commentaries on Samuel that rise above historical detail and narrative colour to grapple with what the book actually means? David Jensen is a Theology Professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, so this could be a more reflective book. Further to that, the ‘Belief ’ series is designed to explore the utility of the text, such as for preachers (in the Barthian vision of making the text useful).

 One is not deterred by the Table of Contents. It is evident that a historical approach is taken to the structure of Samuel: ‘Samuel and the Ark’, ‘King Saul’, ‘The Rise of David’, etc. This does not look so promising in terms of the text’s meaning and theology. However, there are also listed various ‘Further Reflections’ sections. On ‘Samuel and the Ark’, there are subsections on ‘Godlanguage’ and ‘Sin’. On King Saul there are ‘Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King’, and ‘Pacifism, Just War, and Crusade’. The book might be heading in the right direction, even if there is no prima facie reason to believe that Samuel touches on issues such as ‘God-language’, ‘Pacifism’, and later, ‘LGBT Theologies’. The hope that Samuel is going to be used in any substantial or authoritative way to produce theology and shape ministry, though, is quickly dashed on p. 1. The text is biased towards David, such that ‘many—if not most—of the events that Samuel narrates probably did not happen in the way that the authors describe, and some events may have not occurred at all.’ With such a foundation, the outcome will be Samuel held in interaction with an alternatively-derived theology, not theology shaped by the text.

The reasons given why one should read Samuel are both insightful and inadequate. Samuel should be read because ‘Samuel narrates (1) the complexities of the human person, (2) the ambiguities of our social arrangements as nations, and (3) God’s agency in a conflicted world. Personhood, politics, and theology occupy much of Samuel’s time, and they ought to occupy ours as well’ (p. 2). One could have added, ‘Because it is divinely-inspired Scripture’, or ‘Because it relates the next stage in God’s unfolding, covenantal programme, pre-figuring and leading to the Christ’, etc.

This is the nature of the whole book: deeply intelligent and insightful, and yet inadequately treating the main issues. The exploration of Hannah’s plight is powerful (including some lucid and apt quotes from Schleiermacher), even if overstated. She did not and we are not merely to acquiesce to God’s sovereign ordering of the world as it currently is, but ‘People of faith are remarkable for how they envision a different world…’ (p. 19). Still, Jensen seems to think that Hannah does not come to a place of resignation after her petitionary prayer, and that we can rightly continue in a state of restlessness, seeking our desires, ‘until the end of our days’ (p. 22, wrongly citing Augustine in support). At this point, Jensen would have done better to reflect on the book’s overall theology of the sovereignty of God, including Hannah’s second prayer.

Without meaning to catalogue the inadequacies, the ‘God-language’ section is about Aquinas and the analogy of being. Jensen quite rightly says that 1 Samuel 2 does not signify that God actually is a rock. Still, is this a discussion that naturally arises from the text, or that one would want to see treated in a sermon? It seems beside the point. The section on ‘Christ as Prophet, Priest and King’ rightly moves from Saul’s role to Christ, but without explaining how this connection is made (intended typology or Christian allegory?), and taking Christ’s death ‘not so much’ as a payment for sin but reflecting the enormous cost of sin to all life on earth (p. 68).

On ‘LGBT Theologies’, Jensen is reasonably responding to readings of the David-Jonathan relationship. In the commentary section, he is not convinced that the text portrays the relationship as homoerotic, helpfully criticises what he perceives to be a Western tendency to connect sex to all close relationships, and holds up the David-Jonathan relationship as an ‘icon for the power of friendship’ (p. 129). Still, the alternative reading is beneficial, too, and so he speaks in the application section of David-Jonathan and ‘other same-sex couples’ (p. 131). The exegetically and theologically vacuous nature of the book is most on display in the treatment of 2 Samuel 7, the Davidic covenant. The commentary is brief, and there is only one ‘Further Reflections’ section on the entirety of 2 Sam 5:1 – 12:31, namely, ‘Theology and Disability’, responding to 2 Samuel 5. 2 Samuel 7 is about our longing for home and God’s faithfulness to people. Is this really the most that can be made the central act of revelation in Samuel and the Former Prophets?

 One realises that one has over-optimistically read the book cover. It is not so much ‘biblical commentary’ or ‘theological commentary from the bible’ but indeed, as it says, ‘theological commentary on the bible’. In terms of usefulness, there are many thoughtful moments that would stir the mind of a seasoned preacher, but if one only followed Jensen’s lead, one’s listeners would become fashionable moralists in the 21st style, albeit with a divinised overlay, but left ‘without Christ…and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’.